The Forests of My Mind

- by Judy Griffith Gill

Cool forest paths in the British Columbia springtime, drizzle falling, dripping of our bangs, my sister and I followed our aunt Alice along trails known only to her-and possibly to deer. On these trails, we always walked lightly, she slightly in front, the two of us trailing just a foot or two behind.

Then, with a gesture for stillness, she’d crouch and whisper, “Look, girls!” She spoke softly in the forest, as if in awe or reverence. “Indian Pipes.” The joy in her tone conveyed itself to us as we hunkered, flanking her, peering at the clump of silvery-white fungi “flowers” which, for all the world, did look like pale tobacco pipes, albeit with frilly edges.

“We won’t disturbed them,” Alice murmured. “They are rare and I think becoming more-so. It’s a treat to see them. We’re blessed to have happened upon them.”

We were, my sister and I, blessed to have Alice as a guide to the forest through which we’d have tromped thoughtlessly, sightlessly, insensitive to the wonder of the muddy or mossy ground beneath our feet, unaware of the magic, the treasures, she could find simply by being alert to what was in our path.

She showed us where twin bells grew, dainty, pink, with tiny green leaves, the plants no taller than a little girl’s finger, their stems as fine as a strand of hair, the bells smaller than a child’s pinkie nail. And fairy-cups! Oh, the exquisite perfection of those little round lichens growing on bare rock, small circles of pale green with scalloped red rims and yes, I could see fairies in the very early morning, alighting, bending sipping sweet dew or rainwater from them.

Farther on, at the base of a gently dripping mossy bluff five or six feet high, she held out her arms, bringing us to a sudden halt as she herself stopped in mid-step. “Oh, look at this, girls! Wild yellow violets. Aren’t they precious? Six whole clumps. What a find!” With a sly wink, she pulled a small silver trowel from the pocket of her jacket and slid it gently around and under the endmost clump. “The forest can spare us one for my wild garden.” With the delicate plant nestled in moist moss, she slid it into a small plastic bag which went into another pocket as rain dripped off the brim of her hat.

An hour later, or maybe several days, there’d be a  dainty cluster of wild purple violets lifted as tenderly, or white ones, to be lovingly transplanted to her shady wild garden. Other times, it would be a few bulbs of pink fawn lilies. “Never pick the flowers of these plants. It kills the bulbs.” Or the very similar white calliope lilies, with the same admonition. Pacific trilliums made their way to Alice’s wild flower garden, along with mission bells, chocolate lilies, all tended with loving care by one who described herself as “the old-maid of the family,”  or  “the one who got left on the shelf.” Beloved by all her nieces and nephews who grew up knowing where to look, how to look, and what to take, what to leave, her memory lives on, not on a shelf, but in our hearts.

She taught us much: My sister applied her share of the learning to actual gardening, building her own wild garden and slowly adding to it as the years passed. My gleanings from Alice took a different track. The lessons I learned from her were to note and remember small details of things I saw, heard, read and dreamed. In showing  me fairy cups, letting me imagine those dainty, pretty winged creatures sipping at dawn, she awoke my imagination, setting it free to fly in any direction it chose to go. She collected plants. I collect ideas, thoughts, memories. She put her plants in shady places around her home where they thrived. I take my ideas and let them grow and strengthen and thrive in the forests of my mind until they are ready to take flight, join with other ideas from my trove of thoughts and memories and dreams so I can place them out in the sunlight of the printed page, to become written words to share with others.

In whatever way we writers come to this life of imagination set free, I’m sure each of us has an “Auntie Alice” avatar somewhere in our backgrounds. I’ll be eternally grateful to her for being mine. Hence, whether I say it or not at the front of each book, every word I write is lovingly dedicated to the memory of Alice Griffith, 1919 – 1986, gardener, reader, and sharer of all things little girls need to know to grow up into women fully aware that there are more to forests than just trees.

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