“Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Through years and miles of scouting, rangering and mothering, I’ve learned to look and listen for easy-ins and eye-poppers—gateway experiences that lure the senses, hands and heart into the mysteries of wild wholeness. The small sweet stuff that launches multitudes.
In this spirit I waited for jewelweed season: that ripe moment when the fruits of Impatiens capensis spew their seeds in all directions at the slightest touch.
I watch for these creatures every August-into-September and have since my youth, when my Dad first pointed them out to us: orange dragons on spindle-stalks with green rockets that bulge and grow as summer progresses. The fruits appear at the beginning of the season, slender and supple, as tempting as strawberries that are too young to eat, and I have at times goaded them too early. But if you squeeze the pods while immature, that stunning namesake pop of what we kids always called “pop-its” or “touch-me-nots” does not occur, and the seeds that emerge will not be vital.
This time last year our daughter was tiny, sentient, eager, though not yet capable of any fine-motored manipulation of leaves or fruits. During the solar eclipse my husband and I found a pocket of pop-its behind some benches at Fort Tryon Park. Our baby watched from her stroller as I squeezed them, one by one, with varying success. Next year she’ll do this herself, we told each other, and she did, a few weeks ago, in our home woods in Van Cortlandt Park, then up in the Hudson Highlands, then again at the New York Botanical Garden.
Here’s how it goes: I scour a patch to find the ripest little rockets, then pick a few on stems and cautiously move them into her reach. Several explode during this transfer, but she gets her hands on a few, squeezes them with chubby fingers, then goes wide-eyed when the green skin coils back in perfect symmetry, the pod springing forth its caraway-sized seeds. She looks up at me and says, “Ish!” which means: “Whooa!”
In the shadow of the jewelweed’s punchy pods and bright orange blossoms lie a second set of flowers, infinitesimal ones that never open, and which fertilize themselves. These cleistogamous micro-flowers can also produce offspring, and while the bright orange insect- or hummingbird-pollinated flowers make stronger babies, the smaller self-seeded flowers allow the plant to reproduce without expending energy on the production of petals, pollen, or other reproductive organs. In tough situations, these tucked-away cleistogamous flowers are what allow the plant community to thrive and grow.
What I want for our child and all her generation-mates is to condition themselves to look: to spot first the easy, frontal and generous beauties in the natural world, the mega fauna and bright flora that greet a soul not too far from the trail, but then to dive deeply off these springboards into the mysteries of the more-than-human. After that first pop, that initial draw, lie stories that are even more colorful, more interesting and instructive, more worth knowing and celebrating.