By: Michelle Gunnin
We were walking down the driveway, hand in hand, my father and me. It was the beginning of one of our many hikes into the woods, searching for wildflowers. Always searching. We were nature lovers. Still are. When I was a girl, I would don my denim jacket, and we would go off in search of the flowers. Over hill and dale, we hiked. By the streams and in the fields, we walked. Through the forests and in the groves, we explored. We didn’t go only for the flowers, but they became one of the vast treasures we found along our way. It is a simple memory. There are no surprises or high-intensity events in these memories, just quiet moments among the woodland trails, between a father and his daughter who shared a love of all things outdoors.
As a little girl, I had an interest in nature. I’m not sure if the interest came first or if it was nurtured by all the experiences in my young life. Either way, I decided early I wanted to be a botanist. Pretty high aspirations for an 8-year-old! The memories are coming now, as I gaze at this picture that has cracked open the door to my childhood. My dad was not the only one who encouraged my exploits. He was the one that put feet to them, but we had neighbors along the dirt mountain road that were naturalists who inspired me to study nature, not just to experience it.
Schweizer was a bird watcher and could tell you everything about every kind of bird. I have no idea what his first name was. Binoculars were a staple and trying to identify birds at sight was like a game to him. Another woman named Beanie, whose house was in the curve, strapped a canoe to the top of her car to run the nearby rivers. I was in awe of anyone who would venture out on her own in that way. Eventually, when I rode the whitewater myself, I found out why she loved it so.
Then there were the Mellingers, a couple who had a backyard greenhouse where they cultivated plants. Marie was a botanist, and Mel a birdwatcher. I was mesmerized by their love of the land and all things that grew and moved upon it. They let me dig in the dirt and participate in the miracle of growing things. There was also a hornet’s nest hanging from a window at their house where I could sit and watch the bees inside the hive, from the safety of the living room. I always thought it was cool that the Hornets seemed to know that these people would not disturb their hive, despite the fact it was right on their window! I could sit there for hours watching those bees, and the Mellingers would let me do just that. I didn’t know until later they were well-known naturalists and had many books to their credit. To me, they were just those nice people down the road.
All of these people were minor characters in my story, yet in combination, I clearly see they had an influence on my behavior. I grew African Violets in my bedroom, falling asleep each night to the purple glow of grow lights. I had a garden beside our mailbox where I grew pansies in the winter and marigolds in the summer. These were interesting but unusual hobbies for a child of my age. I clearly remember seeing my first plant cell under a microscope on a field-trip to Fernbank, which of course led me to ask for a microscope of my very own. I was 8 years old when I decided we needed an inventory of the flowers that grew on and around our mountain property. I found a small black notebook full of blank pages that were the perfect size to fit into my pocket. My dad had a collection of identification books for wildflowers, trees, insects, plants, and pond life. He and I set out on an adventure, and in the process, I hoped to fill my notebook with entries.
In July, we carried a freshly picked watermelon down the dirt road to the old spring house. Once off the mountain, a trail veered off the road through the woods. The trail was alive to me. Ferns in all shades of green carpeted the forest floor where the underground spring water burst forth from the weathered little house to become a small creek. The structure had a tin roof and was made of old barn boards. We picked our way along the short path into the valley, careful not to drop our prize. Once we got to the bottom, we deposited the Fourth of July dessert into the icy cold water of the stone pool inside the little house. The water bubbled up from the ground into the holding pool that was plenty deep to hold our watermelon for a few days so that it would be cold enough for the celebration without taking up any of the much-coveted space in our refrigerator.
On a hot summer day in Georgia, going to the spring house was a welcome treat. We guzzled the water allowing it to drip down our chins and cool our parched throats. Refreshed from our pit stop, we continued on, but not on the trail by which we had come. Instead, we followed the creek further down the valley. I was hunting for flowers as we walked. There was no trail, only the little stream singing merrily beside us, leading us deeper into the woods. I collected ferns, as well as some small water-loving flowers and tucked them into my notebook to take home to identify. I made notes of where we stopped to pick a mouthful or two of wild blueberries and then kept moving on. Dad took my hand to help me over rocks and through the lush underbrush. He knew where we were going, but to me, it was a grand adventure. I was an explorer by his side in a jungle. We kept our eyes open for snakes, salamanders, and crawdads in the water and birds above us in the trees. My eyes were open to the details around us, taking it all in, quietly but with keen interest. We arrived at the pond in the lower pasture and picked cattails while watching dragonflies zip around, flitting from plant to plant and shimmering in the sun. The walk back up the mountain was more strenuous, and I had to be helped quite a bit, but we made it with my little notebook brimming with flowers to identify.
Once back at the house, I gathered my flower books on the front porch and logged my entries for the day as the breeze ruffled my hair. On each page of my notebook was the name of a single flower, the page number of the identification book, and the location where it was found. The idea was to have a record of different locations for each entry.
Ruellia, page 109, found on the road.
Blueberry bushes page 84, found up the hill. Found beside the road. Found in the valley near the springhouse.
Golden Rod page 120, found in the pasture.
Queen Ann’s Lace or Wild Carrot page 74, found on the road.
Phlox page 93, found on the driveway.
Crested Dwarf Iris page 16, found on the driveway. Found on road.
This was my practice in the early years. Go on an adventure with my dad, come back and log flowers. Recently, the mountain place sold and in the downsizing I received the stack of identification books and my little black notebook, which I had forgotten existed. Over my childlike handwriting, it has stains from flowers previously stuffed inside. The pages are yellow with age, and the descriptions range from ‘on the hill’ to more specific trail names later on as I grew to realize I needed more information in order to be able to locate the treasures again. The well-worn flower identification book actually still had some flowers pressed within its pages. For me, these items, along with the picture in the challenge, conjured up memory lane, or maybe I should say memory trail. My heart is overflowing with warmth, but the look back has also put some pieces into place about how I came to love nature so completely. I had forgotten many of the characters who shaped my life and even those early walks where I was sponge-like in my hunger for knowledge. It just goes to show how we integrate everything into who we become.
I didn’t grow up to be a botanist, too much science for me. I became a teacher, not of science, but of reading and made it my job to teach my students to read about things they loved. Somehow forgetting to water plants because of a busy life kills them, so I eventually stopped growing plants and began growing kids instead. Though I didn’t follow my early passions for my career, I did attempt to pass them along to my own children, by taking their hands and going on adventures in the woods.