Earth Day on the Shiawassee River

The world is a big place. Its salvation will come from little locations, small acts, and petite plants.  In the niche of the world I live in, along Michigan’s Shiawassee River, winter relinquishes control grudgingly after the vernal equinox.  A few warm days in late March are countered with freezing nights and snow showers in April.

On an expedition to a floodplain bend I encounter bare trees, dead leaves, and black water.  Only a few bright patches of green break the bleak monotony of the forest floor recently freed of snow.  Ken, my friend with a map and GPS watch, and I are first attracted to the stands of wild leeks, allium tricoccum, or ramps as those in the know call them.  One of the first plants to push up after dormancy, they are prized by wild foragers for their sweet garlic-tasting root bulb and bright green leaves which saute nicely with scrambled eggs or trout.  By June the leaves will shrivel, leaving no sign of this forest delicacy.

We are not looking for food.  Rather, we are on a quest for an even more elusive plant. Snow trillium, trillium nivale, have been found in only 10 places in Michigan, according to the definitive Natural Features Inventory maintained by Michigan State University.  This small wildflower arrives well before its much bigger cousin, the common trillium, trillium grandiflorum.  It stands less than two inches tall, with small dark green leaves, and a bloom with three narrow white petals no bigger than the second digit of a finger. 

As is typical of many wildflowers, the snow trillium prefers rich soils in deciduous forests. But it’s not an up north wildflower, and it grows only along a few rivers in mid-Michigan.  It is particular about the dirt it grows in, preferring calcareous soils on top of gravel or with limestone debris. 

There is one recorded location of the snow trillium in the Shiawassee River watershed, and we are using data from an old map with hopes of finding this tiny treasure. Straight property lines overlaid on a twisting river require us to make a convoluted hike, but the quirks of ownership have also protected this place from development.

Where are the snow trillium? Around us the woods are as gray as the sky, a mixed stand of red oak, maples, and a few pines. A tangle of downed trees, curved honeysuckle limbs, and pant-ripping multiflora rose cover most of the dead ground. Eyes fixed downwards, we pick our way to the bank of the river and proceed on a low bench cleared somewhat by winter floodwaters.

And there, on the second bench of the floodplain, where the forest debris is not so dense, we see several small patches of ramps. It’s the first thing green we have seen all morning, so we go close, and stop. Look, a small group of three leaves, so dark that their green blends more with the dark hummus than the wide blades of the ramps which tower over and hide some of the small plants.  But, while small, the leaves of the four plants in a row are distinctive.  And then, a foot away, another set of leaves hold aloft a three-petaled flower.  So narrow are the blooms that I am not sure, but the magic number of three, a memory of a photo, and the specifics of the time and place leave me certain that this is the rare snow trillium.

Our place in the world can be difficult to determine. Where is our home? As the internet shrinks the globe, we know in fine detail what is happening in Ukraine, Shanghai, or Washington sometimes more rapidly and completely than what is happening in our backyard.  Our biggest environmental problems are global.  How do we connect ourselves to not only the problem, but, more importantly, the solutions? 

I found my place by looking down at a delicate flower hidden in the dead leaves of winter. Behind my back less than ten strides away is a river I canoed with my grandfather, and then my father, and then my children. Five decades of paddling with not only family, but friends old and new has tied me to this place.  

But this place is unremarkable, at least by the standards of “nature” presented in glossy calendars, BBC documentaries, and enhanced instagram posts.  Particularly on a day spitting rain in early April, the colors are drab, the sounds of trains and trucks sometimes intrude, and I stand in wet and muddy boots.     

My personal history, and something more intangible, locates me here. Something that comes from time spent outdoors, knowledge gained from others who feel grounded here, and an understanding that this place is connected in time and space.  The Shiawassee flows north, to join with four other rivers to make the short and deep Saginaw River, and then onto Lake Huron, second biggest of the Great Lakes, the premier freshwater ecosystem on the planet. 

Time is no longer abstract this damp morning. I have known of the location of these snow trillium for more than a decade, but have never seen them. I am only now discovering them anew because a committed person came here more than 40 years ago looking to know this place, and made notes about their discovery.  Worried that these rare plants have disappeared, Ken and I have ventured forth and have affirmed that these plants remain here on the banks of the Shiawassee. 

But what of the future? The threat of global climate change overwhelms me when I read the news, or the detailed assessments of scientists from around the world.  It can leave me as cold as an April morning. But the snow trillium, found amidst the stems of invasive plants in earth that appears dead, reminds me that life persists, that beauty can be found anywhere, and that hope has a home.  

We are creatures in a place, and what ties us there can be a body of water, a geologic feature, or a petite plant. These simple but powerful features of nature connect us to something bigger than ourselves. We may not be able to comprehend the planet, but we can find a small wildflower, or know a woods, or paddle a river.  And this is enough.

It also reminds us that to save the earth we only need to know our place and take action to care for it.  So, on this Earth Day–and every day to follow–look around and marvel at where you are,  Seek out and enjoy some small sign of nature:  a bird at the feeder, a tree in the park, or a wildflower in the woods.  And observe and feel how this small piece of nature connects you to the larger world.  What will save this place for your children and all the generations to come?  We now know that publicly protecting this land, or preventing the pollution of the air and water around it, or tending to the unique species inhabiting it, is but the first step. And the individual actions we take: what to buy (and not buy), how to move from here to there, where to give our time and treasure, and who to vote for matter a great deal.  To protect this, and all places, we must save the planet.  

Finally, talk about your place, and why you love it. Too much divides us, but our love of place can unite us. Sunsets are not partisan, water cannot be constrained by political boundaries, and the beauty of nature avails all.  The poet Mary Oliver issued these “instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

Read more of my thoughts about The Wonder of Place

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