This year is the first since my stroke that I have been able to spend hours outside exploring the awe-inspiring display of flowering plants that is such an intregal part of spring. My dear friend, Karen Sjoholm, has been my companion for the past 20 years in the delightful task of discovering the colors, shapes, textures and scents that are wildflowers. My passion for this gift of nature however began long before we met. The following story is a brief glimpse into that part of my life.
In the spring parts of me begin to wake up from a winter’s long deep sleep. I feel a stirring under my skin, my eyes open wider, my grin is longer and the wrinkles that smiling create run deeper. I love going outside and feeling the warmth of the sun as I admire the many flowers, the trees budding out, the new green shoots emerging from the earth. I took a wonderful walk yesterday in the Botanical Gardens in Tilden Park. They must have had 4 or 5 different kinds of fawn lilies in bloom, those rare early spring beauties that take my breath away. Imagine every different color of a dozen cean0this all deeply fragrant and surrounded by swarms of fuzzy honeybees.
Many years ago, I fell in love with wildflowers. I carried a field guide with me during college summers spent working in remote Christmas tree plantations deep in the Appalachians. Later, I took that same dog-earned volume with me into Duke Forest and then Redwood Park in the East Bay Hills. I remember the day, although not the date, that I realized that I recognized more than half of the wildflowers I encountered and knew their common names. The achievement might have been the culmination of years of self-study, but to me it was a sign that it was time for me to get really serious about this exploration of the botanical world.
I signed up for a class at the Academy of Science called California Wildflower Identification. Four years later I had taken the same class three times. I also took some related classes and went on dozens of field trips with my instructors. I photographed hundreds of wildflowers and arranged them in albums according to family and genus. My friend Karen joined me on a number of trips to track down flowers we had heard of or places were they grew in abundance. I fantasized of taking a year off to follow the progression of blossoms from the coast to the high sierra. Like a modern day John Muir, I would trek just west of the snowline, on foot, kneeling and marveling as I went, at the divine beauty that rests in each wild flower.
I never did take that trip in real life. And the world is not much like it was during John Muir’s youth when he walked through fields knee deep in wildflowers for as far as the eye could see. Instead, I packed the car and drove to some amazing places. Table Mountain outside of Oroville has got to be the best. At least as far as massive meadows awash with color goes. A purple lupine hillside would melt down to a stream marking a boundary between those resplendent annuals and the pink money-flowers and owl’s clover on the other side. Around the bend and acre of shiny yellow buttercups swirled amongst white popcorn flower and pale sun cups with their many stamens.
I have sat in the mud under redwoods to smell the acrid fetid adders tongue and climbed down steep paths to admire the deep red Wake Robin trillium. There is one trail in Mt. Tam where fuchsia pink calypso orchids bloom under the Douglas fir on one side of a fire road, and baby blue eyes carpet the other. Which way to turn? This time of year I dream of shooting stars poking their pink heads above the green grass. There are so many. Too many. How wonderful.
The Regional Parks Botanical Garden is located in Tilden Park, Berkeley CA. It is the largest botanical garden in the state devoted to native plants. Dr. Glenn Keator teaches botany, leads field trips and has written several books on native California plants. I studied with him at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco. Duke Forest is located on the outskirts of Durham, NC where I lived before moving to California in 1978. Karen and I have hiked over 2000 miles on the trails of Mt. Tam in Marin County. Mt. Tamalpais State Park and adjacent public land comprise one of the most beautiful places in the world. Although the best spring display of wildflowers I have ever seen was at Table Mountain outside Oroville.
Karen Sjoholm is both a faculty member and administrator for the Arts and Consciousness Graduate Program at JFK University. Her office is down the hall and around the corner from their art gallery and classrooms in Berkeley, CA. On the weekends she goes hiking.