Hope Springs Eternal

My mother had a saying for everything. Her speech was fashioned by the linguistic effects of verbally colorful Anglo/Irish parents, and from living in Guam after World War II soaking up the Southern and Western cadences of American servicemen. She spoke in a patchwork of literary references and colloquialisms, and until I began school I had no idea that not everyone spoke like that. She was full of song lyrics, too, and would break out singing if the words applied to the situation.  Some favorite expressions came from poetry, but I’m not sure to this day the derivation of many of those funny, perfect remarks.

A useful motherly comment was, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring”.  This was for when you didn’t know what you were talking about. Another was “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”, which she would say brightly if you asked for something and which meant, “we’ll see”.  It was oddly soothing and perhaps the simple addition of the word “hope” introduced a more positive flavor than the flat “we’ll see”, which every child knows is just a stalling tactic for an eventual “no”.

When the world is windy and frozen as it is in February, hope is a good arrow to keep in your quiver. I always give the same advice for cases of late winter doldrums, as I am nowhere near as clever as my mother.  I tell everyone who is down and dragging to get out and take a walk.  For starters, you need your sunlight and vitamin D to keep you on an even keel, and there’s nothing like some fresh air to improve your attitude.  And nothing reminds you more of hope springing within you than a look at a skunk cabbage as it begins poking through the frozen earth.  The only way to see that is to go for a walk in February or March!

Despite its repellant name, skunk cabbage is a wonderful thing.  One of the very earliest flowers, it has a remarkable determination to bloom.  If skunk cabbage competed in the Miss America contest, its “special talent”  (rather than baton twirling) would be its uncanny maintenance of an internally controlled heat from within, a sort of natural furnace. It runs approximately thirty-six degrees above the ambient temperature. This enables it to “burn” through frozen earth and even ice in an inexorable penetration of the surface of the ground.  As it breaches that surface and becomes visible it has a dramatic mottled purple hood called a spathe curled around an odd little flower that resembles nothing so much as a tiny morningstar (that round-headed medieval weapon with all the pointy things sticking out of it).  This is the spadix, and the little pointy things are the flowers.  You see this same configuration on many species of the lily family including calla lillies, peace lillies, jack-in-the pulpit and many others.  At the right point in early spring if you walk through a wetland carpeted with skunk cabbage, you might smell a sort of funkiness in the air. That smell draws little bees, flies and early bugs of every kind to come and nectar at the cabbage flowers, sustaining the insects and enabling them to get started on nests and procreation.  In a way, skunk cabbage is one of the mothers of spring itself, with its certain internal warmth giving way to the fecundity of an entire season.

My mother wouldn’t have touched a skunk cabbage with a ten-foot pole.  I’m pretty sure she never even saw one.  But, as a mother, she knew all about warmth, perseverance, and hope. It is remarkable at every level how our personalities are reflected in the natural world around us, though we often miss the connection. Mothers, of course, do not have a monopoly on the excellent qualities they share with the skunk cabbage, nor indeed, does every mother have them.  But there is no separating the characteristics of animals and plants from our own.  The world is a continuum.

It turns out actually, that hope DOES spring eternal for many people, and needs to.  Optimistic thoughts stimulate the amygdala, a powerful area of the brain that affects emotion.  It is biologically important to have a positive outlook.  Not everything in life will turn out perfectly, but if you thought things would always go badly, you’d never do anything.  So go out and take a walk.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

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10 Responses to “Hope Springs Eternal”

  1. Patsy Says:

    Sweet..loved this one

  2. hillsteadnatureblog Says:

    Thank you so much. My mom was very neat.

  3. Marcie Says:

    Wow did you already see skunk cabbage peaking out? I grew up near a swamp so my mother always told me that when you see the plant peaking its head up that spring was not far off. I guess she was right!

    I also used to tell my sister that she wasn’t a Cabbage Patch kid but a Skunk Cabbage Patch kid because that is where we found her….but I guess that is a whole other story!

    I just might take a walk down to the pond right now!

    • hillsteadnatureblog Says:

      It is easier to find out on the woodland trail-very swampy there! I hope you have apologized to your sister!

  4. Marcie Says:

    Ohhhhh and congratulations on over 10,000 hits!

  5. Emmanuel Streett Says:

    I stumbled onto your blog and read a few post. I like your style of writing.

  6. sarcozona Says:

    My mother grew up in a coal mining town populated by Slavic and Mediterranean immigrants and I had a very similar experience with language! I thought “capice” was just how you said “understand?!” when you were mad, for example. Also, it’s lovely to see skunk cabbage featured – it’s such an interesting plant. I was so impressed when I first learned about it in a plant physiology course.

  7. Joy Says:

    What a lovely tribute to your mother! I wonder what homily she’d use to express her feelings about being linked to a skunk cabbage?

  8. Diane Tucker Says:

    My mother had a fabulous sense of humor-plus she loved anything, just about, that I did. So the cabbage would be ok, I think. She used to say, “Two heads are better than one, even if they’re just cabbage”. Thanks for reading, Joy. Take a look at the post “Slug Doggerel” from a few months back. I think you would like it. Cheers, Diane

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