Daffodils and forsythia get all the glory. Let us rather compose an ode to the unloved, unnoticed, forgotten. Around here, skunk cabbage provides such marvelous metaphor. Early colonists hoped that its brilliant early lovely huge green leaves would provide a tasty and nourishing source of vitamins after long winters of snow and ice. Great disappointment when they tried, and hence its name. No industrial uses have subsequently been discovered. It could go extinct without anyone noticing.
Skunk cabbage grows in wet marshy places on which nobody wants to farm nor to build. Lately, its environment has been shrinking because those habitats were either flooded with dams, or filled in for development. Where it survives, it is quite hardy, remaining through the years in niches that seem all but impossible. It is up early in March, flowers weirdly crunching underfoot of the unwary. By April, its emerald presence is unmistakable, since it thrives in huge colonies.
Part of the excitement of looking at a skunk cabbage is that the flower is endothermic. That is, it generates its own heat, which allows its early emergence. Another part is just that the flower itself is so unique and strange. And I wonder what insects it expects to come and pollinate at such a frigid time of year. (Yes, I know I could look it up, but sometimes I like wonder to remain a bit magical and mysterious.)
Thrill of the hunt occurs each late winter when I head into a local bit of woodland to see whether that patch of skunk cabbage still remains. Like that O’Henry story about the last leaf, I am heartened to find it is still there, somehow. Then I have a lot of sympathy realizing that I am probably the sole soul who will stop by to notice.
And what is the purpose of skunk cabbage? Again a lesson, because the only point of that organism, and probably mine as well, is the perpetuation of a particular genetic structure, or, in older parlance, that particular form of life. Any given plant will be gone in another year, eventually flooded or buried, and possibly all descendants of this group will vanish forever without a trace. Does that make it meaningless to have bloomed and grown now, for all its intangible effect upon the world?
My own purpose relating to this plant is similarly in question. I will not be able to save this environment, I will not be able to assure this plant remains, I will not be able to control sea rise or drought or continental drift. Heck, bulldozers might arrive next week, toxic chemicals might have done their work before I arrive each spring to look. No, I am helpless as a protector. I can at least appreciate its effort and its existence. I can see it as a vision, as a symbol, as a connection to the past, as a hope for the future.
I am grateful for my relationship with the humble skunk cabbage. I have followed it in various places for the last fifty years or more. As a measure of my own life and as a harbinger of my eventual meaning. If there is a bit of enlightenment which follows from my meditations, I am even more thankful.