In April of 2013 I took a course in wildflower identification at Hanging Rock State Park. These courses are not limited to botanists or teachers, they are open to “civilians with promise” also. As an aspiring naturalist, I embraced that label. I was a civilian with promise. I had my sustainably produced notebook, a pencil, a camera, and I was ready to learn how to lead a wildflower hike.
What I actually learned was how to slow down and notice each flower, something everyone can learn. They were everywhere, once our guides, Lisa and Ken, started pointing them out. Flowers nestled among the leaf litter, weeds at the edge of the parking lot: each flower was a learning experience. Our main tool was the Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, apparently a bible among botanists. Rather than beginning with color, we’d begin with identifying flower type, plant type, and leaf type.
A few weeks later I attended a writing retreat up in the North Carolina mountains. When I first arrived, I found a trail to orient my body and mind to the weekend ahead. Along the Mountaintop Trail and then the Azalea Trail I saw the waxy carpet of Galax, which I was able to positively identify only because it was labeled. I saw a variety of common violets and types of chickweed. The trail wound its way downward, and just after I turned to head back up–in anticipation of meeting my roommate and the other writers arriving–I noticed a patch of small, nodding bell-shaped yellow flowers. Paler than a buttercup, more lemon than butter, they lingered in me for the rest of the day.
Come Sunday morning, Martha—my roommate and new friend—and I decided to amble about in the drizzle, exploring the trails. With just my memory of the nodding yellow flowers, I stopped short of every large tree on the left, certain they’d be there. Martha noticed some flowers that looked like May-apples, but we couldn’t be certain. The leaves were more separated than the May-apples I’d seen in the past, but they did have a single red sprig coming up from the center. Without a field guide, all we could do was guess.
The space under the mountain laurels labeled “Lady Slipper” was clear and ready, life still contained underneath the bare soil. I’ve always known that Lady Slippers are a special flower because they are rare and hard to find. As a little girl, I remember squatting as my mom showed them to me and explained that you can’t pick them, you have to leave them right where they are. We wandered the woods behind our house, where the mountain laurel grew thick and open meadows sprawled out on the other side. Back then, the open laurel blooms, their pointy edges outlined in bright pink, reminded me of upside-down princess dresses
In early spring you’ll see—if you are looking—dozens of wildflowers blooming where you are. Martha and I noticed the bright whites and yellows and occasional reds. We noticed the way the marble outcropping along the trail sparkled. We noticed the sounds of the rain pattering down on the leaf litter. We did eventually find the yellow flowers, and I took pictures from every angle. Even now with the aid of the internet and the warm tea I’m sipping, I’m still not sure I know what these flowers are, maybe some sort of yellow violet. And that’s okay.
In the wildflower identification class, we learned that we should never use photographs to identify a flower. Photographs can alter the colors and shapes, depending on the lighting and angles. A better way to do it, she suggested, was to use a drawing. In drawings, all of the parts of the plant can be included in their truest form. When she told us that, I wrote it down and underlined it—I like the idea that the truth can be found with imagination, by filling in around the facts. Echoing that advice, Krista Bremer, who led the afternoon workshop, taught us the difference between the situation, which is what you start with, and the story, which is what writers need to work to find. There are facts, then there’s the truth.
We saw the yellow mystery flowers again at the entrance to the path, where I must have rushed past them in my eagerness. Yet, when we emerged—slower and more grounded—there they were. Plentiful and bright, they lined the path, showing us the way. Five years later, I’m ready for a refresher. I’m digging out my sketchpad and Newcomb’s, still aspiring.