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Of Immigrants, and Natives, and the Persistence of Memory

Bill Meredith

Being retired means you have time to walk instead of riding everywhere. This benison is offset by the fact that, at this age, you become more forgetful. The retired part happens suddenly; one day you're working, the next day you're not. The forgetful part is sneakier; sometimes it's so gradual you don't even notice, but sooner or later it catches you. For me, that happened last April.

I had finished a book one evening, and the next morning after breakfast I decided to drop it off at the library when I made my usual trip to the post office. It was an unremarkable day… neither rainy nor sunny… and the walk to the library was uneventful, until I got to the door and found it locked. Momentarily disoriented, I stared at the door, tried it again to be sure it hadn't changed its mind, and then noticed a sign that said opening time on Mondays was 10 a. m. I knew that; I had got there early one day last month too. After a quick mental review I assured myself that this was the right day, so I pulled back my sleeve and looked at my wrist, where my watch normally resides. It wasn't there; I had forgotten to put it on that morning. Luckily, the clock at the Provincial House picked that moment to sound the three-quarter chime, so I knew it was fifteen minutes before some hour. Calculating backward, allowing for the time I usually get up and how long it usually takes to eat breakfast and get organized, I figured there was a pretty good chance that the coming hour was ten. So a stroll on to the post office used up five minutes, and I arrived back at the library with ten minutes to kill.

The recent renovations of the library made it a thing of beauty, functionality and comfort on the inside, but the grounds outside had not yet been finished. The lawn had been chewed up and compacted by construction equipment over the past year; the ruts had been smoothed out, but there was no topsoil and the grass was all gone except for a thin band within a foot or two of the building. To a casual glance there was nothing there except red clay strewn with rocks; but a closer look showed that things were going on. Nature's colonizers were not waiting for the landscaping contractor to come; weeds were springing up everywhere. I counted 15 species in less than five minutes.

Some were the neighborhood toughs you would expect… curly dock, with tap roots that go down two feet or more; wild carrot, dandelions and chicory, also with tap roots; broad- and narrow-leafed plantains, wild onions, and goldenrods, which had been in the previous lawn and survived being ground under bulldozer tracks. But there also were more delicate varieties; annuals, whose seeds may have been dormant in the old lawn for years, jumped at the chance to avoid their grassy competitors. Henbit, wild mustard, ground ivy, and two types each of veronicas and chickweeds were not only growing, but blooming, covered with flowers less than a quarter of an inch across. There was even a tulip, whose bulb once must have been in a flower bed, pushing its way through the clay.

Later that week I was able to get approval from both my wife and the weatherman to play golf. Botanically, a golf course is one of the most artificial and intensively managed ecosystems on the planet; but ironically, it is increasingly one of the few places where you still have a chance to see native plants. In this case, the cart-path between two holes led through a small patch of woods by a hillside, where it was too steep and rocky to build anything. There, right by the path, was an area the size of a small house where the ground was carpeted with bloodroot, in full bloom… spectacular, delicate, pure white blossoms, 4 inches high, with lobed, purplish-green leaves. I had not seen them growing in this area for years. But there they were, by some happy convergence of the right amount of rainfall last year, absence of livestock, people and pets compacting the soil, trees left standing to provide shade, and my being there at the right time. They were like the flowers Steinbeck* wrote of, "so rare and magical that a child, finding one, felt singled out and special all day." And it was all the more special for me because the instant I saw them, their name, Sanguinaria canadensis, popped into my mind. I hadn't thought of that name for probably 30 years, and I couldn't recall the name of the lady who took my book at the library, but there it was.

When I saw the weeds that were blooming in front of the library, I recognized them like old friends. Like me, most of them are immigrants; their ancestors came to America the same way mine did, and about the same time… on the lower decks of sailing ships, among the livestock. They are gone now… the landscape crew tilled the ground, planted some grass seed, and spread a layer of hay… but they will be back. They are designed for living in disturbance, in competition, in imbalance. The new grass will sprout and grow, but when the going gets tough and it turns hot and dry this summer, the weeds will be waiting. They will crowd out the grass, and unless we interfere again, they will take over. We humans are like that; we crowd out all who stand before us. There is more weed in our makeup than we like to admit.

The bloodroot, on the other hand, is a true Native American; it was here even before the arrival of those early immigrants, the Indians, who used its red sap for warpaint and medicine. It was also a medicinal herb for the later immigrants from Europe, and coexisted with them for a while. But natives, be they plant or human, do not adapt easily to change. Cutting the forests and plowing the soil destroyed the bloodroot's habitat as it created habitat for people.

We cannot live together, it seems. We can preserve islands of woodland by accident, like the one on the golf course, or by design, like state and national parks; but if our population continues to grow, its sprawling pressure will doom these preserves in the long run. Just as the name of the bloodroot will eventually fade from my rickety and porous memory, so will the species itself disappear from the rocky hillside. The way things are going with the environment, even at my age it is uncertain which will happen first.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith