Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Memories in Our Backyards September 2, 2010

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The morning is cool—dew clings to the grass and my footsteps crunch along the gravel driveway. My father is taking pictures as we all march up the long driveway and out to the bus stop at the end of our lane. I am wearing new clothes, my hair is brushed (for once!), and I am excited about the new supplies in my backpack, although I think I called it a bookbag, then. My brother, parents, and I are accompanied by our golden retriever, who walks with us to the bus stop in the morning and comes up the yard to greet us when we come home, and a scattering of geese–two pale yellow and a gray speckled one I named Domino. My brother and I are the geese’s parents and they follow us this way almost anywhere.

Every year for most of my younger life this scenario is the same, although there are not always the geese. When Autumn comes I still feel these memories tugging at me–the crisp air, the walk, the weight of clean blank notebooks waiting to have their margins filled with doodles.

Signs of fall are different for everyone–it could be the leaves changing, the night sky turning, the end of fresh peaches, or the blush of orange across a pumpkin. For my family, one sign that fall is coming to stay are the Touch-Me-Nots that grow next to our old bus stop at the end of the driveway.

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This plant actually plays a big role in my childhood explorations. Before I call it Touch-Me-Not, I call it Jewelweed. They are one in the same, but for me the name changes just like the seasons. In the summer it is Jewelweed, a shade-loving plant that grows in large clumps. This plant may seem rather ordinary from afar, but the real secret comes when you put the leaves underwater, where the underside of the leaf transforms from a pale green to a flashing silver. This was a great trick as a kid, and one I now try to show the next generations as an environmental educator. We also used to use crushed Jewelweed stems to stop itching from mosquito bites, poison ivy, or other stinging plants.

In the fall, the word Jewelweed transforms to Touch-Me-Not in my mind as the plants’ small purse-like flowers come out and the seed pods hang heavy off the stems. These seed pods–which you can see on the right in the above picture–are the most exciting part of the Touch-Me-Not, and can provide endless entertainment in general and especially while you wait for a bus to arrive. I believe Anna Comstock–the first person to take students and teachers outside to study nature in the 1890s–described them best in her Handbook of Nature Study.

“The little, straight, elongated seed pods are striped prettily and become quite plump from the large seeds within them. Impatient? We should say so! This pod which looks so smug and straight-laced that we should never suspect it of being so touchy, at the slightest jar when it is ripe, splits lengthwise into five ribbon-like parts, all of which tear loose at the lower end and fly up in spirals around which now looks like a crazy little turbine wheel with five arms. And meanwhile, through this act the fat, wrinkled seeds, have been flung several feet from the parent plant and perhaps to some congenial place for growth the following spring.”

This is what this description looks like in real life:

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In this last video especially you can see how quickly the pod disappears once it decides to go! I managed to catch the pod after one of these explosions so you can see the “crazy little turbine wheel with five arms” and “fat, wrinkled seed” Anna describes.

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Isn’t it amazing how the seed pod transforms?

I should mention that the Touch-Me-Not pictures in this post are the very ones (or perhaps I should say their great-great-great-great grandchildren) my brother and I spent countless time next to while waiting to see a flash of the yellow bus coming down the hill. On a recent visit I walked up the old driveway to visit the Touch-Me-Nots again. The dog that once followed us is gone now, buried under a wall in the front yard. The geese have been gone even longer, lost one by one to perils in the forest behind our house.  A different dog–just as loyal even though missing most of our childhood–kept me company instead.

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Even though I am older now and out of school, this feeling of Fall always comes back to me, shifting as the Earth shifts on its axis and the season approaches. There are more signs like the Touch-Me-Nots, if I stop to think about it. There is also the appearance of the constellation Orion over the horizon. There is frost on the car windshield in the mornings. Leaf stains on the sidewalk.

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http://ironraven.net/day6am.jpg

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There is so much for us to learn–so much knowledge to pass along to each other. Imagine the people who walk and drive past Touch-Me-Nots every Autumn, and never know the Big Bang force contained inside the pods, or the silvery jewels hidden under the leaves. Likewise, I am sure there are plenty of things I do not know that each of you hold dear to your hearts. What kind of secret knowledge do you have that you would like to pass on to your children, to your neighbors? Do any parts of nature inspire certain memories of a time, place, or person the way Touch-Me-Nots do for me? Is a certain time of year heavier with these memories? It can be anything, big or small. A trip across a mountain range or a certain smell wafting in your windows at night. Whatever it is, short or long, happy or sad, I hope you will share with us in the comments.

I believe that these are the gifts we can give each other. The world sometimes seems like an impossibly large place—remembering the train ride through rural India, realizing the sheer number of people in the world going about their daily lives—but it can also be small: made up of people just like ourselves, heavy with memories, gains, losses, and wisdoms. Every person must have something that is known to them alone: the specific way shadows move across their room, the weight of a certain stone,  the feeling of rough wool running through their hands, the glint of ripples on the water, the way Touch-Me-Nots explode on your fingertips. The more we can share these, and learn them from each other, the better off we all will be.

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2 Responses to “Memories in Our Backyards”

  1. Scott Says:

    This is a lovely study of the jewelweed plant. Like you and Anna Comstock, I enjoy the ‘crazy spiral’ shapes of its spent seed pods. Here in southeastern PA, the orange “spotted jewelweed” seeds haven’t quite matured. But the yellow “pale jewelweed” pods are popping at the slightest brush!


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