A few feet from the busy highway, next to the Advance Auto Parts store on the outskirts of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, two carloads of wildflower enthusiasts piled out and feasted their eyes on bloodroot, Dutchman’s-breeches, and the first purple trillium.
It might seem strange that so many delicate-seeming native perennials would flourish in what we like to think of waste places. But steep, rocky hillsides along roads and highways are among the few places where the over-abundant white-tailed deer don’t linger. Trash-strewn, noisy, polluted, and excessively vulnerable to weedy invasives though they may be, such places have become de facto wildflower preserves. You can walk for miles through the deer-haunted back-of-beyond and see little but brown from last year’s hayscented fern.
In a poem by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton, the “Outskirts” are “an intermediate place, stalemate, neither city nor country,” and include “auto body repair shops in former barns.”
The stones throw their shadows abruptly like objects on the surface of the moon.
And these places just multiply.
Like what they bought with Judas’s money: “the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.”
But any place where trees are allowed to sprout and grow however they want, free from overzealous homeowners and unchecked herds of grazing animals alike, still offers the possibility of a sabbath — the return of balance to the earth’s economy. Profit and toil have not yet completely wrested it from the shyer and more indigent inhabitants of the earth. It still has the capacity to give more than it receives.
The land bought with blood money in Matthew 27:6-8, or fertilized with blood according to Acts 1:18-20, became a kind of sanctuary too. What had been an economically exploited piece of ground — a source of potter’s clay — was converted into a refuge, with the author of Acts quoting from Psalms: Let no man dwell therein… In similar fashion, the best display we wildflower hunters found last Saturday was a few miles farther to the southeast along the same highway, at the base of what had once been a very active quarry for ganister stone: the Thousand Steps, now publicly owned and managed as a Pennsylvania state gameland. The mountainside has recovered remarkably well in just a few decades, and indeed, now serves as a refuge for a state-threatened species, the Allegheny woodrat. On a beautiful, warm spring day, the parking area along the highway was crowded with visitors intent on climbing the eponymous steps and taking in the view from the top. We seemed to be the only ones there to peer at the ground.
After the long winter,
the flowers too are eager
to face the sun.
A lull in traffic.
The wildflowers grow still
on their thin stalks.