A True Gift

As I read through my mom’s old columns, I feel close to her – as if we are having one more conversation. I can feel her passion – hear her voice, as she paints the perfect picture of her experiences.

July 18 marks the four year anniversary of her passing. Although it has been longer than that since I was last able to really hear her voice and benefit directly from her wisdom, I am truly blessed to have been left with years of her stories that I can share again and again with my children, myself, and the world.

I was thinking of mom (as I do often) and the gifts she has left in all of us. To name a few: I can feel her with every butterfly, rainbow, sunset and great blue heron; I am lucky to have retained the answers to so many natural questions from years of her teaching; I can visit the trees and flowers that she herself has planted, nurturing each one – sometimes from a seed, bulb or sapling.

How blessed I am as a daughter, and we are as a community, to be able to hold on to, and appreciate, these gifts for a lifetime. Additionally, we possess the ability to pass these gifts on through the generations, while also preserving her legacy and her life’s work.

Reading through an old column of hers recently, I found it too perfect under the circumstances not to re-share.

The Pawpaw Tree

by

Carol McFeeters Thompson

I can still see them sometimes, the two of them, on the lawn with a spade, quietly debating the merits of one location over another for planting the little tree. Settling on a spot beside the butterfly garden we had all worked on together, he dug the hole and loosened the soil at the bottom. She lovingly mixed in some nutrients, then placed the little tree he had grown from a seed in the center of the hole. He poured in half a bucket of water to settle the loose soil around the roots. She held the tree upright, studying it from multiple angles to make sure it was absolutely vertical, while he replaced the soil he had just removed, tamping it in place with his foot. The rest of the bucket of water was carefully poured around the base of the tree, eliminating potential air pockets. I watched them step back to admire their work, knowing that they had left a piece of themselves there on the lawn.

The tree they planted was a pawpaw. She was already gone when it flowered for the first time. The little tree was festooned with maroon flowers hanging below its sparse branches like bells one spring, just as the leaves were opening. When I expressed my excitement at the prospect of eating my first pawpaw, he cautioned me, “Pawpaws don’t pollinate themselves. It takes two trees.” There were no other pawpaw trees at Weldon Springs, although I had seen thickets of pawpaws in other mesic forests. They were mysteriously absent.

We talked at times about plants that were conspicuously absent at Weldon Springs: marsh marigolds that should have been in the marsh, bluebells that should have been in the bottomlands, pawpaws that should have been in the forest.

When he came to say goodbye, we both knew we would never see each other again. We talked for a few minutes standing next to the pawpaw tree I had watched them plant. “I left you a present,” he said softly.

“Really? What?”

“You’ll know it when you see it,” he promised. Then he was gone.

One spring day, as I walked down the trail through the marsh, I noticed a flash of bright yellow that had never been there before. Walking closer, I discovered a clump of marsh marigolds blooming. “That was the present,” I told myself with delight. “What a nice surprise.” I felt like he was back in the park again.

The next year, I discovered a clump of bluebells growing on a wooded hillside. Again, I approached them with delight and thought of him.

The following year, as I was leading a group of students on a hike around a portion of the lake, I spotted a handful of the familiar maroon flowers on two small saplings down in a draw. Pawpaws! Another present.

Last week, one of the children called me over to look at the pawpaw tree on the lawn. “What is this?” he asked.

There, sheltered by the large leaves on the outer edge of the bottom branch was a cluster of three lumpy oblong fruits suggesting bananas. The tree they had planted together was bearing fruit for the first time. I so wished they were there to see it; there would have been one fruit for each of us. I have been considering this week what a miracle the three pawpaws truly are.

Pollination is difficult for the pawpaw in nature. Evolving before bees, pawpaws rely on blowflies and carrion beetles for pollination. To attract them, the flower is meat colored, downward facing, and fetid – smelling like rotting meat. Pawpaw flowers are perfect – they have both male and female parts – but they are not self-pollinating. The female stigma matures and is no longer receptive when the male pollen is shed. In addition, each individual flower will only accept pollen from a tree that is genetically distinct. A pollinator must not only move from flower to flower but also from tree to tree.

In order for the tree on the lawn to be pollinated to produce its first fruit, the same fly that found one of the two saplings in the draw must have flown across the lake, left the forest, and landed on a flower of the tree on the lawn. The seeds of these resulting pawpaws, if propagated and planted on the lawn, would produce a tree genetically distinct from the other two, making pollination of all three more likely. That is something he would do if he were still here.

It has been many years since I walked through the park with my friend, “birding and botanizing,” but I can feel his presence sometimes along the trail.

© 2019 Lauren Johnson; http://livingthroughherlegacy.com

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