The northern reaches of the Navarino Wildlife Area are just south of Highway T, where Jerusalem Lutheran Church still stands, an immaculately maintained, white, wooden, steepled-structure with a footprint no bigger than a two-car garage. But narrower. With a gated cemetery. The land begins to rise north of Highway T as ridges and hills – a mini-driftless area. But Navarino begins to the south as flat, wetland forest. The map says cedar forest, though I only saw a few cedars. The trails, logging roads compacted by tree-eating machines, are rivers; the woods are swamps. I headed south from the northernmost parking lot for 45 minutes, leaping from one mossy mound to the next through deciduous woods. I grew tired of it. Relentlessly impassable. On the way back to the parking lot, I was impatient for the two dry stretches of the trail, wondering exasperated: will I ever get back?
I drove east, and at two of the three other northernmost parking lots, it was the same story. I walked south from higher ground deep into wooded swamps. The system of trails at the third parking lot was the most extensive. I needed to mark my way with arrows made of broken sticks arranged at intersecting trails. I headed mostly south, but also west when I could, to try to reach the rest of the Navarino trails that are on one of the maps, trails that traverse the sedge meadow I was in last week. I felt like the 15th century explorers looking for the Northwest Passage. Which took 300 years.
Near the end of the day, the sun was warming the waters of the thinning woods. I saw a wide meadow ahead and grew impatient to reach it. Maybe it’s the sedge meadow! The sun was shining on the water which was everywhere on the forest floor. I saw a frog. No markings. Like he was made of mud. Like Adam on Day One. I saw a ribbon snake, slowly coiling, dark red tongue flickering, lingering. His skin was still cold to the touch. He was wondering if I were Eve.
Skunk cabbage has proliferated, their unfurling, pointed husks are often large now; the flowers within are sometimes more brown than cream-colored. Especially on the edge of the wood where the sun had awakened the frog and the snake, a few brown ferns stood in pairs, two feet tall, the tiny leaves of the only slightly bending fronds so intricate.
And only one other sign of spring. On the mossy or muddy clumps and ridges from which I was leaping from one to another, carefully avoiding, of course, each and every skunk cabbage flower, were the very next flowers of spring in this swampy place: the flat, lily pad-shaped leaves of marsh marigolds, often sprouting a stem of flower buds that I could see were not going to open on that day, but on the next day when it has been forecast to be sunny again and warmer still. To be here tomorrow when the swampy forest will be full of blooming marsh marigolds: I will miss that.
But on that day there was a flower, even if only one. For more than an hour I had walked in that swamp, and I had seen only one marsh marigold bud flowering. So I knelt before it to take its picture as close as I could. I still don’t know how to use my camera (no time to read instruction books), so it took a long time, maybe fifteen minutes, each of my movements to bring myself closer to the flower, plunging my knee or my forearm deeper into the mud. But it was the first marsh marigold! It was worth the muddy immersion.
Some, largely Brits who have a king, call marsh marigolds king cup because its flower resembles a golden goblet from which their kings apparently drank. Its scientific name, caltha palustris, comes from a word in one of the forms of the ancient Greek language: kalathos meaning "goblet" combined with the Latin word, palustris, meaning “of the swamp.” Why the king’s out drinking in the swamp is a mystery. But apparently he is. Others in medieval Europe, perhaps no friends of the king, called the flower marsh marigold, because of a custom of bringing them to churches during the Easter season to honor Mary, the mother of King Jesus.
A website of a landscaper is very concerned about marsh marigolds invading suburban housing developments, gaining footholds at the swampy edges of immaculate lawns, because to handle mature marsh marigolds with bare hands is to risk blistering and rashes. So the landscaper thinks this beautiful flower is a pest. The roots are deep, warns the diligent lawn care professional, making it particularly resistant to eradication. To which I must say I’m glad! Because it’s a lovely flower. Why would you want to rid the world of it?
I rose up from taking a picture of the marsh marigold, storing my camera in its case, limbs now sore and sleeping. Where the watery trail had been distinguished from the rest of the watery woods, the forest floor all around me now looked exactly the same. No path through it was apparent. The bright field of meadow straw beckoned to the west, but looking east, into the darkening woods, the trail was no more. Lost again. Lost in the wonder of marsh marigolds. Lost at the end of the day the first one bloomed. Lost with a frog and a snake.
Having been lost in the woods a couple times now in the last seven years, I remained somewhat more calm. I knew the trail headed east to a dead end road parking lot, though if I went too far south I’d miss it. I followed the compass east. The other clue I had was red paint on trees, some circles, some private’s stripes, some X’s, apparently marking trees to be spared when the DNR decides to hire the tree-eaters to trash the place. Or maybe marking a future road for the tree-eaters to follow. The marks were not ubiquitous. There was a wide band of them generally running east – west. But, to my amazement, nothing anywhere looked like a trail.
It’s no surprise that there are many tales of bewitched forests from Tolkien’s Mirkwood to the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. But the snake I saw did not tempt me to call the professionals to uproot the marigolds or to eat the trees. Though I was lost, I had no need for toxins or machines to save me. The muddy frog, freshly molded by the hands of God: he was there. And golden flowers for Mary, the theotokos, the bearer of God as she’s known to Orthodox Christians: they had just begun to bloom. And a golden cup for the real King awaited his arrival to drink and make merry. What had I to fear?