This week I’m starting a monthly blog of excerpts from my new book Almost Anywhere: Road Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks and Nonsense. This first excerpt is one of my favorite passages from the book, about one of my favorite places, the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area in the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia. And its about one of my favorite plants, the carnivorous pitcher plant. If you like the excerpt, there’s more where this came from. Pick up a signed copy of the book in my bookstore, or get a copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or, even better, your local bookstore.
Excerpted from Almost Anywhere, by Krista Schlyer
Sufficiently awakened, we decide to make the thirty-minute drive to Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. As entertainment on the way, Bill and I try to sing “The Little Drummer Boy,” but cannot come up with the words. For twenty minutes we sing a loop of: “So, they told me, parumpapumpum, a new born king to see, parumpapumpum, da da da da da da, parumpapumpum, rumpapumpum.”
When we arrive at the Cranberry Glades, we step out into a misting rain for a short hike. Bill sets Maggie in the back while he rummages around looking for her leash and a plastic bag to pick up any droppings Maggie might make along the way. I hear him singing to her as he searches, “You get to walk with us, parumpapumpum.”
Maggie’s ears perk up and she cranes her neck to look up at Bill.
“I’ll get a bag for you, parumpapumpum.
Maggie’s alert eyes say, ‘Yes, yes, go on…I’m listening’
“We’ll put your shit in it, parumpapumpum, rumpapumpum rumpapumpum.”
When Bill has Maggie all squared away, we set out for a walk on the boardwalk that passes over a rare remnant of bog formed 10,000 years ago when glaciers marched over West Virginia. In most places this far south, this ecosystem could not have gained a foothold. But here, nestled in a cool wet crook of the Appalachian Mountains the cranberry bog took root. Cranberries, one of the few fruit species native to North America, were a staple for the land’s earliest human inhabitants. The plant itself can live for 100 years, and generations upon generations of its ancestors have amassed as a spongy platform of peat upon which rests the current blanket of bog plants.
In this place, the death of a thousand years of plant life rests in peace just below the surface of the landscape and forms a springy carpet that cushions the current generation of vegetative, but not vegetarian, life. Because the land is acidic and nutrient poor, some plants must rely on predatory prowess to survive. The sundew attracts insects with sweet secretions along the length of its tentacle like stalks. When the insect takes the bait, it becomes stuck in the sticky liquid, and begins to struggle for freedom. Alert to this movement, the plant contracts to more fully envelop the insect and then secretes enzymes to digest the hapless creature.
In similarly sneaky fashion, the pitcher plant lures insects into its funnel shaped leaf. When prey falls inside, it becomes trapped in a sort of stomach soup of enzymes.
Carnivorous plants hold a special fascination for us humans. We think of plants as benign, sedentary, guileless. But members of the “other” kingdom have special niches and strategies for survival just like we do in the animal kingdom. We are all looking for ways to hold on, enraptured by life in all its cruel kindness. The infinite ways that we manage to do that, conjured up by countless forms of life, offer an eternity of lessons in living. And the pitcher plant in particular, presents a perfect symbol: It represents a form of life that has by necessity adapted itself through the ages of the earth into a creature stunning in its beauty and brutality.
As I observe pitcher plants sprouting out of the boggy ground in the Cranberry Glades, I recall a reflection by Janisse Ray in her book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.
She writes, “The pitcher plant taught me to love rain…Its carnivory taught me the sinlessness of predation, and its columns of dead insects the glory of purpose no matter how small. In that plant I was looking for a manera de ser, a way of being–no, not for a way of being, but of being able to be. I was looking for a patch of ground that supported the survival of a rare, precious and endangered biota within my own heart.”
Note: These photos not taken at the Cranberry Glades.