Squawroot, harbinger-of-spring, pussytoes poke heads on forest floor

Jack B. Carman of Tullahoma, Tenn., leads a flower walk at Old Stone Fort state park in Manchester, Tenn.

Jack B. Carman of Tullahoma, Tenn., leads a flower walk at Old Stone Fort state park in Manchester, Tenn.

By David Tulis

A great fault is my ignorance of trees, stones, geography and flowers. I am aware of it keenly on a nature walk in Manchester, Tenn., at Old Stone Fort state park. A becapped guide jabs the silvery point of a white umbrella along the side of the path.

“Hey look, some more pussytoes. And these,” he intones, “are the early leaves of the lousewort.”

Today my wife, Jeannette, and I in the company of a son welcome summer through the hesitations of early spring. The sky is overcast as we follow along the trail in a large group. Only at the end of the stroll does the sun pour down through the naked branches of the forest, force squints and the peeling off of jackets.

My connection with flowers today is through a favorite author, Katherine Mansfield, whose flowers in her short stories give me a pang of remorse for being ignorant of flowers, but a greater sense of joy at beholding them in my soul’s eye.

Lost in his buds

Our guide is Jack B. Carman, author of Wildflowers of Tennessee. He is published, but not a public man. The Tullahoma resident is a retired Arnold Space Center engineer who started studying flowers after he got a 35mm camera in the 1980s and figured he ought to know the names of the lovely objects he photographed. His tour is really a private ramble, as if he is unaware that beyond the first five people with whom he chats are 25 others strung along behind him. But these others are content, just glad to be outdoors. Again, be bends over a tiny fleck of color among the leaves and bramble, buds visible only to those at his elbow.

“Hey, here’s some wintergreen. But it’s last year’s fruit on it.” Today, we see a great deal of toothwort and another flower called harbinger-of-spring, Mr. Carman says.

We proceed in a giant circle, passing along a near cliffside with a roaring bit of Duck River below.

There’s a huddle. Jeannette says, “Nice turkey tails.” Mr. Carman replies, “Yup.” He straightens, and they proceed. All above are high branches, denuded. But the trail at the archeological park is nice, with roots across the way worn smooth, as are feet of Jesus in statuary at Catholic shrines in Rome. I hear a jet overhead through the cloud covering, and the barking of a dog somewhere.

“That’s not very showy,” Mr. Carman says to his attentive listeners, “but that’s a pennywort.” He turns to the trail. I ask about one down along the side, pointing ,”another tooth wort.”

I am thinking of Mansfield’s collected works, published in 1920, how trees and flowers are living things.

In “The Wind Blows,” about a blustery day: “The wind is so strong that they have to fight their way through it, rocking like two old drunkards. All the poor little pahutukawas on the esplanade are bent to the ground” (reference to a type of myrtle tree). “Big drops hung on the bushes and just did not fall; the silvery, fluffy toi-toi was limp on its long stalks, and all the marigolds and the pinks in the bungalow gardens were bowed to the earth with wetness. Drenched were the cold fuchsias, round pearls of dew lay on the flat nasturtium leaves” (“At the Bay”).

In a well anthologized tale, “The Garden Party”: “The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by an archangel.” In a story about a girl’s first ball:

She tried not to smile too much; she tried not to care. But every single thing was so new and exciting … Meg’s tuberoses, Jose’s long loop of amber, Laura’s dark little head, pushing above her white fur like a flower through snow.

His children are his flowers

A white stick juts from the lips of our group’s last man. His cigarette is fragrant. I hang back and meet Paul Lowe, a family man, a Manchester resident taking the walk with his wife, Lauren, and five children. Four youngsters with him are 8, 6, 6 and 3. A daughter, 11, is in the clutch with the tourguide. Mr. Lowe works part time at UPS in Manchester. He’s been a package handler for 11 years;  she works for city government and the couple sends its children to public school. Mr. Lowe is like me, liking flowers generally but not knowledgeable. Flowers dot the family home, he says, as Mrs. Lowe is “quite a botanist.”

Her favorites are daffodils; “they are the indicator of spring. Daisies — we haven’t seen any of those; those won’t bloom until later. They make me happy.”  Flowers are about rebirth. Everything is dead, and they pop up green she says. “They say, hey, there’s hope; beautiful weather ahead.”

I ask Mr. Lowe about having five children, the confidence implied in giving birth and having family. Children imply hope for the future and some consideration of the providence of God. In the context of children, we chat about capital, children being a man’s greatest form of inheritance and estate. He says his understanding about the American fluctuating medium of exchange is similar to mine; investments, savings and retirements denominated in dollars are surely to be dissolved over time, whereas children cannot be inflated away, but in fact reproduce and expand the Lowe family line.

I am not sure of the spiritual and social beliefs behind his wealth of children, and don’t have time to ask. But he admits he and Lauren were “conflicted” about having children in a troubled world where people sometimes starve. Having them has been “a blind leap of faith.”

He has an interest in Christianity, Mr. Lowe says, and goes to church most Sundays with his family. I tell him I am glad to hear it.

“But on the other side of the drive there was a high box border and the paths had box edges and all of them led into a deeper and deeper tangle of flowers,” we read in Miss Mansfield’s story, “Prelude.”

The camellias were in bloom, white and crimson and pink and white striped with flashing leaves. You could not see a leave on the syringa bushes for the white clusters. The roses were in flower — gentlemen’s button-hole roses, little white ones, but far too full of insects to hold under anyone’s nose, pink monthly roses with a ring of fallen petals round the bushes, cabbage roses on thick stalks, moss roses, always in bud, pin smooth beauties opening curl on curl, red ones so dark they seemed to turn back as they fell, and a certain exquisite cream kind with a slender red stem and bright scarlet leaves.

There were clumps of fairy bells, and all kinds of geraniums, and there were little trees of verbena and bluish lavender bushes and a bed of pelargoniums with velvet eyes and leaves like moths’ wings. There was a bed of nothing but mignonette and another of nothing but pansies — borders of double and single daisies and all kinds of tufty plans she had never seen before. *** She looked down at the slope a moment; then she lay down on her back, gave a squeak and rolled over and over into the thick flowery orchard grass. As she lay waiting for things to stop spinning, she decided to go up to the house and ask the servant girl for an empty matchbox. She wanted to make a surprise for the grandmother *** .

A flower walk takes us along an escarpment, below which is a roaring river.

A flower walk takes us along an escarpment, below which is a roaring river.

Sources: Katherine Mansfield,  Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (London: Constable, 1920, ed. John Middleton Murray), 793 pp.

A museum in this building contains Tennessee archeological treasures belonging to state government.

A museum in this building contains Tennessee archeological treasures belonging to state government.

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