I seem to be thinking of death to the exclusion of all else lately. Today, it is my father’s death that sends me east down highway 16 toward the comforting arms of wilderness.
When the undertaker came for my father’s body, I asked to have my well-used walking stick placed with him in the crematorium. It was a rather desperate attempt to establish a pathway, associating something of mine with him that would, even after death, allow an instant connection between us each time I lifted a stick and headed for the woods. This one was made from a branch of Arkansas alder, thin reddish bark left intact, with three feet of black gaffer’s tape tightly wrapped around the shaft – ready for use against the hordes of mid-summer seed ticks. It had served me well for ten years. I have found these pathways to be useful in the past. A buckeye, a coffee mug, a wedding ring, have all worked their magic over the years. It was worth a try.
The word conflicted comes to mind when describing our relationship, probably not an uncommon sentiment between fathers and sons, and as with any death, guilt, loss, love, and regret appear daily in ever-changing proportions, and will for the rest of my life.
Our own Lucinda Williams put it so nicely in her song Blue:
We don't talk about heaven and we don't talk about hell
We come to depend on one another so damn well
So go to confession whatever gets you through
You can count your blessings I'll just count on blue
This morning I pause at the creek near my home and grab a length of sycamore branch that has washed down in the last flood, cut it to perfect size using the formula my father taught me forty-eight years ago, then stop in Fallsville for breakfast. Sky fixes me her version of what’s good for what ails me, something that involves whole grain bread, baked eggs, tomato, avocado, onion, lettuce and mayo, along with a large mug of strong organic coffee. I would like to sit and talk - Sky has a calming influence on her customers – but I have a date with a beautiful woman.
When speaking of flowering plants, botanists might caution me to avoid referring to them as male or female – most are both, or neither – but I would argue that in one instance at least, there can be no doubt. In every way that matters, orchids are female, and one in particular, Yellow Lady’s Slipper is queen. In five years of returning to this magical spot, I have noted that it is impossible not to drop to my knees in her presence.
My mental calendar of Spring seasonal responsibilities goes something like this:
February 15th – tap maple trees
March 15 – find watercress and chives
April 15 – pay taxes, then look for morel mushrooms
May 15 – plant tomatoes
Mother’s Day – visit the lady's slippers
This year, I am a week late, and what a difference that makes in the Ozarks. It is all about green now. Where two weeks ago, flowers dominated the forest floor, screaming for attention, today all are gone, or really still there but looking as if they’re coming off of a month long binge of intense sexual excess, and I suppose they are. They have shed the tuxes and evening gowns of celebration and are hunkering down for the real work of growth and reproduction. As I push through ankle-deep poison ivy, I call out loud the names of those I recognize, and nod to the ones I don’t: may apple, orange pucoon, magnolia, trillium, wood betony, wild hyacinth, jack-in-the-pulpit, four leaved milkweed, false Solomon’s seal, woodbine, maiden hair fern, true Solomon’s seal, lyre leaf sage, spiderwort, false dandelion, sweet cicely, and woodland sunflower. Strangers outnumber acquaintances ten to one.
I know now that I am too late for the orchid, and I slow my walk, stop and talk to Carl, drink from my canteen, photograph a rock wall. I am reluctant to find them past their prime. I am moving toward them, but slowly, taking the round-a-bout way. It feels like I am heading to the morgue, knowing what awaits me, but determined to do my duty of identification. Death and the passage of time. I make mental calculations of how many more spring viewings I could possible have. When I find them - the large monocot parallel-veined leaves easy to spot - the capsule in which seed is forming has already taken the stage, and the once complex and beautiful flower is brown and wilted and decomposing.
As a punishment, I suppose, I decide to take the rough way out, up a steep muddy drainage jammed with boulders slick with runoff. Carl questions my choice and refuses to follow until I am almost out of sight, then catches up just in time to see an upper middle-aged man lose his footing on a creek boulder, and the dance of hands trying to cushion an expensive camera, body twisting at odd angles and walking stick flying upstream. I sit in the cold shallow water unhurt, laughing at myself in that great, loud, long-lasting way I can when there is no other human within miles. When I see that my walking stick, which has landed in the water a dozen feet away, is floating back toward me, I turn and say “Carl, what are the chances?” then reach for it. The act of reaching puts my head at a different level, and when I look up, I am facing a hillside of perfect, just-bloomed Yellow Lady’s Slippers.