It was a chilly May Sunday, the first one in May, as a matter of fact. May in northern Illinois offers a multiple personality of seasonality. May can’t seem to make up its mind about what it wants to be. It’s a moody month of near freezing nights followed by 85 degree days. No, the days don’t settle on a decent spring temperature until June 1st, three weeks before spring ends. But that doesn’t matter so much to the wasps and the bees or the crab apple blossoms. Only the leafless honey locusts in my front and back yards hold out for the real thing. But what did I know about green things?
Who knew most about hortimulticulturalism, I wondered as I sipped bitter China Green and watched the moist ivy creep up my garden wall? I myself was a plant murderer. Every single fern or African violet every ex-girlfriend or mother had ever given me was buried in an anonymous cornfield somewhere in Indiana, where no one would ever find it. I even managed to torch a desert prickly pear. My old boss had given it to me as a reminder of how he viewed my interpersonal skills. Mainly, my houseplants died from over-watering rather than under. I guess that says a lot about me. I kill things off with too much rather than too little.
But the person I knew who knew more than anyone about green stuff, lo, even more than the lady at the florist who sold me a soon-to-be-doomed colia, was my one and only sister. I hadn’t seen her for a long time, weeks. She seemed always off somewhere, picking up or dropping off kids, planning a dinner party for a friend who’d just got divorced, playing harp for retired nuns. That’s just my sister. She’d called on Friday and wondered about a walk this weekend.
“Well,” I hemmed. “Saturday, there’s the dry cleaners and the bank,” I hawed. “And I have to see a client at one,” I hecked.
She was the one who was always so busy, I told myself. That’s why I never called her first. If she has time, she’ll call me, I’d rationalize. Well, she had called me.
And Sunday morning snuck up on me while it was still Saturday night. My Sunday mornings seemed so precious, the first half of the last half of the weekend, even if they did call Sunday the first day of the week. Who did I want to spend it with? My TV. The people in there were good. They were pretty and bright and they seemed like they cared. But they always tried to sell me something I didn’t need on a Sunday morning, like light beer or more hair.
No, today, I’d spend the morning with a real, live person: my sister. I called and scheduled a walk. She lived just over the river. We went on a 9:00 a.m. stroll through cloistered footpaths over to her Cape Cod across from the biggest house in Glenview, that of the old Underwood typewriter family. Typewriters are what people used before.
We set out through her neighborhood, which could double for the Chicago Botanic Gardens, and she started talking about trees. A master gardener with the backyard to prove it, she knew botany like I knew light beer commercials. I asked her questions, like the little boy I often became in her presence.
“What’s this tree, the one with the purple leaves?”
“A Japanese maple,” she said. Of course.
“And this one?”
“The oldest tree in the world—a Ginko. They come from China.”
It had such alien, bell-shaped leaves. I gobbled Ginko pills every morning. Funny, but the little brown pellets I took didn’t look anything like the seeds this one had. Maybe I was getting ripped off by the health food store.
We passed snowy crab apple trees, every inch of their branches in full, pink- tinged bloom.
“These trees die out quick,” she remarked. “In about 30 years. It takes a lot of spraying to keep them healthy.”
The commercials said the same thing about my armpits.
And those passionate blossoms hanging from the next front yard we passed? “Lilac?”
“No, they’re Redbuds,” she said.
Who knows why they’d call a purple tree red. I guess the Latin guys ran out of names. And she reminded me of the difference between angiosperms and gymnosperms, and said that conifers represented a subgroup of gymnosperms. Her hair dappled the color of chestnuts in the breezy, easy May sun, even though I’m sure she dyed it. She won’t like it that I told you.
We walked past the estate homes, some newly spawned from the remains of tear-downs, some ageless museums with neoclassical columns. Landscaped gardens surrounded us for blocks, even though buckthorns sometimes held sway as breaks between fenceless yards. She’d bejeweled her own yard with ‘carnation’ trees: Hawthorn, and wilting, lilting willows that sometimes half-drowned in the low spot in the corner during the spring and autumn rains that drenched the gardens for days.
We revered an old Chinese elm as we passed, its canopy open like an umbella over the mossy, cedar shake roof of an old bungalow. Then we ran out of subdivision. Even though she sported white canvas deck shoes, I convinced my risk-averse sister to tromp through the muddy forest with me, with earth like the frosting on a Bavarian chocolate cake in places, and a bog in others.
Harms Woods stretched out fresh and dark and at the same time gleaming against the backdrop of the pewter skies. And when we stepped past its sodden bounders, it felt like we turned open the cover of a dusty, old encyclopedia that day. I’d walked these second growth forests often, passed by trees and ground cover without knowing the names of the hosts of the party I’d crashed. The field guides I’d purchased seemed of dubious utility. Field identification remains a difficult and dark art. It’s really damn hard, I discovered, to go about naming things you see after reading about them in a book. It’s easy with mammals, a little more challenging with birds, and a genuine bitch with vegetation and geology.
The little white flowers, delicate and shaped like tiny horns?
“Trillium,” she said with confidence.
“I thought they were Edelweiss, Betty.”
“No, Edelweiss grows in mountains. There’s no Mount Chicago. Don’t put that in your book.”
The violet blooms that scraped our knees as we passed were called wild phlox. They blossomed in the middle of patches of wild raspberry that would fruit in June.
“I’m floxummed. I mean, flummoxed.”
She laughed at my dumb pun. And I could eat the raspberry, she said!
A jet plane droned overhead, far above the red-tailed hawk, which fell back earthward in horizontal dives like a mad kite, propelled on fixed wings by imperturbable winds that gathered force for a thousand miles from the mountains west.
“You ever notice how much warmer it is in the forest? I think it’s because the trees break that wind,” I said, talking over the jetliner roar, a little boy’s lisp breaking unbidden through the hard S’s of my practiced, masculine elocution. The lisp bothered me, but she pretended not to notice.
“You’re right about it being warmer here. Sometimes, the forest makes its own microclimate,” she said.
“You know, you might just be onto something. I remembered summer midnights driving down Harms Road, the edges of the forests on both sides of the road meeting overhead like forbidden lovers on a rendezvous. With my windows down, it would cool as I flitted past the trees.
She pointed out wild roses.
“They’re not in bloom,” she said, for purposes of my essay.
She never patronized of talked down to me, but always taught me like the second mother she’d always been and still sometimes was to my insecure 42 years.
“Those are hawthorns in bloom,” she pointed as we passed some more of those ‘carnation’ trees down in the silt bars on the floodplain.
“But I thought they were dogwoods,” I said. “They look like the dogwoods in the field guide.”
“No, you can tell by these thorns.”
She broke one off as we approached and put it in my palm. I used it to pick out a sliver from my thumb that my yard bench had insulted me with the night before.
Violet buds flecked the greening forest floor between the oaks which stood in roomy groves.
“Phlox,” I pointed like a toddler. “Phlox.”
“No, those are wild geraniums.”
“And what about these?” I asked as we waltzed through patches of luxuriant, olive green leaves, their glistening faces to the sun.
Each leaf had eight lobes. Walking through an oak forest in Missouri, I’d reasoned them oak saplings. She giggled in her girlish voice, the one that sang for old people shut up in warehouses.
“They’re may apples,” she told me. “In autumn, they fruit with green gumballs.”
“Now I know what those green gumballs really are. I thought they were oak saplings because they grew under the oak trees.”
We leapt over a muddy gully, my long legs more easily than hers. Her shoes caked up with silt like curded cheese. The acorns served up a bumper for the black squirrel with the rusty tail hopping through the brush.
“In hard years, trees can put a lot of effort into making seeds, in case the adult trees don’t make it,” she said.
How selfless, I thought to myself. How beautiful. It seemed counter-intuitive to waste a lot of resources like that, especially when food’s scarce and the winter’s cold and you might not make it yourself. What about survival of the fittest and all that? But it shows how wise this whole system is. It’s been said that an old woman who plants a tree, knowing she’ll never enjoy its shade, expresses a certain wisdom. But maybe it’s the trees that taught us that.
Up ahead, black, wooden marbles littered our path. I’d guessed they were another acorn variant. But as we forded a sodden trough made deliciously squishy by the doings of horses and humus, she picked up one of the marbles. Her face corkscrewed into puzzlement. After a moment, it came to her.
“They’re black walnuts.”
“Walnuts. I love walnuts. They’re the only thing that makes spinach salad bearable.”
I rubbed it against my chest and readied to crack it.
“They’re poisonous. They put toxins into the soil so other things won’t grow so easy. That way, the walnut trees can keep the buckthorn at the north end of the forest from invading.”
She showed me a great big ash, bigger than Rush Limbaugh’s. And then she pointed out wild parsnip, which I would’ve guessed as rhubarb. She was teacher, and mother, and singer, and player of harps, guitars, dulcimers, recorders, banjos and pianos, to name a few things. She could’ve been Glenview Mother of the Year every year. If I handed it out, we’d retire the trophy. She didn’t have a job in the conventional sense. No, she spent about 16 hours of every day helping somebody else. But most of all, she was just my sister.
We weaved a discussion about our family into her guided tour. Was she worried about this? How did she feel about that? We waded through a litter of oak leaves from last autumn.
“They take the longest to decompose because they’re so acidic. But that’s good for the soil because it’s alkaloid,” she explained.
“You know everything,” I said.
“Well, you know about a lot things I don’t know about. You know what you are? You’re my soulmate.” She’d started calling me that about a year back.
And we seemed that. We didn’t talk with each other as often either of us would have liked. But when we did, each word felt laden with soul, picking up as if we’d never left the conversartion. And out here, she walked in one of her many worlds. I guess it was part my world, too. After all, I knew some stuff about plants. It was I who told her this whole forest used to be farmland that reverted to woodland.
“Oldfields, they call it,” I boasted, the little boy in me soaking through the roots to the surface of the man.
And it was I, after so many Sundays spinning through these woods, who knew the paths in here, and so I guided us both from one to the other. But in her gentle way, she always led, it seemed. Where the world led in its practical ways, my sister led the world in spirit. As the forest coughed us back out onto the road, neither one of us minded the mud on our soles.
© 2015 by Michael C. Just