Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Spring wildflowers

If we went to visit Grandma Carew in the spring, the trillium in the surrounding forests would be at their peak.

Dad would take some of us on one of his nature walks. I think my favourite walks are in the spring. We'd stroll down the railroad tracks to the woods to the north of town. Amongst others he'd point out Spring Beauty, Hepatica and Bloodroot. They were all so delicate in appearance but knowing how harsh the winters are up in that part of Wisconsin, they must have been tough little things. We always looked for the Showy Lady Slipper, an orchid but we never found one in the wild. In fact, I don't know what time of year that particular orchid blooms.

The spring wildflower that takes over the whole spring show is the Trillium. There were millions of them. Or as we said, "milliums of trilliums". On the drive from the Twin Cities across to Langlade County, I could tell that we were getting close to Grandma's house because we would see a sea of these white flowers covering the forest floors. I've seen some of these for sale in one of the rare flower catalogs that I get. I may order a few.

We never picked these flowers. Dad taught us early on, that wildflowers were just for looking at, not for picking and taking home. The only wildflowers that we ever picked were some roses that had once been in somebody's garden. The house had been knocked down decades before and the surrounding sheds and garden had gone back to the wild but the flowers remained. Wild roses have such a wonderful perfume. We used to try to get the longest possible stem when picking them. Do you know how hard it is to pick a rose with just your stubby little fingers? The stems are tough and have those thorns. If we managed a decent amount of stem then the flowers were put in a small vase. If there was just a bit of stem, then Grandma would take out her giant brandy snifter glass, put a few inches of water in it (this glass was really almost goldfish bowl size) and float our flowers.

The train tracks that ran across the street from Grandma's house run through my memories of her and the wonderful house she had there. When we were very small the train used to have an actual stop in Elcho. I have a very faint memory of my Aunt Penny and Cousin Mimi getting off the train to visit once and us walking down to meet them. It would have been in the very early 60's.

During a lightning storm, my sister Sally saw a ball of lightning travel down the tracks. I wish I had seen that.

The passenger trains stopped but the freight trains kept on using the lines all through my childhood. They'd have to honk the horn coming into town and as Grandma's house was where it was placed, it seemed that they always honked the horn when in front of the house. We thought it was just for us! When there were babies in the house, the trains would always wake them up from their afternoon naps and someone would have to dash up the stairs to soothe them.

When a train was coming through, we'd stop play and go and count the boxcars. Sioux Line, Burlington, and Rock Island were some of the names on the cars. There was always a red caboose at the end. We would wave like madmen at the guys in the caboose and if they saw us, they would always wave back. If nobody waved back at us, we were convinced it was because they didn't see us because who wouldn't wave?

The trains were always carrying coal and raw lumber for the mills. Sometimes the boxcars would be empty and the doors open.

Occasionally, we'd put a penny on the tracks. After the trains had gone through, we'd dash back to the place where we had put our penny to find how flat the train had squashed it. I wish I still had one of those flattened pennies.

We had to be careful when starting our nature walks if we were going along the tracks. I had visions of a situation like in the movies where your foot would be wedged and you'd be killed by the oncoming train. In all those years, we never had to get out of the way for a train during our walks. I suppose it was because as we got older, the trains became less and less frequent.

When Grandma passed away in 1986 the railway line was no longer in use. The house was quiet and the trains didn't run anymore. It was so sad. Some of my cousins and I made one last walk down to Jack's Lake. We were actually worse at balancing along the rail than we used to be. You can give your ankle a nasty knock when slipping off. Dad tells me that the track has been pulled up now, so I guess that the line will never be brought back into service. I wonder if those disused rail way spikes are still under the back porch?

With all the changes that happen to a small northern town, some things stay the same. The flowers still bloom in the spring. I am sure that the white trillium still carpets the forest floors with the very occasional red one stuck in just for punctuation.


Joe said...

Beautiful essay. I knew you had many talents back in the day, but I had no idea how well you write.

Peggy said...

Shucks, thanks Joe. You probably didn't know because I only ever helped out doing the headlines and misspelling sophomore. Who would have given a pesty townie any further responsibility?

Joe said...

Who would have dreamed a townie would have wanted to work for such a desparate rag? ;-)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that was really good Peggy! Have you thought of printing these out for yourself? I was at my Grandma's yesterday and we read through a book of memories Sarah filled out for her a couple years ago. It's a long series of questions all about her life with plenty of room to write the answers. It's so wonderful now because she is losing her memory. So it's a record for us, and a way for her to get back those memories when they are slipping away. Of course you have years and years ahead of you but you described that part of your world so well. BTW, what is a lightning ball?


Anonymous said...

Peggy, how nice. Your dad taught you well about wild flowers. The one which you could never find Showy Lady Slipper called by locals as the marsh orchid is hard to find, it's a spring flower, but you only find it deep in the marsh.
I have only been able to find a few in my life time. The last I found was when my Mom Katherine and I were taking a canoe ride on the Upper Post Lake and Wolf River, we found several and I broke the rule, I picked one for her. She said that she had not seen one in fifty years and that she most likely would not see another, she was eighty years young at that time. She lived until she was 89, and yes she never got to see another wild marsh orchid.