Saturday I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of Seminary Hill Natural Area. It’s the organization that was formed to oversee maintenance of a section of the hill I live on that is set aside for all to enjoy. It has a mapped and marked trail system over which the Friends sponsor a series of nature walks each spring and summer. The dedicated group sponsors clean-up days (one is coming on April 21 to coincide with Earth Day), pulls invasive ivy from the trees to encourage the return of native plants, does trail maintenance, and promotes the enjoyment of this beautiful resource in the city’s back yard. And from my back yard, I can walk into the Natural Area on trails I have carved through the vine maple, Oregon grape, salal, and giant sword fern.
Why am I telling you this? Because nearly 40 years ago the sixty acres, owned by the city then and now, was destined to be logged. My mother, an avid naturalist and preservationist married to a forester who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with her, saw something that needed to be done, found people to help, knocked on doors and gathered signatures, wrote letters, talked to city officials and saved the forest. She was all forward motion.
My mother wasn’t always “forward motion.” When we went on family hikes in the mountains it took forever to get where we were going. She had to stop every few feet to examine a flower, or take a close-up photograph. “Can we just go?” my sisters and I would whine in exasperation, or maybe it was just me. She was never deterred.
Now it takes me forever to hike a trail, and—thanks to the digital camera age—I come home with hundreds of photographs, most of which I delete. I also hike alone, so no one has to wait for me. As far as I remember, I never slowed my own children down on a trail, mostly because I was not yet inclined—pre-digital camera age—to take a picture of every raindrop, flower, marmot, crooked tree, and mountain view. I was, I realize, also younger than my mother was during my childhood, not yet inclined to slow down and smell the flowers; to stop moving my feet and just look around me. Or maybe I just wanted to preserve family peace.
On a guided wildflower walk last spring, a member of the Friends said to me, “I guess you spent a lot of time in here with your parents growing up.” I spent a lot of time in the woods— either alone or with my neighbor friend, Barbara—but, no, I really don’t remember a single time in this woods with either parent. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I don’t remember it. I wish I did.
Each time I’ve helped my mother walk in the woods in the years since I’ve been back on the hill, she’s said, “Oh, thank you! I never thought I would be in here again!” She could no longer see the plants, but she knew where they were. “Where are we?” she would ask. Then, “Is there a trillium right over there?” “Is the inside-out flower right over there?” “Is [this or that] plant in bloom?” With each question I would roll my eyes and shrug, still irritated with her obsession. But my irritation is feigned now to cover my embarrassment at not knowing what she’s talking about. And I waited too long to let her teach me.
We took her for a walk (it took several of us to keep her safe) for her 100th birthday. My sister and I tried again last summer, but she only made it across the meadow to the edge of the woods, then her fear of falling sent us back to the car. She has, finally, been there for the last time.
The natural world has been my mother’s passion her entire life. I read in my father’s letters to her from the war about their hikes in the Appalachian Mountains that stood in her backyard. It’s a love born in her. I’m ashamed of myself for not honoring it.
But she taught me in spite of myself. When I was a child she made dish gardens with me: aluminum pie pans filled with moss but for a small area left open for a lake; tiny ceramic animals; leaves and cones for trees. It is one of the few things we did together that remains vivid in my memory.
She taught me that all things have a name, and we honor Creation by learning them.
She taught me to keep my eyes open for the tiniest flowers and to rise early for the most spectacular sunrises. She taught me to watch for rainbows.
She taught me to listen for the owl’s call, the migrating geese making their noisy way down the valley, and the coyotes howling in the night.
She taught me to taste the red huckleberries, the trailing blackberries, the pink salmon berries.
She taught me to touch the diverse barks of fir, cedar, and hemlock trees.
She taught me to smell the vanilla leaf, the glorious alpine air, and the deep woods damp.
She taught me hikes (and life) don’t have to have a destination. Enjoy the journey.
She taught me to care for the earth that she can no longer see. She taught me the first way to do that is to get out there and fall in love with the wonder of it.
Two days ago, when I told her I had been for a walk in the Natural Area, she said, “Are the trillium in bloom?” Instead of rolling my eyes, I asked, “Is it time for them?” Tell me.
I’m already practicing annoying my grandsons on urban walks by pointing out names of plants along their Seattle neighborhood sidewalks. Excruciatingly slow woodland hikes can’t be far behind. But first I have to learn the names of the inhabitants, so I can teach them. I’ve got my field guide in my hand and my mother guide in my heart.