Transcendentalism is alive and well in Maine, as many old Mainers have indicated when they tell me no one can learn from a book. These backwoods philosophers expostulate that experience teaches — not words on a page or screen — as if they have a corner on truth.

To that rhetoric, I emphatically say, “Bull pucky.”

For instance, books have taught me plenty about nature, because authors mention common, everyday occurrences in the outdoors that may have missed my prying eyes. Once the writer has pointed out — say an animal behavioral trait — I often react in two ways:

1. The author describes something that makes me look for signs of that behavior, and usually, it takes no time to find examples after someone points out what to look for in woods or fields or on water.

2. Often enough, animal (or plant) behavior has made me curious, until a book passage explains it, leaving me with an “aha” moment.

Red squirrels offer a perfect example easy enough to observe this very week. Since sap started running, these energetic rodents have scampered along red- or sugar-maple limbs with smooth, thin bark and stopped at sunlit intervals long enough to bite through the bark, using the upper-jaw incisors to make two tiny dots before using the lower-jaw incisors to make two, long, vertical lines. This starts sap dripping during season.

Freeze-drying on frigid days or bright sun evaporates sap and concentrates the sugar content and nutrients where broken bark oozes the liquid. Hours later, squirrels return to the bitten places and lick the “squirrel syrup” — probably a sugar high like humans pigging out on maple syrup.

I forget where this squirrel tidbit first came to my attention, unusual for me not to recall such a revelation, but it was close to 20 years ago.

The two dots and two parallel lines have surely caught my eye on many a woodland walk in the past two decades. In places, these scars mark a limb in multiple places — both fresh, tan-colored marks with a subtle hint of red and older black ones, and the “track” of each bite measures a hair over 1/16-inch (2 mm) wide.

This behavior makes me think that red squirrels have excellent tasting abilities in comparison to humans, because the dripping sap on bark in a hot spring sun has a bland flavor to my tongue.

And yes, my advice about licking partially evaporated sap off bark scrapes that squirrels have licked is succinct and to the point — don’t do it! I’m a wicked germ-a-phobe and worry about bacteria and viruses (such as rabies), so the fact that I have tasted the liquid surprises me.

We sometimes learn nature features in odd ways, and one of my plant IDs began in my grandmother’s house when I was 7 years old. An ancient, empty, cough-medicine bottle sat on a shelf at the top of the cellar stairs, and one day, a painting of a coltsfoot leaf on the label drew my attention.

My education on the species began there. The leaf looks like a coltsfoot track in soft soil, distinctive enough for a kid like me to remember, and then a day or two later, my father pointed out the plant in our yard.

After noticing coltsfoot, most people never forget it. The leaves measure 2- to 7-inches wide and the plant grows 3- to 18-inches tall, depending on sunlight and fertility. The 1-inch blossoms strongly resemble a dandelion flower, but even more memorable, they bloom before coltsfoot leaves turn green. In fact, the bright-yellow flowers appear in the drab grays and browns before spring’s viridescent explosion — really noticeable.

In pod-auger days, folks smoked dried coltsfoot leaves, inhaling the smoke to cure sore throats. Other wild-plant gatherers who worry about inhaling smoke put the dried leaves in liquids such as alcohol or oils.

Coltsfoot grows in bare gravel along rivers like the Sheepscot and in more fecund soil along the Rail Trail between Augusta and Gardiner, a common plant that early settlers brought from Great Britain and Europe. Coltsfoot escaped into the wild, and for folks like me, the plant is as common as daisies, buttercups, burdock, yarrow, etc.

Before full foliage shrouds woodlands, amateur naturalists poking around woods, fields and waters observe the natural world better. A neat little guidebook for aiding in unraveling outdoors mysteries fits in a shirt pocket or certainly a daypack — “National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England.” I know. I know. It looks too big to fit into a shirt pocket — but trust me — it does.

So many plants in Maine came here from the Old World, and in fact, native ground plants probably edge out Eurasian in volume but maybe not in number of species — shocking but perhaps true. A common dictionary tells us whether many wild plants are indigenous or Eurasian.

Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at [email protected]

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