Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Into the Woods

Sometimes even Janis Joplin isn’t enough of an escape

What else was a fifteen-year-old girl to do after school and on weekends but hide out in her bedroom and scream along to Janis Joplin records, or recite, in dramatic hand-over-heart fashion, T.S. Eliot’s poetry, the perfumed smoke from strawberry incense swirling in the air?

It was 1972, and my life was a Kozmic Blues wasteland. My parents had exiled the family to a farm south of Nashville; the nearest town featured a Minnie Pearl’s Fried Chicken restaurant, a dime store, and a dully-lit library in the courthouse basement. At least I felt at home among the books’ velvety dankness. Gone were my free-wheeling Father Ryan days, a Catholic high school that nevertheless maintained an unrepentant devil-may-care atmosphere. The girls dressed in short-skirted plaid uniforms that we jazzed up with dangly earrings, mood rings, and jangly silver bracelets. In homage to Janis, I flaunted pink feathers in my hair, inspiring nary a comment from faculty or principal.

Public school was a shocker with its hall passes and its nylon stockings and its absence of blue jeans. O, chastened pink feathers; O, Little Girl Blues; O, April, the cruelest month! And it would’ve been despairingly so (I was entering my existential phase), had it not been for my biology teacher, Mrs. Caruthers. Stalwart all year in her gray skirt and jacket, she could slap a frog onto a steel plate and dissect it with scalpel-wielding relish. But come April, she tossed that jacket to reveal a white blouse with petal-like ruffles and pearl buttons. Her voice, winter-stiff like the window sills she raised at the first whiff of wild onions, softened when she reminisced about the long wooded hikes of her adolescence.

Mrs. Caruthers assigned the class a project that seemed overwhelming: to collect, identify by both their Latin and common names, press, and assemble into a notebook twenty-five wildflower specimens, with extra credit for more. She added one admonishment: the beautiful and rare lady’s slipper (Cypripedium pubescens, a nerve-calming herb), if discovered, must remain undisturbed in its secret loamy dwelling place. Even Eliot, with his lilacs bred out of the winter-dead land, as well as his hyacinth girl, would have been intrigued. With a Pocket Field Guide to Tennessee Wildflowers, I abandoned my shuttered room with its incense, candles, and tarot cards, and stumbled into a back-forty vestige of Eden, part of my family’s sixty-five acre farm.

Losing my way was never a worry. A grassy path looped through a field thickly bordered with wild blackberry bushes, down a ravine, rising back up to end near the barn. My walks, with the family dogs ambling behind, wore the path stone-smooth in places. More than once I strayed, discovering a swampy pond, and, strangely, in the middle of nowhere, a five-foot tall headstone carved into the likeness of a tree stump and bearing the name of the deceased. Where was I? Had I ventured into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gloomy neck of the woods? The mystery remains: I never learned how the stone and its owner arrived at their final leafy resting place.

My six-year-old sister and my mother, deep into a three-volume history of Lewis and Clark, joined the hunt. The move from Nashville had been especially hard for the three of us. By Darwin’s standards, we were poor adapters, socially marooned, and destined for the extinction heap, but together we formed a little community.

My sister was preternaturally adept at spying four-leaf clovers. They appeared before her dirt-smudged hands like magic, but her luck ran out, and mine and our mother’s had limits: the lady’s slipper, the botanist’s version of the fabled unicorn, remained illusory. Still, we discovered beds of bloodroot with their angelic white petals and blood-colored sap, trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, and my mother’s favorite, Dutchman’s breeches: true to its name, tiny puffs of white and pale yellow flowers—more like a Victorian lady’s pantaloons line-drying on a breezy day than a gentleman’s trousers—danced upside down along a curved stem. A twenty-five-pound Webster’s Dictionary pressed the flowers flat while I researched their nomenclature. Janis remained on mute, and T.S. languished under the bed.

A few nights before the project’s due date, the wildflowers emerged from their word-heavy hiding place, each gently pressed and dried between tissue paper. With tweezers and the steady hand of a surgeon, I meticulously glued leaves, stems, and flower heads onto clean white sheets of paper. I thought back on the exact locations where I had found many of the flowers. I knew where wild irises bloomed beneath a huge old oak, and I knew the secret hiding place of a bed of bloodroots.

I thumbed through the Field Guide, now dog-eared and dirty, making certain my identifications were correct, then fixed saran wrap to the corners of the papers and placed them into a blue notebook. My diligence surprised me. And, I think, it surprised Mrs. Carothers. Her assessment—Very well done, written in her crisp, small script—made my heart swell.

For years, I saved my neatly bound collection, proud of the A++ grade I had received. After my last move, I let it go. I knew those wildflowers, and so many more, by heart.

Both of my old high schools have long been torn down, one replaced with a Hampton Inn, the other with a jail. My parents remained in the county, moving to a home on a rocky bluff above the Duck River. Mrs. Caruthers retired not long after she stumbled on a stair, brusquely shooing away a student’s outstretched hand. I don’t remember when she died.

Gone is the urgent romance of teenage exile made more bearable with the words of T.S. Eliot and the wails of Janis. I still read Eliot, with less intensity now but with a keener ear and a deeper understanding. Janis’s voice still sounds defiant to me, though now it too seems edged with disappointment, and perhaps it is my own. Still, one long-ago April, the cruelest month, Mrs. Caruthers instilled in me a life-long love for the secrets and pleasures of the woods, and the habit of blissful wandering. Can the lady’s slipper elude me forever?