Oikos – Spring

Doctor's orders: shut off your device and take a double dose of the outdoors

by Michael Maser

Welcome to Oikos, a quarterly Watershed Sentinel almanac about our home on the Pacific coast. Oikos is a Greek word meaning “home,” from which is derived ekos, the root of ecology. This series is written with the goal of helping people enjoy more direct engagement with nature, wherever they may call home.

It’s spring! After a winter confining most of us to interior spaces, it’s time to savor our release. Nature is calling, right now, to get out and participate in her majestic renewal. Pick a bench to sit and listen to a symphony of birdsong, hike a beach and watch for flocks of migrating shorebirds or whales, or scratch a patch of garden bed where new life is germinating. This is a time for deep and total immersion. Pull on your gumboots and splash in a puddle, or ditch your shoes and feel earth’s pulse rising up through your feet. Doctor’s orders: shut off your device and take a double dose of this medicine.

Here’s what Thoreau wrote about spring in 1847, as he experienced it at Walden pond:

“This is spring, when Earth is still in her swaddling clothes and stretches forth baby fingers on every side….  The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire as if the earth sent forth an inward heat to greet the returning sun; not yellow, but green is the color of its flame.… It grows as steadily as the rill oozes out of the ground.”

Green is the ubiquitous gown of spring, luminous in some plants, muted in others, but nowhere as fascinating as in my favourite plant of spring: Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanum) aka “Swamp Lantern.” A native plant, skunk cabbage is not a cabbage but an odd link to a kind of Cretaceous mega-fauna. You can find it rising in wet areas early in spring, with radiant green leaves swaddling a golden spathe and lemony, spiked spadix. It emits a “skunky” odor to us, but is obviously attractive to flies, beetles and bears that, on rousing from hibernation, seek skunk cabbage rhizomes to eat. Don’t consume this yourself, however, as the plant also produces calcium oxalate crystals that are caustic and even lethal for humans. That said, coastal First Nations have long used parts of this plant for medicine to treat many ailments. I recommend staking out a patch of swamp and watching it transform with proliferating skunk cabbage throughout spring.

American Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) | (cc-by-sa/2.0) Neil Theasby

Spring is a wonderful time to introduce nature to children, who can always have a front-row seat in the spectacular slow-fast theater all around them. Indeed, they might need some good mud-gear but little else save a magnifying glass or pair of binoculars to get closer to the action. The best motivation to help them is an enthusiastic adult who will join them peering at insects, building a fort, damming a creek, planting a garden. For more ideas, get some activity books from the library. Go light on the nature identification and deeper on immersion. Squeals of laughter will confirm that things are going well.

Spring is a time for re-awakening to the sensual world that engulfs and bathes us as earth increases its tilt toward the sun, catalyzing the most remarkable transformation in everything around us, and ourselves. Enjoy its glad tidings!

Michael Maser lives in Gibsons where he may be found “nature-bathing” year-round.

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