Last week long-time friend and Stony Brook supporter Mona Tighe urged me to step away from my desk and get out on the trail. “Go look at the witch hazel before you come to the second spillway. It’s in full bloom and spectacular,” she told me. Unfortunately I waited more than a week before I got out there (sheer laziness on my part), but the fact that she had taken the time to tell me about it stayed with me. Mona has an eye for beauty, and I didn’t want to miss my chance to share in it firsthand.
I worried that the wind and rain the night before would have diminished the bushes’ flowers, but the warm air and the breaking sunlight and the sudden onset of brilliant foliage scattered everywhere along the walkway were prize enough: a last gasp of fall before the barrenness of winter; a chance to store up autumnal fires.
Had it not been for Mona’s urgings, however, I never would have noticed the witch hazel on my own. The delicate flowers may not have had the same luster as when she first saw them, but they burst forth along the ends of branches nonetheless, scattered and thin like some child’s attempt to fashion wispy yellow sea anemones out of spaghetti straps of ribbon. Against a backdrop of white pine and red oak, swirling yellow beech and burnt brown leaves, they were almost invisible. But I now had eyes to see.
The core of the flowers looked like green fisted cups, their sides rolled back into four delicate petals reminiscent of Belleek china, strangely in the shape of octopus suckers, some with thin wiry pistils protruding through the center, others with swollen yellow stamens encircling the edge. These cups will fold into pouches that burst forth with seed in the spring, Doug tells me. “It can happen all at once and make a loud popping sound that will catch you off-guard if you’re not looking for it,” he says.
I am struck more by the boldness of the plant to flower in the late fall than by its physiognomy. I marvel that other life forms would choose to challenge winter or, perhaps, forego summer temptations for later- in- life glories. We do not all reach our stride at the same rate. Nor do we all have the confidence that we can stand center stage when the bows of others have already been made.
It’s no wonder that this plant has medicinal powers which the Native Americans first discovered. As if by magic it has been used to cure everything from poison ivy and conjunctivitis to open wounds and hemorrhoids. Loaded with antioxidants, it is a strong anti-inflammatory that has been shown to be effective in treating the Herpes virus and is currently being tested for its ability to reduce wrinkles and repair aging skin. Of course its forked branches have also been used for centuries as a divining rod to locate underground water sources, or even hidden gold.
Leave it to Mona to turn my attention this way. She who was among the first to spot the purple gallinule at Stony Brook. She who keeps a detailed list of every new bird she sees. She who seems perennially young and able to rise above any affliction or temporary ill. She should give lessons in “paying attention.” As I think of her, I am reminded of an essay in The Atlantic a few months ago wherein Lucas Mann reflects on “how honesty and specificity have the power to redeem the banal, imbuing our smallest private moments with significance.”
He talks about J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip and tells how reading it “woke (him) up to the fact that spending one’s time fretting about aboutness is a deflection from the essayist’s real challenge: to think and feel as deeply and specifically as possible about whatever it is you’re looking at.” Mona has this magical ability and so should we.
So on this day when the witch hazel was not so striking as I thought it would be, I was rewarded nonetheless. The trails were ablaze with foliage that would put Seurat to shame. And I was given a lesson in thinking and feeling and specificity by a true master, who just happens to walk the trails of Stony Brook almost daily.