Every year spring starts slowly, creeping, and I note every little thing that changes, every new leaf and flower that emerges, until the changes come faster each week, and suddenly we're in the full-blast growth of late spring and summer and there is no keeping up.
In early June I went up to Wilket Creek with Alan, and the slow-leafing ravine of early spring had been transformed into a dense wash of green. The sun was intense, and we explored a little, looking for new things to draw. We walked further into the ravine, following the creek, over a couple of bridges, and were surprised to see a huge leafy tree on the ground. Following the tangle of branches and the line of the trunk to its base, we could see that it was a large cottonwood that had recently come down, likely in a storm. The leaves were still bright and fresh, slightly translucent, with red at their edges; the trunk was gray and cracked, and spotted with yellow-green lichen. As we stood surveying the mass of branches and leaves, Alan pointed out the very tip of the tree: "This is amazing! We would never normally see this," he said. I hadn't thought about this, the incongruity of having access to the top-most branches of a tree in this way, and I didn't want to waste the opportunity. I decided that this was what I wanted to draw next.
Alan found an interesting gnarled branch that he wanted to work with, and we both wondered about taking these pieces home. The branches snapped off the tree with ease, something I later read is characteristic of cottonwood. We both carried around our branches the rest of the afternoon while we found other subjects to draw: me, the tangled roots of a hemlock on a shaded slope, and Alan, a large American beech near the main trail. My branch made it home, and I was able to quickly render it in watercolour before I left for a two-week family holiday. Alan's more brittle branch, unfortunately, did not survive the subway home.
In early July, we made it back to the ravine on an even hotter afternoon. Alan was determined to draw a section of the creek and bank, as our group has mostly been focusing on more detailed subjects thus far. I wandered in further, exploring some small side trails, following a mass of iridescent blue and black damselflies, trying to be stealthy enough to snap some close-up photos of them. I meandered along a few curves in the creek, added some more lines to my tree root of a month earlier - and got some close glimpses of a resident groundhog in the process - but felt that I hadn't yet found my subject.
I went back to the main trail. Close to the largest bridge, I noticed that the plants that I had introduced to Alan the previous month as thimbleberry were now in bloom. I'd been quite sure that I wanted to get off the main trail to draw, but these flowers captivated me. I quickly sketched a cluster of leaves, buds, and a single flower as I stood in a tiny patch of shade on the paved path. I got down the shapes and a few of the colours before we left, and later finished the drawing at home with coloured pencil.
Doing some more research on the thimbleberry at home, I realized that this was a plant I may have been misidentifying for years. Every image of thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) I found online had white flowers, and mine were in the pink/violet spectrum. I had eaten the berries of this same plant many times in other Toronto ravines as well as in spots outside the city, and they looked exactly like the photos of thimbleberries. I decided that the plant I'd been identifying as thimbleberry was most likely purple-flowered raspberry (Rubus odoratus). Apart from the difference in flower colour, the purple flowered raspberry also has pointier leaf tips, but I am sure I am not the first person to confuse the two!
The following day on the train, reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's Gathering Moss (review to come!), I was struck by the following passage. Kimmerer refers to mosses, but her words reminded me of the sometimes subtle differences between plants, and why noticing these differences and knowing their right names matters so much to me:
What seems to me to be important is recognizing them, acknowledging this individuality. In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationship, not only with other, but also with plants.
Summer Field Dispatch by Malgosia Halliop