Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Walking Alone, With Brownies

On either side of the trail through the woods, in shaded pockets in the folds of the open mountainside, and tucked under the north sides of old logs in the open meadows, familiar faces peer up at me. Not faces with eyes, nose and mouth, but ones made up of four white bracts—petal-like leaves—arranged in the shape of a cross, surrounding a cluster of anywhere from a half dozen to twenty-five tiny flowers. Each little flower in the cluster contains four petals, four stamens, and four sepals, and beneath the four white bracts are four green leaves. To the casual observer, each “face” appears as one flower.

As summer rolls on, the bracts will wither and drop, and the flowers will produce a cluster of red berries. Hardly delectable, and each containing a single hard seed at its center, the berries, as well as the flowers, bracts, and leaves, are nevertheless edible, and I occasionally snack on them, though I have never seen anybody else choosing to eat them.DSC_2831.jpg

Lack of succulence notwithstanding, 𝑪𝒐𝒓𝒏𝒖𝒔 𝒄𝒂𝒏𝒂𝒅𝒆𝒏𝒔𝒊𝒔, or dwarf dogwood, aka bunch berry, provides a certain nourishment for me. Not so much from the simple sugars provided by the berries, but as a reminder of where I am from, and who I am from. They are a reminder of another place and another time, and whether a history is filled with comfort and joy, or fraught with struggles and pain, the past can have a certain grounding ability that can be of great comfort in this age of pandemic uncertainty and seemingly never-ending racial strife. Like most, my upbringing contained plenty of joys and pains, and the lowly little, ground-dwelling dogwood flowers take me back to a little of the each.

Growing up, as I did, in the Tennessee River Valley, dogwood meant many things, including the advent of spring, and of Easter, but mostly for me, it meant The Cabin, and it meant Grandma. Of course, dogwood in Tennessee was not the creeping ground cover I see in the Tongass National Forest of Alaska, but a mid-canopy tree called 𝑪𝒐𝒓𝒏𝒖𝒔 𝒇𝒍𝒐𝒓𝒊𝒅𝒂, the flowering dogwood tree.

It matters not that this is a wholly different species. In the same way that once you see Donny Osmond, you will instantly recognize any one of his brothers, once you get to know the flowering dogwood tree, you cannot mistake its ground-creeping cousin for anything other than a close relative. And since I cannot remember a time when I did not know the flowering dogwood tree, the first time I encountered dwarf dogwood, I felt as though I were seeing an old friend.

*           *          *

Whippoorwill Lodge, referred to by family as simply “The Cabin,” sat on a pine-forested hillside above Possum Creek—a small, mitten-shaped lake, created in 1940 when the Tennessee Valley Authority closed the gates on the newly constructed Chickamauga Dam, backing up the Tennessee River into Big Possum and Little Possum Creeks, in Daisy, Tennessee.

At 592 square feet including the bathroom that was added in the 1970s, The Cabin was a modest structure to say the least. It consisted of one main room serving as kitchen, living room, and dining room, plus two tiny bedrooms, and the aforementioned bathroom. Wrapping two sides of the simple building, a covered porch added 352 additional square feet.

Every spring, within a few days of Easter, beginning long before my earliest memories, and continuing until 2007, the north end of the northeast facing front porch exploded in white. The flowering dogwood tree on the edge of the woods beside The Cabin glowed like a pinhead of angels in the spring sunrise, and was as much a part of The Cabin as the 1940s era Frigidaire, the red-stained Whippoorwill Lodge sign over the porch entrance, and the flying squirrels that nested in the walls.

Why Grandpa didn’t name his modest shack-away-from-home, “Dogwood Lodge,” I will never know. Neither do I know much at all about the summer of 1946, when The Cabin was constructed. And since Grandpa passed away in 1994, followed by Grandma a few years later, I cannot turn to either of them for reason, or story. Therefore, I have the luxury of imagining a moment in the spring of that year my way.

Grandma and Grandpa were walking the hillside, planning the layout for The Cabin when they came across a small tree, barely waist high, clothed in light gray bark, and adorned with simple, drooping, bright green leaves. Recognizing the tree as her favorite species, Grandma insisted that the footprint of the cabin be laid out so as to allow the tree to remain, and to put it within sight of the porch.

Special care was taken to protect the tender sapling as the pines were cleared from the lot, the cabin staked out, and the footings dug. When construction was complete, the little tree stood unharmed in the shadow of a front porch looming several feet overhead. The tree had perfect conditions: enough shade to grow slowly, and—unlike the tall, spindly dogwoods fighting for sunlight in the surrounding forest—enough cleared canopy and morning light for it to develop a broad, full crown.

By the time it reached the height of the porch, it was mature and flowering. With each passing year, it crept higher and closer, until its branches had to be trimmed annually to allow room for the dining table to be brought outside for meals on the porch.

For me, even though there were still weeks of school remaining, summers officially began when we slipped the little fishing boat into the lake, then ran up the hill, threw open the front doors of The Cabin, and moved the table to the porch for a week of meals by dogwood light.

*           *          *

I don’t know if Grandma knew the lore of the dogwood tree. She was Born in 1916—two years after Lord Baden-Powell started his Rosebud scouting program, one year after Baden-Powell’s wife Lady Olave Baden-Powell, took over and renamed the Rosebuds Brownies, and about a decade before Brownies officially came to the U.S. But If Grandma was, indeed, one of the first American Brownies, her fondness for the Easter tree may have begun there.

As it turns out, the name for this new scouting program was taken from a story published in 1870 called “The Brownies,” by Juliana Horatio Ewing, in which two young siblings were lovingly tricked into seeing themselves differently, changing them from mischievous and malevolent boggarts into helpful and boosterish “Brownies.” And Brownies have a very direct link to the flowering dogwood tree that goes back long before Grandma, before scouts, before America, even.

According to Cherokee lore, a tiny people live in the forest among the dogwood trees. These wee folk are a divine race, devoted to teaching the Cherokee how to live in harmony with all that is around them. This, they do this by protecting all those who are vulnerable—the ill, the very young, the old, the infirm. The Dogwood People exist in different colors—black, white, and as the Cherokee see themselves, golden. Sometimes they speak the Cherokee language, other times they speak their own. But whatever the language, whatever the skin tone, they are devoted to what Christian folk might call The Golden Rule. I have been unsuccessful in finding the original Cherokee word for the dogwood people, but as they learned and adopted English, they began calling these Good Samaritans, “Brownies.”

*           *          *

I suspect Grandma’s fondness for dogwoods came not from Brownies and Cherokee stories, but from a source much closer to her heart. Though the tree is never mentioned in The Bible, some modern Christians believe that both Adam and Jesus had a particular fondness for the dogwood.

One story tells of the first man, Adam, having a love for dogwoods that was so great that the Devil tried, unsuccessfully, to knock all the blooms off the tree with a locust limb. Following the Devil’s attack, God condemned the locust trees to growing vicious thorns, making them no longer usable for such ill deeds.

Another story holds that dogwoods were once tall, straight trees, perfect for construction, and used in building houses, barns, and… crosses. According to the legend, after being chosen as the wood for his own crucifixion, Jesus commanded that the trees should never again grow tall and strong, but would forever be short and twisted, and of no use for building. As for the blooms, he commanded that their bracts should take the shape of a cross, and that the flowers at their center would henceforth resemble the thorny crown pressed into Jesus’ head during his torture. The dimples at the outer edge of the bracts would be reminders of the nails driven through his hands.

The Cherokee and the Christians are not the only ones with stories connected to dogwood trees, but they are the ones with the strongest connections to the place I come from, and to the woman whose passion for the tree placed one squarely in the middle of some of my earliest memories.

*           *          *

In 2006 I purchased a new house, and that fall I planted three trees in the front yard: a large willow oak to mature and shade the house, a serviceberry to feed the waxwings and top my pancakes, and for reasons I needn’t explain, a flowering dogwood tree. The spring of 2007 brought drought, and the new trees suffered. I didn’t expect the tender, young dogwood to survive.

That same year, across town, another struggle, unconnected to drought, was underway. Like her mother before her, dementia was taking Grandma. I never knew when I visited her in the assisted living facility that summer, if I would be seeing 1978 Grandma, 1958 Grandma, or Grandma in 1928. Staring out her courtyard window from her little room, she might be looking one day across the valley from the family house on Missionary Ridge where she was born and raised, or at the desert outside her kitchen window in Scottsdale, or at snow white dogwood blossoms from her rocking chair on the front porch of The Cabin on Possum Creek.

Grandma no longer had a name for me then, but it was clear that just as I know the unnamed Osmonds are related to Donny, Grandma knew I was somehow related to her. In one of her last semi-cogent conversations with my father, she asked him how “the other one” was doing. We all knew she was talking about me.

We placed Grandma in the ground next to Grandpa that November, and over the winter and into early spring, the rains returned to Southeast Tennessee. The following Easter, the little dogwood in my front yard exploded with blooms.

With family spread all over, The Cabin was no longer getting much use, but that spring Daddy and I made the obligatory drive to Possum Creek to turn on the water, check for leaks, and make sure everything was sound and secure.

As always, after unlocking the back door, I walked straight across the room, threw open the double doors, and stepped onto the creaky front porch. With my tree in the city in glorious bloom, I expected the tree at the end of the porch, the soul of The Cabin, to be electric in the morning sun, announcing spring, welcoming us back for another summer.

As you have probably guessed by now, that is not what I found. The tired, brittle, old tree bore neither flower nor leaf, and its limbs and trunk seemed smaller, hunched over like the old woman she was. Sometime over the winter—perhaps on a sunny day in November—a woody heart had stopped beating in the tree at the end of the porch.

A few months later we sold the cabin. The only piece of it remaining in my life is Grandpa’s homemade plank sign that once hung over the porch entrance, announcing to all who approached, that they were about to enter Whippoorwill Lodge.

The Cabin surely bears a new name now—one that means something to some other family—but 3500 miles away, on a mountain slope in Southeast Alaska, thanks to distant cousins of old friends, growing in the shade of an old log, I remember it by a name it never knew: Dogwood Lodge.

As I sit with these new friends, I also think about those mystical little people living among the spindly dogwood trees that range from the forests that once belonged to the Cherokee all the way up to Maine, and west through Texas, and I wonder, with hope, if those boosterish wee folk might be also be living among the dwarf dogwood that is found across all of Canada, Alaska, and the northern half of the lower 48 states.

If they are, I hope they haven’t given up on us. God knows we could all use some Brownies  these days.

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You’re right – the first thing I thought of when I saw the photo was dogwood. Interesting to learn that it’s a cousin, albeit diminutive. Thanks for sharing your Grandma with us…

A beautiful piece of writing, Jim. I had to look up boggart, but I found it, not in my standard Webster’s but in the big Oxford English Dictionary. Well done! I hope you get it published.–Finn

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