For days I have watched the Indian pipe.
Despite the unrelenting heat, this unmistakable plant, a small encampment of eerie white in a sea of green and ground cover, has unfurled itself under the hemlocks along the drive to my little cabin.
Its stark contrast to the surrounding woodlands makes it a striking find, though in its first few days, as if arising from a tomb, the plant tends to remain obscured by the mat of organic matter — needles, twigs, rich soil, rotting leaves.
Indian pipe — which does bring to mind the shape of a long-stemmed tobacco pipe — is the least dread-inducing but descriptive common name for this plant that grows without chlorophyll.
Others have clung to the plant, too: ghost flower, corpse plant, death plant and fairy smoke — tags that all speak to its mysterious appearance.
It has been harvested over the centuries for all sorts of uses, often tenuously medicinal (reputedly a cure for warts and the common cold) but sometimes as a psycho-pharmaceutical herb to heal the grieving heart of someone mourning the loss of a loved one.
So it seemed appropriate that it made its presence known a day or two after I had laid my dog to rest. I am not so much superstitious as given to valuing a sense of imagery and attention, and to a degree, the childlike sense of fantasy and wonder that keeps us open to harmless secrets and happy discovery of the world.
I was willing to participate in the trick of mind that offered some connection between the two events — the dying away of an animal I cherished and the growth of a new generation of plants. I found it oddly comforting to be reminded, in such a vivid incarnation as an Indian pipe, that life goes on — a recognition that is not always a salve in the wake of death.
But I took it for the gift it was, surely — a distraction from the facts at hand and a chance to focus on the world beyond my door, the natural cycle of life playing and replaying itself, working things out.
Many people never notice Indian pipes, I have learned, and others are even frightened by its otherness, its distinct differences from most plants. But I find it hard to miss and impossible, upon seeing it, to avoid.
Once it has reached three inches in height, Indian pipe attains an almost charismatic presence in the forest, similar to the first pussy-willow catkins in early spring or the skunk cabbage and jack-in-the-pulpit that follow soon after. They are plants that fascinate without the show of predictable flowers — though each stalk is topped with a single white flower head — vegetation that leaves an imprint on the mind despite the brevity of its appearance is each year.
The first time I saw Indian pipes, perhaps 20 years ago, I was visiting Maine, had arrived to camp outside of Freeport, glad for the leisure hours at the edge of Casco Bay. The campground was full of the noise of birds and the skittering of chipmunks in the leaf litter all day long, and the lazy, lowing complaint of cows that drifted out of the fields bordering the tent sites. At meal time the chatter of families erupted, too, percolating among the trees, part of the chorus of what we consider silence when we quit our homes for the outdoors.
During my stay I had been witnessing a whole range of wildlife I was unaccustomed to seeing, even encountering a dehydrated, disoriented moose that had wandered onto Bailey’s Island in search of water. To acquaint myself with my surroundings I spent hours each day hiking, armed with field guides to New England wildflowers, grasses and reeds, anthologies of bird identifications and tape recordings of calls. I walked along the shore, picking up shells like dropped coins and pocketed them to be compared, later, to the drawings on the pages of books I had hauled with me for use on vacation.
In those days I was a bookmobile of field guides, always searching for a better guide to the natural world that made the human realm more tolerable to me. I was a great fan of the Peterson guides, and in time came to appreciate the Stokes’ work on weeds and toted a copy of Newcomb’s guide to wildflowers with me everywhere, from mudtime to first frost in fall.
But recollection tells me I first found Indian pipe on the pages of the Audubon guide to North American wildflowers, because it — like the rest of the series — provided identification through photographs rather than sketches.
“A white, saprophytic plant with a thick, translucent stem covered by scaly bract and terminated by a single nodding flower,” the guide described, emphasizing the distinguishing characteristics of the stem and flower. “This non-green, waxy plant gets its nourishment from decayed organic material through a fungal relationship associated with the roots. The plant turns black as the fruit opens or when it is picked and dried.”
Since that first encounter I have seen Indian pipe all over New England, even on residential lots where I lived for a time. I have observed them through the full length of their cycle, watching them dry and brown after broadcasting their seed.
But I am consoled to find them here, now, in the margin of forest I occupy in Maine, not far from where I first discovered these downcast countenances staring at the woodland floor near the rocky coast.
They remind me, this time, that I am not lost though grieving has sent me off-path for days. They show me that I am part of something larger, something as hardy as a hemlock, something wise enough to make a plant that shuns the ordinary means of vital chlorophyll and still finds life.
And though no one but an ethereal-looking translucent plant has told me, I know I can do it, too.
North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: