Essays and Sermons

These days I walk the Indian Trail alone. When the children were young and we walked this trail together, “Indian Trail” was the name we gave it. In the thick of the woods, along the crest of a hill, it was easy to imagine the Indians, who in an earlier time, might have walked these same paths. Easy too for the children to imagine that they were Indians in stealthy pursuit of wild prey — though the stealthy part almost always eluded them. After all these years, the name has stuck.

I live on the shore of Lake Michigan, and this Indian Trail meanders through woods behind the house. Once sandy, windblown ridges, these back dunes are now covered with evergreens, maples, silver beeches and lush woodland fauna. There isn’t a season that these woods aren’t full of the miracles of life and the mysteries of death. We tracked the passage of time in the turning of seasons.

Each spring the buds open in fresh yellow green leaf and then, sun drenched, turn the darker hue of summer shade. Another turn of the earth and the leaves gleamed yellow, this time with only a vestige of green, first sign that the dying had begun. Though there would still be one last hurrah of shocking autumn color, we knew that winter could not be far behind.

They were rich, those days of woods walking and raising children. Exhausting too. My mother told me, as once her mother had told her, that the solitude I craved in those years when the children were young and omnipresent, would arrive on my doorstep, crook its beckoning finger and invite me to more peaceful walks in the woods.

Now, having arrived and survived, I see another time ahead, just around the corner really. The crook of that next finger will not be as welcome. I glimpse a time when there may be more solitude than I need — as there is for my mother, now entering her eighties, alone in a life too quiet without my father. I don’t need my mother to caution me to savor this meantime in between.

As winter turns to spring along the lakeshore, I walk the Indian Trail in search of trillium. I make pilgrimage to honor what I know is fleeting,for like most woodland flowers, the trillium’s blossoms make the briefest of appearances in the scheme of green seasons. That is, unless the spring is longer and cooler than usual. Then the blooms might linger nearly a month as opposed to a mere week or two. But inevitably the blossoms wither, leaving behind only tri-part leafy foliage for the duration of summer.

Usually trillium are scattered about the woods in small clusters of three or four, nestled near a fallen tree, sprouting where others grew the year before, multiplying slowly by ones and twos. It is rare to find them, as I do along our Indian Trail, cascading down the hillside by the thousands, so close together that they appear like a layer of white icing, with the rare pink trillium blossoms dotted here and there like decorative roses on a bakery birthday cake.

Christianity has claimed the trillium as religious symbol of the Trinity’s three-in-oneness. With three broad green leaves below, three pristine petals above, it offers a reflection of a divine mystery — God as Creator, Son and Spirit.

I claim the trillium as religious symbol too, but as reminder of resurrection for where they bloom in rare profusion, these trillium resurrect an innocent wonder. I can’t get enough of looking at them. I memorize details, gather colors, textures and words like Leo Lionni’s Frederick, the young mouse in one of my children’s favorite picture books.

In that story, as I remember it, all the other mice were busy gathering corn and nuts for the winter, while Frederick sat nearby watching. When asked why he wasn’t working, Frederick answered, “I do work…I gather sun rays for cold winter days, colors because winter will be gray.” Though they thought little of Frederick’s “work” at the time, later in mid-winter, when the stores had been depleted and the days were dark, the other mice turned and asked, “So Frederick, what about your supplies?” To which Frederick responded by climbing atop a small rock and painting a picture with his eloquent words of times past, times to come. In the dark cave of winter he brought them the beauty of spring, the warmth of summer, a recollection of hope.

Like Fredrick I gather images because I fear the trillium will not always be here in such rich abundance. The invasive garlic mustard weeds that make their way from the east threaten to choke out most natural woodland flora and fauna. And deer, if they locate this delicious field of trillium will graze them down to a few overlooked remnants.

Fearing words alone might not be adequate preservation, I’ve tried taking pictures of these hillsides blanketed in white, but only a photograph enlarged to the size of a grand canvas could capture the breadth of their tremendum.

Perhaps the deer know best. Perhaps I should gather instead a taste of trillium, chew sacred petals, and ingest them like the bread of communion — becoming one with what I’ve loved.

©Colette Volkema DeNooyer 2005