One of my favorite hiking memoirs is Earl Shaffer’s Walking with Spring. The book documents Shaffer’s 1948 thru-hike of the 2000-mile Appalachian Trail, which was the first thru-hike recognized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). Shaffer also has the distinction of being the first person to thru-hike in both directions and the oldest person to thru-hike at the age of 79. At the trail’s inception, there was skepticism that anyone could thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, but Shaffer’s careful documentation — especially his photographs of plants and flowers along the way — provided the evidence for naturalists to support his claim. I’ve hardly been doing anything as ambitious as Shaffer, but I have been doing my best to stay present to the unfolding of spring here on Cape Cod.
As a painter, and in my studio this month, it might be more apt for me to reference David Hockney’s recent work, undertaken during the pandemic, Spring Cannot Be Cancelled. Having moved to Normandy in early March 2020 with the intention of painting the emerging spring season, the project gained even greater resonance against the backdrop of lockdowns and our collective isolation. Using a variety of media, Hockney developed a body of work that meticulously observed the arrival of spring — which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2021. The virtual tour is quite wonderful.
For me, one of the hallmarks of spring’s arrival on Cape Cod is the flowering of our local orchid, commonly called lady slippers (Cypripedium acaule Ait.). Over the past few days, an exuberance of blooms emerged on the old railroad trail in Provincetown. My operative theory as to why they’re so abundant here is the presence of the railroad. For 150 years, this ecology has been relatively undisturbed, allowing the special conditions for the flowers to flourish. Lady slippers are not easily transplanted because they live in a symbiotic relationship with a soil fungus. The US Forest Service explains:
In order to survive and reproduce, pink lady’s slipper interacts with a fungus in the soil from the Rhizoctonia genus. Generally, orchid seeds do not have food supplies inside them like most other kinds of seeds. Pink lady’s slipper seeds require threads of the fungus to break open the seed and attach them to it. The fungus will pass on food and nutrients to the pink lady’s slipper seed. When the lady’s slipper plant is older and producing most of its own nutrients, the fungus will extract nutrients from the orchid roots. This mutually beneficial relationship between the orchid and the fungus is known as “symbiosis” and is typical of almost all orchid species.
Prior to moving to Cape Cod, I’d only seen a lady slipper once, when I was very young in the woods near our home. I was a bit of a busybody, and my other warned me sternly not to mention the sighting to anyone, lest our neighbor try to transplant it to her garden and kill it. Perhaps enraptured by the beauty of the flower and the dire consequence to moving it, or just frightened by my mother’s stern continence, I never told the story of seeing it until I was an adult. My first encounter with Provincetown’s lady slippers cape a few days before my father’s death. I talked with him about them and the one we’d seen all those years ago, as I held his hand over his final hours.
My parents both died on the eve of Memorial Day, and this season — with all its flamboyance and rebirth — is also filled with remembrance. I can’t say that I’ve resolved all the gaps that existed between me and my parents, but I am grateful that they instilled a love of nature and walking in me. And very often they remain my companions is my on-going discovery of this place.