A few days after a new snow, the sprinkling of detritus that mars the carte blanche surface is at first distressing, as if someone has come along and scribbled in your new notebook–bits and pieces of the shed epidermis of dormant trees and shrubs speckle the whiteness; crumbling bits of soil mar the perfect plane especially at the base of the road banks; marcescent, late-falling leaves aggregate in every deep depression of our footprints.
Most notably, though, it has been a regular unknown winged form of plant material, a lovely little shape on the snow, that I have wondered about and not until this week investigated. I have a partial explanation now, and there is one less mystery in the world. I don’t know quite how to feel about that.
The tiny forms on the fresh snow show up rather universally as we walk our walks, mostly under a forest canopy of mixed hardwoods. As for finding these little botanical dingbats always near pines, beech, rhododendrons or other forms that in places predominate, I have been unable to connect them to their source in that way.
But I was determined, finally, a month after the Big One of December, to at least get a photograph of these tiny forms before snow melt–to bring the image home, and hopefully, sleuth out an explanation. So yesterday, I carried the little Canon in a coat pocket, walked very slowly, eyes to the ground to examine every step. Someone watching from a distance would have thought I’d lost my keys in the snow.
I began to notice that in some atypical places, the tiny tripartite “fleur de lis” where deposited less as if wind-scattered with one or two per square foot and more as if they’d been left in some kind of aggregate form, with dozens in a single palm-sized patch. I had previously thought them to be bud scales or bracts of some kind, so finding them in denser collections dispelled that notion at least as the sole explanation for their distribution.
When my perceptual search image changed in this way, my biased conceptual blind spots vanished. The scales fell from my eyes, as it were, and I saw what had been right before my eyes, had I taken the time to see, across the snows of our decade of winters on Goose Creek.
I’ve rambled long enough: the tiny shapes in my observation are the “scales” of alder cones (the shrub’s female flowers–left image). You can see many photos of the “cones” on this google image page, but I haven’t found anywhere a dissected cone that reveals the little winged bits that make them up. The right-hand image came from the left-hand cone, crushed.
I’d thought almost all of our alders were along the creek. I must be wrong about that, as we find these winter shapes in snow along the “New Road” and the “Middle Loop” as well, some distance from Nameless Creek. With more observation, I may discover that there is more than one source for similar organic duff on fresh snow. And I’m thinking I’ll get more opportunities to explore this hypothesis before this moist-cold winter is done.
NOTE: I’d be interested to hear from you if you find these little shapes in snow where you live. Let me hear, send me a picture to post! — Fred