“That sycamore always gives fish,” says my fisherman friend, and I envision the tree birthing wet fingerlings that slip out between its spread roots along the side bank and into the stream.
We are hiking along Naples Creek, just before trout season opener, and I am wearing polarized sunglasses for a first time. Initially, my eyes are still captivated by the flow of water, and I cannot see beneath the surface, other than more blue tones or just a slightly more defined substrate of stone and gravel. When my friend points out the shadows across a breath of flowing water I am dubious - those could be rocks or fish. But then, I begin to see the underwater world open up in a new way; a dark shadow takes on a fin, the fin bolts forward into a form that is large and long. There are two fish here. The hen is creating a nest, known as a redd, beneath that tall sycamore on the shore, its own bark dappled like the surface water, like the leaves of the trout lilies soon to bloom. The fish are conversing in their own fish tongue about the brood of young they will sow, her by laying eggs and he, with his red gills, flowing over the nest to add his milt. The female flips her tail and scours her belly against the substrate, deepening the redd, then tilts her underside, showing a flash of pink and speckled color, which looks like an entire cosmos of stars, like a universe in planning, like the light of promise from within.
I don’t know what the first song was. Aside from the wind and rain, long before the time of singing birds, surely the first biotic calls were the trilling of amphibians during the Devonian Period, in a swamp, about 400 million years ago. Mild peeping, like the shaking of distant bells, erupts into a cacophony of frog calls in vernal pools and ponds in this modern, Holocene Epoch. Tonal qualities include the quacking of tiny wood frogs followed by the Northern grey tree frog’s shrill song of 17—35 notes per second. Emerging American toads come out trilling their own amorous tune, followed eventually by the twang of the green frog, who needs more warmth to start up. The tribes of amphibians sing to find mates, but maybe too they are swooning with all the possibilities spring brings; the transformative miracle of tadpoles and the promise that nature’s fecundity will soon be buzzing. In the pond below my house, second year bullfrog tadpoles are wiggling their fat, round selves in and out from under fallen and submerged leaves like dancers waving scarves. They are eager to grow forelimbs, eager to get on with it.
Traditional spring tonics lift winter-weary bodies to the demands of a season bursting with duties. Greens of dandelion, wild violet, lambs quarters, and even black birch leaves; whole plants of leeks, chickweed, and watercress; roots of burdock, dandelion, dock; shoots of pokeweed, cattail, and now knotweed and others, were spring’s remedy against spring colds and other illnesses. Tonics were made as teas, decoctions, salads, and, more recently, as vinegar infusions to take by the spoonful or drizzled over salads. Consider this: despite modern conveniences, grocery store greens have been sitting, picked weeks before, their nutritious edge lost compared to the glean of wildcrafted greens from home and field. Fresh leaves are sparkling with the sustenance and riot of Earth’s renewed force. What do we know? What did our great-grandparents know? Did they know dandelions support our liver and help our bodies assimilate nutrients from other foods? Was it instinctive understanding, spring singing to our hunger? It’s been months since freshly picked green has passed our lips; since such revitalizing energy swam through our cells, gills pulsing. Our gardens and waysides beckon us to come foraging, to bless us with the most important of nutrients - medicinal foods we no longer consider worthy. Here: taste this, let its energy swim from the soil to your soul, let the tonics help you remember, rekindle, and renew.