Posted by: atowhee | March 23, 2008

In the Air

What was in the spring morning air was not simply birds.  Those were the usual: a gang of Steller’s Jays making great fuss over something I could not discern.  The Steller’s alarm went out and they gathered up above me, flying in from gardens and trash cans downhill.  An owl?  An accipiter?  An imagined slight?  A curious Raven passed by and circled twice above the squawking horde of Jays..  Either the ruckus left him bemused or it wasn’t worth his effort, he sailed on down the valley.  I can agree as I often find jays more bemusing than amusing.  More curious and full of curiosity than many humans I’ve know.

It was two days into spring, and the sun was shining.  The air temperature climbed above fifty degrees.  Esters, ethers, scents and aromas arose from a winter’s sleep.  Molecules moved faster and further, new organic fermentation seemed to be born, and borne on the air.  Gas-emitting microbial factories began churning out methane, CO2, and far more complex organics whose formulae I left behind in my last chemistry class.

You don’t need to count the carbon, oxygen and nitrogen compounds for your nose to know.  And this morning it knows the smell of a living forest in spring.  A bit of wet moss.  A tiny cloud of mushroom spores, invisible but invincible.  Their kind shall inherit the earth.  Moldy leaves that have aged, frozen and thawed inuumerable times all winter, oak being the hardiest of the bunch.  Fine tree that oak: produces tough leaves and tougher wood.  Harder on both counts is the madrone.  It’s leaves drop randomly through the year, most survivng the harsh winter cold.  Madrone wood defies hand tools.

The early flowers add only color to the scene.  Since spring began I’ve seen two bumblebees alive, one dead.  Butterflies are still scarce as are new scents.  Not much for those smell-experts to sniff at, yet.  What’s in the air is renewal from death, rebirth from the fallen and reconstituted.  The smell of water, of granite gravel drying in the sun, leaves one more warm morning closer to humus, the speeding pulse of life in its tiniest forms working on the leavings of larger creatures: bones, limbs, cones, droppings, leavings, leaves.  After the small ones finish, there will be soil, longer branches on the tree, clumps of deep green grass,  honeysuckle blooming in summer, manzanita opening the buds we now see and then passing on to berry.  This smell of spring reawakening the ferment and regeneration will last for a few weeks then it will cloaked behind the headier, hardier smells of flowers and hot leaves, dust and the perfume from millions of evergreens sweep daily by an ocean breeze.  Until then you can stick your nose into the air and breath a bit of nature’s yeasty spring brew.

A simple little bloom


My plant man* tells me this is snow queen (Synthyris reniformis).  Under the fir/pine/madrone canopy on damp hillsides, about 2500 in elevation, the clusters of these little purple flowers were the only color besides green and earth-brown.  The “big leaves” you see in the picture are at most 4″ across while the blossoms are each less than half-inch.

The plant is in the figwort or snapdragon family and is found widely in damper oak or madrone forests of the northwestern U.S.

In our garden the lawn is speckled with creeping Charlie, a small, low-growing member of the mint family.   It’s a native wildflower.  The blossoms are on the main stem and are a dark pink. The stalks, of course, are four-sided like all mint.

Thanks again for the plant ID, Alex Maksymowicz.


  1. Harry,

    Just wanted you to know how much I enjoy all of your articles. I was particularly touched by your poetic description of “spring smells”…and your pictures were a welcome addition as well.



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