Fenced Off

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My grandmother’s house had been torn down after she sold her property on Similk Bay near Anacortes, Washington to a lumber company.  This was the house where her four babies were born, where she and my grandfather loved and fought and separated and loved again, and where our family spent chaotic and memorable Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.  After Grandpa died suddenly, she took on boarders, trying to afford to remain there on the wooded acreage fronted by stump farm meadows where her Scottish Highland cattle grazed.   She reached an age when it was no longer possible to make it work.   A deal was struck with the lumber company and she had moved to a small apartment, bruised by the move from her farm.

My father realized what her selling to a lumber company meant and it was a crushing thought.  The old growth woods would soon also be stumps on the rocky hill above the bay, opening a view to Mt. Baker to the east, to the San Juan Islands to the north, and presenting an opportunity for development into a subdivision.   He woke my brother and me early one Saturday in May and told us we were driving the 120 miles to Anacortes.  He was on a mission.

As a boy growing up on that land, he had wandered the woods, explored the hill, and helped his dad farm the rocky soil.  There was only one thing he felt he needed from that farm and he had decided to take us with him, to trespass where he had been born and raised to bring home a most prized treasure–his beloved lady slippers from the woods.

These dainty flowers enjoy a spring display known for its brevity–a week or two at the most–and they tend to bloom in small little clusters in the leafy duff mulch of the deep woods, preferring only a little indirect sunlight part of the day.  They are not easy to find unless you know where to look.  My father remembered exactly where to look.

We hauled buckets up the hill along with spades, looking as if we were about to dig for clams at the ocean.  Dad led us up a trail into the thickening foliage, until we had to bushwhack our way into the taller trees where the ground was less brush and more hospitable ground cover.  He would stop occasionally to get his bearings as things were overgrown.   We reached a small clearing and he knew we were near.  He went straight to a copse of fir trees standing guard over a garden of lady slippers.

There were almost thirty of them blooming, scattered in an area about the size of my tiny bedroom at home.  Each orchid-like pink and lavender blossom had a straight backed stem that held it with sturdy confidence.  To me, they looked like they could be little shoes for fairies who may have hung them up while they danced about barefoot.    To my father, they represented the last redeeming vestiges of his often traumatic rearing by an alcoholic father, and were about to be trammeled by bulldozers.  We set to work gently digging them out of their soft bedding, carefully keeping their bulb-like corms from losing a protective covering of soil and leafy mulch.  Carrying them in the buckets back to the car, we felt some vindication that even if the trees were to be lost to the saws, these precious flowers would survive.

When we got home, Dad set to work creating a spot where he felt they could thrive in our own woods.  He found a place with the ideal amount of shade and light, with the protection of towering trees and the right depth of undisturbed leaf mulch.  We carefully placed the lady slippers in their new home, scattered in a pattern similar to how we found them.  Then Dad built a four foot split rail fence in an octagon around them, as a protection from our cattle and a horse who wandered the woods, and as a way to demarcate that something special was contained inside.

The next spring only six lady slippers bloomed from the original thirty.  Dad was disappointed but hoped another year might bring a resurgence as the flowers established themselves in their new home.  The following year there were only three.  Two years later my father left us and them, not looking back.

Sometime after, when my mother had to sell our farm after the divorce, I visited our lady slipper sanctuary in the woods for the last time in the middle of May.  The split rail fence was still there, guarding nothing but old memories.  No lady slippers bloomed.  There was not a trace they had ever been there.  They had simply given up and disappeared.

The new owners of our farm surely puzzled over the significance of the small fenced-off area in the middle of our woods.  They probably thought it surrounded a graveyard of some sort.

And so it did.

6 thoughts on “Fenced Off

  1. Thank you, I so appreciate the delicate beauty of the lovely lady slippers and of this beautiful post. Such a beautiful heart you share in words and pictures. ♥

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  2. I hesitated to click on ‘like’ because this account of loss that affected so many family lives is sad. But, in a way, it is good that memories are dusted off and aired occasionally, whether they be happy or sad ones, as is this one. A happy ending would have been to see one – just one – Lady Slipper survive as a witness to what had gone before. But that was not to be, sadly. So back it goes into the ‘memory place’ to be brought out and its story retold to the next generation.

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  3. I can’t help wondering if your grandfather showed those rare and beautiful plants to your dad long ago, and if they represented something unspoken between the two. And I can’t help remembering Sam, a gruff old park ranger given the job of breaking me in. Sam held his thoughts and feelings close, rarely spoke, and absolutely hated “meet and greet.” He said so little over our initial weeks together that I became convinced it was me he disapproved of most of all, until one day in May, our last shift working together, he said, “Come with me, I want to show you something.”

    He parked the patrol vehicle near the Group Camping Area and headed into the woods on foot, motioning me to follow, which I did somewhat reluctantly. For a fleeting moment I thought, “This is it. He’s going to shoot me.” We soon arrived at a clearing very similar to the one you’ve described and there in a patch of slant sunlight was a cluster
    of what he called “wild orchids.” He didn’t say anything more, but he didn’t have to. For Sam, this was the most valuable quarter acre in the 30,000 acre park, and from now on it was going to be my solemn duty to protect it, as he had, for some twenty-five years. Somehow, I’d passed muster.

    When I think of “things unsaid,” which I believe to be far more important than most things we do say, I usually think of Sam and his lady slippers, some fifteen years ago. Your fine writing brought them back tonight.

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