Taking time to notice, describe and appreciate the precise beauties in our own backyards, as Kevin McKelvey does here, is a common theme in Indiana nature writing
My yard mowing is neglectful, but I wouldn’t say negligent. I haven’t mowed under the big beeches and maples in our front yard since we moved here three years ago so I could see what would pop up among the daffodils and daylilies. Garlic mustard and bush honeysuckle, which I know to get rid of course, and lesser celandine, which I mistook for marsh marigold until nearly finishing this essay. A couple weeks ago, it was the first bright green of spring and covered most of the unmowed expanse. Their yellow flowers remind us of the forgotten sun before their leaves die back in summer, but it’s spread so much, and I might spend the rest of the summer digging out its tubers.
Two days ago, on the last day of April, our two flowering dogwoods in the beech and maple’s understory fully bloomed their white blooms—seemingly all at once. A couple days earlier, I noticed the first blooms at the top, shimmering white, partially open, parallel to the ground. The trees are tall, old, double-trunked, and maybe they grew from the stumps of earlier dogwoods. And their synchronized blooming, hundreds of blooms white and stark and facing the sky, comforted me.
Being at home of late, we’ve had more time to pull weeds, to get ahead of the garlic mustard, to be outside, to be more aware, to think about time. But generally, our weed pulling is negligent. Do you know that pokeweed can grow ten feet tall over two seasons? They—yes, they—were majestic and full, an excellent screen to rival any shrub or tree. Their dark purple berries on pink racemes mesmerized me into thinking they’re not poisonous, but their purple stains on arms and hands and clothes reminded me.
In my years of neglect, a redbud sprouted under the biggest pokeweed nearest the street, and I spared its heart-shaped leaves on the knee-high stems when I finally cut out the pokeweeds two years ago. Last year, the tree grew to chest height, and the multiple stems were obviously individual trunks forming more of a shrub. This year, somehow, already, while blooming, the redbud is twice as tall as last year, like it grew over the winter, and I realized the multiple trunks probably sprouted from the stump of a redbud I never knew existed.
And for the first time this year, I have noticed how many of my neighbors have multiple redbuds, a corridor of magenta flowers along the street. The flowers are the size of your pinkie finger nail, and their five petals stay tightly closed waiting for long-tongued bees like carpenter bees to pollinate them. Once pollinated, they grow into seeds that look like dark-brown snow peas. The five petals offer the full color range of magenta: two stick up like pink rabbit ears, and the bottom two clench like purple fists to protect the pistol and stamens, and the middle petal, purple on bottom and pink on top, plays both defender and attractant.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been forced to slow down, and in losing the intrusion and distraction of our former daily lives, we have found renewal: we have time to notice, to let things go, to begin something new and finish others, to stare and gaze and peer, to wait for surprises. Scott Russell Sanders writes about this in Staying Put or Writing from the Center. Ann Zwinger wrote widely about western rivers and focused on her home river, the White River in her native Muncie, in The Near-sighted Naturalist. And Ross Gay explores this in his poems and in his new essays, The Book of Delights. Todd Davis’ poetry engages closely with place.
Last weekend, when my wife was almost finished pulling the garlic mustard under the big trees, she called the kids and me over to look at a couple of flowers made up of three red-purple petals. I couldn’t identify it, but I looked it up online. Red trillium. Or purple trillium or wake robin or bethroot or stinking Benjamin. A forest native. The flower smells like rotting flesh to attract carrion flies for pollination. Red trillium is not really red or purple, but the maroon color that blood dries to from a scratch on your arm. The wake robin name comes from the red breast of the European Robin and its spring arrival. Bethroot is bastardized from birth root since the roots can induce childbirth and ease pain during delivery.
Tonight at dusk, while picking flowers from dogwoods and redbuds, I saw one red trillium and then ten of them, a dozen paces from the ones my wife discovered. Clustered a few inches apart, they probably share the same rhizomes just under the surface. In twilight, dark red becomes a fathomless black, but the white dogwood blooms above me glinted with the hope of stars and moons and planets.
Kevin McKelvey is the director of the Social Practice Art program and Associate Professor of English at University of Indianapolis. He grew up outside Lebanon, Indiana, and attended DePauw University. Before coming to UIndy, he taught full time at Purdue University and part time at IUPUI and DePauw University. Currently, he's a member of the Big Car Collective and active in the organization's place-making initiatives at Service Center for Contemporary Culture and Community and other places around the city. He also serves as a board vice-president for Second Story, a local organization that helps kids with creative writing, and on the board of Central Indiana Land Trust.