I knew the word referred to a flower, though I was, for some reason, thinking lobelias were the kind of flowers you can buy at a greenhouse to plant every year in a hanging basket. I wasn’t thinking they’re wild flowers. I had never seen a lobelia: not in a basket, not in the woods.
Until last Monday.
I’ve explored several trails originating in parking lots on the northern and eastern border of the Navarino Wildlife Area. Most are dead ends, logging roads for tree-eating machines that end wherever there are no more trees marked for slaughter. One trail connects a northern parking lot to an eastern one. One parking lot appeared to have no trail leaving it whatsoever. I have one parking lot to explore yet. Last Monday, the last trail I tried out was a logging road leading into a space the size of a couple of football fields scattered with the bones of trees in the midst of which six-foot sprouts of basswood leaves waved in the wind. Leaving the clearing, a golden road of forest sunflowers flowed into the dark woods for a while. The road became a foot path, its hard, flat, gray, cracked clay apparent occasionally. When I came to the West Branch of the Shioc River the trail ended. When I turned around, I couldn’t tell where I had just been walking. The green of ferns, of large-leafed saplings, and of distant, leaf-laden branches drooping, swallowed me. Even the light was green. To quote a famous frog, “It’s not easy being green.”
Wandering south to see if I could find the trail again, I leapt across the river where it had swerved into my path. But then, considering my predicament, I decided I needed to head east again so that eventually I’d run into the road. Heading east forced me to cross the river again. It was tough to find a place to cross, because the river had once been twelve feet wide but was now a four-foot stream with four feet of fresh mud on either side, mud that looked watery enough to swallow a calf. My calf, that is. I found a log that crossed both the mud and the stream and headed east away from that strange tributary. Strange, because nothing grew in it: there were no plants or weeds or algae in it, no rocks, only clear water running over mud. Many frogs leapt into the stream; they must have eaten all the mosquito larvae while they were tadpoles, because there were no mosquitoes in that woods. When that stream had been twelve feet wide, I imagine there was some power to its flow, maybe making it hard for mosquito larvae to thrive at all. What all those tadpoles who had become frogs ate is anyone’s guess. Maybe lost hikers. Because there were a lot of frogs.
Luckily the sun was out and my phone battery had not died, which it does for no apparent reason from time to time. I have yet to learn to control the power settings on a cell phone, how to tell it, for example, not to search for e-mails or facebook notifications that are swarming around me, while still keeping it capable of receiving calls. Maybe that’s not even possible. I haven’t a clue. And frankly, I have absolutely no interest in entering into the labyrinthine flowchart of a smartphone’s brain. Waste of time. It’s not like I’d find a lobelia there.
If the phone battery had died and if clouds had obscured the sun (which they did later that afternoon), I don’t know how I would have been able to get home. I suppose the river roughly flowing north to south would have given me east and west. Then it would have been a matter of carefully siting and reaching eastern landmarks. When you’re lost, it’s easy to walk in circles.
Using the phone’s compass, it wasn’t long before a change in light revealed the clearing made by the tree-eaters. Which was not fun to cross. Smooth bones of trees, crisscrossing, many layers deep.
While I was still lost in the woods, the only color other than the gray-brown mud of the Shioc and the green of the woods was an occasional stalk of scarlet flowers, like dots of scarlet paint on a canvas unceremoniously slathered with green paint. I was not very anxious about being lost, but anxious enough, apparently, that I did not stop to take a picture of those slender stems of red trumpets. It was a lot easier to find the picture of those flowers on the internet. The picture was labeled “public domain,” though “the public” is not likely ever to see the flowers I saw. They’re likely gone already. So it’s written:
As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over flowers, and they are gone, and their place knows them no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him. Psalm 103:15-18
Later I learned those flowers are called lobelias cardinalis, scarlet lobelias or cardinal flowers. Their trumpets are apparently not something into which insect pollinators are particularly anxious to crawl, so their only pollinators are hummingbirds, whose long beaks and agility uniquely equip them for the task. How hummingbirds find this socially distanced congregation of lobelias is anyone’s guess, although hummingbirds manage to find South America every year. Without a compass. Or a phone. Or a map. The steadfast love of the Lord extends even to the smallest of birds. Somehow they’re never lost.
For that matter, neither was I.