Illustration by Patterson Clark
Normally, there is something to prepare us for the sight of them. A feeder perhaps, fluttering with activity outside of the kitchen window. Or as the days begin to lengthen, that distinctive metallic chirp might signal their presence. We’d likely turn our heads toward the sound and notice the crimson flash. But we probably wouldn’t stare too hard, and we likely wouldn’t catch our breath. We were warned - and so our minds would have already formed the image before our eyes took in those scandalously scarlet wings against winter white.
Perhaps that is how it normally happens. But this day, walking in the woods behind my Catskills home, having left my half-finished cup of tea and the wood-smoke sanctuary of my living room behind, I crunch along the path toward that one stately tulip tree above the creek - the one I need to lean my head against sometimes to talk to someone who isn’t here anymore, or someone who has yet to be born.
A flicker of movement shakes me from my quiet stillness. A male cardinal, red as sin, framed by a lace of blue sky and snow, is foraging for seeds in the high branches of this lone tulip tree.
If I tilt my head the slightest amount I can take in the whole of that crested ruby blaze, that black-masked-red-orange beak deftly picking at last years fruits. I remember that scattering of dried husks up there, shed reliably since early fall, those gorgeous samaras joined at the base to form a tulip-shaped cup of winged seeds. His drab and cheerful mate scours the ground for the oily seeds still connected to that whorl of long-gone samaras dispersed far and wide by the very creatures I am suddenly riveted by as if never having seen them before.
Why am I holding my breath? Do I think that the foraging pair know something of why I come here everyday in the amber light to touch this tree with bare hands? Or am I just startled to realize that they actually eat these seeds, scattered like barren little matchsticks across the snow and fallen twigs?
I never really noticed how long Liriodendron tulipifera, the tulip tree, holds on to its seeds through the Winter. I never thought about what creatures might take advantage of– no, depend upon—that winter source of fat and protein when times are lean. And so I stop to consider again the miracle of how these seeds came to be. The Spring-blooming flowers - simultaneously gorgeous and Dr. Seuss-like in their near-fluorescent spectacle of green and orange - produce a great pool of bold nectar. Honeybees, like the ones we shored up for Winter in their boxy wooden hives just a few months back, forage in the tulip trees in late-Spring after the fruit trees wind down. The bees can completely fill their honey-stomachs with a single tulip flower and produce a dark and complex honey, prized by some, loathed by others. The seed set of open-pollinated flowers is abysmal - 5-20% at best. It is unknown as to whether this is mostly related to the lack of self-compatibility in the flowers, the possible decline in pollinator populations or mismatch in the timing of native pollinators who might have evolved to be in sync with this species. Asychnronized: the word used by scientists to describe climate related mismatches between organisms who are dependent on one another.
The same word that for many of us, means one life or another.
My bare hands are getting cold against the furrowed bark. The delicate timing of things can be too much to bear I remember my old aunt saying, dying childless with a slew of advanced degrees and a resume far longer than her eulogy.
The tulip tree is purported to be the oldest living thing -and most definitely the tallest living thing - in the New York metropolitan area. Once, as a child, I met this tree on a school field trip. She was called the Queens Giant, and I experienced a strange flush of pride that this magnificent creature lived alongside me in the same dirty cityscape. It had never occurred to me to be proud of anything in the cramped neighborhood that I fled from each day to the quiet of my room full of books. I only remember the magnificent trunk, large and wide as a road heading West, inside of a cold metal gate. I don’t remember seeing any flowers.
And I definitely didn’t know then that the tulip flower ovary is only fertile for 12-24 hours. A pollinator has to touch a stamen - that happens to have fresh pollen - in just the right way when she is drinking. She then has to fly to another tulip tree – wherever one might be – and touch a stigma on another flower that happens to be receptive, in order to form a viable seed. And those few viable seeds have to fall in just the right place – not too sunny, not too shady - freeze for the right amount of time and get the right amount of water come Spring in order to send a shoot up through the deep leaf-litter soil of the Eastern woodlands. And that seedling has to somehow stay clear of four-legged browsers, not be in a woodlot that gets logged, not get crushed by a hikers boot and grow for 15 -20 years before producing its first flower to contribute to the genetic diversity necessary for the species long-term survival.
The cardinal happens to choose this patch of woods to forage today, looking for these nutritious tulip seeds - each and every one of which is a veritable miracle of timing. If he is not taken by a predator, disease or harsh winter conditions, he fattens up. Soon he will find and defend a territory, becoming so outrageous in his paranoid pre-mating state that he might attack his own reflection in a car door mirror. He will bring his mate her nesting material, feed her while she settles down for the long wait and if they are sufficiently fed - on tulip seeds perhaps, among others – they will have young.
And while they are flying back and forth to feed their new life, they might be dispersing some tulip seeds, on the new land we bought next door perhaps. And when those tulip trees get old enough, they will begin to flower, and maybe we will have added more hives to our farm, and maybe, just maybe, there will be more hands to tend to those bees that return triumphant with their honey-stomachs full of nectar to make that dark and complex honey that some of us prize, and some of us loathe.
And perhaps, on a snowy day in late January, a honeybee will leave her mother-queen inside the warm vibrating ball of bees that have overwintered inside the hive, and will happen to fly toward the creek for a winter cleansing flight, and will notice a crested form on in the high branches of a tall stately tree, back lit by amber light against the snow. And perhaps, just perhaps, she might have an inkling that there is some connection related to time, and need, across the great divide of species and hope.
And so ends, and so begins, the delicate timing of things in Winter - for cardinals, for bees and for all of us who seek sustenance in the form tiny winged seeds on frozen ground.