“Secrets are generally terrible. Beauty is not hidden, only ugliness and deformity.”L.M. Montgomery
As I hiked this past Sunday, I was looking very closely at a wall of rocks. I have hiked here before and was on the hunt for spring wildflowers. I remember this wall as one of the first places I have seen Heuchera americana (Coral Bells) growing in the wild.
I do that. I remember the wild places I first saw plants I know well from nurseries and garden centers and gardens. I remember the Pine Barren creek where I first saw Itea virginica (Sweetspire) and the Pine Barrens lake where I saw Sarracenia purpurea (Pitcher Plants) and Drosera sp. (Sundews) growing wild. My first wild PawPaw (Asimina triloba) patch along the Potomac River. I remember my first wild Gentiana andrewsii (Bottle Gentian) viewed from the cockpit of my whitewater boat and my sister’s patience as I delighted in seeing a wild Hydrangea quercifolia (Oakleaf Hydrangea) for the first time in a Mississippi forest. The pine needle strewn forest floor in New England where I saw my first Lady Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium acaule). The place where I first witnessed the majesty of a Sequoia sempervirens (Coast Redwood) is indelibly etched in my mind.
On occasion I get back to these places and revisit those plants. And on this hike I was on the search for my rock-face-hanging Coral Bells. While searching, three types of ferns I saw clinging to this wall, Early Saxifrage ( in bloom, and Columbine leaves with tight buds just above the moss hinting of the red and yellow spectacle to come all came into view. I did find Coral Bells too.
On this day I also noticed some one had tucked little non-natural treasures into the tapestry of moss, roots and leaves. I found a tiny duck, a little bunny, a unicorn and a turquoise snake.
So here I was, nose inches from the wall, investigating these tiny treasures when I hear a woman with a dog behind me. “Excuse me,” she says, “I am nosy. What are you looking at?”
“Plants,” I tell her, “I am a horticulturist.”
“Oh” she says. She goes on to tell me how she grew up in the area and nearly 70 years ago she remembers seeing Jack-in-the-Pulpits (she describes them and asks me if that’s the correct name and I tell her yes) and how she fell in love with them. She was amazed by them and remembers seeing them everywhere, but as she got older, she didn’t see them as much and then they disappeared. Almost 70 years later, she told me, she was hiking back in this same spot and there was a Jack-in-the-Pulpit. She said she was so excited. It brought back so many happy memories of her childhood and she was surprised. It looked like the only one around.
“So I dug it up and took it home.” she shares with me, in a hushed tone that speaks to understanding this was wrong.
I wasn’t expecting that. And in that moment I have a choice to proselytize or allow us to each carry on the purpose that day’s mission. I opt out of a lecture or admonishment and laugh when she tells me her friend told her “Why did you take that one, I have hundreds in my back yard!” and when she said she wants her grandkids to marvel at it in her back yard as she did when she was a kid, I refrain from mentioning all the people that will not get to see it.
As we parted ways, her heading up hill for a trek around the perimeter and me heading down towards water, we talked about how much there is to see here and how beautiful it is.
As her footsteps faded I thought about the secret places I have found plants in my wanders that I resist posting photos of on instagram or telling too many about. The endangered plants, the treasured mushrooms, the exquisite orchids. The plants I burst into tears when I find. The plants where I actually do a little dance of delight when I happen upon them.
(Prepare for all of this if you choose to hike with me: nose inches from wet walls of moss for what feels like an eternity, talking to strangers about plants, tears of joy, dances of delight)
I am constantly torn. I know conservationists and botanists working for municipalities who will not divulge the locations of rare and endangered plants for fear someone will poach (wild collect) them, as that woman did with the very common Jack-in-the-Pulpit. But I am a firm believer that people will only protect and save what they know and connect with and so it is important for the future of our wild places, to connect people to these wonders of nature.
So what do we do to protect a species? Do we hide it away, never to be seen, like some rare gem or piece of artwork in a vault, worried that someone will take the last one? Teaching people about it through photos on powerpoint slides? Having them imagine the combination of trickling water, humusy scent of the woods, the bird songs that only exist in this combination in this particular habitat?
Or do we show people where they are, talk about the habitat that is threatened and why, tell people how they can help the species, let them know that the reason it exists here is because it can only exist here – that their backyards will not support this special plant and so we need to protect this exact space here and now, and let them know why saving this plant species is important.
What would you do?
Is it true, what Lucy Maude Montgomery says? That “Secrets are generally terrible. Beauty is not hidden, only ugliness and deformity.” Or can it be that beautiful things remain secret too, for their own good?