Brad and I just returned from an early second honeymoon/babymoon/kid-free getaway to the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.
We stayed in a cabin up a long, narrow, winding dirt road that took us past a picturesque stream, waterfalls, various rusted out pickup trucks, and a family of goats. We were away, away.
It was cool and overcast for most of our little trip. The grass was just starting to brighten and tiny buds form on the trees. The forest floor was just starting to green up but the rest was still wearing its winter wear.
We didn't do a whole lot. We took some naps. Played Scrabble. Listened to birds. Watched the clouds roll over the mountains. I re-read Jane Eyre while Brad flipped through local tourism magazines.
We also went on a couple of hikes. For one, we started along the Nantahala River (Cherokee for "Land of the Noonday Sun"- the river flows through a narrow gorge and there are spots where the sun only reaches the ground when it is directly overhead. I love that there's a word for that.) We also wandered up a steep pitch of the Appalachian Trail for about a mile or so- before my lungs and legs suggested I was being too ambitious. On another day we set out to find a couple waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The landscape was picturesque. Mountain streams tumbling over smooth rocks between mossy banks. Dioramas of peaks in all shades of slate and steel. Waterfalls tall and short around just about every bend.
Rather than trying to capture the grandness of the forest at a macro level, I found myself looking for smaller moments of beauty.
Every time I pull out my phone to capture pictures of a rushing river or a mountain vista or the way the layers of color in a landscape, I'm often disappointed with the results. I'm never able to represent in pixels what my eyes take in.
So I try look down more, seeking out interesting subjects on a slighter scale. The red feather lying on a muddy trail or the variegated fungus growing on a log that looks like a cross between a flower and a piece of agate. The way the tiniest flowers look like gem stones against the verdant green moss.
All around the trails we hiked, there were delicate, little wildflowers dotting the ground. Reading the park website I learned these early blooms are called ephemerals.
They've adapted to life in the forest– appearing above ground in late winter, flowering and then dying back in just a couple months. They take advantage of the moist soil, nutrients from the fall leaf decay and all the sunlight reaching the forest floor before the deciduous trees leaf out and they go dormant again. Waiting for the next year to reappear.
Ephemerals. I love that name. Wise little things that pop up in the weariest months of winter offering the promise of spring and light. Annually ceding their space to bigger blooms and then the shady trees. Teaching us that the Earth provides just the right resources at just the right times. That there's no need to be greedy. No need to despair. That even as the tops of the forest looks drab and stark life is persisting down below.
And that all of this– the grandest trees and the sharpest rocks and the littlest flowers are fleeting. Always being whittled away and felled and smoothed out. It all goes from being nourished by the landscape to nourishing the landscape.
I needed that reminder. Not just because I'm ready for spring, but because of this state I'm in right now.
I feel as if my body is in near constant rebellion.
Case in point, yesterday, while driving home from North Carolina, this song by Death Cab for Cutie came on that I hadn't heard in years and it took me back to this long ago place in my heart while simultaneously fast forwarding me to the inevitable losses of the future and before I knew it I was trying to suck back tears (cuz I was the one behind the wheel). And I was successful for a minute and then the lyric "Love is watching someone die" rang out and it was no longer possible to hold back all the feelings. They came rushing out in a geyser of tears and what I thought was snot. Only it wasn't snot. It was blood.
Because I can't cry right now without getting a bloody nose. Just like I can't cough right now without peeing just the tiniest bit. Which wouldn't be a huge problem, except that I have phlegmy bronchials courtesy of a nagging cold and am coughing with some regularity these days.
I'm a study in circles. All rounded out and inflating week by week. Gasping for air as I walk up the stairs. Scratching my midsection as my skin gets tighter and tighter across it. Groaning at unexpected cramping and lower back pain. Sighing as I realize I still have 17 more weeks to go.
(Those readers with teenagers are more than welcome to share some of my more recent posts with their children for birth control purposes. Graceful, glowing pregnant lady I am not.)
I know this is all just a season of my life. My body is doing so much work right now molding this person in me that some systems have had to readjust. It's fine really. All temporary. Judging by the high levels of activity in my midsection, Little Lady Jennings- the girls call her Edna- is thriving. She wiggles and punches and kicks and rolls around like a tiny uterine ballerina.
In a way, she and I are both ephemerals. Occupying this space together for a season (or three) before ceding to the next stage. Though in our case, rather than withering back into the Earth, little Edna will burst forth into it and I'll deflate a little and we'll both take deep breaths and take in our reshaped universes together.
These new spring flowers and the other lovely little things I walked past got me thinking about our world at large, too. Because I can never have just one train of thought. There are usually two or three or four running at the same time.
I'll be ruminating on hidden meanings in spring hikes while simultaneously considering heartburn and wondering when the next house will go on the market and also whether I should have a bowl of ice cream or just go to bed. It's all the things.
But back to the flowers and the fungus and the feather. All things I found on a cloudy, cool spring day by looking down rather than ahead or up or over. All things that made me smile. Made me appreciate what an eye for aesthetics the natural world has. Made me remember again (how many times will I need this reminder in this lifetime) that the little things- so often the little things- are the root of our happiness. They're the root of our goodness, too. Small kindnesses beget bigger kindnesses. They're the root of our betterment. Our contentment. Our day-to-day steadiness.
To be sure, the waterfalls I saw were magical. The park vistas where you could see mountains upon mountains for miles and miles were awe-inspiring. Seeing the might of the Nantahala River through the disarray of its flood planes was humbling.
These things remind us that we, too, are small things on this planet. We are both tiny and powerful. Capable of making deep impacts through seemingly insignificant gestures.
I get wrapped up in the idea that the only actions that matter in this life are the ones on the grandest scales. As if my footprint has to be Grand Canyon sized. My influence visible for miles and miles in breathtaking landscapes. My voice roaring like a river.
But then I see the fiddleheads of ferns emerging from their winter's sleep. All curled up and low to the ground– just the start to what they will be all summer long- and I loved them just as they were. Not for what they would be. Not because they preached at great volume and length about the wonders of creation. But because they whispered it at exactly the right time.
And if in this life, that is the person I am, than that is enough, I think.
I'll leave the rest to nature.