Sunday, April 27, 2014

Blooming plants at Buddy Attick Park.

Late April is a lovely time of year to see blooming things at Buddy Attick Park in Greenbelt, Maryland. I wanted to document the blossoms I've seen, along with a few non-blooming plants or soon-to-be-blooming plants. All of the photographs in this post were taken at Buddy Attick park in the last few days. (I am not a horticulturist or a botanist, so you are welcome to comment on or correct my attempt at plant identification.)

Growing near the East entrance are these beautiful Virginia Bluebells, or Mertensia virginica. There aren't very many of them, perhaps because they are competing with non-native invasive plants in the area. They were originally planted here by Greenbelt Public Works.

Mertensia virginica  (Virginia Bluebells) 

Nearby, I found a few Wild Geraniums, also called Crane's Bill. There are hundreds of species in the Geranium family, so I'm hesitant to make a definitive statement about the Latin name, but this one seems to be Geranium maculatum.

Geranium maculatum (Wild Geranium, Crane's Bill)

Growing close to little bridge near the East entrance, the Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) are plentiful. The flowers aren't quite open yet, but if you look carefully at the photo below, you can see a round bud hiding under the foliage. It will open into a nice white blossom.

Podophyllum peltatum (Mayapple)

If I were a small elf, I would want to take shelter under the umbrella-like foliage.

Also near the small bridge by the East entrance is this wonderful tree. It has dainty white bell-shaped blossoms.

My best guess is that this is one of the Silverbells, a small genus of several species. I'd say that this is the Carolina Silverbell, but I'm not sure. If you know, tell me in the comments.

A Carolina Silverbell?

Another tree that is in bloom now is Cercis canadensis or Eastern Redbud. I've always thought that these trees have a funny, charming shape, with their sort of stringy looking branches.

 Here's a close-up of the blossoms. Redbud leaves are heart-shaped. Of course, they're tiny at this time of year, while the trees are still covered in blooms, but they'll get bigger as the season progresses.

Cercis canadensis (Eastern Redbud)
On the peninsula are several Sweet Bay Magnolias. They are not in bloom yet, but when the blossoms open in a few weeks, you'll want to stop by just to smell them. They are extremely fragrant, with a scent that is lemony and sweet and spicy all at once.

I'm getting a bit giddy thinking about the fragrance. I hope that I don't lose my sense of smell anytime soon.

Magnolia Virginiana (Sweetbay Magnolia)

The Flowering Dogwoods are in bloom now, and they appear to be near their peak. Except that they're not really in bloom! Technically what we think of as the flower petals are bracts. The true blossoms are those little greenish things in the middle. In this photo, you can see that those are not open yet.

Cornus florida (Flowering Dogwood)

These wild azaleas just coming into bloom are Rhododendron periclymenoids, sometimes called Pinxter Flowers. 
Rhododendron periclymenoids (Pinxter Flower)

Buds on a Rhododendron periclymenoides.
The mountain laurel is not blooming yet, but it will probably start blooming in a few weeks. They are plentiful near marker nine on the trail. When they're in bloom, they have clusters of wonderful pentagonal blossoms, pinkish white in color. Here's the wikipedia article, with a photo of the blooms.

Kalmia latifolia (Mountain Laurel)
The Iris pseudocorus, or Yellow Flag, will also bloom later in the spring. It loves very wet conditions, so it grows at the edges of the lake. This is not a native plant, and it's considered invasive in some areas. At our lake, it doesn't seem to be a problem, at least to my untrained eye.

Iris pseudacorus (Yellow flag)
But the park definitely has a problem with some invasive plants, like the ones below:

Vinca minor (Periwinkle) 

Alliaria petiolata (Garlic Mustard)

A large group of Ranunculus ficaria (Lesser Celandine)

The invasive Lesser Celandine, shown here, is easily confused with Marsh Marigold, a non-invasive native. An easy way to tell them apart is that the Marsh Marigold has five petals, compared with Lesser Celandine's eight.
A Japanese Honeysuckle vine (Lonicera japonica) taking advantage of a tree.
Hedera Helix (English Ivy) is an enemy of the park.
And, of course, Poison Ivy is a native plant, but it makes the woods a land mine for super-sensitive people like my husband. In this photo, the new leaves are shiny and reddish. They'll look greener and less shiny later in the season.

Toxicodendron radicans (Poison Ivy)

This tiny blue flower grows in patches as a delightful weed. It's commonly called Bird's Eye Speedwell, and I am almost confident that its Latin name is Veronica persica. The Speedwells can be confusing because they have so many common names, and more than one species share the common name of Bird's Eye Speedwell.

Veronica persica (Bird's Eye Speedwell)

You likely have Ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea) somewhere in your backyard. It's everywhere. The scalloped leaves have a yummy spicy scent, and its blossoms are so tiny that it was hard to get a good shot with my camera. Here's a link to the wikipedia article if you want to see a better close-up.
Glechoma hederacea (Ground-ivy), shown here with English Ivy.

And I used to confuse Purple Deadnettle, shown below, with Ground-ivy, though they're clearly different. (Ground-ivy also resembles Bugleweed, of the genus Ajuga.)

Lamium purpureum (Purple deadnettle)
 Here are two species of the Buttercup family:

Ranunculus acris (Common Buttercup)

Ranunculus abortivus (Kidneyleaf Buttercup, Small-flowered Buttercup) 

I'm guessing that this is Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus), though I can't be entirely sure it's not Philadelphia Fleabane.

  Erigeron annuus (Daisy Fleabane)?

This almost looks like a photograph of trees in fall color, but it was taken yesterday. Brightly colored seeds give some trees a red or orange glow.

Here is a close-up of seeds on a Red Maple tree. If you look carefully, you can see the last little bits of the red flowers that were in full bloom a few weeks ago. The Red Maple, Acer rubrum, seems to be the best represented species of maple in the woods around here.

Acer rubrum (Red Maple) seeds.

Here are some Skunk Cabbages, Symplocarpus foetidus, which thrive in wet places. The Skunk Cabbage flowers are also finished now. The blossoms are odd looking things, spotted brown and purple, and they come up from the ground before the foliage appears. You can see a photo of a Skunk Cabbage blossom in the link here.

Symplocarpus foetidus (Skunk Cabbage)

This thornless shrub is Jetbead or Rhodotypos scandens. (In the original post, I was unable to identify it, but a friend posted it on the Plant Identification facebook group.) It is non-native, and it can be invasive. 

Rhodotypos scandens (Jetbead)

This tree, growing on the path that leads to the peninsula, is still unidentified. It looks like a Cherry Tree to me, but I'm not sure. If it is a Cherry, I don't know which species it would be.

A Cherry Tree?

The bark of the mystery tree.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Buried treasure birthday party, with map.

The treasure box.
Complicated birthday parties are not my forte, but when it occurred to me that my five-year-old would love a treasure map leading to actual buried treasure, I couldn't resist. So we had a buried treasure birthday party last year.

I kept my preparation time reasonable by avoiding things liked decorating a cake, mailing invitations (I just emailed people), or anything fancy besides the treasure hunt itself.

I told all the invitees to bring shovels.

My mother gave us an old hinged wooden box. (Key point: It got really dirty, so it wasn't something she was attached to.) I filled it with foil-covered chocolate and a few cheap plastic beads.

I bought the chocolate coins in the bulk candy aisle at Wegman's. They have the advantage of being real chocolate, unlike some other candy money, and they're less expensive per pound than the little individual bags of chocolate-y coins for sale elsewhere.
I kept the treasure box hidden from the birthday honoree, but I let my two-year-old sample the treasure the day before. He was truly delighted.


In advance, I made a treasure map that roughly represented our backyard. I decided to locate the treasure near the badminton net, so that it would be easier to find. There are all kinds of neat ways to age paper, but I didn't have time to do more than singe the edges with a match and sort of rumple it.

We were perhaps a bit too ambitious and decided to bury the treasure box (wrapped in a scrap piece of cloth to protect the wood) about a foot deep. We wanted to make the kids work for their treasure!

The treasure map. Naturally, X marks the spot.

I wrote a few clues and hid them around the house. They were simple clues like, "Look in the coldest place in the house," or "Look under the couch cushions." Each clue led to the next one, with the final clue leading to the treasure map. 

Once the treasure hunt started, the kids were excited as they raced around the house looking for clues. Since some of the children could read, they didn't need much adult help. They found the map under the fruit bowl. 

That was a good moment.

Finding the map.

Then they ran outside with their shovels! Fortunately, the kids were able to figure out how to interpret the map, more or less. There may have been some adult guidance here, when we realized how unfortunate it would be to have a bunch of extra holes in the backyard that didn't yield any treasure.

Following the map.

Starting to dig.
There was a lot of digging.

As I mentioned it before, we probably dug the hole a little too deep. At some point, my husband started scooping out big shovelfuls of dirt, because the digging process was taking so long. In the end, the difficulty they had digging down to the treasure probably added to their excitement when the box was finally unearthed.

That was a very good moment.

At last!

At just five years old, Johnny may have already peaked as far as birthday party fun goes. I can't see myself doing something equally cool in the future.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Abraham, Hagar, and the God who sees me.

Il Guercino, Abraham casting out Hagar and Ishmael

Few stories in the Old Testament are as dramatic as Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac. The story is troubling, moving, confusing, and compelling. We can't help but imagine ourselves in Abraham's place — or in Isaac's. We can't help wondering how God could require such a thing, and how Abraham could dare to tie his son to the altar and raise the knife. We feel immense relief and release when the ram in the thicket takes Isaac's place. And the sense of relief is real: we too have been spared by a Lamb that God has provided.

When that lesson comes up every four years in the curriculum cycle, it makes for a rich discussion in Sunday School. Some class members are genuinely inspired by Abraham's faith and subsequent deliverance; some draw from Abraham's example the courage they need for their own tests of faith. I appreciate hearing how others find meaning, but I always seem to come to the story in a state of emotional conflict, a state of protest. I am reluctant to celebrate it as a great example of obedience and sacrifice. It's just too disturbing. Does God really test people by telling them to murder their own children? That question looms large for me, and pretending that everything makes perfect sense is not helpful. In fact, it's impossible. Hearing from other members of my faith, those with different viewpoints, gives me balance. Our collective grappling with the story adds depth and perspective to my private struggles.

As showstopping as the near-sacrifice of Isaac is, this time through I found myself focusing on a part of the lesson that is usually not given much attention: the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Maybe it's because I have two boys of my own now, maybe it's because oppression is on my mind, or maybe it's just that I'm paying closer attention this year. Whatever the reason, Hagar's and Ishmael's story wrapped itself around my mind.

Hagar is Sarah's Egyptian bondwoman. She is owned by Sarah1, and when Sarah can't conceive, she gives Hagar to Abraham as a second wife or concubine. When Hagar gets pregnant, "her mistress [is] despised in her eyes." Sarah, blistering at Hagar's disrespect, responds so harshly that the pregnant Hagar runs away. But Hagar sees an angel who tells her to turn back and reassures her that she will have many descendants through the son that she is carrying.

Years later, when Ishmael is probably in his teens, Sarah bears Isaac, the promised child of the covenant. And then comes the abandonment. This is the first time I've pondered the story of Ishmael since having children of my own, and I almost can't bear the sadness of it. Sarah sees Ishmael "mocking2." She tells Abraham to banish his own child, saying, "the son of this bondwoman will not be heir with my son." Incredibly, God commands Abraham to go along with it. Hagar has to leave her home. Ishmael has to leave his father. Abraham loses his son.

With all of the drama of the sacrifice of Isaac, this earlier sacrifice of Ishmael is understandably overshadowed. But this time, Abraham and Ishmael are not spared. There is no ram in the thicket. Ishmael is gone.

We know that Abraham loves Ishmael. After God tells Abraham that Sarah will bear a son and become the mother of nations, his joy is mixed with concern for his first son. He cries, "Oh, that Ishmael might live before thee!" I imagine that Abraham is saying, "But what about Ishmael? Can't he be a covenant child too?" Indeed, it is a mystery to me why Ishmael and Isaac can't both be part of the covenant. Maybe Ishmael and Hagar are not willing to follow God's laws. They are both depicted in the Biblical account as lacking respect, at least on occasion, either for Sarah or for her son. We might describe them today as having "bad attitudes." Given the family structure that they are part of, I can hardly blame them.

So Ishmael and Hagar are cast out from the household and left to wander in the desert with bread and a bottle of water. When the supplies run out, they almost die, but Hagar again sees an angel, and this one saves her life. He shows her a well of water and tells her that Ishmael will become a great nation. We can take some solace in the statement that God is with the lad as he grows up, and perhaps in the fact that much later, when Abraham dies, he is buried by both Isaac and Ishmael. (I wish we knew more about what must have been a poignant burial and family reunion of sorts.)

In this deeply disturbing story of family dysfunction and cultural oppression, there is one passage that particularly touches me and offers a glimmer of hope. When Hagar runs away from Sarah, the angel of the Lord appears to her in the desert. Before giving her instruction about her future, the angel address her: "Hagar, Sarai’s maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go?" I find it significant that Abraham and Sarah refer to Hagar as "my maid," or "thy maid," or "this bondwoman," but that the angel of the Lord calls her by name3.

Hagar is evidently moved by this encounter, and I am moved by her words:

And she called the name of the Lord that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me? Genesis 3:16

I find it striking that Hagar calls the name of the Lord, "Thou God seest me." Other translations give her these words: "You are the God who sees me."

You are the God who sees me.

The concubine, the runaway bondwoman, the person with the least social standing in the family, living under the weight of oppressive cultural traditions that rob her of her dignity, is twice visited by an angel.

She is seen by God. And in the end it is God who saves her.

1For simplicity, I am using the names Sarah and Abraham here even though at this point in the story, their names are actually Sarai and Abram.
2An interesting detail of this story is that the name Hagar means "flight," giving rise to speculation that this was not her personal name, but a descriptive name used later when the story was recorded. Read more about the name here.
3The word "mocking" is loaded with connotation, including possible sexual overtones. Click here and scroll down to the comments to read my questions and discussion about the word with the author of the blog Benjamin the Scribe.


Bonus Material:

If you stuck to the assigned reading, you skipped Chapter 20, which wasn't included in the lesson. Here, Abraham's story takes on an almost goofy absurdity. To my weary mind, it was a welcome change from the gravity of the other chapters. Here is a summary:

When they journey to Gerar, Abraham tells everyone that Sarah is his sister so that King Abimelech won't challenge Abraham to a duel (or whatever they did in those days) in order to win Sarah for himself. This is the second time Abraham has pulled that trick (see Genesis 12 where the same thing happens in Egypt), and sure enough, Abimelech takes Sarah into his household. As a punishment, God makes the women of Abimelech's house infertile. Luckily, before Abimelech gets a chance to have his way with Sarah, the Lord explains the situation to him in a dream. So he returns Sarah to Abraham, along with a bunch of extra servants and livestock and stuff, to make up for taking his wife. Abraham explains that he technically wasn't lying, because Sarah actually is his sister — same father, different mother! The story ends happily with Abraham healing Abimelech's household.

If we read these chapters chronologically, this episode happens when Sarah is pretty old. It comes after Ishmael's birth, and after Abraham is promised a son through Sarah and responds, "Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?" This is probably a good example of the need to take Bible chronology with a grain of salt. On the other hand, I kind of like the idea of an ancient, white-haired Sarah being totally irresistible to Abimelech, king of Gerar.