Red sumac (Walden 80)

Red sumac, Nine Mile Prairie, Lincoln, Nebraska, Sept. 4, 2011

Red sumac, Nine Mile Prairie, Lincoln, Nebraska, Sept. 4, 2011

“The sumach (Rhus glabra) grew luxuriantly about the house, pushing up through the embankment which I had made, and growing five or six feet the first season. Its broad pinnate tropical leaf was pleasant though strange to look on. The large buds, suddenly pushing out late in the spring from dry sticks which had seemed to be dead, developed themselves as by magic into graceful green and tender boughs, an inch in diameter; and sometimes, as I sat at my window, so heedlessly did they grow and tax their weak joints, I heard a fresh and tender bough suddenly fall like a fan to the ground, when there was not a breath of air stirring, broken off by its own weight. In August, the large masses of berries, which, when in flower, had attracted many wild bees, gradually assumed their bright velvety crimson hue, and by their weight again bent down and broke the tender limbs.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Sounds,” Walden

Living far from Massachusetts as I do, I was just pleased to recognize something that also grows in my part of the country. Out here where I live, red sumac is sort of a pioneering species — it colonizes the edges of a prairie, spreading quickly. If left alone (in the old days it would frequently be cleared out by prairie fires) it will begin the process of transforming the prairie into a woodland. In time, more substantial trees would grow up among the stands of scrubby sumac.

This is also something that tells us that Walden wasn’t as heavily wooded as it is today. People were still cutting a lot of timber and the woods would have been more open.

In August, as Henry says, the sumac berries turn a “bright velvety crimson.” When you see this, no matter how hot the day, you know that autumn is coming.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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