Thursday, July 16, 2015

Regarding Four-Leaf Clovers

When I was four years old, my grandma plunked me down by the clover patch in her back yard and announced we were on the hunt for a four-leaf clover to bring us luck. We’d look here, and we’d look in the park across the way, and we’d celebrate when we found one.

We never found one.

I kept on looking, though, and not just with my grandmother. For the next two decades, I paused to hover over clover patches large and small in search of the elusive four-leaf, with poor results all around.

In late 2011, I visited Nelson, NZ. My helpful hostel director encouraged me to do three key things in town: climb to the centre of New Zealand, combine fish and chips with a pint at two sister-restaurants down the road, and explore the Maitai River trail.

That guy knew what was what. The centre of New Zealand was impressive, the fish and chips and beer was delicious1, and the Mai Tai River trail--which stretches from Nelson's harbour straight on inland to the mountains beyond the town--proved itself one of the best places in the entire country.

My trek inland ranks among the highlights of my life, but I started with a walk down to the harbour. And a patch of clover caught my eye along the way, as as patches of clover are wont to do.

I left the path, craned my head over the wee plants, and sighed. All at once, it felt pointless. “I dunno why I keep doing this,” I grumbled to myself. “I’ve been searching for twenty-three frickin’ years, and I haven’t found a four-leaf clover yet.”

Thirty seconds later, I straightened up with one pinched between my thumb and forefinger.

I wish somebody had been there with me because it sounds like the sort of story you make up, but I swear it's the truth.

Except I didn’t find a four-leaf clover. It was a tiny five-leaf; what’s known as a rose clover in hunting circles. Rose clovers are a particular prize, though I didn’t know it then. I just figured the universe had seen fit to reward my years of searching by giving me an extra leaf.

A close up of a small, dried five-leaf clover laid atop a book cover so it appears atop a white person's bare shoulder. The letters L, U, S, I, N, and E are visible along the bottom.

This long-awaited prize encouraged me to keep looking. I’d found one four-leaf (er, five-leaf) clover, so surely others were out there. Once I was home, I tucked my clover into Sarah Monette’s M√ČLUSINE and hoped I’d find three more so I could put clovers inside the three sequels, too.

Within a year, I’d done it.

I went through a small dry spell after that, mostly because I slacked off, but by the end of last summer I'd found thirteen four-leafs. Win! I tucked one into each of my other favourite books, then into their sequels when I ran out of faves.

And I tried not to be cocky about it, but I failed.

Then 2015 began, and things got weird.

I found a tiny four-leaf clover at a garden centre. A few others soon followed it, and a two-week dry spell followed them. But when it broke, it broke big.

A couple minutes into an evening walk, I found my fifth four-leaf clover of the year. “Score!” I whispered. I tucked it into my book and carried on, pausing beside the occasional additional patch of clover because I’m greedy.

My greediness paid off. I found twelve four-leafs over the next hour. Three more followed the next morning.

I found two more the day after that, and three more the day after that. And it's been like that ever since. Some days I find one clover; some days I find five or six or eight or eleven.

Last Tuesday, I found twenty-seven.


Twenty-seven four-leaf clovers laid out haphazardly on a white sheet of paper.

So, how the hell have I found so many of them?

Luck is part of it. I happen to look in the right patches at the right times, and I've been lucky enough to discover several patches that carry a rampant four-leaf gene. Luck isn't the only reason I’ve had to start pressing multiple clovers per favourite book, though. I notice and exploit patterns, and I figured I’d break my luck + science approach down into some handy-dandy tips y'all can keep in mind as you search for four-leaf clovers of your very own.

Know the odds

Shut up, Han Solo. Nobody invited you to this party because there is no clover in space.

The rest of you, be aware that nature produces one four-leaf clover for approximately every ten thousand three-leaf clovers. This seems like terrible odds, I know, but think of the sheer number of three-leaf clovers out there. Your local green space is full of four-leafs waiting for you to pick them before a hungry rabbit hops along or a lawnmower turns them to mulch.

Crouch down

Four-leaf clovers may leap out at you at a glance once you're used to searching, but you’ll find more of them if you get in close to any given clover patch. (You’ll also experience far less neck strain.) Push taller clovers aside to peer at what’s underneath them. Gently tug intertwined clovers apart to see if they’re actually multi-leafed or if it’s an optical illusion. Interact with the clover, and the clover will repay you.

Know what you’re looking for

Very few four-leaf clovers look like the symmetrical graphic emblazoned on merchandise the world over. Observe:

Twelve four-leaf clovers laid out in four rows of three.

This is my twelve-in-one-night bounty. The clover in the middle of the bottom row fits the standard image, but it’s the odd duck. Most four-leaf clovers have fanned leaves, or a vestigial fourth leaf, or an extra leaf that overlaps the others. And these ones have been pressed. Before I picked them, the fourth leaf often stood at a strange angle to the rest, making it hard for a casual observer to spot.

You can’t look for the ideal four-leaf clover you expect to see. You have to see what’s actually there. For every symmetrical four-leaf, there are a couple dozen mutants.

Search for siblings

Actually, all four-leaf clovers are mutants, so think of them as nature’s non-superpowered version of the X-Men. Many of the X-Men have mutant siblings because the gene runs in families. It’s the same with clovers. I’ll often find two or three four-leafs in close proximity because their parent plant carries the genetic ability to produce multiple mutants alongside its three-leaf offspring. On select occasions, I've found as many as seven four-leafs within the same patch.

Don’t give up after you’ve found one. Keep poking for a few seconds more in case there’s another lurking nearby.

Don’t give up, period

I’m not saying you should waste hours of your time on a single clover patch, but neither should you quit looking altogether. I take a brief glance at multiple patches per walk. If I’m feeling lucky, I look a bit closer; if I’m not, or if I’m in a hurry, I’ll move along after a few seconds. But I keep at it. I don’t assume the universe has already given me every clover it’s ever gonna give me, because I know I will find at least one more if I keep at it.

Like I said above, it took me twenty-three frickin’ years to find my first one, but it happened. Now it happens all the frickin' time.

It’ll happen for you, too.

  1. This has nothing to do with clovers, but I've gotta sidetrack and tell you about the fish. If you've never been to New Zealand, be aware that most restaurants are expensive by North American standards, and they give you relatively little food for the money you've shelled out. So I walked up to this fish and chips place (which had a delivery arrangement with the pub next door), saw that each piece of fish was only $4, and figured I'd have to get two of 'em if I wanted a full meal.

    I put in my order, including a half scoop of chips, and toddled on over to the pub. The kindly bartender offered to let me try a sample of any beer I pleased before I committed to a pint, but I knew right away that I was gonna go with the alcoholic ginger beer. I drank my sample to please her, then took my full glass to a table near the window.

    I'd made a good dint in my beer when the fish and chips came. Each of my $4 pieces of fish was roughly as big as Murchie, who's small for a dog but enormous for a piece of fried fish, and the "half scoop" of chips must've weighed at least half a kilogram (or one pound, for you American folks).

    I have a huge appetite but a small stomach. I managed to finish both pieces of fish, but I had no choice but to leave a third of that delicious beer undrunk, and I took most of my chips back to the hostel for the other guests.