Jacqueline Donnelly: Shall We Gather at the River?

An Introduction by Mary Kathryn Jablonski

When I first saw the photograph of Jacqueline Donnelly’s Hornbeck Black Jack canoe, I immediately saw it as a “self-portrait.” Indeed, she herself describes it as the vehicle, literal and figurative, that transports her to other worlds. Yet as I look at this stunning collection of images, including some rare and endangered species, many so small or so hidden that most of us would never see them, I wonder to myself: what else is the vehicle here? Is it Jackie’s ability to give pin-point focus with such mindful attention, let’s call it devotion, to nature; to care so absolutely? Is it her own body, which she gives over to her task, disregarding age, weather, seasonal and topographical challenges? Is it perhaps her camera?

When you visit her blog, Saratoga Woods and Waterways (notice I didn’t say “if”), you will see that these photographs go much deeper. They are part of a commitment, a spiritual practice. Move into a world of gratitude and awe, grace, and wonder. Connect with the cycles of the natural world, which can be measured with all the senses. When you are exhausted, beleaguered or beaten, travel with her, one click away, and find peace and ease on the water, in the woods.

Field Notes from Jackie Donnelly

These correspond to above images, left to right, top to bottom

1- Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale) is not supposed to grow in New York or New England, being native to states further south and west but not this far north. But the late noted botanist Orra Phelps long ago planted a few in her woods that is now the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton, New York, and this population continues to bloom – true to its name! – in very early spring, while snow still lies in the shaded hollows.

2- Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) is one of our earliest and loveliest flowers to bloom in the spring, sending up many-flowered bouquets from wreaths of its wintered-over leaves. The flowers can have anywhere from six to 12 petal-like sepals, in colors that range from sparkling white to pink to blue to pale lavender to deepest purple to vivid magenta.

3- The Dragon’s Mouth Orchid (Arethusa bulbosa) is one of New York State’s nearly 60 native orchids, and it’s also one of the earliest of our orchids to bloom, as well as one of the most beautiful. Rated as a Threatened species in New York and also quite rare in New England, the Dragon’s Mouth prefers cold northern bogs that are difficult for humans to access, so the threats to its existence come mostly through environmental damage to native wetlands.

4- Despite its name, the New England Violet (Viola novae-angliae) has been reported from only one New England state (Maine) where it’s rated as Rare even there. But it’s even rarer in New York State, rated here as Endangered, since it has been reported from not only just one county (Warren) in New York, but also, just one location in that county. Granted, this violet would be easy to overlook or discount as simply another of our Common Blue Violets that grow in every vacant lot, but I’m lucky I knew what traits distinguish it when I found it and took this photo.

5- Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) is one of our very few native wildflowers that will grow in a forest dominated by Eastern Hemlocks, and I’m not sure why. I do find it occasionally in other woodland locations in mid-May, but I know I am much more likely to find it where hemlocks grow. Like hemlocks, it does like it cold and rocky, so it can be found quite far north in the Adirondacks.

6- One could easily walk right by Rose Twisted-stalk (Streptopus lanceolatus) and never know it was blooming. Or mistake it for other forest-floor plants with similar leaves, such as Solomon’s Seal. But bend down low and be enchanted by dozens of tiny pink floral bells dangling by pairs on twisted peduncles from arching stalks.

7- This male Karner Blue Butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) is happily feasting on a Blackberry flower’s nectar, but its larvae can eat only the leaves of our eastern native Wild Lupine. This butterfly is ranked as Federally Endangered, since human activities like agriculture, urbanization, and fire suppression have destroyed much of the sandplain habitat that Wild Lupine requires. The female Karner Blue has wings of a dusky brown touched with traces of blue.

8- Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) is the only plant that can serve as the larval food of the Federally Endangered Karner Blue Butterfly. Fortunately, area preserves like the Albany Pine Bush and the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park maintain vast plantings of Wild Lupine to support the large populations of Karner Blue Butterlies that thrive there, producing two new hatchings each year. A visit to either preserve in late May/early June, when acres and acres of lupines are blooming, is a floral experience not to be missed.

9- The red flowers of Northern Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) are big and bright, attracting many different insects to come partake of the pollen they proffer. But should any of those insects decide to take a drink from the water contained in the plant’s pitcher-shaped leaves, the plant will turn around and eat the insects, first drowning them in the water, then dissolving their corpses by digestive enzymes and absorbing their nutrients. Growing in high-acid, low-nutrient habitats such as sphagnum bogs, plants like Northern Pitcher Plants must find such carnivorous ways to feed themselves.

10- The male Calico Pennant Dragonfly (Celithemis elisa) bears a string of red hearts on his abdomen, making him so handsome that he’d make a beautiful illustration for a Valentine’s Day card. The problem is, when he grasps his mate by the nape of her neck in the mating act, he sometimes in his ardor mistakenly rips her head right off. Which is why I always say, “Girls, be careful. Good looks aren’t everything!”

11- The Wood Lily (Lilium philidelphicum) often blooms on Summer Solstice, with flowers so big and bright and beautiful, it’s hard to believe it’s not some horticulturalist’s magnificent creation instead of a native wildflower that grows without any human intervention. And don’t look for it in lush fertile woodlands, since this gorgeous lily prefers sun-blasted, low-nutrient, sandy-soiled habitats that it shares with other sun-loving natives as well as common waste-place weeds. Its companion here is our native Hay-scented Fern.

12- The fungus so aptly named Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) does indeed resemble, in many of its color variations (especially its usual rust and tan stripes), the plumage display of a tom turkey in mating mood. But it also comes in many color combinations never seen on any turkey: royal blue and chrome yellow, chocolate brown and vanilla white, dove gray and burnt orange, and others. But wow, I’d never seen it with forest GREEN stripes before! (Most likely, some green alga has found a home on these caps.)

13- Here’s a marvelous mix of colorful fungi and lichens: Red Tree Brain, Black Witch’s Butter, and tiny Lemon Drop fungi; plus bright-yellow Poplar Sunburst and two gray-green Rosette lichens. I am not including the scientific names for any of these (their vernacular names are self-evident), because almost all fungi are now called by some other names than those in my mushroom guides. And lichens often require microscopic examination to determine their species. These gorgeous life forms persist throughout the winter, thriving on dead tree limbs.

14- Pringle’s Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza var. pringlei) hadn’t been seen ANYwhere in New York State since 1903, and even back then it had been reported from only one county (Monroe), way far away in the western part of the state. And 1903 is a long time before 2019, when my photos of it helped to confirm that this extremely rare native orchid, long considered extirpated from the state, was thriving at Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County. Pringle’s Autumn Coralroot is not only very rare, it’s also very tiny and colored just like the gold-and-rust forest floor in autumn, which is when it emerges from the leaf litter. How did we ever SEE it?

15- Young Common Mergansers all look like their mom, the males not assuming their glossy-green, non-crested heads and bright-white breasts until full maturity. Thus, I do not know whether the non-conforming youngster in this photo is male or female, ignoring Mom Merganser’s possible command to “all look this way!”

16- On the very rare windless and bitterly cold occasions when a lake freezes clear as glass before snow falls, we sometimes find bubbles captured in the ice like stacks of silver coins. The bubbles contain methane gas, released by decomposing vegetation on the bottom of the lake, the stacks forming sequentially as the ice freezes in layers. You can tell how thick the ice is by how far down the lowest bubble is.

17- Captured ice bubbles like these occur in rushing creeks with water levels that rise and fall according to rainfall or snowmelt. Often, a thin sheet of ice forms on the surface of the water when the creek runs full. Later, after the water level falls below a persisting ice sheet, bubbles thrown up by the flowing turbulent water are captured by the ice sheet and held there as they freeze solid.

18- Branches that fall across turbulent creeks are splashed as the water rushes and churns beneath them, throwing droplets that form many kinds of crystalline shapes in sub-freezing weather. These dangling glassy trumpets glowed and glimmered as wavelets washed around them and light played among them. One of winter’s ephemeral beauties, they were gone the very next day.

19- My Hornbeck 12-pound carbon-fiber solo canoe, my transport to Nature’s waterside wonders and portable temple of silence and solitude. West Mountain is here reflected in the still water of the Hudson River, birthplace of my passion to seek what wonders await on land as well as on water.

Artist Statement, Jacqueline Donnelly

I grew up in a Michigan boatyard, where I learned from a very young age to love the woods and waterways surrounding me there. But it wasn’t until I was already a grandma and had acquired my lightweight solo canoe that I was able to paddle alone, to intently explore to my heart’s content the incredibly beautiful waterways around me where I now live in Saratoga County, New York. Awed by the gorgeous natural wonders I discovered here, I determined to learn the names of all I encountered and to record my finds in photographs.

From there came a great desire to share my experiences through my blog, Saratoga Woods and Waterways, which I started posting in 2009 and continue to do yet today. I honor my canoe as the catalyst for my nature obsession, but I also consider it my portable Zendo, my personal temple of silence and solitude where I am most in touch with the great goodness at the core of creation. When I am in my little boat, flowing effortlessly through quiet water, I feel I am being held in God’s hand, where even death and decline become holy, all part of the process by which Nature continues to renew itself and evolve.