In those dim and distant days when I was young, there was a firm conviction, widely held by the likes of schoolteachers and fundamentalist preachers, that all of God's creations had been put on earth for a purpose.
I managed to make it all the way through boyhood without getting uptight about this, and I'm even more relaxed about it now because it has always been sliced a little too thick for me to swallow. Nobody was ever able to convince me then that things like rattlesnakes and deer flies and poison ivy and black widow spiders were a necessary and intrinsic part of the ecological system. Nobody can do it now.
The eastern half of the U.S. seems to muddle through somehow without the wood bison. Ireland, Chile and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan appear to be making out pretty well with no poisonous snakes. And I haven't noticed the ecological balance of my own Baldwin County, Ala. going to hell in a hand-basket because nobody has found a Bar-tram's evening primrose in 25 years.
I'm not, as you're probably thinking, an utter barbarian. I do not lie awake at night thinking up new reasons to hate the red-cockaded woodpecker. I'm not a member of an organization dedicated to the extermination of the whooping crane. I do have a mild interest in the welfare of the green pitcher plant and the red hills salamander—though I've never seen either—but I'm afraid that I do believe that there are individual species now listed among the world's flora and fauna that are inevitably going to go away as the world changes. And I'm also afraid that I think nobody is going to miss them all that much after they go.
There's a species of alder common along the upper Atlantic coastal plain all the way from Alabama to Nova Scotia that, except for one thing, falls into this very category. It's commonly called tag alder. Seeds of Woody Plants in the United States (Agriculture Handbook No. 450) calls it sérrulata; George Small lists it as rugosa in Manual of the Southeastern Flora. You can take your pick, except you ought to hang a little loose when you deal with Small. I get paid for calculating the size of wood lots, and I know something about trees. I feel that any man who will take white pine out of its family—as Small has done—create a new family, a new genus in that family, a new species in the genus and list himself as the sole authority for the reclassification bears careful watching.
Tag alder or whatever you want to call it is nothing but a face among the crowd. The wood is weak; the seed is tiny. If you find a tree of the same diameter as your wrist you have discovered a monster, and nobody has ever written a poem on the beauty of the alder blossom. In fact, I suspect that the first 35 or 40 people you might stop on the street wouldn't even be aware that it blossoms. But it does, and it's this blooming that is its single noteworthy characteristic.
In Alabama, it blooms first among all the deciduous trees, and it signals the beginning of the waiting.
I recognize as clearly as anybody my inferior status when it comes to discussing the matter of winters. That ought to be the province of residents of Maine or Montana. A native of the Gulf Coast is far better off if he refrains from comment on the subject altogether. We have a winter here, but it's of such inferior quality that it's embarrassing. Last year I asked a friend down from Minnesota what he thought of it and he said he couldn't comment—said he hadn't noticed. Thin and poor as it is, however, it does exist and the first week in February signals its ending. The first week in February is when you see the alder catkins.
The catkins are a pale, indeterminate green, hang down from the branch tips for an inch and a half to two inches and turn to a cinnamon brown in about 10 days. The pollen as it is shaken from them is the brightest yellow imaginable, almost a chrome yellow. I have cut a limb or two to take in and show somebody—nobody but me ever seems to notice the blossoms—and the warmth inside the car opens up the catkins and the backseat will look as if it has been dusted with sulfur by the time I get home.
Ten days after the blooming of the alder comes the flowering of the red maple; almost simultaneously with the maple comes the elm—you never realize how much elm there is until it blooms in the spring. Next the willow leaves usually appear. Then everything else comes so fast you can't keep up with the sequence, and the phone calls start.