While You Were Away

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Dear Cicadas,

On a walk the other day, Kevin and I saw your exit holes in the ground, and your empty shells clinging to the trunks of trees, and we realized you’d surfaced. Welcome back.

Much has happened while you were away.

By now you’ve probably heard that some of your kin have bumped into a sad new monument on the drill field at VA Tech. And what I wouldn’t give to have seen the look on your little bug faces when you first saw the picture of the current president of the United States.

He’s been working hard to pass gun control legislation in order to pre-empt the need for new memorials. And while 90% of Americans agree with his position, our Congress, it seems, does not. The only silver lining here is that for every weapon or round of ammunition purchased, a portion of the proceeds (let’s just call it a tax) goes to the states to protect habitat for creatures such as you, my winged friends. And guess what – both times that he won the election, gun sales spiked. If the president can’t sign a gun control law, at least he’ll get some conservation done.

It’s easy to get discouraged looking through the global lens. But narrow that focus and you soon realize that for each horror, each catastrophe, every depraved act of a madman, there are countless acts of kindness and charity. So many more instances of people reaching out to help people. Infinite ways of finding beauty.

I thought I’d update you on what’s been going on around this property while you were underground.

Those two young boys —the ones you cicadas distracted and amazed seventeen years ago while they mourned for their mother who’d died the previous year? They’re out in the world now. Kai is 29, and a videographer who works part of the time for a film producer and part time for himself. Bram is 26 and works for a community housing project. In light of their kindness to you, it should be no surprise that both of them, in their own way, are enriching the lives of others.

Just about the time you went underground, Kevin and I got married. Only a few months earlier I had told a friend that I expected to live my life as a childless single woman. Less than a year later, I was married with two kids. My philosophy as a stepmother was “First Do No Harm.” I think I was mostly successful. The boys seem to enjoy coming home, and doing things with us out in the world. As when they were young, their antics make everything more fun.

My philosophy as Kevin’s wife was (and still is) “How Lucky Can I Get?” Seventeen years later, we’re still in love, still making plans for the future, still thankful at the end of each day.

The shaggy white dog, Nilla, and the little brown dog, Marta, have moved on. as have the 3 cats that lived here when your parents were buzzing around. Tem, the hound dog who now tries to greet each and every one of you as you emerge from your underworld, is our rescue dog. His mission and his heart’s desire are to keep Kevin company in the pottery studio and on walks to the river.

Watch out for that new anagama while you’re flying about the property. Kevin took a year in 2000-2001 to tear down the old wood kiln and build a much larger one. Now instead of a 24-hour firing, it takes four days to fire pots, with a crew of potters that stoke wood around the clock.

We fired it for the first time during the week of September 11, 2001. Most of the crew came from the DC area where they witnessed smoke pouring from the Pentagon. Two days later they watched a different kind of smoke rise from the chimney here, healing together as we stoked the kiln with wood and prayers for peace. Our family is much the richer for the help and companionship of these potters and friends.

The whirring of the alien spaceship that seems to accompany you is in high gear now, and Kevin and I are savoring the sound while we can. We’ve done the math. If our luck holds out, we’ll live to see you all another time or two before our souls move on to whatever lies ahead, and our bodies join you underground. Until then, we hope to live our lives like you do – making the most of every moment we have in this life.

Enjoy the summer. We look forward to your return in 2030.

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Eye Contact

There’s that moment when you hold a newborn baby and your eyes lock for the first time.  Welcome to the world.

Eye contact means many things to our species, and different things across cultures.  In America we regard it as a show of respect, a sign that we’re paying attention. I see you. I hear you. I get you.  I’m here for you.

I never had a baby of my own, but I remember so well holding each of my sister’s newborns—their hands and feet swimming through the air, seemingly beyond their control.  Eyes astounded, taking in every new thing, then catching and holding mine.

You and me – same tribe.

Twenty years go by.  I’m with my sister’s family in the basketball arena at Radford University, where the dean is about to confer a Bachelor of Science degree upon my niece, Molly. The youngest of the Lundquist clan.  The graduates flow in— a current of black gowns and mortarboards amidst a multi-colored sea of parents, grandparents, siblings and friends.

We know Molly swims in this current.  She knows we’re moored somewhere in these bleachers.  But knowing is not enough.  We scan.  We search.  Like all the families and all the graduates, we strive to find each other in this ocean of people, on this glad day.

There she is! We focus our collective beam on her.  Tears in eyes, heart in throat, we wave wildly.  And then she feels it.  She turns.  Our eyes lock.

Welcome to the world.

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Worth the Wait

The spring beauties blooming in my woods last week put me in mind of the gorgeous cover of my new favorite book.

Yes, Virginia.  There is a flora!  Exactly two hundred and fifty years after the publication of the original Flora Virginica (the only other flora to be published for the state, or should I say colony of Virginia) comes the long awaited and much celebrated Flora of Virginia.

What took so long?  That riveting story is woven by guest authors Nancy Ross Hugo and Donna M.E. Ware in their excellent first chapter, Plant Discovery and Documentation in Virginia: A Historical Perspective, an intriguing walk through Virginia history, and worth the price of the entire book.   They write:

“If asked how long it took to complete this volume, some might say 11 years, but, in truth, it took centuries.  It required the voyages of sixteenth-century explorers, the hardships of seventeenth-century colonists, the greed of eighteenth-century merchants, the curiosity of nineteenth-century naturalists, the drive of twentieth-century herbarium builders, and the tenacity of twenty-first- century taxonomists.”

Death by gunshot and appendicitis, destruction by arson, theft by Spanish pirates; all these prevented early botanists from completing their fieldwork or publishing their manuscripts.

And war.  The most war-torn of the fifty states, botany work in Virginia was delayed, halted altogether, or destroyed as a result of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.   All this and more is told of the hardships of early and modern botanists endured to bring to life the Flora of Virginia.

Gary Fleming guest writes the second chapter, The Nature of Virginia Flora, which explains why our plants flourish where they do in our state.  This natural history is no less compelling and in many ways is even more of a page turner than the human history presented in the first chapter:

“During the mid-Tertiary [65 to 2 million years ago], an asteroid or a comet crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in the vicinity of what is now the southern Chesapeake Bay, near the present-day town of Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore. The impact fractured bedrock to a depth of 7 miles and a width of 85 miles, forming a massive structure known as the Chesapeake Bay impact crater (Powars 2000).  Millions of tons of seawater and debris were ejected into the atmosphere and vaporized, likely followed by a huge tsunami, widespread fires, a prolonged period of darkness and acidic precipitation, and, ultimately, atmospheric cooling.  This event and its aftermath were the probable cause of a mass extinction about 33 [million years ago] during the Eocene Epoch.”

Fleming’s chapter includes predictions for the future of Virginia’s flora.  “The scientific consensus is that, if present trends continue, concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 2100 will be twice those in preindustrial times (Overpeck et al. 1991). This …suggests a warming trend stronger than that of the Hypsithermal and a large-scale northward displacement of plant species and vegetation types (Overpeck et al. 19910; Prasad et al. 2001).  Moreover, simulation models suggest that vegetation change in eastern North American during the next 200 to 500 years will equal in scope that which has occurred over the past 7,000 to 10,000 years and will likely result in the development of plant assemblages without modern analogs (Overpeck et al. 1992).”

The extensive treatment in the Flora of Virginia, in Fleming’s words, “…represents a critical step toward developing a comprehensive plan for providing Virginia’s rich native flora—its common species, rarities, and fascinating disjuncts alike—opportunities to survive an uncertain future.”

That is what author/botanists Weakley, Ludwig and Townsend had in mind when they dedicated this volume to their children, “In the hope that we will leave them more than a fraction of what was left us.”

All this, and a working field guide for the identification of the 3,164 species of plants found in the Old Dominion.  Anyone who has had the privilege, as I have, of working with some of these biologists knows how passionate they are about our flowering plants. Any day spent in the field with Chris Ludwig, for example, is a good day.  As if their discoveries aren’t enough, now these three botanists leave a different kind of a legacy.  Run, do not walk, to purchase a First Edition copy.  This is one for the ages.

Flora of Virginia

By Alan S. Weakley, J. Christopher Ludwig, John F. Townsend

Illustrations by Lara Call Gastinger, Michael A. Terry, Roy Fuller

Brit Press, 2012