A PLACE in mind
By Judy Chaves
It’s at least 30 years that Kit and
I have been holding our annual
competition to see who’s first to spot
a woodland wildflower in bloom.
Kit is a shameless cheater, going
as early as mid-March to scrounge
beneath last year’s hepatica leaves
for the curled, pale, buried shoots
and calculate the time until they
emerge. She’s even been known
to talk to the things – soft words
of encouragement – coaxing them
onto her side. I come by my advantage honestly, my daily walk taking
me up a wooded slope where I can
regularly scan the known places
once the snow is gone and the leaf
litter turns a particular buff-dry
brown. It’s a matter of adjusting the
eye to catch the slightest contrast –
a bit of color, the points of a star, a
delicate tremble – against the dull,
inert leaf carpet. Coltsfoot doesn’t count (uppity dandelion that
it is); bloodroot might. But really, it should be hepatica. Catch
the first of the hepaticas, and you’ve pretty much nailed it.
I call it a competition, yet neither of us really cares who wins.
What matters is for the sighting to be made, for spring wildflower
season to be off and running. Together, we go out as much as
we can to a small local mountain whose woods we know to be
especially rich. Our walks, like any good ritual, have a set of
fervently held rules. One is that we never bring any field guides
(despite our both having botanical backgrounds), thus ensuring
we experience the same confusion over the same plants every
year. Is it blue or black cohosh? What is it again that tells bellwort from twisted stalk from wild oats? Which, of Dutchman’s
breeches or squirrel corn, has the more finely dissected leaves?
When we tire of naming things, we run our fingers up soon-to-be-open buds, tilt the shy heads of trout lilies to give them our
greetings, and run our palms across the leaves of squirrel corn
or Dutchman’s breeches the way you smooth a baby’s head. We
kneel or lie down for close views of the flowers and, every year,
have our hearts broken by the thin pink lines inside a spring
I knew nothing of spring wildflowers until my junior year
in college on a field trip to a northern Ohio forest. It was led by
a long-legged professor with whom it was impossible to keep
up. So I ran, determined not to miss anything, but also to keep
my feet off the ground; to keep from crushing all that might be
discovered beneath. I had never seen such delicate beauty in my
life, and so I think another part of that running was wanting to
make up for lost time – for all those springs, all those flowers
that had blossomed without me.
Another of the rules is that we don’t write anything down;
we do not record dates. Yet the timing of things has become
of increased interest. Are the plants emerging and blossoming
sooner, overlapping when they never used to? Didn’t there used
to be more time between trout lily and trillium? Kit has taken to
doing her leaf litter scrounging even earlier than before. But as I
said, we don’t write things down, so we don’t know whether our
sense of timing is accurate or a fiction created by our suspicion
of the changing climate or by our ever-increasing age, which
makes everything earlier and faster.
There is a definite sense of urgency to the annual competition.
I wonder whether it’s because the competition’s becoming less
one between the two of us than between us and spring itself. We
are determined not to let it get the better of us, to rush ahead of
us and be over before we know it, to frighten us with uncanny
things we’ve never seen it do before. Indeed, the competition has
taken on an air not only of urgency, but – like any good ritual – of
necessity. To keep things going. We search for the first spring
flower because it feels increasingly important that we find it – that
we have it in hand, brushing our palms, even if only briefly.
Judy Chaves lives in North Ferrisburgh, Vermont.