I’ve never seen anything else like it. Five of us met at Petersburg pass on a warm April morning, at the sandy lot on Route 2 west at the New York border, and we went walking in the hills. And the woods were covered and carpeted in trout lilies.
They bloom in late April or early May on the Taconic Crest Trail, and if you catch the right weekend, they come out in the thousands.
The path steps straight off the road, up a scramble of stone steps and into the trees. At the top of the ridge a sign reminded us that up here on the crest, high up the switchback road in another state, the woods are part of Hopkins Forest, just as they are at the north end of the Williamstown valley.
Up here the trees spread out. Birch and cherry grow short and broad, reaching out, and beeches in a whorl of trunks. We saw the white spots of beech rust, and I worried.
Maples and an old apple tree had fully opened leaves two weeks early. Tiny moths flew under a white pine. Shad bushes grow thirty feet high and blossom white in the canopy.
Beneath the trees, mostly young trees, the undergrowth is low and soft. We found brush only in one high meadow full of chokeberry. The deer may like it there — we found stretches of bracken that a naturalist once told my parents is deer meadow, a place where the herds have eaten everything except the ferns.
Along the trails as far as we went the ground under the trees lay open, and new young plants grew there: Spring beauty, five-petalled star flowers in pink and white stripes; Canadian Mayflower, one fuzzed white head in a curled green leaf; yellow and purple and white violets with the tiger striping that reminded me they’re related to pansies.
We saw Dutchman’s Breeches, which I’d known from photographs but never met growing wild. The name and the shape caught my imagination years ago: white trouser legs with narrow ankles and a yellow waist. And here they grew right along the path, with feathered green leaves and two shapes of blossoms, the flying laundry shape and another like white bleeding heart. I dropped to my knees to touch them. (My old colleage Michael Foster later told me the second ones are called Squirrel Corn.)
But nothing capped the trout lilies. Nothing touched them. The floor of the woods was solid with their mottled dark-green leaves, and the blossoms opened in the hundreds. A handspan off the earth, the flower heads looked the size of buttercups and the petals curled back. Yellow, slender petals, five to a flower, arched back to show the dark filaments at the center or sprang open almost as wide as daisies.
Hundreds of them spread in all directions, open and half open in yellow stars, so thick that if we left the path we took care always to keep our clumping boots away from the blossoms. One after another, we kept saying I don’t believe it. They keep on going. I’ve never seen so many.
Four hours later, when we had climbed to the wind tower and asked each other whether that ring of the stones was the Shepherd’s Well and eaten lunch in the shade by the trail, we walked back in the footsore elation that comes at the end of a climb, looking out at the far ridge through the trees, still asking each other questions: What’s that old tree? It’s a cherry.
And I thought of my mother, who taught me what trout lilies are and calls every year when the shad bush blooms on the boardwalk in the woods near the house where I grew up — and of my father gently planting bleeding heart in the back yard and digging up new stone to line the flower bed by the old stone wall.