March in Maryland may have come in like a lion, but it is not going out like a lamb as winter appears determined to hold on a bit longer. Warm weather and flowers teased us two weeks ago but then it got cold again. This past Sunday we were even greeted with three inches of snow coating the white blossoms of the ornamental cherry tree in our backyard. Each morning I must scrape the ice from my windshield.
All this puts me in mind of a wonderful poem by Mary Oliver called “Skunk Cabbage.” As the ice (or “iron rind”) starts dissolving from the ponds, we may dream of “ferns and flowers and new leaves unfolding.” But the transition from winter into spring is a much grittier affair, characterized less by sweetness and more by lurid smells emerging from chilling mud.
Chris Tanner, a colleague in our biology department, tells me that the skunk cabbage generates a special heat. This, along with its smell, makes it attractive to various beatles and other insects, which burrow into its rough green caves (“a spattering of protein”). Rather than looking for a bluebird and listening for its song, we should be on the outlook for this turnip-hearted plant. After all, this is where we see a powerful reenactment of the cycle of life played out.
I wonder if, when Oliver talks of the change of season not being a “mere turning,” she is echoing T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday,” where he points to the hard and bitter suffering that precedes transformative resurrection. (Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent.) Eliot’s poem begins in despair—“Because I do not hope to turn again”—but has a glimpse of new life emerging from suffering.
The skunk cabbage represents a miracle that is more than just turning from one season to another. Rather, spring is life growing out of death, a “dense and scalding reenactment” that evokes the crucifixion. The plant is rooted deep in “the woods you love,” stubborn and powerful as instinct. Because it is so grounded, it is strong enough to prepare the way for “ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle refinements, elegant and easeful” that are waiting to “rise and flourish.”
Like John the Baptist, like the road to Calvary, what blazes the road to Easter lilies is not necessarily pretty.
Here’s the poem:
By Mary Oliver
And now as the iron rinds over
the ponds start dissolving,
you come, dreaming of ferns and flowers
and new leaves unfolding,
upon the brash
turnip-hearted skunk cabbage
slinging its bunches leaves up
through the chilling mud.
You kneel beside it. The smell
is lurid and flows out in the most
unabashed way, attracting
into itself a continual spattering
of protein. Appalling its rough
green caves, and the thought
of the thick root nested below, stubborn
and powerful as instinct!
But these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again – a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not
tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn
pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.
Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle
refinements, elegant and easeful, wait
to rise and flourish.
What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.