consider the ferns

lady fern and maidenhair

I want to write something about ferns because I’ve been looking at them quite carefully over the past week. A few years ago I lifted a clump of lady fern (Althyrium filix-femina) from a damp area near us, a place regularly mowed by the highways guys. There are so many ferns in that area, mostly maidenhair (you can see a little bit of maidenhair in the lower right section of this clump; it’s Adiantum pedatum, the specific name alluding to the bird’s foot or palmate shape of the leaves). And at this time of year, they’re so green and lush.

Everything has its time and right now it’s ferns. The sword ferns in the woods we walked in yesterday, the licorice ferns growing on the mossy trunks of big-leaf maples, the deer ferns sending up their fertile stalks. Even this little clump of maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) I brought back from the underside of a rock outcropping on a walk this winter:

maidenhair spleenwort

It’s been very hot the past few days and the ferns are cool. You walk among them and you realize that you are in the presence of plants that have been around for about 350 million years. They are so well-adapted. And full of lore. In Slavic countries, Kupala night is celebrated around June 24 or 25th, corresponding more or less with the summer solstice (this year occurring at 3:07 tomorrow morning where I live). The longest day. I think that some of the Kupala Night traditions revolve around fertility and that the heart of those traditions is the belief that ferns bloom on this one brief night. Young unmarried men and women go together to search for the flowering ferns. Of course ferns don’t flower. They reproduce via spores. But that shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

maidenhair fern

There’s a little grove of maidenhair ferns at the foot of the stairs leading to my front door. Again, they came from the place that gets mowed every year but the ferns return in abundance despite the blades. In the 13th Idyll of Theocritus, there’s a reference to maidenhair ferns:

Ere long he espied a spring; in a hollow it lay, whereabout there grew many herbs, as well blue swallow-wort and fresh green maidenhair as blooming parsley and tangled deergrass.

The swallow-worts are invasive vines (Cynanchum spp.). Deergrass, though? There’s a deergrass which is a bunchgrass native to the southwestern United States, a plant of dry areas. But deer fern maybe? There’s a lot of it growing at the bottom of our driveway, by a low marshy area where we hear frogs in spring. In winter, we see it nipped right back by deer and elk who graze on its succulent fronds. And right about now, the narrow fertile leaves are rising from the centres of the plants, just in time for Kupala Night or the Solstice, for the young to encounter on their moonlit walks in search of the flowering ferns.

the vernal solstice

At 9:24 this evening, the sun reaches its highest point of the year at the Tropic of Cancer. The solstice, from the Latin “solstitium, meaning “the standing still of the sun.” We’ve had such a long grey spring, with rain and low skies, but this afternoon the sky cleared and is now blue and cloudless. I’m hoping it’s not too late for beans (I’ve had to sow them three times because of slugs…) and that the tomatoes will come out of their sulk to put on some growth. The salad greens (vernal!) are lovely and so were these sprouts a few weeks ago, playing in spring grass in Edmonton.

weeds and grandma's shadow.JPG

That shadow in the bottom corner? Their grandmother, who misses them all.


Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

—Walt Whitman


after the Solstice

day after Solstice.jpg

So now we wait for the light. In our house, there are little strings of fairy lights draped around picture frames, windows, even the iron wine rack hanging in one corner of the dining area (with a sign saying It’s Five’O’Clock Somewhere). Last night we went to the Grasshopper Pub for supper and watched the carol ships making their way around the harbour below, small pleasure boats with lights outlining every possible angle. Years ago we used to watch the carol ships from our friend Edith Iglauer’s deck. In those days the boats were fish boats — the local trawlers, gill-netters, seiners — and working and charter boats. We’d all bring food and we’d stand in the darkness while the boats came into each small bay, those on board singing and those watching joining in. I wrote about it my book, Red Laredo Boots:

We sing, of course we sing, whatever song comes to mind, and no one is self-conscious in the dark. My children love “The Huron Carol” and we are usually the only ones whoknow more than one verse so we sing of the hunters and the babe wrapped in rabbit skins and the humble lodge, and I think I’ve never believed more in the nativity than at those moments, singing with them in the cold night. This holy child of earth and heaven is born today for you. The boats move slowly, like winter constellations, and we watch until they disappear.

So I have to confess that I’m not a Christian. If anything, I’m a pagan. But these moments call to us from somewhere deep and the language we use for that call is redolent of what we knew in our childhoods. And mine was within the Judeo-Christian tradition so the miracles of the season are of birth, special foods, music, candlelight, and the stories told by stars. Which, come to think of it, are among the miracles of other traditions too. The Midwinter Yule. Hanukkah. The cycles of birth and death, light in the darkness, the horned god marking the return of life to the earth.

In our house, there’s a 14 month old boy, grandson Arthur, to keep the noise level high. He has words: ball, owl, Mama, Daddy. And he likes nothing better this morning than the task of removing the alphabet letters from the fridge and then replacing them. He likes to dance. He laughs beautifully. It’s good to have children in the house at Christmas, to keep the old habits alive — the carol ships, the little lights, listening for bells as the old year winds to a close.