Updated: Apr 15, 2020
When my flight out of Little Rock was cancelled, my world felt tight and small, as if life had pulled the drawstring on its horizons and penned me in. Then I felt relieved. Freed from ‘the weight of too much liberty’, as Wordsworth wrote, I have the time to explore what is close to me, and the time to become close to it, in return. My scope is smaller, but more detailed, as if I’ve zoomed in on life. I don’t resent this turn of events at all.
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for blooms,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ‘twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
- William Wordsworth, c. 1815
Even though lockdown isn’t a prison ‘into which we doom ourselves’, we might still find pause for solace, rather than solitude. I’ve taken the opportunity to get to know the names of the flowers that, until now, have been pretty strangers to me. There are pale blue ones, reminiscent of bluebells, that sate a desire I didn’t know I had for English woods in April. They’re blue toadflax, which used to have a great reputation amongst herb doctors as a cure for dropsy. I’ve spotted some purple specs amongst the grasses too, which I had thought were toadflax buds. The minute, pointed flower is a fully formed henbit; stern and orchid-like in its dark, alien folds. The yellow flowers flooding the fields have revealed themselves as three different species: buttercups, yellow clover, and something that’s halfway between a yellow daisy and a dandelion. The internet was no use in naming it, and Russell couldn’t help me either. He’s determined to call all the wildflowers ‘weeds’ and nothing else. When we went riding in the woods yesterday, he didn’t know the name of whatever plant it was, but he did point out the tracks of a wild turkey walking past it, and later showed me where the ground had been turned up by wild hogs. Then he surprised me by naming a briar bush. “You’ll normally find a rabbit hiding in one of them.”
Russell’s much more knowledgeable on trees. While I admire their bright leaves and strange seeds, he tells me how well the wood burns.
“What about that one?” I ask, pointing out a particularly distinctive tree with pale bark, bright leaves, and hundreds of spiky balls, the size of my palm.
“That’s a pain in the ass, that is.” He’s finished talking, and evidently thinks it’s not worthwhile to dignify this tree with a name. Then he notices I’m still looking at him, expecting an answer. “It’s a sweet gum. Good for nothing and grows like nobody’s business.”
I stop to take photos of the sweet gum and Russell rides on, shaking his head.
Nobody seems to care about the weeds. Even a new friend, Gayle, who proudly introduced me to the white oak as ‘the most beautiful tree she’s ever known’, and revelled in the deep oldness of a particular maple tree, and pulled up the zig-zagging network of a groundcreeper’s roots just to smile and show me how far it ran, even she couldn’t tell me the name of that yellow flower. “Oh that, that’s just a weed,” she said, then turned back to the ‘purdy’ patterns of an oak’s bark and the dark lengths of the muscadine vine.
Even though she’s walked in these woods every day since before I was born, there’s no foot-trodden path. She meanders back and forth so as to catch good trees from all different angles, and investigate new leaf shapes she hasn’t seen before, occasionally pausing to place her hands on particularly good patches of moss. I can’t tell if she’s bringing her soul into the woods, or bringing the woods into her soul, or both. The long years tumble off her shoulders as we walk, and Wordsworth floods into my mind again, ‘Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.’
A Short Directory of Arkansas Wildflowers:
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