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In Context #8 (Fall, 2002, pp. 16-18); copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute

Portraying a Meadow
Craig Holdrege

During The Nature Institute's 2002 summer course, "Coming Alive to Nature," we discussed and practiced a Goethean, phenomenological study of plants and habitats. Goethe described one important feature of his approach to science by stating that its intention is "to portray, rather than explain." The following essay is an attempt at portrayal. Its aim is not to explain in the sense of depicting causal relations, but rather to create a characterization through which something essential can speak. I thank all course participants for their contributions, which in one way or another have helped to form this portrayal.

Sometimes when you stare at something directly, you don't see it. You need to walk around it, change vantage points and build up a picture of the larger world of which it is a part. Then it comes into focus. So with the meadow. Its special qualities show themselves more vividly when we place it within the context of the changing seasons and contrast it with another habitat—the bottomland forest.

Under the Forest Canopy

In early July, the summer solstice—when the sun makes its highest arc through the sky and the northern hemisphere enjoys the longest day of the year—has only recently passed. The meadows are full in bloom—but not the forest. When you go into the forest—I'm thinking of a northeastern bottomland woods that borders a creek and is periodically flooded—you enter a dark green space, dappled with spots of brightness. The upper tree canopy is quite dense and the forest floor is dark. The leaves of the herbaceous plants like bloodroot, violets, and wild geraniums, appear to grow directly out of the soil and have long stalks that carry broad, expanding blades. The leaves have now grown large; they were much smaller when the plants flowered a month or two ago. The stems of these early-flowering plants are held in the earth (they're called rhizomes) and never see the light of day. The wildflowers that are blooming now (avens, snakeroot) have upright stems from which longed-stalked and broad leaves spread. Their flowers are quite small and inconspicuous. Very few species, like the white wood aster, will bloom still later in the year.

When we come into this forest during late April and early May, there are no green leaves and the ground is brown with leaf litter. Then we encounter wave after wave of flowering. Slowly shoots appear and the first flowers of spring emerge—bloodroot, trout lily and trillium, to name a few. These plants have large flowers that radiate near to the cool ground. As the succession of flowering continues through May—the days are getting longer, the earth warmer—the forest greens from the bottom up. First the forest floor greens, then the leaves of the saplings and small trees, and finally the canopy closes overhead. It's like a slow wave of green progressing heavenwards. And it creates darkness in the forest. When the umbrella of green envelops the forest, the main period of flowering has past. In June there is not more light in the forest, even though the days are getting longer. During this time the leaves continue to grow. The rich and varied nuances of spring greens become more unified and the deep calm of the dark green summer woods sets in.

Thus the forest has its own special rhythm and gesture. It's the earliest habitat in the year to bloom, while the days are getting longer and the canopy has not yet closed. Just as the leaves of the wildflowers and saplings grow out long-stalked and spread into large surfaces that create shade, so do the long and narrow trunks of the trees grow upward and spread out into crowns that interweave to form a canopy that envelops the woods. Everywhere you look in the forest—individual leaves, single plants, small trees, groups of plants, and all the trees together—you see canopy formation. Extending, spreading out, and covering—that's a vivid gesture of the woods. And before this tendency has lived itself out, the forest has flowered. Now, in mid-July we're bathed in a homogeneous, dark green atmosphere.

Plants from a bottomland woods

Plants from a bottomland woods (pressed specimens). From left: jewelweed (Impatiens capensis); black snakeroot (Sanicula marilandica); white avens (Geum canadense); two leaves from northern blue violet (Viola septentrionalis); single leaf from bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis); and single leaf from wild geranium (Geranium maculatum). Scale bar = 10 centimeters.

Meadow plants

Meadow plants (pressed specimens). From left: oxeye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum); deptford pink (Dianthus armeria); timothy (Phleum pratense); smooth brome (Bromus inermis); English plaintain (Plantago lanceolata); red fescue (Festuca rubra). Scale bar = 10 centimeters.

The Play of Light and Wind

As the woods were flowering and beginning to green in the spring, the meadow was still brown. The mowed stalks from the previous year were visible. You have to wait quite a while to find small green shoots sprouting near the ground. Blades of grass, along with dandelion, hawkweed and plantain leaves, unfold only after the forest has had its first wave of flowering. In contrast to the growth in the woods, the meadow plants cover every bare spot of ground and form a tightly interwoven carpet. The leaves are rarely broad and expanding; they are short-stalked and the leaf blade is usually lance-shaped and sometimes lobed or divided.

From this plain of green, the yellow flowerheads of the dandelions extend and create a radiant surface of yellow covering the meadow. Yellow is the dominant flower color in the meadow into early summer. After the dandelions blossom, other plants send up their upright, usually single stems that carry very few leaves. Only the tall buttercup has some of the spreading character of the woods—but its strongly branched stems carry, above the basal rosette, only small deeply cleft leaves. The plant has an airy quality and not the watery, covering quality of the woodland wildflowers. But the main tendency in the meadow is to form very upright, quite stiff and small-leaved stems. The dominant group of plants with this character is, of course, the grasses. Their leaves are narrow blades that enwrap as a sheath the sturdy stem for a good portion of their length. This grass-type growth habit has taken hold of many other species that populate the meadow—hawkweeds, plantains, pinks and daisies. If you were to pick a blue-eyed grass, which belongs to the iris family, before it has bloomed, you'd think you had a true grass in your hand. Only when its intensely purple, star-shaped flower emerges out of the blade-like stem and leaves, do you discover a plant from a wholly different family.

Into this world of vertical, upright stalks, another world weaves. The clovers, birdsfoot trefoil, and wild madder spread into the spaces between the upright stems. They interlace and fill out this middle layer of the meadow. Often they grow upward by supporting themselves on the stems of the grasses and daisies. Vetches loop their specialized tendrils around these stems for support of their own spindly stalks. As with the other meadow plants, the leaves are small. The shamrock-leaved clovers have the most rounded leaves of the meadow plants.

In July the bloom of the meadow bursts forth as a habitat bouquet. The yellows, whites, and purples of the wildflowers illuminate the meadow. Many of these plants belong to the daisy/aster family (composites) whose "flowers" are a head of hundreds of individual flowers that join together to form a "superflower"—the plant world's most intense manifestation of flowering. Similarly, the members of the legume family, such as the clovers, form more or less compact heads of many individual flowers. Neither of these families is strongly represented in the forest. So the meadow is characterized by intense flowering—in form and color—soon after the summer solstice.

The long stalks of grass rise above these patches of flowering radiance. There is nothing more characteristic of the meadow than the wafting of the grasses to and fro in the wind. The larger world of the elements speaks through the grasses. The grasses do not go much into the outer expression of form and color, but rather reveal what's around them. This is also true in their relation to light. Think of a meadow that suddenly lights up as the grasses reflect the sun's light. It's as though for a moment the edges and small spaces between the grass flowers and grains, like a dew-dropped spider web, capture and make visible the light.

Grasses do have flowers, but none of the showy parts. The petals are reduced to tiny bracts that never grow or unfold. The flower parts that extend out are only the thin-stalked, dangling stamens and the short, white-feathery upper part of the pistil. The grasses give over their pollen to the wind for pollination. In contrast, the intensely colored wildflowers are visited and pollinated by insects.

The grasses—as the tallest elements of the meadow—form no canopy. Light penetrates down deep into the layer of interwoven wildflowers and only underneath them does darkness reign. Dark below, dense and colorful interweaving, bursts of intense radiance, and open dissolution into light and wind. This is the metamorphosis from below upward in the meadow.


The meadows of the northeast exist in this way only because they are mowed. Only if every year the plants are cut off near the ground does a meadow form and thrive. If the farmer stops mowing, gradually the meadow turns into a forest and the composition of species completely changes. The cosmos of form, color and substance the meadow creates during spring is mowed and becomes part of the cow. The cow breaks down what it takes in, builds up its own form and substance, but also gives from itself a product of this transformation—manure. The manure is composted (the meadow I'm observing is part of a biodynamic farm) and spread back onto the meadow. So farmer, cow and manure are all part of the meadow.

In the forest woody plants grow. And they grow slowly. It can take a tree sapling five or ten years to grow as high as a grass plant grows in one year. But the tree forms wood—a dense plant substance that remains year after year, forming the above-ground bedrock for the tree's further upward growth and unfolding. The forest creates lasting form; wood formation is the plant's way of raising up and extending the tendency to solidification that we find in the earth's crust. The long, dense trunks of the trees spread at their perimeter to form the enclosing forest canopy. Below, the smaller trees, the bushes and the saplings form small canopies within the large canopy. And the forest floor brings forth the long-stalked, spreading leaves of the wildflowers. The forest expresses the expansive, flowing quality of water that is supported by the earthy tendency of wood formation.

The meadow, in contrast, forms no woody growth, a tendency that is held back by the yearly mowing. But the sturdy yet pliant grasses have their own special form of substance formation. They deposit silica—the stuff of light-filled quartz crystals—in their leaves and stems. The meadow wildflowers form dense, interwoven growth near the ground that bursts into flower during the long and warm summer days. The stems of the grasses rise upwards and live in the interplay of light and wind.

While the forest reveals the qualities of earth and water, the meadow brings to expression the qualities of warmth, light and air.

Sketch by Connie Cameron

Original source: In Context #8 (Fall, 2002, pp. 16-18); copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute

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