Every time you walk in the woods, you’re probably stepping on a miracle. So if you want to have a good time, hang out with people who know more than you do. Experts are professional noticers. They can show you lichens with tooth marks from a slug. They can tell a Hammond’s flycatcher from a Dusky flycatcher. They’ll get down on their hands and knees and poke at shit with a stick. They’re fun.
So when my niece Elizabeth wanted to go for a walk in the woods, I was totally on board. She’s a plant nerd. Like anyone else who knows a whole lot about something, botany nerds are able to observe a lot more than most people. They can detect how the plant warms up or cools down, what its plans for the winter break are, whether is has a drinking problem, and exactly how it’s going to be fruitful and multiply. Forget whatever image you’ve got in your head of botanists. Botanists are voyeurs. They’re all about the sex. Any time you see a cool flower, your botanist friend is going to go peek in its underwear.
Better yet, Elizabeth had an actual mission to find a particular plant. Scavenger hunt! I love scavenger hunts! The thrill of discovery! Birders know it. Bug enthusiasts. Mushroom hunters. Geocachers. Pokémon players. Elizabeth was looking for a Brown’s Peony. It was on her bucket list.
This particular peony is not exceptionally rare where it exists but it’s a total Goldilocks and rather particular about its surroundings. It likes what it likes. Elizabeth had never seen one, except for a captive one someone gave her that promptly perished of suburban ignominy. So the wild Brown’s Peony was on her botany bucket list. Word on the street was it could be found in the Conboy Wildlife Refuge in Washington, and that’s where we went.
It’s a pretty little plant, according to the webs, with a blossom that looks like an entrée. But it hangs upside-down, all coy, so you have to go in for the salamander view. I’ve got something to show you, this plant says. You just have to part my petticoats. Goodness! When it fruits it looks like Sideshow Bob. What’s not to love?
And—in case you’re a word nerd—Brown’s peonies are glabrous and glaucous and their flowers are globose. Peonies are named for Paeon, who was reportedly the Greek gods’ personal physician. I never knew anyone got sick on Mt. Olympus, although when you think about it, even if you’re immortal it doesn’t mean you can’t get a nasty rash for all eternity. Probably Paeon was the same kind of doctor other rich people get: a little loose with the prescription pad. Psst. Apollo. I can hook you up with some primo mandrake, he’d say.
So of course we did find our peony. We found twenty of them at least, and by “we,” I mean Elizabeth. I had only one to my credit even though I was walking in the lead. I’d like to blame the usual suspect, my poor vision, but by “poor vision” I mean my astonishing ability to gaze upon the real world while seeing, in great detail, a fictional scene from some book I might be working on. It takes all kinds in this world, and my kind needs a little extra watching-over sometimes.
It was a splendid summer day in a pine forest hard by a wet meadow with the massive face of nearby Mount Adams lurking nearby, presumably, just behind a big bank of clouds. Unfortunately, we were not able to find a Brown’s Peony in flower, or even thinking about flowering. They were all pre-pubescent, I guess. But Elizabeth marked it down as a solid win. Better yet, she could still keep Brown’s Peony (flowering version) on her bucket list.
You don’t want that bucket all the way empty.