PRAIRIE WOODS AND WILD FLOWERS

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As soon as school was over, all the little girls were off to the woods. A crowd of us together, in jackets and caps and rubbers, went flying down the cold, muddy road. We must go to the woods nearest town—a small oak grove, belonging to some mysterious farmer, hedged in with a rusted barbed-wire fence from a pasture where fierce cattle were popularly supposed to wander. Some of the most venturesome of us would lie down in the withered leaves and roll under this fence, careful of mud holes where the cattle had stepped, to find a bloodroot. All the little paths were buried deep in old brown leaves. The limestone rocks had a cold, wet smell. Moss was beginning to thicken on them; and in shallow holes were water, dead ferns, and new, bright leaves. There was something ancient and fresh at the same time, something that subdued our shrill voices as we poked about among the leaves and mould to find the first wake-robins.

It was different on those days when I drove out with my mother in the buggy. Then, while the two women found plants for their baskets, I went softly about alone, never out of call. They used to let me get a drink for them at the spring. It flowed out from under the limestone. The ground about it was trampled and wet. It made a dark, bright pool under the rock, with one long ripple in it, then flowed out bright and shallow into the creek. There were white clamshells under the water. I had to step gingerly upon the stones that lay half in the pool, brace myself against a rock, and lean perilously over. I drew out one of the shells from the sand where it was half embedded, held it to the ripple until it was washed clean. It was mysterious and wonderful to dip it into the water and drink, feeling the chipped edge of the shell against my lips, the cold, clear water. I always had one drink from the shell—a secret with myself—before I carried a cupful to my mother.

They always brought something good in the basket. Sandwiches and an apple, a piece of homemade cake. We found some dry place and ate them. I lay back on the sun-warmed grass, trying to make them forget that I was there, listening with a dreamy intentness to the grown-up talk.

All my memories of the spring woods come together in one May day when four of us went with baskets to gather flowers for the church—four, and a collie dog. We met at the little wooden bridge over the creek near a pasture. I remember waiting, leaning on the scarred, battered rail carved all over with initials. A cool air came up from the water. It swished the long grasses and gushed into silver over the rocks—shallow, rushing, making a clear springtime burble. . . . The little town lay off to the west, impersonal and strange, a picture I was looking upon—the white houses motionless among the trees, the brown road rising in the distance, a wagon rattling slowly along with an old man bowed over the reins on the high seat. . . . There was a sense of vastness in the way trees were set here and there on the sweep and slope of the great earth, their trunks so still, their upper branches blurred with buds moving against the blue. On the south, the soft, smooth swell of the rolling pastures, earth-brown, pale green, emerald, and from them, birds calling in long-drawn sighs of peace. . . .

There was a wooden fence-gate to open and fasten again with an old wire. A little trampled path led over the swell of the low hills. I followed it, after the others, feeling my face grow warm and damp under my hat. I saw how they stepped eagerly and softly, on the lookout for flowers. I stopped on the hilltop. My skirts stirred slightly, blew back. A joy strained at my heart, like a tree pulling at its roots in a spring wind. The air was divinely fresh, the sun warm over us, the earth sweet under us—the swelling fields, the bird song, the motionless, sun-drenched sweetness. . . .

I could see the other girls bending over, moving a little, kneeling as in the motions of some strange, slow dance. They beckoned. They were finding buttercups, short-stemmed, shining and yellow, making sudden happy patches of gold among the bright green grass. They aroused in us the lust of flower-getting. We stepped warily, wide awake, eager now.

Down one slope and up another—suddenly, on the hillside, a bird’s-foot violet, another—oh, blue blue patches of them! We were down among the flowers, our fingers sinking into the petals as into pools of blue water, feeling the cool stems and the moist, secret touch of the cooler earth. “Come here! . . . Oh, I can’t leave these!” We called rapturously to each other, with little sudden shrieks and sighing cries. Voices drifted back as if from great distances, as if across water. A mystic feeling seemed to set us far apart and yet drew us together with a joyous secret bond. At first we exclaimed over each pale blue flower face, with its fine black lines, its frosting of down, the faint red at its heart, but as we found more, and more, and more, we could only move from one of those blue pools to another, always finding one more perfect than the last.

Then there was the moment of getting surfeited with bloom, the secret, lonely moment when I rested on the spring grass, leaning on one hand so that it pressed down against the cool, damp grass roots. Blossoms lured me—one almost white, big and frosty pure, one of a deep purple-blue. Old thoughts came over me, but faintly, like a shadow—no more than the shadow of a cloud across the pasture.