A Lenten Rose on Little Kennesaw Mountain
Spring is here, not a date on a calendar but a scent in the breeze, a feeling of air moving the hairs on my arm, the tweet-tweet-tweet of a cardinal in the top-most branches of the leaf-bare silver maple in my backyard. A coven of tiny flies have hatched in the Leyland cypress tree at the corner of the front patio, and they flit around its long spire shape never moving further than an inch from its circumference. Soon the dreaded green tree pollen will coat my car and driveway in a light dusting for a week and then be washed away in the rain. Truly, Spring has come to Georgia.
I drove to Little Kennesaw Mountain this weekend, which is about a mile from my house. I parked in the lot that sits at the juncture of two hiking trails and took the more leisurely one that meanders through the woods at the foot of the mountain. This walk would be more of a leg stretching than a proper hike, preparation for more movement and activity from me in the weeks to come. I’ve been cooped up in my house through winter and the Omicron variant. I desperately needed to get out and walk.
The trail is nearly as wide as a road and on beautiful days like today it is well-trodden by lone hikers with walking sticks and athletic-looking couples with their dogs and friends walking in pairs. I followed it to the little footbridge that crosses a creek and then peeled off down a footpath that runs the length of the running water, disappearing into the woods. This is how I prefer to walk, picking my way along the banks of a creek, taking my time, stopping to observe things at my leisure, and most of all, alone. There was no one around, so I could hear each of my footfalls, the louder ones that crunched softly in the carpet of brown pine needles covering the forest floor and the softer ones that padded lightly in the sand-like dirt on the stream bank. The water gurgled beside me, headed downhill as gravity dictates, though my eyes and my feet could not register the slope. I glanced down to see a single stationary minnow in the water below, its nose pointed upstream and casting a trout-sized shadow on the stream bed beneath it.
There is a war raging in Europe, a Russian invasion of Ukraine one week old, and I knew that if I removed my phone from my pocket, I could with a single swipe put myself in it with an endless stream of photos and video clips. There were thousands of them already (who keeps track of such things)—a bomb blowing out the side of an apartment building, a Russian helicopter going down, a six-year-old child dying, teenage Russian prisoners of war calling home to their mothers, streams of terrified refugees fleeing the cities. The vicarious thrill of almost war was right at my fingertips if I chose to go there.
I did not.
This day was about new life. I was looking for signs of it, and the only use I had for my phone in this task was to help me identify plants. There are many apps that assist in identifying things in nature. My favorite is Seek from iNaturalist, which will, when activated, identify plants by me simply pointing my phone’s camera at leaves and branches and patches of moss. To this end, I removed my phone from my pocket, and I was aiming it at living things as I picked my way along the creek.
The forest was still mostly brown—floor, tree trunks, vines, and riverbed, all the color of dead or slumbering plants—but as my eyes swept around, I began to see shoots of green peeping out all around me, a subtle spot color on this otherwise dun canvas. I saw tufts of wild garlic springing up from the ground like little clusters of onion shoots; not a native plant but well established nevertheless. At eye level, wrapped around a branch, I spotted a thorny vine with tiny distinctive leaves springing from it, each one with a delicately serrated edge. This, the app informed me, is “Multifloral Rose,” another non-native plant introduced from Asia. I stopped and stooped and pointed my phone at another curious sight: tiny clusters of mustard-colored leaves, each cluster the size of a pencil eraser, popping out at evenly spaced intervals from a delicate branch about the width of a straw. A native plant called Northern spice bush. When I straightened to full height, my attention was caught by something on the trunk of a nearby tree. On closer inspection, I saw that it was a kind of shag carpet yellow-green moss that sprung from the trunk in wavy tendrils—shingle moss.
Then I saw it, a strange mound of green the size of a beach ball about thirty feet distant from the stream bank. Walking to it and aiming my phone at its leathery green leaves, I discovered that unlike the various shoots and clusters of leaves I had previously catalogued, this was a full-fledged bush, fully alive as if it had never gone to sleep for the winter. Each of its big green leaves is about the width of my palm and the bush is brimming with delicate pink and yellow flowers that hang upside down like decorative bells. It was as if some invisible protective dome had sheltered this bush from three months of freezing nights and frost.
I was unsurprised to learn that this plant, Lenten Rose, is not native to Georgia. Its Latin name Helleborus orientalis gives some hint of its origins, but it is more precisely a native of Greece and Turkey that derives its common name from the fact that it flowers during Lent.
It was, in fact, the fourth day of Lent.
And then the Catholic in me awakened. He is never far away, always ready to make me feel bad about something or awaken me to something important. Both outcomes are always hovering under the surface of my daily life. On this day, it was the fact that Ash Wednesday had just passed and I missed it. I am no longer a practicing Catholic, but of all the various rituals and special days on the Catholic calendar, Ash Wednesday has always been my favorite. As a child, I savored the elemental purity of it as I walked up that center aisle of the church to hear the priest utter words that were so true, so unvarnished by mysticism or superstition that even an atheist could appreciate them:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
And then the coup de grace: he would use his thumb to smear a crude, gritty cross of black ash on my forehead, which I would wear all day long not because I was especially proud of being Catholic but because even as a child, I understood that this grit contained an existential truth—I would die someday—and wearing it so visibly made me feel more like a grownup than anything else I could imagine doing. Everyone I knew would die someday. And the Resurrection of the body was all fine and good, but the fact of this ash lived at the heart of everything that was important in life. Later, when I was in college with a few philosophy courses under my belt, I would think, Ash Wednesday is the day for Catholic existentialism.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. My mind slipped easily back to Ukraine, to the dead and the dying and the grieving and the suffering. And not far off from this thought was the War in Iraq and all the death and tragedy wrought in that terrible and senseless conflict. Some will be angry to hear me make this comparison, but there is truly no daylight separating these two wars. One man deciding the fate of an entire country and millions of lives is not much different from the next man who exercises his power to do the same same thing. Of what use are the motivations of the invader to those who will die because of the invasion (One very positive thing I can say about my Catholic heritage—every pope in my lifetime has prayed for peace in every war, large or small, without reservation and without taking sides. This is so different from some of the Protestant Christian sects in America who openly warmonger or wrap themselves in the flag or gleefully embrace Trumpism with all of its meanness and hyper-masculine provocations).
And not far off from this line of thought is something closer to home: the two Civil War cemeteries in Marietta, one of which I pass every day on my drive to work. There was a terrible battle on this mountain on June 27, 1864, as Union General William Tecumseh Sherman approached Atlanta with his army. Four thousand men died on the mountain in one day as his soldiers tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the Confederate soldiers defending it. If this was a different kind of essay, one that speaks of ”feints” and flanking maneuvers, I would tell you how many of these dead men were Yankees and how many were Confederates, but it hardly matters to me right now. I can tell you this: In 1866, a local man named Henry Cole donated land in Marietta for a cemetery with the idealistic notion that it should be a place for interring the remains of both Union and Confederate dead, as a means of healing the nation’s wounds, but his proposal was rejected by all parties. The cemetery built on this land mainly became a final resting place for the 10,000 Union soldiers who died in Sherman’s Georgia campaign. Less than a mile away, another cemetery was made for Confederate soldiers. An original sin was thus preserved for posterity right in the center of my town.
If this were a different kind of essay, I might dig deep into my Catholic heritage to share an inspiring metaphor for new life on this glorious Spring day, the Resurrection repurposed for more mundane human affairs (Catholics are not opposed to such free association). But this isn’t that kind of essay, and on this day—on this holy ground—the only new life that matters are the green shoots bursting out all around me. These shoots care nothing for our wars. They are not a metaphor for anything; they are a glorious end unto themselves.