The Sanctuary

by Audrey Scharmen

Published in Potomac Review, Fall/Winter 2001-02.

In the aftermath of lighting,  thunder and a heavy downpour with the horizon streaking rose, and mauve, tall silhouettes of trees encircle a dooryard garden where the cardinal flower stands amid a bed of her offspring. She is regal and rainswept, unbowed by the storm, each scarlet spike of florets beaded with diamond droplets aglitter in the fading light.

Cardinal Flower

Lobelia cardinalis,  older than time, the symbol of hope and continuity in an era when both are precarious, has chosen this garden of a herbalist and healer as a sanctuary. Here are boneset, lion’s foot and agrimony. Argiope spins silver among cats claw and zebra grasses where winged Luna and Promethea linger to meditate and metamorphose. Here is a strident chorus of tree frogs and birdsong, the fecund scent of a generous season, and the subtle fragrance of white sage burned in an ancient ritual of welcome.

Lobelia cardinals,  older than time, the symbol of hope and continuity in an era when both are precarious, has chosen this garden of a herbalist and healer as a sanctuary. Here are boneset, lion’s foot and agrimony. Argiope spins silver among cats claw and zebra grasses where winged Luna and Promethea linger to meditate and metamorphose. Here is a strident chorus of tree frogs and birdsong, the fecund scent of a generous season, and the subtle fragrance of white sage burned in an ancient ritual of welcome.
The gardener, who presides with the blessings of the natural world, describes an entourage of daddy longlegs spiders that came to spread a net about the cardinal’s buds when predators threatened. The spiders quietly retreated when the first flowers opened, and the plant remains flawless. She tells of hummingbirds who came to pollinate-among the few winged creatures able to penetrate the deep nectar of the florets-and of a fat bumblebee who sleeps nightly amid the blossoms.

And she tells of the cardinal’s coming. To this thickly wooded acreage that she has long tended in the watershed of a great estuary, where precious fossils of an inland sea abound, and where relics of Piscataway Indians who once hunted here lie all about, have come uncommon botanicals,  seeking refuge from the constant threat of progress. But her garden lacked a cardinal flower, an elusive plant she coveted.

It is a stunning survivor of the warm period that preceded the glacial epoch-its flowers so intense a hue the leaves often are stained with it. It is said that no color due to sustained sunlight could have originated in our temperate zone. Thus its birth has been traced to the Age of Flowers, to a sudden explosion that changed the face of Earth. The cardinal indeed may have been present at the creation.

The gardener’s efforts to transplant such a flower had been futile, and she had gone in search of it in a woodland beside the bed of a brook in a nearby glen protected by dense undergrowth and tall trees. Stalks of summer things spoke of a secret garden, and she thought it an ideal place for the Cardinal, a wetland plant with an aura of the rain forest, which craves a secluded habitat where it may keep its feet wet and its head crowned with sunlight. Hidden beneath a residue of autumn past were infant seedlings resembling those of the cardinal-flat green rosettes of leaves with baby fuzz still intact. But she was uncertain so she would return later when jewelweed and goldenrod bloom, in the time of the cardinal.

Fate intervened. A few weeks later four young people died instantly in a head-on collision beside the road that borders the woodland, steps away from a trail that leads down to a haven of seedlings. An entire community mourned, and the crash site became a shrine. Candlelight vigils were held there, and paper roses bloomed beside a white cross with photos of four smiling faces forever sixteen. The gardener considered the glen a temporary haven for the transitory souls of the children and so she did not return.

Autumn faded; winter turned quickly cruel, and the wilted roses shed red on new fallen snow. Spring came early with clouds of dogwood to grace the shrine. Chaste stars of Bethlehem shone on the hillside, and burgeoning foliage hid the path beyond from the eyes of passerby. Summer followed long and sweltering. No rain fell and the wetlands withered.

With late summer came rain, the heat subsided, Virginia creeper and sumac bled scarlet beside the road, and white blossoms of autumn clematis covered the carnage of drought. A semblance of peace came to the shrine, and the gardener returned to the glen. But the Cardinal hadn’t come. Black-eyed Susans bloomedin its place.
In early September it appeared in her garden-rising from tall stalks of feverfew and ferns beside the porch, undetected until a bright beacon of buds reviewed the presence. A rare albino deer had come, as well, to linger briefly at the woods edge, pale and ghostly in the blue twilight. Hummingbirds returned-none had been seen all that summer.

There is no explanation. Perhaps a single seed, dormant for centuries nurtured by one of many springs known to lie deep beneath the unique woodland, suddenly had awakened. It was the cardinal’s time.

Born Under a Lucky Star

aunt-ellen-and-gram-alone-mothers-day

Aunt Ellen and Gram (Ann O’Grady Sullivan) on Mother’s Day

All my life, she was there when I needed her. My Aunt Ellen lived in the village of Ballston Spa, New York, in Upper New York State. She was my mother’s sister. Aunt Ellen usually wore dresses. She gave the world her sunny side with sparkling blue-eyed Irish smile. She had rosy cheeks and auburn curly hair.

On the private side, Aunt Ellen told me that when she did cry, she would hide in the closet. She didn’t want Uncle George or her children to see her upset. Seeing pictures of Aunt Ellen in her youth, I imagine my Uncle George fell in love with her because she looked like a Victorian lady with her hair all swept up in the day’s fashion. When they married, Aunt Ellen moved into the ancestral Victorian home where my Uncle George grew up.

Aunt Ellen always knew that when I called, there was usually some trauma going on at my house. It was the drinking that upset me the most with its unpredictable rage that would flare up. Mostly I remember the kitchen chair scraping across the floor when my dad stood up from the table and started yelling at us kids, or my mother. Those were terrifying times, and when I could, I would sneak away and call my Aunt Ellen to come and get me.

Pulling into the driveway and getting out of the car, she would come into the house with a smile and charmingly say, “Hello Woody. Hellow Connie.” The way she said it was like nothing was going on in the whole wide world, and she could diffuse an explosive situation with her innocent smile. Oh, she knew all right what was going on.

Aunt Ellen had a shield that I frequently hid under as a child and young adult. She would say, “I’ve come to take Mary Ellen home for a visit.” Sometimes an argument would be smoldering, and the air would get cloudy and laden again. It didn’t matter, Aunt Ellen had a way of turning a situation around, and soon, I was safely out the door. Different feelings plagued me as I got into her car.

At times, I felt downcast and sometimes confused as to why I felt the way I did. Aunt Ellen had the ability to sweep my dark mood away. Driving the car, she would say, “Look at the sky M.E. Look at how beautiful the world is.” I would get caught up in her enthusiasm, and in an instant, my melancholy evaporated. Aunt Ellen liked driving the car and seeing all the beauty around her.

One day while riding in the car from her house to the farm, I started to get uptight thinking about returning home to the chaos again, and she caught my mood. All of a sudden, she stopped the car along a country road, and said, “Look M.E., look at those flowers. Do you know what they are? In a foul mood, I said, “No.” Aunt Ellen said, “They are Turk Cap Lilies.” The way she said it was like witnessing the Lands of Arabia and her sheer magic had a wonderful affect on me.

As a young woman, I was selected by Seventeen Magazine for a position at the World’s Fair in New York City. My father forbade me to go to the city. He said,”No daughter of his was going to New York City.” It was a terrible time for me. I had no clothes or money, and he was adamant. I wasn’t going to New York City. As usual, I called my Aunt Ellen and told her about the job and that my dad wouldn’t let me go. She said, “You are going, and I am going to take you there.” She knew that I needed to get out of that house and to start a life of my own. There was no future for me in Saratoga Springs where I grew up.

For the trip, we went shopping for clothes. Hiding them under the bed, I waited for the day when Aunt Ellen would come to get me, and we would travel to New York City. The day finally arrived, and I came downstairs wearing a new suit, hat, and gloves and carrying my sister’s Samsonite blue suitcase. My sister was going with us too and helped drive the car. My father had tears in his eyes when we stood in the driveway to say goodbye. He was having financial difficulty at the time and was not in the position to adequately provide for me. Dad handed me $40 and told me that was all he could give me. I knew he felt bad and without adequate funding, I still went ahead. I felt free as a bird. My Aunt Ellen was there, and I was walking into my future thanks to her.

Years later, I was home visiting my parents from the far corners of the Earth. Aunt Ellen had kept up with my adult life and had followed my adventures across the country, Europe, Mexico, and South America. One one of our last visits we drove, from the farm in New York to my sister’s home in Massachusetts, and we took a long way. Aunt Ellen wanted to go through the Vermont Mountains to see the view and fall colors. After all, it was only three or four hours out of our way. In listening to me talk about my travels, she said, “M.E., you were born under a lucky star.”

All my life, I think about my Aunt Ellen who had so much to do with who I am today. When something special happens, and I see something beautiful in nature, I remember to say, “ Aunt Ellen, you would love this.” I often feel her close. I think my Aunt Ellen had a lot to do with how I think because she taught me how to see.

In the studio: Mary Ellen Ryall

1 11 2013

Butterfly posterMary Ellen Ryall and I crossed paths more than eight years ago when I purchased milkweed seeds from her through eBay. This connection quickly morphed into a frequent e-mail exchange and a great friendship! I do volunteer design and photography for her environmental education organization, Happy Tonics. For several years, I designed and produced her quarterly 4-page newsletter, Butterflies & Gardens, as well as other marketing materials. I also designed a Monarch Butterfly Habitat Poster for her a few years ago. The poster included original photographs by me and my friends Brian K. Loflin (www.bkloflin.wordpress.com) and Jeff Evans (www.evanimagesandart.com).

I had the chance to visit Mary Ellen in her former home base in Minong, Wisconsin, in August 2011. (Sidebar: at the time I was making the three-hour drive from the Minneapolis airport to Minong, I called Michael and learned that I had just missed a big earthquake in the D.C. area; it was enough to scare both him and our cat, ZenaB, and for a vase to fall off a bookcase and break!). While in Shell Lake and Minong, I visited Mary Ellen’s Monarch Butterfly Habitat and met many of her friends, most notably Diane Dryden, a published author and feature writer for the Washburn County Register. Diane’s novels, The Accidental King of Clark Street and Double or Nothing on Foster Ave., are available on Amazon here.

About a year ago, Mary Ellen relocated to Fitchburg, MA, to be closer to her sister. She talked of slowing down, but I knew she wouldn’t—she’s brimming with far too many ideas! An author and truly dedicated environmental educator, Mary Ellen’s first book, My Name is Butterfly, was published by Salt of the Earth Press in 2011. This teaching book about a little girl and a Monarch butterfly was illustrated by Marie Aubuchon-Mendoza and is available here.

TwoBooksEarlier this year, I assisted Mary Ellen with producing The Monarch Butterfly Coloring Book. Written by Mary Ellen Ryall and illustrated by Moira Christine McCusker, It is available for purchase here. It is published by Mary Ellen’s new company, Butterfly Woman Publishing. Our next project is a plant guidebook, which we hope to debut in 2014. She visited the D.C. area a few weeks ago to attend a three-day conference for the North America Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC). She is presently on a task force to design a smart app called S.H.A.R.E. (Simply Have Areas Reserved for the Environment). This app will allow gardeners around the country to list their habitats on a national map. Mary Ellen blogs about organic gardening and open pollination for diversity on her blog here.

After seeing the portraits I did of her while she was in town, Mary Ellen said, “now I see that I have to go out and buy a new wardrobe!” The outfits she is wearing came from my “modeling rack” as well as my closet. She feels I captured her energy in the shots—and if you’ve ever met her, you know how high-energy this woman is!

P.S. Butterflies are the second largest group of pollinators after bees. Butterflies as pollinators are in trouble too. The Monarch butterfly population is down to only five percent in 2013. The Monarch and other butterflies need native host plants. We need to plant native wildflowers to bring butterflies home. Milkweed is the only host plant of the Monarch butterfly. If you would like to be part of the solution to stop the decline of Monarch butterflies, plant some milkweed seeds in your garden! Mary Ellen sells seed on her website here.

© Cindy Dyer. All rights reserved.

MaryEllenHeadShots

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