Musings from the Field

One morning I got up with the sun and found my way in a gentle fog to Yorktown, Virginia via the historic Colonial Parkway. If you have never driven that route you are missing out on something quite magical.

The Parkway connects Jamestown and Williamsburg with Yorktown in what we call the Historic Triangle. Along that heavily wooded drive, which alternately follows both the James and the York rivers, there are abundant animals and birds and wildflowers and absolutely gorgeous scenic views.

I live close by and I went there that day because the Yorktown Onions – Allium ampeloprasum – were in peak bloom and I wanted to spend some time photographing them.

This plant is not native to this country. It made its way to the New World during the Revolutionary War, mixed with crop seeds and fodder. It eventually became firmly established as a wild plant in what is now York County and is found nowhere else in America. Even here in Virginia, it only grows wild in one small area close to Yorktown.

In full purple bloom it is a sight to behold. The onions used to have majestic six-foot stems and five-inch purple buds but mowing by the national park service has eventually reduced the output of this plant over time. It is more common now for them to grow to 3-4 feet in height with somewhat smaller buds although at the peak of their season they literally blanket the area by the hundreds of thousands.

And then within a week or so they are gone.

They are a protected species except from the jaws of mowers and there are signs and literature to that effect. But it is not uncommon to see cars stop to let a passenger out for a brisk ‘snatch’ of onions before anyone catches them. Occasionally I get a chance to talk with some of these perennial thieves but mostly they gun the engine and are long gone before I can reach them.

I don’t want to admonish them so much as I’d like to help educate them about the growing fragility of this plant that everyone enjoys as much as they do.

But conservation falls on too many deaf ears, it seems. And when there are kids in those cars I worry even more because of the behavior that is being modeled to them.

I like to photograph the Yorktown Onion because it is such a challenging subject. Along the mighty York River where they grow there is always a breeze blowing chaotically through them. They are also just TALL and SPINDLY and COLORFUL without being particularly interesting until you zoom in on the intricacies of the plants themselves. Most people stop and take some wide-angle shots from their car and move on –but I can tell you that all they find when they get their prints back are images of thousands of tiny, blurry purple dots! And lots of sky.

Yorktown Onion - Allium ampeloprasum

The Yorktown Onion – Allium ampeloprasum

I rather prefer to get out in the middle of them, treading lightly for fear of stepping on one of them or on a snake that may well be curled up amongst them. Butterflies love these buds but so do bees of all shapes and sizes, and deer even.

In fact I find deer clearings among the buds all the time, often a larger clearing the size of a adult white tail with a much smaller clearing nestled along side it.

Nature offers such glorious blankets for mother and fawn!

Collectively, the onions are thrilling to see; they are just neigh impossible to photograph in a way that presents them at their collective best. I have tried everything including low-flying two-seater helicopters and eventually I will complete my book project about them when I feel that I have mastered some effective vantage points.

I finally headed home that day with my CompactFlash cards bulging with purple pixels and my back sweaty and dirty from lying amongst the Onions shooting up from their roots: try explaining that to a national park ranger who happens along.

The drive was bittersweet because of the poor dead animals that had accumulated along the road just since the early morning – animals merely trying to be themselves in an area that is really more theirs than ours. I counted a fawn, turtles, a juvenile opossum, a red-tailed hawk; all the day’s work, it seems, of urbanites bent on driving too fast and seeing too little, with such impatience to get to wherever they are going.

They forget, I guess, that getting there is half the fun.

It does make me wonder what kind of world our children will inherit. Will there be enough Nature left to inspire and intrigue them, and excite them, as it excites me today?

Or will it all just get mowed under in the end?

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. © 2010 Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph. All rights reserved.

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