When did you first fall in love with nature? This question landed on me, as a surprising imperative (posed by keynote speaker, John Muir Laws), in a crowded banquet room in Sacramento, where 800 “plant people” had gathered for the 2009 Conservation Conference of the California Native Plant Society. This happened two weeks ago…..
In that crowded room I could not pin point the exact moment I fell in love with nature.
It was coming home, driving into Three Rivers, diving into the Kaweah River canyon view of the snow-capped high mountains, as I circumvented the man-made Lake Kaweah, that the memory emerged of how this love in me had shown up.
It happened over 30 years ago, coming into my consciousness gradually each day and in spurts of wildflowers assaulting my vision. There is a ritual that lies somewhere in the indigenous people’s oppressed legacy called “Pelted by Beauty” where you are beaten with flowers and plants held in another’s hand. I don’t remember where I first heard about this either…*
I came to live here for good in 1977, but first I came here as a child in the 1950’s to visit my cousins, when there was no lake, only a small two lane country road following the gently curving river’s edge. I did not know that I loved nature then, or even needed to love it. It was not something to think about. Running and playing in meadows were just a part of the moment, with no need to know the names of the profusely blooming wildflowers. Those meadows have since become a necklace of houses conjoined in a subdivision now called Cherokee Oaks (even though no Cherokee lived here.)
In 1977, I found myself renting a downstairs apartment in a house on a road at the farther edge of Cherokee Oaks. I had a vista of my favorite mountain in Three Rivers (called Blossom Peak, not after the native plants cloaking its steep mountainside, but after a pioneer family who named their daughters for flowers, Pansy Blossom and Rose Blossom, et. al.) There was a huge meadow draped before me where I would gather miner’s lettuce in the early spring to make the sweetest salads.
Along with many people when they first come to live here from cities and towns, I did not know that miner’s lettuce was miner’s lettuce or that it was good to eat. The meadow is now a house-lined street called Meadow Drive where I wonder if there have recently been any miner’s-lettuce-sitings.
I learned about the “wild plants” from two remarkable people, Gene and Marion Gray, who came to Three Rivers in 1941 from Iowa. Gene was a nature photographer, teaching me what to do with my first SRL lenses Miranda camera (his macro lens was putting his eye glasses, using one of its magnifying lenses, in front of the camera lens.) They both taught me the names of the wildflowers. Overwhelmed by so many wildflowers coming up everywhere, I went slowly with 4-5 flower names each year.
It was Marion who taught me the thrilling game of being the first one to spot the first blossom of each wildflower as Spring spread herself over the foothills each year. She taught me to recognize the green leaves of each one even before buds appeared. She taught me about how to love the natural gardens already surrounding where I lived. She taught me to weed-eat late in the season only after all the wildflowers had gone to seed. In fact, she used to hand weed the grasses from the flowers over large expanses of her property. She taught me how to recognize the seed pods hanging on the dried skeleton stems of her beloved friends.
I remember standing with her on a granite out-cropping way above her house, where she gathered wild onions that grew in the cracks and crevices of the granite when the natural creek water flowed over the rock during the Spring rains. That day in the early 1980’s she said, “Just look at all the houses over there, soon there will be nothing left.” I looked across at the broad expanse of the Kaweah River canyon up to Sequoia Park and below Comb Rock, saying to her, “What houses?” It looked pretty green with vegetation to me. She started to count, “That one, that one…..”, counting maybe 10 or so houses. Years later, when I was actually living in Gene and Marion’s house, renting it after Gene had died and Marion had moved to Walnut Creek to be near her son, I counted over three times the houses that I had first seen with Marion. This last count was 20 years ago for me, and there is now a house built on the spot where Marion and I first stood.
* (oh yes, now this comes to me….)
Pelted by Beauty was mentioned in The REinvention of Work by Matthew Fox. On page 291, he tells about a flower ritual that was done for (Mary Caroline) M. C. Richards on the 25th anniversary of the publication of her book Centering: In Poetry, Pottery and the Person. The gathering was hosted by Fox’s Friends of Creation Spirituality, and led by Sister Jose Hobday, a Catholic Native American nun and spiritual teacher, of the Papago people of Arizona.
Richards wrote a poem about it, published in her poetry collection called Imagine Inventing Yellow.
The last few lines of the poem are:
Pelted by beauty and peace,
a cellular reordering, each tiny vessel
The fountain erupts, cascades,
we wish to die in it, be other,
be one in an alchemy of eros,
that lad with the arrows who shoots behind.