Editorial: An exercise in curiosity

Thursday, July 06, 2017

For a few days recently, it seemed like New Hampshire was in the tropics. To move was to drip. The humidity was followed by the summer visitors season, one gathering after another. Endless talk of Trump and the surreal Salvador Dali landscape that America has become. Time sagged like Dali’s famous melted watch and thoughts wandered to when, for amusement, a few of us agreed to the following fallacious bit of reasoning.

All birds have wings.

Ducks have wings.

Ergo, all birds are ducks.

Thus began a period of pointing and saying things like, “Look, there’s a worm-pulling lawn duck, a humming duck at the feeder, a giant hissing duck by White Pond” a “fierce-taloned fish duck” over the Merrimack. As we sat, a pair of ravens landed in the treetops. When they spoke, it sounded like the spinning of an old-fashioned wheel of fortune. It was, we learned later, their “popping call.” Ravens are the smartest in the crow family. They are talented mimics that can, if they choose, sound like dogs, cats or car horns. In trying to identify the raven call, we came across a video of a raven taught to say, what else but “nevermore.”

In summer heat and mental indolence, it’s best to exercise curiosity at limited remove. Look at what can be seen from a fixed spot and learn what each thing is. Out the window, just feet from the keyboard, grew a remarkably vigorous plant, one that’s welcomed the wet and relished the heat. In a matter of weeks it grew to be 7 feet tall, a fuzzy green tower of leaves topped with a yellow-flowered spike.

We knew its name but nothing more. It’s a common mullein, a member, (who knew?) of the figwort family. Under ordinary circumstances The Figworts would be welcome in the neighborhood, which generally is not of noble pedigree. Delving further, however, we learned that the National Parks Service lists common mullein as an invasive species, an ecological threat that replaces native plants and is extremely hard to eradicate. We voiced the apology, credited with whatever validity to unnamed Native Americans, that we say before felling trees, “As we will be food for your children” and yanked the shallow-rooted giant from its base next to the granite foundation.

Then our gaze fell on little strawberry-like plants, their three-leaves smaller but almost identical to those on the plants at the pick-your-own farms whose sweet crops are now ripe. They were mock strawberries whose fruit is dry and tasteless. Food only for the eye.

The nearby day lilies are food for both. They, too, aren’t New Hampshire natives. Most have roots in Asia. They’re blooming now, a feast for the eye and, in salads, or better yet, rolled in a light tempura batter and fried. There was plenty in view left to identify, but hunger got the best of indolence. Time to abandon the keyboard in favor of the refrigerator.