On May Day after doing my Beltane ritual and walking the dogs, I wandered around the house, field, brook, and wooded areas on my property looking for evidence of the first seasonal mayflowers. I thought about my mother silently thanking her because she was the one person who taught me to appreciate these (mostly) diminutive denizens of the forest, fields and stream that became my most beloved flora as an adult.
I love the month of May because it is about beginnings. All of Nature is preparing for the spring wildflower show. I walked down to the summer-shaded rock garden near the woods that is also nourished by my leach field. When I approached the stone I was surprised to see a few buds of the trout lily that were almost ready to open. Their little yellow faces had petals that turned back on themselves reminding me of tiny turbans; their brown spotted leaves make a beautiful contrast to the delicate trumpet -like flowers.
The garden looked neglected because I had yet to rake out winter leaves and debris. A few raindrops were falling and because we were supposed to get real precipitation, not just drizzle I decided that this wildflower garden needed my attention immediately. I felt a pang of guilt over my carelessness. This is the garden I love best, and all I have to do is to remove debris; she thrives on her own. By mid June the show will be over (wildflowers dislike intense summer heat, and enter dormancy quite early in the season). In defense of my abandonment I reminded myself that wind and harsh sun had dominated all of April and because of the drought the greening of the earth in this part of the country was on hold. I was on hold too … If it rained tonight these thirsty plants would shoot up immediately. I wondered if I would come to life like they would.
Persephone’s flames temporarily consumed me as I grabbed the rake and worked feverishly until the area was cleared, dumping pile after pile of leafy brush on an old compost heap nearby. As I went down on my knees to clear by hand the last detritus around the mossy granite stone I noted that the pink and white lady slippers, the anemones and shooting stars, the lily of the valley, and the blue bead lilies were still asleep, as were the maidenhair fern and a few of her relatives. It was hard to believe that within the month this lovely wild garden would be in full bloom. I uncovered bright green nubs that announced the presence of the may apple whose umbrella-like leaves would soon be unfurling above the surface of the rich brown earth. The shiny leaves of lavender blue myrtle held their tight buds close, and I also saw a cluster of two –inch gray green spikes that belonged to the tall graceful bowed Solomon’s seal with her white bell –like flowers. Both the painted (white with striking magenta stripes) and pure white Grandiflora trillium were breaking ground and looking quite rumpled, and a clump of columbine had leafed out like a small cabbage. Ajuga rosettes were turning reddish green, a few Canadian violets and my mother’s favorite blue forget me nots were showing tufts of chartreuse.
I didn’t see the bloodroot at first. The perpendicular closed sage colored leaf hid the stem of the single blossom that would bloom before the leaf unfurled. I thought of the picture I had taken of a few of the magical star –like blossoms that were already in bloom in my east garden, surprising the plump bumble bee who was pollinating the white flowers. I say magical because bloodroot is believed to be a very ancient plant with mysterious poisonous properties. Indigenous peoples used the dark red sap found in the stems and roots of this plant to make red orange and yellow dye.
I was still on my knees when I noticed the bear scat to my left. Getting up to investigate the copious pile near my brush pile I realized immediately that the small 40 lb. yearling that I had seen last night – the first bear of the season – had not left this giant calling card for me! The yearling must have been followed by an adult … Could that be why the little bear pulled the can half way down the hill before toppling it? This morning I also observed that in the front of the house under the pines (where I leave seed for the birds) a bear had methodically raked up seed with sharp claws and lapped up all the water in the bird-bath during the night. I assumed it was the little bear who also ate this seed and drank the water but now I wondered… I thought uneasily of the bad tempered adult male bear who had taken a number of bites out of my log cabin on a few occasions during the past couple of years… I fervently hoped that this scat did not belong to this grumpy old guy that weighed about 350 lbs., but if it did there was little I could do about it.
One of the amazing things I had learned from this particular wildflower garden is that the plants the bears stomped on year after year while passing through “chose” to situate themselves in places where the bears didn’t have regular pathways. So in recent years most of my woodland flowers remained in tact, except for the lady slippers. Meandering black bears bit their heads off year after year. I couldn’t help laughing. Bears could be unpredictable but were also quite amusing to have as neighbors.
When I rounded the house I noted the first dandelion blooming in a crack between my granite steps. I am the only person I know that brings dandelion seeds home to scatter around my property. Bees love them and I make a tincture out of their roots leaves and stems to support my immune and digestive system. I also discovered two blooming white violets in the same crevice. Most of the woodland purple and white violet leaves were barely visible, and my favorites, the tiny white marsh violets were still asleep. I groaned inwardly recalling how many violets I planted over the years to get them to naturalize. Now they greeted me in the field, the brook, the woods, around the house, and in all of my gardens.
When I walked down to the brook I checked on the progress of the wake robin or purple trillium that was not yet in bloom. The marsh marigolds had fat buds too. I guessed that they would open this week. How much I loved the sun drenched marsh marigolds… as a child I vividly remember my mother, my little brother and I searching for them in the marshes each spring. I noted that the fragrant trailing arbutus were just waking up. I also used to lie on the ground at my grandparents’ house so that I could smell the sweet white and pink flowers that were hidden on the underside of the hairy stems of the arbutus. My mother had successfully transplanted the slow growing, leathery- leaved ground plant that she dug out of the ground in New Hampshire. Because trailing arbutus has a reciprocal relationship with a fungus it is very hard to transplant, and it is protected in many states. Thankfully I have many pockets of trailing arbutus around the brook that usually bloom on Mother’s day, now only a week away if we get rain. Even at 70 I will be dropping to the ground to smell the fragrant flowers whenever they come. There is something about bowing to Nature’s Wildflowers that moves me deeply…Right Relationship is All, some wise person once said.
Long before I knew anything about pre – christian traditions my little brother and I would gather the first May flowers and create beautiful bouquets for our mother and grandmother on May Day. At school we danced around a maypole festooned with ribbons – each child took hold of a ribbon – girls weaving in one direction and the boys weaving in the opposite until we met at the bottom of the maypole that was now completely covered with fabric. I loved these simple rituals of flower gathering and dancing around a maypole as a child not understanding that I was participating in ancient traditions.
As an adult, after discovering the women’s spirituality movement I too adopted the wheel of the year and began to write and celebrate my own rituals. I wondered why each seemed eerily “familiar” to me. May Day or Beltane, is one of the eight spokes of the wheel, the time to celebrate the greening: the holy waters of the well (and rain), the first flowers, and the sanctity of trees. The custom of decorating a maypole/or tree with ribbons and flowers was found all over Europe. The intention behind these customs was to bring to each home the blessings of the tree spirits and to celebrate the coming of spring. Both the tree and the maypole can also be understood as a manifestations of the World Tree.
I often wonder if my mother who was a visual artist had access to some of these ancient traditions on an unconscious level because she seemed to pass something of this “knowing” onto her daughter especially through her love of certain trees and wild woodland flowers. I remember how disappointed I was at 40 that she dismissed my excitement over discovering the winter solstice as an ancient tradition when she was the one that I followed into the woods as a child to collect greens for our Christmas (winter solstice) wreaths. I think in her own way she participated in the Great Round just as I am doing today.
As I close this May Day narrative, I give thanks for having a mother who was able to instill in her daughter a deep and abiding love for Nature, a love that would continue to sustain her, as well as to act as a guardian and guide as she now makes her way through her elder years.