May Musings

Close-up of pinxterbloom azalea in Rock Creek Park by Susan Austin Roth
Close-up of pinxterbloom azalea in Rock Creek Park © Susan Austin Roth

The fragrance coming from the layered Rock Creek canopy this bright May morning after a night rain is engagingly complex, life-enhancing, and life-affirming. I feel that if I go on breathing it, I might very well live forever. And lest the myriad greens enchant to the point of floating me away, there is the grounding earth beneath my feet, with its dark aromas, and the flat wet rocks inviting a creek crossing. I wonder if it is possible to smell every shade of green, if each shade offers up its own scent.

I often feel lost during the month of May, reluctant to let go of April and hesitant to surrender to the fully leafed forest and summer heat. Not this year. Newly vaccinated and feeling free and liberated, my heart is open to full-throated May magic, and I want only to immerse myself in the forest in the middle of the city, bearing my naked face to the early morning sun. I know I’m not alone in this. Most of the people I meet along the trail are maskless and smiling.

Huge news in Washington! The wood thrushes, the official bird of D.C., are back from Central America. A birdsong that sounds like it’s emanating from Pan’s flute spirals down from the leafy branches above, as I walk through the cathedral of trees in America’s oldest urban national park. The forest provides the perfect acoustics for the birds that Theodore Roosevelt called “our most beautiful singers,” and as I walk along Pinehurst Branch, north on the Valley Trail and over Riley Spring Bridge to the Western Ridge Trail, they are so strategically stationed in the trees that wood thrush song accompanies me almost all the way.

Drawing of a wood thrush by Tina Thieme Brown
Drawing of a wood thrush © Tina Thieme Brown

Listen to the wood thrush:

The wood thrush seems to time its Rock Creek return to the synchronous blooming of the wild azalea called pinxterbloom. Or perhaps the flowers wait to hear the song before opening? Roosevelt, who was known to have some wild rock-scrambling adventures in Rock Creek Park, lived the naturalist life alongside the strenuous one that he championed. On May 15, 1907, the president wrote to his son Kermit: “Mother and I with Ethel and Senator Lodge had a beautiful ride yesterday. The azalea (I always rather like its old New York Dutch name of pinkster) is in bloom and the woods are beautiful, while the bridle trails through them along Rock Creek really add very greatly to the pleasure of riding.”

On my own May outing in the park 114 years later, I walk through intermittent showers from the trees as breezes shake droplets from the leafy canopy. We have had a cool and lovely spring in Washington and this isn’t the first time that nighttime rains have been bracketed by days of brilliant sun. There is something so endearing about showers falling through sunbeams, pattering on layers of newly-formed leaves, the sky above a brilliant blue. The raindrops bead up on the lower layer of the canopy, formed mostly of spicebush, whose leaf blades capture and hold silvery drops. I think of Thoreau’s memorable lines: “It is worth the while to walk in wet weather; the earth and leaves are strewn with pearls.” It’s an added pleasure when those pearls are sparkling in the sun.

A trail at Rock Creek Park in the spring
Pinehurst Branch Trail, Rock Creek Park

Along Pinehurst Branch, the golden ragwort blooms, its vivid orange-yellow a splash of autumnal brilliance in the season of woodland pastels. Most of its daisy family cousins will wait until summer or autumn to bloom. Above the ragwort, two umbrella magnolias reach toward the sky, a few creamy flowers amidst the upper layers of their tropical-looking leaves. I’m happy to see several youngsters beneath the mother trees, and I liberate one of them from a strangling Oriental bittersweet vine. As I set out on my walk this morning, I encountered John Burwell, Pinehurst Branch steward extraordinaire, who was holding a handful of invasive garlic mustard. I note how garlic mustard-free the creek seems to be as I walk, and I know this is thanks to John and other tireless Rock Creek Park stewards. (I want to quickly add that weed warriors need training to do their work! An untrained weed warrior can do more harm than good.)

A few years ago, I had an epiphany. I would never consider time idling in the woods, walking at any pace or sitting on a rock or under a tree, wasted time. I can sit at my laptop for hours, industrious as can be, and come away feeling empty and unfulfilled. However, the idler I am in the woods, the less I am thinking or doing, the more I feel that I am right where I ought to be, living the life I was born to live. On this May morning, I feel the fractured puzzle pieces of this last crazy year fall into place as I surrender to the beauty and fragrance of the leafing, flowering canopy and the musical virtuosity of the wood thrush.

Melanie Choukas-Bradley is a naturalist, forest bathing guide, and author of several nature books, most recently Resilience—Connecting with Nature in a Time of Crisis and Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island.

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