A Prairie Creek Fern

There’s a little wooded creek through the prairie that only runs when it rains. You can almost jump over it and there are ferns on its bank. Woodsia, Asplenium and Ophioglossum too—and a really ancient one that makes me pause for an hour or two. I can’t resist a chance to sit down beside it and stare at the two stalks that arise side-by-side; one holds a dissected leathery “leaf” that botanists call a blade; it is green now but soon it will turn bronze in the wintery gloom; the other a single stalk they call a sporophore loaded with clusters of tiny grape-like sporangia on top. This is origin of the common name: Cut-leaf Grape Fern. It’s scientific name is a mouthful—Sceptridium dissectum (or depending who you ask, Botrychium dissectum).

But the fern doesn’t care what we call it—it’s goal is to send spores sailing through the December air. I give the tiny grape-look-allies a flick with my thumb and finger and watch as yellow dusty spores are released. I wonder if the fern feels spent, like a runner after the relay?

Then I roll over and lie on my back to watch leaves fall from a giant water oak above me.

They don’t fall with resignation, or even hesitation; they fall with glee—performing—as if they’ve rehearsed for this all summer.

Better than ballet dancers; suddenly released from the clutches of the tree, they go spinning, sailing, twisting, fighting gravity in narrow—now broad—arcs during their three (or four) second return to the earth where they will lie fallow and then decompose and wait, eons I suppose, to nourish another acorn or a nut and coax it into a sapling; then—in another green day—become a leaf again to spend a summer aloft in the canopy grabbing energy from the sun and forcing it into the trunk empowering it to thrust it’s roots into the earth before it gets to fly again–a routine that happens over and over until the tree dies and collapses, spent, in a rotten heap on the bed of leaves that litter the forest, slowly releasing the sunshine from several hundred summers into the dark organic soil that rings with the same life from which we spring. And instead of a tree maybe this time it’ll become a fern from prehistoric ages that has been waiting patiently for its turn to take the stage.

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