When I was little, my grandmother took us each morning to inspect her gardens for any unwanted critters looking for a free meal. Carefully lifting the leaves and searching for slugs, she would explain to us which insects were beneficial and which were not. She pointed out the vole tunnels that seem to magically appear after the lettuce shoots pushed through the black loam and the resident groundhog who hungrily eyed her tomato plants.
But my favorite time was walking the woods with her in early spring. Nimbly stepping over rocks and entangled grape vines, she would forage for a “mess of greens”, looking for the tender first shoots of pokeweed, dandelions, watercress, fiddleheads, wild violets, red nettle, chickweed or ramps. She gathered yarrow, slipping it into her apron to be dried for my grandfather’s shaving cuts and pointed out the pawpaw trees that would bear yellow fruit in the fall, perfect for desserts. I learned where the butternut trees grew, the best blackberry patches, how to use the bright red spotted mushrooms to kill flies and the distinct musk of a copperhead.
If she spotted a low hanging nest, she would inspect it carefully avoiding the hatchlings. We learned that the delicate blue eggs belonged to robins, the brown speckled eggs to cardinals, and the emerald green ones were future catbirds. She listened to the bluejays warn against red-tailed hawks in their oak and taught us not to fear the ugly turkey vultures who fed on carcasses on our dirt roads.
As we planted, weeded and watered the garden, she passed her knowledge to us through vivid stories of her own childhood in West Virginia. We learned how every creature, plant and tree were connected. How seasons were needed for growth and rest. That if you killed any animal while hunting, you cleaned it. (Let me tell you, that stopped a bunch of us from shooting squirrels.) That patience is the key ingredient for any garden or friendship. That if you don’t tend your garden or friendship, everything will die. And that a cup of coffee or iced tea on a back porch with a neighbor could bring a smile in the saddest of times.
Although my daughter grew up in Manhattan, her best memories were like mine – being outdoors. She loved catching frogs, searching for salamanders and chasing butterflies as a child. She was fascinated with fireflies and how you could feel the electricity of an approaching storm. She took numerous photos of groundhogs and searched the internet to learn everything about them. It was a gift to see the woods through her eyes.
As I still climb mountain ridges above tree lines, I remember how my grandmother would lean against her walking stick, cut from a branch. Her eyes closed, listening to the woods around her. How she would cherish the “gaggle” chirp of a nuthatch or the change of wind carrying the crisp scent of snow. She would smile and softly say, “Everything you need is here.”