July 20, 2013

North Cairn: Staying rooted through loss

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.

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