I had planned to explore a part of the Navarino Wildlife Area new to me on Good Friday afternoon: a sedge meadow that makes up its far northeast corner.
Yes, I suppose it seems a bit incongruous for a pastor to be wandering around in a sedge meadow on the day our Lord was suffering on the cross. This year, Good Friday worship was held, recorded, uploaded, and/or posted on Thursday. It’s not like Jesus was crucified on Friday, April 10, 33 A.D. And the reflections on my walk led me to stories of attacks on God more recent than we care to admit.
The sedge meadow trailhead is at the dead end of the South Town Line Road. The trail is marked with signs on new green steel posts (the price sticker still clung to one). The watery ruts in the trail reminded me of the strange vehicle I saw the last time I was at Navarino: four small caterpillar tracks carrying a cab. Even though I tried walking between the ruts or alongside them, the flattened grass there only occasionally held my weight. The entire sedge meadow, I discovered, was full of water, a perfect example, apparently, of the landform known as a wetland. The DNR describes the meadow as “minimally disturbed” and therefore home to lots of native plants including:
bluejoint grass, woolly-fruit sedge, fowl manna-grass, fringed brome, cord-grass, northern bog goldenrod, panicled aster, Joe-pye weed, green bulrush, wool-grass, grass-leaved goldenrod, Michigan lily, sensitive fern, swamp rose, and early meadow-rue.
None of which I saw, partly because I have no idea what some of them look like and partly because it’s pretty early in the spring. Trying to keep from slipping off the matted grass into the watery ruts was a feat that threatened to sprain an ankle or a knee, so after about ¾ of a mile of it, I turned back.
It was then that I saw a native plant unaccountably left off the DNR list: skunk cabbage. Skunk cabbage may be one of the earliest flowers of spring, and it’s certainly a strange one. A thick, teardrop-shaped, purple husk with white speckles rising about six inches out of the watery mud houses a cream-colored globe sprouting tiny flowers that eventually becomes a thick, four-inch stalk. I had never seen this plant before; I had no idea what it was, nor that its early rising and blooming has to do with its ability to generate heat, which helps it pierce the frozen ground and snow and waft its apparently skunky stench aloft. Others report it reeks of rotting flesh.
With this fragrance, the skunk cabbage attracts the only pollinators alive at this time of year, a few of whom I saw later buzzing in circles in shafts of light falling to the forest floor: flies. Thinking the skunk cabbage is a corpse for whom the shroud of snow had been recently destroyed by the sun, flies pollinate its flower and seek shelter in its vile warmth, especially when late spring snows surprise us. Once pollinated, the skunk cabbage flowers create seeds that are carried off by creatures or floods, so the plant is fruitful and multiplies.
To the skunk cabbage then, death is merely a mask it wears for a time by which it pretends to be a part of the crucial process of transforming spent life into fertile earth. There are some places where the vital work of returning nutrients to the soil is extremely difficult. In his book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez reminds us that because the time for this task is greatly reduced by the ever-impending arctic winter, the tundra’s soil is poor, allowing life only a precarious foothold:
Almost everywhere you wander on the open tundra you find whole dead leaves, preserved flower parts, and bits of twig, years of undisturbed organic accumulation. Decomposition in the Arctic is exceedingly slow, work that must be accomplished by even fewer organisms operating for even shorter periods of time … little humus builds up. p. 26.
Kneeling before the skunk cabbage in the matted grass, my knees are soon immersed in icy, muddy water. It takes me several minutes to learn how to take a close-up shot of this drama unfolding, this proclamation and re-enactment of a resurrection not unlike the one we’ll celebrate in a few days, even in this grim season of death.
In a remarkably prophetic description of a 2012 visit to a market in Wuhan, China, Lopez, in his newest book Horizon (2018), reveals the reason behind the culinary practices which have allegedly been the nursery for the present plague:
Merchants were shouldering their way through with plastic buckets of butchered meat. Others were carrying strings of ulcerated fish from the Yangtze [River], water in which I had seen all manner of waste floating … Live monkeys and other small mammals, hedgehogs among them, stared out from the confines of screened metal cages. In one booth, wicker trays of dead crickets and heaps of caterpillars were on display, beneath a kind of clothesline from which dozens of sparrow-like birds hung by their feet … It was the future, the years to come, when we would begin killing and consuming every living thing. p. 32, italics mine.
Unlike skunk cabbage for whom death is a mask used for the perpetuation of life, for humans death is an increasingly desperate vocation, whether it be for food or for fossil fuel or lumber or “precious” metals: we are killing the earth. And ourselves. With little provision for restoring the life we take.
What hope is there? “Our hope comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121), and earth, like the skunk cabbage but obviously on a grander scale, can graciously give us everything we need to share to provide plenty and peace for all.