“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.”
I was walking into the sun on the road that is one of the northern borders of the Navarino Wildlife Area Monday. Some of the road shoulder was full of poison ivy. Young though it was, it was unmistakably poison ivy: three leaves drooping from red vines, some leaves still dark magenta, some green, some still more folded than flat, carpeting the shoulder bank, runners with miniature leaves creeping out toward the road. Having walked two and a half hours to get there, I took a break at the dead end, swallowing a clementine whole, while taking a peek at the Sedge Meadow Trail.
Still Sedge Swamp as I had suspected.
Then the flowers I mis-identified as poison ivy last week appeared there at the edge of the Sedge Meadow Trail. The single sphere of flowers was the same, but there two small leaves just below the three larger ones. I shook my head, knelt and finally got a good picture. At home, it was easy to identify the maligned plant as ground nut or ginseng. (Actually, there is a plant called dwarf ginseng that only has the three leaves that tricked me.)
My kids and I spent hours in a woods abundant with ginseng behind the parsonage in Little Suamico. That was twenty some years ago. I have not seen ginseng since. I did not recognize it. I had forgotten about a plant that’s responsible for about thirty million dollars of Wisconsin agricultural exports, since 95% of the approximately one million pounds of ginseng shipped from the US each year comes from here. Most of it is sold to China whose citizens trust in its health benefits: reducing inflammation and stress, improving brain function and circulation, etc. (They probably don’t mistake ginseng for poison ivy.) Last year’s trade wars with China have decreased ginseng’s profitability for Wisconsin farmers; this year’s COVID virus shut down Wausau’s International Ginseng Festival, causing an additional loss of two to three million dollars to the Wausau area economy.
To know nothing about this plant and, in my ignorance, to mistake it for poison ivy. Good night!
Every time I take a walk out at the Navarino Wildlife Area, my ignorance is revealed. At the beginning of my walk Monday, I saw some flowers I had forgotten to identify from two weeks ago: hepatica. Near the end of my walk, I saw apple trees full of white flowers. Or flowering crab apple trees. Apparently both are native to North America: according to one source, crab tree flowers are only pink; another source said they could be white. These trees were faintly fragrant and buzzing with bees: one stood alone; behind them stood a line of five or six of them, white blossoms glowing before the light green, slow-to-leaf oaks. Were they apples or crabapples? No idea. In the strawberry flowers on the trail, I saw a small brown butterfly: a picture would have helped me identify him. At the end of my walk I noticed plants in several places that looked like blueberries flowering with little white bells … were they blueberries? I had never seen blueberries out at Navarino before. A photo I took confirmed that blueberries they are, and I know exactly where they are.
I came across a dead snake: he was 18 inches long, had a cream-colored belly and an apparently unmarked, dark gray-green back: I looked at every one of the native Wisconsin snakes on the DNR website. No match. I know nothing about the poor fellow. Not long after seeing him, I saw orange-sized orange galls in a pine tree. It looked like oranges were growing on a pine tree. Why not? What do I know? Nothing! I have no idea what creature made them or even what kind of pine tree it is. I took a picture for future reference. I saw animal tracks that shouted “bear,” and I remembered reading on Navarino’s website that there are bears out there. I should have taken a picture, but when I went home to learn about bear tracks, it was pretty clear.
Yup. There’s bears out at Navarino.
I wondered about how hazy the flowage waters appeared: was this the doom of an early algae bloom? Upon closer inspection, a galaxy of tiny lily pads were floating on the surface of the flowage … some kind of duck weed, I learned when I returned home. But: was there more duck weed than usual? If so, why? I decided that I needed to be there every year, every season, every month, learning, writing, studying before I could say I knew anything about that tiny, wonderful world that is the Navarino Wildlife Area.
What do any of us know about the rest of the world?
I learned so many new names of the plants I saw Monday that I felt like Adam after God asked him to name all the creatures: star flowers, gay wings, yellow rocket, wild geranium.
I did meet a few old friends. I raised bullfrogs one summer. I saw a young one on the trail, letting the sun soak into his green-black back. I was in a hurry. I would have loved to interview him and snap his picture for the paper tomorrow. I also saw a pickerel frog or leopard frog; they’re very similar: one’s spots are more square, the other’s are round. Their iridescent green and yellow skin shone. And finally, I saw my first Eastern Yellow Tiger Swallowtail this year. Got some great pictures. I remember walking through a cloud of them on a road near rapids on the Brule River on a trip Katie and I took probably 15 years ago. I also saw a fishing spider on that trip. We spent an afternoon in a canoe watching beavers.
But I did forget about the ginseng.
I’d like to say I won’t forget again, but I can’t. Only God remembers everything. Every sparrow. Every one of us.