I wanted to know . . . why the most ordinary scrap of meadow
can rock us back on our heels in awe.[i]
– Robin Wall Kimmerer
Along the roadside, broad swaths of Queen Anne’s lace and chicory grace the landscape as far as I can see. They take my breath away with their exquisite beauty. The delicate white petals of the Queen Anne’s lace paired with extraordinary blue of the chicory evoke not only awe, but tenderness, gratitude, and memories of my mother pointing out these favorite flowers every year as they came into their full flowering in the heart of summer in northern Michigan. How she loved the blue and white, made even more beautiful by their contrast with each other.
In a recent FAR post, Sara quoted Janet quoting Teresa of Avila: “If we learn to love the earth, we will find labyrinths, gardens, fountains and precious jewels! A whole new world will open itself to us. We will discover what it means to be truly alive.” My mother opened that world to us, teaching us to love and appreciate each wildflower as it came into its season. She taught us to love them as friends who came to live among us at different times of year, each with its special gifts.
She loved the Queen Anne’s lace, some tiny and some big and showy. She always had us look for the ones with a ruby in the center, and I still do. These were the precious jewels of the meadow. But it was the blue of the chicory that truly awed her. In a nature column she wrote for a local rural newspaper, she said of the chicory, “They’re heavenly, and as blue as a Walloon sky. . .During the war, roasted ground Chicory was occasionally added to our coffee to stretch the coffee supply. Sometimes it is substituted for coffee. But there is no substitute for the blue of the Chicory.”[ii]
“Every day,” wrote Mary Oliver, “I see or hear/something/that more or less/ kills me/with delight. . . It is what I was born for –/to look, to listen, to lose myself inside this soft world — /to instruct myself/ over and over/ in joy/ and acclamation. . . “[iii]
This is the gift of the wildflowers that every day beckon us to lose ourselves – or rather, find ourselves — in joy and awe. Each one is a precious jewel, its appearance in its season a delight that awakens an aliveness in me. Hillsides full of trillium cause me to pause in wonder, and their shy cousins – nodding trilliums — bring a smile to my face in their efforts to hide their flowers, making the finding of them all the more treasured. Streams and wetlands bedecked with marsh marigolds stop me in my tracks, leaving me without words. Stands of bloodroot, their leaves wrapped around them like blankets in cold weather, delight. Turk’s cap lily surprise and enchant, seemingly popping up overnight, splashes of bright orange amidst the dark green of mid-summer. I’ve been lucky enough to see yellow lady’s slippers — or in the local indigenous language, makizinwaabigwaan, but the pink lady’s slipper – makizinkwe — has eluded me.[iv] Then a few weeks ago, a friend told me about a patch she and her husband had found. My husband and I hiked the trail a few days later, joined at various points along the way by other wonder seekers. It was well worth the hike. The pink lady’s slippers were stunning – quite different from the yellow lady’s slippers – much taller, with larger blossoms. Forest orchids – they took my breath away – or in Kimmerer’s words, “rocked me back on my heels in awe.”
In her Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer tells of how she wanted to study botany to understand why the world is so beautiful – specifically, why asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together. Though her college adviser told her that such ponderings were in the realm of aesthetics, not science, she would go on to discover a scientific reason for this pairing. The fact that the yellow of the goldenrod and the purple of the aster are complimentary colors makes them even more vivid and thus more attractive to pollinators.
She had found her scientific answer, but in doing so, had forgotten the indigenous way of seeing the world that had initially drawn her to the study of plants. It took a conversation with a Navajo woman to remind of what she had already known – the stories, the songs, the relationships, and the simple beauty of the plants. “In indigenous knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit.”[v]
As Alice Walker would say, Kimmerer had to get that white man “off her eyeball” before she could see what was right in front of her. In The Color Purple, the character Shug said she’d been so busy thinking about that white man’s God that “I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn . . . not the color purple. . .. Not the little wildflowers.”[vi] But now she knew that all these things are just God’s way of trying to please us. “It always making little surprises and springing them on us when we least expect. . .. Everything want to be loved.”[vii]
And that is why the most ordinary scrap of meadow can rock our world. We are bowled over in love with the world . . . and She smiles.
Bartlett, Elizabeth H. “Friends to See at Walloon.” Boyne City, MI: Northland Press, July 23, 1970.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Press, 2013.
Oliver, Mary. “Mindful” in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin Books, 2017.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Washington Square Press, 1982.
[i] Braiding Sweetgrass, 46.
[ii] Northland Press, July 23, 1970
[iii] Oliver, Mary. “Mindful” in Devotions, 173.
[iv] My thanks to Valerie Ross Zhawendaagozikwe for help in the translation.
[v] Braiding Sweetgrass, 47.
[vi] The Color Purple, 179.
[vii] Ibid., 178.
BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.