The unnamable is the eternally real.
–Tao Te Ching
In Shenandoah, the first of the wildflowers are beginning to open. A few eager trees lead the pack, popping with pastel confetti. We walk slowly, the dog in tow. Coming here was a last-minute plan for a lazy Sunday. Giovanni’s pack is perfectly provisioned, as always. He has brought not only water and mixed nuts, but a first aid kit, toilet paper, and a knife. Should we end up stuck here a few extra hours, he has a flashlight and an emergency radio.
My pack contains two Audubon guides and a single wilted band-aid. The latter makes a passable bookmark. Also, I remembered my boots.
On the way up the Compton Gap trail, we spot the first of the small purple blossoms tucked into the crevices of the cool rocks. I am fairly certain of their name, but I stop anyway. Flipping through my wildflower book, I find a matching description. With their fifth petal a pointed tongue, violets are almost impossible to mistake for anything else. Among the earliest arrivals in the Appalachian chain, they are poorly hidden Easter eggs, peeking up from random turns in the trail.
At an outcrop, we drop our packs and peel off our fleece jackets. The sun has joined us, brushing against the early leaves. Many trees are still bare-knuckled, fighting a pointless battle against a forgiving sky. One, however, is feathered in a cloud of snowy blossoms that spring from a clutch of slender trunks. She is probably more accurately called a shrub, but since she stands as tall as any of the surrounding oaks, she deserves the more robust title. She seems to think so, too, puffing herself out over the edge of the mountain. Neither her more staid companions nor the wide-open pull of gravity intimidate the brazen thing.
I try to find the tree-shrub in my book, seeking out “white radially symmetrical blossoms.” Her leaves are still embryonic while her slender petals insist on their pull towards day. They are long and translucent tissues, five to a blossom, veined with cracks that make them appear both newborn and wizened. I cannot find the tree despite trying to match the thin, vertical striations of her bark and the dried leaves below to the photos in the glossy pages. She clearly exists, and it tickles me to imagine I have beaten John Audubon to the pleasure of an introduction. One last time, I look into the yellow-tipped stamens and the blushing bud where the petals grip the branch. The tree is herself. Her greeting of the sun is no less bright for the absence of a name.
Above, an airplane grumbles past, then another. They are high enough in the thin streak of clouds to be invisible, but their whine echoes against the valley and does not end, not for one breath during our extended moment on the mountain. We rest there on the exposed rock, stretching pores and bone. Giovanni has stashed a surprise in his bottomless pack. We share a piece of chocolate cake, taking slow, melting bites.
Down the path, we stop again. Where a trickle of water slicks the rocks dark, more bright clusters shoulder their way through the soil. I park myself on the side of the trail and bend close. The tiny blossoms are no bigger than my pinkie nail. They are white. Even the centers with their aurora of hair-like petals are white. The stems, a furred and frosted green, stand in close bunches with an explosion of flowers at the end of each. Giovanni a little further up the hill. I am worried he is bored, but he tells me to take my time. He steps closer and leans in. “That one?” he asks, glancing between page and blossom. “No,” he says, answering his own question. “This one is too white in the middle. It’s not as fuzzy, either.” He rests on his haunches, holding the lead as Fenway snuffles in the damp soil. After a few quiet passes, I close the book and shrug.
“Maybe it’s a wildflower,” he tells me.
“Yeah, a wildflower.” We begin walking again. At the crossroads where the Compton Gap spur crosses the Appalachian Trail, a small marbling of grayish white appears at our feet.
“What’s that?” Giovanni asks. This time, he is the first to crouch. I join him. Our foreheads touching, we gaze at the alien flower. It is a midget, milky and bulbous and growing in the low shade. It is nothing anyone would call “beautiful.” Small shoots of the simultaneously spiked and rounded flower push through the moss. We gaze together, naming what we see before we even open the book.
“It is sort of pink underneath.”
“The stalk is furry.”
“The leaves are ovals. See the veins? And they are spread out on the ground.”
We count the seeds, if that is what they are. Finally, I pull out the guide and we leaf through the pages. “No,” he murmurs. “Uh, uh. Keep going.” Then, he cries, “That one!” His shout gets the dog’s attention. She trots over, ears up. All three of us hover between flower and page.
“Plantain-leaf Pussytoes,” I read.
He chuckles. “Pussytoes.” I turn to the page with the description and as I read it out, Giovanni touches the flower, nodding as the particulars of the living thing fall into line with the words describing it. “That’s it,” he says.
We are up, a second wind carrying down the final stretch of the trail towards the car. I am giddy about the flower and its name. “We found one!”
“Two,” he corrects. “That bluebell thing, too.”
“Blue violet,” I say.
We have found nothing, of course, nothing but a series of letters in a book corresponding with what is right in front of us. Why does it satisfy so well, this puzzle and its specious solution? Why are we so compelled to bend in close and inspect the organs of a small, gray seed pod, and to describe it with such precision?
Vision cares nothing for beauty. It cares even less for the confines of language. The eye’s only pleasure is in gazing intently at a thing and painting the edges into memory, rubbing light against husk until a shape appears.Looking closely confirms what we know in our uneasy hearts: every incarnation both clings to and recoils from the earth itself. Borders bleed away. Shrub, stone, seed, sun: each works its component parts into the soles of our retreating boots, catching a lift to someplace entirely new so it can become something entirely different. We take comfort in image as it fades into name, then legend, then just a phantom whispering at the limits of memory. Meanwhile, the living thing has not only forgotten us, it is already gone.