Essay: Colleen Anderson's life list
June 4, 2012 ·
When I was young, my elderly friend Wil Morse said to me, “If you want to be a poet, you would do well to acquaint yourself with the names of trees and wildflowers.” And he took me for a walk and showed me spring beauty and bluets.
Wil’s advice was good, and not just
for the would-be poet. As I grow old myself, one of my great joys is
identifying the plants and animals I know.
Gradually, over the years, the
indefinite mass of mostly green has become a richness of separate and
particular shapes, like an unfocused image slowly getting sharper. And each
familiar shape is an old friend, someone I would recognize anywhere.
as seeing a friend on the street—or hearing a familiar voice—gives me pleasure,
knowing the shapes and colors and sounds and names of the natural world
enriches my life.
there’s a deeper pleasure. Often, when I come across a particular plant or
animal, I am reminded of the person who introduced us in the first place—the
one who taught me to name it.
I see trillium or bloodroot in spring, or the pawpaw tree in any season, I
think of my friend Neal, who taught me all of them. To help me remember the
tulip poplar, he made up a silly song with a repeating chorus of “Liriodendron
wild columbine brings Jo to mind, as does the chanterelle, and I see Ren’s
lovely face behind every lady slipper.
returns to me in the call of a wood thrush. I think of Sheila when I hear the
chitter of a nuthatch. And I could never hear a veery’s song without
remembering the misty midsummer morning when Rebecca led me up a Cheat Mountain
trail to listen to that bird for the first time.
fall, the blue spikes of lobelia bring back Tim, and Neal arrives again with
the flowering of witch hazel in November. Even in deep winter, my friends are
with me: I remember a snowy day of hiking at Tygart Lake State Park, when Betsy
taught me to spot the winter leaves of the putty root.
never mentioned the human bonus to learning the names of plants and animals. He
was wise in many ways; I expect he wanted me to discover that extra pleasure
for myself. And I think I see him winking up at me from every bluet along the