Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Walk on the Wildflower Side

Last weekend I drove with some friends to the Red River Gorge of eastern Kentucky for a wildflower walk organized by Father John Rausch, a Glenmary priest and ecological advocate. He arranged for Dr. Tom Barnes to lead us, the wildlife extension specialist from the University of Kentucky’s Department of Forestry and an accomplished naturewriter and photographer. GO TO HIS WEBSITE! You'll get lost in the beauty there! 

This turned out to be much richer than we imagined. I’ve enjoyed many wildlife walks at national parks, seeing three times more than I would have seen on my own, taking home information that makes the forest vivid with specificity—no longer “tree, tree, tree” but “poplar, pawpaw, pin oak.” The tiny wildflowers, so easily
overlooked, reward their viewers even more, especially since there are some we have often seen without remarking. If humans find it challenging to get to know other people without learning their names, it is all the more so for us with trees and plants.

There were nine of us. It rained all morning, but we circled the narrow roads, jumping out in ponchos and hiking boots to gaze at yellow and pink lady’s slippers (native orchids--the yellow is featured on the cover above), Solomon’s seal (picture to left--not mine), valerian, wild ginger, and a host of other flowers that in a couple weeks will disappear into the next stage in their plants’ annual cycles, while some other flower shows its stuff. Mute and mostly still, they nevertheless announce, to any audience and no audience, in their intricacy, variety, and beauty, their maker’s glory.

Since I know so little, each such outing doubles my memory bank, while reinforcing details from previous walks. To travel with a group small enough to ask, “What’s this?” yet large enough to share infectious zeal, made the day more festive still. We stayed in the moment: no one cared that it rained, and no one dampened our spirits by rehearsing their week’s troubles, many and varied as they were. The day’s sensory richness will long linger, cultivating affection for nature and commitment to its flourishing.

Inspired by this walk, I took my tree guide to a familiar meadow Sunday evening to

catalog some specimens I often pass by. A farmhouse once stood here, and a floorless summer kitchen and outhouse still stand on the field edge next to some stray Stars of Bethlehem that someone may once have tended. It’s easy to imagine a clapboard home framed by youthful trees, which are now doddering past their prime: catalpas scantily clothed in last year’s seedpods and tentative spring leaves; sugar maples branching past their neighbors to hoard the sunlight; senescent slippery elms; black locusts, not yet blooming; white ashes past their bloom; an adolescent buckeye; a tulip magnolia someone left behind decades ago; a ghostly sycamore by the frog pond.

It’s hard to protect what we do not love. It’s hard to love what we do not know. And it’s hard to know what we do not stop to observe firsthand. The more we relearn nature, the more we’ll adjust our habits to assure its continuity. This is a sacred endeavor. As Sir Thomas Browne said (and I got this from Tom Barnes): “Nature is the art of God.”