Where have all the flowers gone? It’s a hackneyed question, but I needed an answer today. I found them growing by the Grand River near Waterloo, Ontario.
This morning brought news of the devastating shooting at an Orlando nightclub that killed at least 50 people. Later the same day, a man with weapons and explosives was arrested on his way to the gay pride parade in Los Angeles. The violence hit me particularly hard; I felt crushed.
My partner and I had planned to go for a walk today. It turned out to be a particularly timely plan. We needed beauty.
I’m a water child. I’ve missed living within easy walking distance of the Eramosa and Speed Rivers in Guelph, Ontario. Since moving to Waterloo last year, we’ve had close access to a stream and hiking trails through the woods. So I shouldn’t complain. But even an abundance of ephemeral spring wildflowers isn’t the same. For me a river provides a potent metaphor for the journey of life. I need to visit water more often.
But Waterloo does have access to one of Ontario’s major river systems: the Grand River, to which the Speed and Eramosa are tributaries. We just have to make a little more effort to get there. So today I looked up the best access points and we drove across town. At Claude Dubrick Trailway the vista shown above waited to welcome us.
I’m appalled at how recent atrocities have set the bar for violence higher and higher. Hikes and wildflowers might not seem a useful solution to the problem. Or are they?
The riverbanks were dappled with pale pink and purple clumps of dame’s rocket, Hesperis matronlis. Their clove-like fragrance hung in the warm June air. I should know the identity of this familiar grass, but I don’t know my grasses. There’s still so much to learn about the world.
White Canada anemones, Anemone canadensis, blossomed by the trail, emblems of simplicity and clarity. Born as I was in Canada I feel close to my roots whenever I walk a trail and see wildflowers. Not everyone has the privilege of familiarity and belonging. We all need rootedness.
Buttercups are familiar to many, but drawing nearer I discovered a slight variation on the usual. This was a creeping buttercup, Ranunculus repens, and its tiny flower even more ravishing.
Sunlight, fragrant spring air, rootedness, beauty and a little exercise: I felt the river and its inhabitants pulling the edges of my distress. Veils fell away from the eyes of my mind. We saw gulls, a pileated woodpecker, swallows, an American redstart and other birds.
Exploring the nearby woods, we found one of my favourite wildflowers, herb-robert, Geranium robertianum. It brings cheer to the shadowy places all summer long. It’s a good symbol of hope. I have come through a difficult period of depression recently. Hopelessness kills; I know this. We can all use some herb-robert.
This last wildflower will be familiar to herbalists: comfrey or Symphytum officinale. I didn’t quite recognize it at first; the plant was more delicate and the flowers less blue than the comfrey that once grew in my herb garden. This and the dame’s rocket are alien plants gone wild, but it’s hard to resist their beauty.
The Latin word officinale or officinalis denotes herbs belonging to the storeroom of a monastery, plants believed to have medicinal qualities. Modern herbalists usually do not recommend comfrey be taken internally because it contains alkaloids that can lead to liver failure. But bees love it. The roots draw nutrients from deep in the soil, making it an excellent source of organic fertilizer. Toxic or not, it’s a good medicine plant.
We’re living on a perilous edge where community is giving way to cynicism, alienation and hatred. Ultimately the thing we need is healthy communities where people’s rights are balanced with responsibilities to one another. Without this no weapons or political agencies can provide security.
We need to stop what we’re doing and reflect. Community is part of nature, too. Today’s short pilgrimage took me to a place of sanctuary, fertility and healing. So wherever the flowers have gone, follow me there. Go find your own and I’ll follow you, too.