“Look, Mary Ella, another contest!” my brother announced. I hurried over to the sofa where he was poring over the pages of the latest Nature Friend.
“Wildflower ‘Learning by Doing’ Contest,” I read aloud. “Write a “Learning by Doing” story of your day. Make the story interesting with creative descriptions of your adventure. We are not just looking for a list of names in diary fashion. We want to know George slipped into the creek or a spider startled Susie.” We laughed. “Let’s go for it!”
And we really did intend to. “This would be the perfect day to do it,” John Mark suggested to me as we biked home from church together one Sunday.
“All right,” I agreed. “Starting now! There’s a dandelion.”
“Very exciting,” he replied sarcastically. “I’m sure no one else would have such a rare flower. There’s some wild phlox,” he said, pointing to the roadside ditch where the purple and white blooms sported their elegance.
“I see wild mustard,” I said. The tiny yellow flowers always made me think of Matthew 17:20, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say to this mountain, ‘Remove hence to yonder place,’ and it shall remove.”
“Oh, and there’s daisy fleabane in the pasture.” The tiny soft-as-a-new-paintbrush flowers are a common sight in our gardens and meadows.
“So far, so good,” I commented. “We’ve seen several different kinds, but they’re all common as grass. Nothing that makes a good story. It’s time for George to fall into the creek!” We laughed together. Only problem—to fall into a creek, one first needs a creek, and unfortunately, there was none close at hand.
That afternoon came and went, and somehow, our wildflower walk never happened. June dawned hot, sunny, and abloom with wildflowers, but still we hadn’t gone. Until one day…“John Mark!” I gasped. “There’s only a week left until the wildflower hunt deadline!”
“We simply must go tomorrow,” he declared. “Let’s go down to the Big Spring!”
“Sure!” I agreed. “Maybe we’ll find some different ones there. And at any rate, then you can fall into the creek—even if I have to push you in!”
“My name isn’t George,” he reminded me.
The next day the thermometer pointed to 90° Fahrenheit, and the whole family welcomed the thought of a picnic supper in the cool shade down by the spring. I sliced bread and washed lettuce, and Karolyn and Sharon helped me put together sandwiches. John Mark made a big bowlful of popcorn, and Karolyn got ice cream out of the freezer. I filled the red drink jug with cold water, and we were off!
We are fortunate enough to live only a mile or two up the road from the source of the Big Spring. John Mark and I jumped on our bikes and covered the distance in short order, while the rest of the family followed with the horse and buggy. As we rounded the curves and cruised down the slopes, I could feel the air growing refreshingly cooler.
Before long, we stood on the grassy banks near the source—hidden under the overhang of a large mossy rock. The cold, clean water flowed up, carrying a delightful scent of earth and woods. It always awes me to think that the same waters I see flowing over waving moss might join the vast waters of the Atlantic Ocean someday, by route of the Conodoguinet Creek and Susquehanna River. On the opposite bank, a woodsy hillside rose steeply, green and lush with honeysuckle bushes and tall oak trees.
“It’s time to fall in!” I said, advancing threateningly toward John Mark.
He quickly jumped away. “Too cold,” he replied.
I dabbled my toes in the water. Hot day though it was, the water felt as though it were freshly melted from an Alaskan glacier.
By now, Dad and Mom, Karolyn, and Sharon had joined us. “Is that stinging nettle?” Mom wondered, pointing to a patch of green weeds nearby. Nobody was sure, but we avoided it just in case. No one wanted to get itchy!
We spread our picnic blanket on the bank and before long were all enjoying lettuce and tomato sandwiches. Ice cream cones topped off our light supper. As we packed the leftovers back into the box, my toes stubbed against the drink jug. It tumbled over and over down the bank, and “sploosh!” landed in the cold waters.
“It’s George!” Sharon and I shrieked together. George had fallen into the creek! “Lifeguard to the rescue!” I called, and Sharon waded out to save him, for he was rapidly bobbing away.
The others decided to move on to the waterfall a short ways downstream. Mom and I were left standing together on the banks. “How do you think this place looked in the Indians’ time?” Mom wondered.
Suddenly I was no longer a typical teenager of the twenty-first century. Tall and stern, arms folded in front of me, I was the wise old chieftain of the Iroquois tribe. Behind me burned the cooking fires, with squaws hovering over pots of stew, and little brown children tumbling about in the dirt. Before me, several dugout canoes, with bronze-skinned braves sitting straight and tall in them, shot rapidly over the foaming whitewater—no, that would not do. Not by any stretch of imagination would the calm waters of this creek accommodate the canoe of a genuine Indian brave! My dream sank to the creek bottom, and I turned my attention to things present.
“I think I’ll go join the others at the waterfall,” I told Mom. The waterfall, let me explain, was not there in the Indians’ day. When my grandfather was a boy, a gristmill churned the waters. The old mill is long gone, but the water still tumbles with a thunderous roar, two or three feet over a remaining concrete barrier.
I perched beside John Mark on a concrete wall close by, gazing down into the deep, still pools just above the falls. Suddenly, my eye caught a swift movement in the water. “A fish!” I pointed it out to John Mark. The dark form glided gracefully in and out among the moss and water plants.
“There’s a second one!” John Mark exclaimed.
The pleasant evening passed swiftly, and before long it was time for us to leave. Such a short evening, I thought as I mounted my bike. But I’m glad we could come. Suddenly I remembered why we had come. Our wildflower search!
Wildflowers? Oh, I guess I saw a couple of buttercups.
So on the way home, we all kept our eyes peeled, hoping to save our expedition from complete failure. “There’s some hairy vetch,” Mom said.
“Such a name!” I scoffed. The delicate clusters of lavender flowers growing at the roadside were far too pretty for that.
“Wild roses,” said Karolyn when she noticed the sweet, airy bunches climbing an old fence by the roadside.
Appreciatively, I inhaled their honey fragrance. “I could almost live on the scent,” I declared.
Then we noticed a tall bushy plant abloom with clusters of white flowers in the pasture we were passing. I broke off a stem and entwined it in my handlebars, wondering what it was called. “Might be poison oak,” Dad suggested.
Poison oak? I was skeptical. I was not at all sure how poison oak looked, but surely this pretty white wildflower could not be that.
As soon as we arrived home, I fetched North American Wildlife, eager to identify the plant. “Oh, there’s poison oak,” I said, noticing the three green leaflets. No way was our mystery plant that! Then I looked closer. “Mom, listen to this!” I exclaimed. “‘Until fairly recently, the widespread poison ivy was thought to be two distinct species: “Poison Ivy” a vine with pointed leaflets; and “Poison Oak” a shrubby plant with oak-like leaflets. But when cuttings from the same plant were grown in different locations, both forms were produced. Those in moist, shady forest became poison ivy vines; those in dry, sunny places grew into poison oak plants.’ And here I was wondering all my life what poison oak is! But what is our mystery plant?”
“You know,” said Mom, “isn’t it Queen Anne’s lace?”
I broke off a stem and sniffed. Sure enough, it did smell faintly of carrots. “Of course!” I answered. But I flipped several more pages.
“What’s this?” Mom asked, and behold, here was a picture that exactly resembled the tall stem I held. The picture was marked, “Poison Hemlock.” So Dad was nearly right after all.
“This is science and education! But it won’t hurt me to touch it, will it?” I asked in sudden alarm.
“No, only if you eat it,” Mom assured me.
“Well, I think we did okay in following the guidelines,” John Mark said with a yawn. “Susie wasn’t startled, but we did find wildflowers, and best of all, George fell into the creek!”