By Matt Stansberry, Illustrations by David Wilson
Technology makes us forget what we know about life. -MIT Professor Sheryl Turkle
I became obsessed with wildflowers last spring.
One April morning I had been slumped on my couch with my laptop, and suddenly panicked as if I was on a plane falling out of the sky. It had been a difficult winter, full of anxiety, brutal weather, and exhaustion. I was suffering from failing vision and stomach ulcers. I felt abruptly diminished, no longer young, trapped.
I’d tried meditation, yoga, therapy – attempted everything short of pharmacology to address the pressure building in my body. And yet, I hadn’t been able to stick with any practice long enough to make a difference.
Heading out into the woods was one of the only ways to clear my head – maybe it worked, maybe it was just an excuse to do what I wanted to do anyway.
I fled to Eagle Creek Nature Preserve.
Ohio’s system of state nature preserves protect some of the last best places – properties selected for rare or endangered species, or unique geologic features.
[blocktext align=”right”]Heading out into the
woods was one of the only ways to clear my head – maybe it worked, maybe it was just an excuse to do what I wanted to do anyway.[/blocktext]The 136 preserves are not like traditional parks. Most consist of a small parking lot and an unimproved trail. Some don’t even have that. There typically are not picnic tables or restrooms – just a narrow path and some signage. Each preserve is managed to allow user access while imposing the least amount of human impact on the site.
These are the places I am drawn to when I feel the mounting craziness of my life’s decisions weighing down my body like lead – remote woods and swamps with few people.
Eagle Creek State Nature Preserve is located near the town of Garrettsville, in the far northeast corner of Portage County. It features six miles of trails that meander through floodplain and sphagnum moss bogs, over dry upland slopes, and through woodlands carpeted in more than seventy species of wildflowers.
I walked into the woods and stared agog at the forest floor; white trilliums bloomed everywhere, clumps of spring beauties peaked up from the duff, trout lilies drooped, and bulbous skunk cabbages and yellow marsh marigolds studded the low swampy areas.
I did not yet know the names of many of these species, but took photos of them to identify later.
My cell phone vibrated in my pocket and it felt like an electric shock.
Most of us look at our phones about fifty times a day, and reams of research have linked depression to increased social media use. I often found myself unintentionally checking my phone, responding to messages or delving into pointless information only to snap back into myself half an hour later, eyes blurred and twitching.
But looking at the wildflowers on the forest floor seemed to soothe my frayed optical nerves.
I spotted a red trillium – three bloody red petals, three delicate leaves. I’d never seen this plant. I crawled up to it on my stomach, wriggling under its flower for a photo.
Lying on the ground, I listened to the wind and the spring peepers. I felt cradled and supported. I was so tired I closed my eyes.
I put my nose to the forest floor and smelled cut grass, tobacco – good clean smells. I could feel how dying could be a comfort. In that moment, the prospect of never getting off the ground seemed more pleasant than going back to my email inbox or chaotic house.
I could feel the whole earth pushing up, cradling and supporting my body. Lying on the forest floor, I thought I might not fear death if I could connect somehow to the wildflowers’ cycle of ephemeral life renewing itself.
I thought about the poet Wendell Berry, who wrote about the wisdom of learning to lie down in the earth, slowly falling into the fund of things.
And yet to serve the earth, now knowing what I serve, gives a wideness and a delight to the air, and my days do not wholly pass… My life is only the earth risen up a little way into the light, among the leaves.
Lying in the woods, face pressed into the actual world instead of my phone, I felt incredibly calm. In that moment, I decided studying ephemeral spring wildflowers might help me battle stress.
I clung to that nostrum through the fall and winter, and prepared myself to spend this spring battling my demons with a field guide and a pair of mud boots.
It was technically still winter, the first week of March when I started looking for wildflowers.
My three-year-old son and I pushed away the matted down leaves in the wet, sandy soil and found a half-dozen reddish-purple spathes shooting out of the ground, fleshy teardrop shaped hoods cupped a round yellow flower cluster called a spadix.
The skunk cabbage creates its own heat, and can even push itself up through the ice and snow by raising its internal temperate to 95 degrees above the air temperature. These are the first Ohio wildflowers to bloom each year, weeks before other spring woodland species.
The skunk cabbage reeks like rotten flesh. It produces two chemical compounds that account for the smell – skatole and cadaverine. Skatole is found in mammal feces; cadaverine in putrefying animal tissue.
Many of the insects that are active in the early spring and late winter scavenge carrion – seeking out dead animals that couldn’t hold on through the cold season. The insects follow the scent into the skunk cabbage’s meat-colored spathes and inadvertently pollinate the plants by taking pollen from one spathe to another.
This is just one of many spring wildflowers to mimic the flesh of winter-killed animals, exemplifying the archetypical spring theme of death and rebirth.
The bloody-looking flowers of red trillium, also called wake robin or stinking Benjamin, have the “smell and appearance of raw beefsteak of uncertain age” writes Jack Sanders in The Secrets of Wildflowers, and it attracts green flesh flies found on garbage and roadkill.
[blocktext align=”left”]The skunk cabbage reeks like rotten flesh. It produces two chemical compounds that account for the smell – skatole and cadaverine. Skatole is found in mammal feces; cadaverine in putrefying animal tissue.[/blocktext]The small liver-colored flowers of wild ginger attract early spring flies and gnats that are looking for thawing carcasses of animals that died over the winter.
Everything in the woods was skeletal and dank, and the forest floor was the color of a flattened opossum on the side of a road. Despite the warm temperatures of this unseasonal spring, nothing bloomed in the bare woods.
The skunk cabbage flowers were the only visible sign of spring, a strange and combination of something both hopeful and abhorrent.
Naturalist Donald Culross Peattie calls the skunk cabbage a “crafty and devious old man, wrapped in a cape, and puttering about down in the leafless copses for some dubious purpose.”
Left undisturbed, a skunk cabbage’s root system can live 200 years.
It was like some kind of parable: a protagonist flails in an attempt to avoid his fate, only to more firmly cement the predetermined path.
In the second week in March, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources posted its first wildflower bloom report, a weekly update on the flowering plants on display at the various state nature preserves.
Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve near Yellow Springs was full of hepatica and purple cress – two flowers I’d failed to identify in my previous year. The weekend weather promised to hit sixty degrees, and so I packed the family up in the minivan and made the trip.
The sinking feeling started before we arrived – nearly three hours into a gorgeous weekend day, we found ourselves sitting in a van, hurtling down a highway.
When we arrived at Clifton Gorge, the place was packed with hikers, and the trails proved to be especially dangerous for free-range kids.
The Little Miami River runs through a deep, narrow chasm carved in the dolomite bedrock. At every turn along the trail, I imagined one of my two toddlers slipping my grasp and pitching headlong to the bottom of the steep ravine.
At one point along the trail, I grabbed my seven-year-old and abandoned my increasingly frustrated wife with two screaming toddlers. I could hear them yelling for us as we darted down the rocky trail. We blocked them out and focused on the ground, looking for hepatica and cress.
I did not feel calm, nor connected to anything. I felt like an asshole.
But there it was, hepatica. Three-lobed purplish mottled leaves plastered to the ground, a sprig of white blooms attached to thin, hairy stems. They were alien and gorgeous – the whole river bottom was incredibly picturesque with draped ferns and rushing water – but I could still hear my younger children tormenting my wife, I could imagine them running off the side of the gorge.
I snapped some photos quickly and we ran back, hearts racing, to rejoin our family, to strap everyone back into the goddamned van.
I saw it on Twitter – one of the local park districts had posted photos of some new flowers, and so I headed out to some nearby woods.
On a previous hike in this park, I had looked down on a gorgeous creek just below the trail, and knew I would find a way down.
It was a selfish act, breaking the rules and leaving a designated trail to wander through the fragile forest in the wet spring. But I shuffled off anyway, scrambling down a winding little switchback, hanging onto some roots and saplings as I plunged into the ravine.
Down at the bottom of the gully, a small stream tumbled out of the hills and met up with a larger creek and continued on its way to the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie. The floodplain was blanketed in green shoots.
Wild onions called ramps, with long leaves and purple stems, sprouted everywhere on the valley floor. Virginia bluebells clutched their flowers for another few weeks but I could see the tips of the blue petals peeking out from under the plant. Liver-spotted trout lily leaves sprung up in patches.
I stared down at my size-11 boots as I stepped carefully and tried not to leave a path of destruction.
I had been reading Idle Weeds, by David Rains Wallace, and a section reminded me of the fragile nature of this forest floor. “The soil was like muscle, nerve, and fat around bedrock bone… soil was inert only to the unobserving eye, permanent only to the uncomprehending mind.”
Reading this book had left me listless and unsure of myself.
Wallace’s beautiful, unsentimental book was about a rural landscape in eastern Ohio that “teeters between development as a housing tract and recreational park.”
The only review I could find online describes it as such:
When one of the main characters of a book is a homely shrew with matted fur and yellow teeth who dies in the last chapter, the book had better have a lot else going for it. Fortunately, Idle Weeds does.
Just 25 years after Sierra Club Books published the title, it’s as if the book never existed.
None of my friends had ever heard of it. I’d picked it up on a whim at a used bookstore for a dollar. There was only one review of the book on Amazon, and the point of the sole review was to question why no one else had ever read, or heard of, this excellent book.
If I were to pour all of my work and discipline into a project, this is the book I would want to write.
[blocktext align=”right”]As I looked back on the
trail I’d left behind on the spring forest floor, I wondered why I thought I had anything meaningful to say about wildflowers.[/blocktext]And it has less cultural relevance and staying power than a Budweiser commercial.
I started to worry – maybe I should spend my time washing the windows of my house or staining my deck, rather than wasting my life writing self-indulgent nature essays. All writers must battle a sense of futility, but I felt like I was facing a black hole that might suck my creative energy and will into the abyss.
As I looked back on the trail I’d left behind on the spring forest floor, I wondered why I thought I had anything meaningful to say about wildflowers.
A small white bloom peeked out of the duff, and I jumped down on my knees and studied it – rue anemone.
As I moved closer to the small creek running over stones, spilling out of the woods at a steep angle, the sound of the nearby highways faded. I felt less detached. I sensed motion all around, flowers pushing up, trees falling down, and water slipping over stones.
It’s strange to turn into something you didn’t expect in middle age, to become something different from what you thought you were. Over the last decade, I became some kind of nervous, clenched mammal – a list of walking ailments.
I laid down in a sunny patch of dirt and smelled the crumbled-up oak tannins. New research has discovered that soil microbes can enter the human body and boost the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine circulating in the systems, functioning as a natural antidepressant.
It felt so good to lie back and close my eyes, and I fell asleep watching the buzzards circle overhead. I woke hours later, to notice several urgent messages on my phone all asking the same thing.
Where are you?
There was never any chance it was going to work.
As the spring wore on, I found myself increasingly frantic, scrambling along the forest floor with my camera, looking for meaning and some kind of lasting calm. I felt like one of the ruby-crowned kinglets I constantly saw on my rambles. These tiny migratory birds are so ravenous, they flit manically around the forest understory.
[blocktext align=”left”]All of it is happening at once, and there’s no way to experience it all.[/blocktext]But spring is inherently not-calm. Every aspect of it is scattered and fleeting.
Millions of tiny, colorful neotropical songbirds are hurtling from Ecuador to the Arctic right now, stopping over in Cleveland for a few weeks. Rare, timid species of wildflowers will open for a day before wilting back into the forest floor or being eaten out of existence by deer. Huge bass in Lake Erie are hungry and not yet preoccupied with spawning. In a blink of time all of the dogwoods and spicebush will bloom.
All of it is happening at once, and there’s no way to experience it all.
One of the major causes of stress, at least in my case, is trying to force an idea or project to work when it clearly doesn’t fit.
As the trees leaf out and darken the forest, and the wildflower season winds down, I will put down my camera. I will try to snort some happy microbes out of the dirt.
In the meantime, feel free to suggest a good shrink.
Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, Ohio. He is a dad, nature writer, and fly fisherman. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish. More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at dwillustration.com.
Matt and David’s monthly column, “North Coast Biodiversity,” is collected here. Order copies of the first edition of Redhorse — a print collection of the first six “North Coast Biodiversity” columns — here, and signed prints of David Wilson’s original art for the column here.
Find out more about Matt & David’s publications/additional projects on the newly launched Redhorse site: http://redhorsemag.com.