Column: Do we grow smarter in summer?

Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen


For the Valley News

Published: 06-06-2023 12:48 PM

The conservation commission in Strafford has been leading a series of community hikes this spring, exploring our natural communities. Somebody will often ask on one of these hikes — Oh, what fern is that just coming up? What flower? Who is that singing? — and I must stop and say, “I don’t know. Can you give me a moment to refresh my winter brain?”

I seem to forget every bird call, every emerging fern crozier, and every flowering plant during the quiet black and white winters.

April and May become seminars in advanced self-directed nature studies decoding the songs of vireos, warblers, and thrushes, and those little emerging fern fiddleheads called croziers which all look alike until I remember that the lady fern has brown hairy stems, and the wood ferns have scaly stems, and the maidenhair and bracken and oak ferns are in threes. Many of the early spring flowers, the spring beauties and hepaticas, blue cohoshes, and toothworts, so distinctive against a background of dead leaves, are easy to remember.

Early summer flowers, especially those in the lily family can send you off to find your Newcomb’s Wildflower guide — the Solomon-seals and false Solomon-seals, Canada mayflowers, twisted rosy stalks, sessile bellworts, Indian cucumber roots, trout lilies, and my favorite blue-beaded clintonias. All in the lily family, they have similar smooth leaves with parallel veins.

I suggested to a group on a hike that we may be smarter during the longer days of summer, not only from being washed in colors, smells, and sounds, but from relearning what we have forgotten during winter. An elementary school teacher reminded me that for them, summer is a time of forgetting for their students, forgetting what they have worked so hard to achieve during the school year.

I remembered a middle school student I had back in rural Missouri who told me that school was a waste of time for him. He spent every summer with his grandpa in a cabin in the woods, fishing and hunting and gathering wild foods. They built things and repaired things. He claimed everything he needed, he had learned from his grandpa. I often wondered how life played out for that boy.

Every spring, Mother Nature and I play this little game of giving and taking. I go up in the woods with the intent of taking — taking mushrooms. So, I climb up into the deep woods and hug every ash tree looking at her base for some dinner. I pull buckthorn, and look at rattlesnake ferns, and pull more buckthorn, and look at mayflowers and Solomon seals, and I look up at a hawk flying low through the canopy, and I see some big dead trees barely held up by one tiny branch of a neighboring tree and make note to go around them.

I keep pulling buckthorn, listening to ovenbirds and yellowbelly woodpeckers and a blue headed vireo, and I see a cluster of long beech ferns, and another one of northern oak ferns, and a few maidenhair ferns just popping up with their delicate red stems, and I go home empty-handed realizing that nature has again fooled me, tricking me into giving, remembering, and being happy.

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