One thing I’ve learned is that most of us are passionate about a couple of things and how much those interests emerge as defining parts of our identities. I don’t know exactly when I fell in love with being able to identify, for example, the wildflowers that right now have turned the forest floor into a dancing fairyland of pale pink and white, first the daisy-like petals of the bloodroot, now the dainty pale-pink spring beauties and the thick white patches of rue anemone. Dutchman’s breeches (white flowers like tiny pantaloons hanging ankles up, waists down!) are open all over, while yellow troutlilies are budding here and there. Hepatica blossoms, in all shades of lavendar, cradeled by liver-shaped leaves, is dense and spectacular in isolated secret spots.
Our friends, botanist Dr. Hardy Eshbaugh and his wife Barbara Eshbaugh, herself an excellent naturalist, are most responsible for my naming ability in the forest. As we’ve hiked our dogs together over the years I compulsively question them, and they supply information—often multiple times, the same species on different trails—until I recognize it in different locations, and have it memorized. It’s been a boon to my writing. One of the best techniques I know for scene setting is to be precise. What is that stuff growing alongside the pond? I ask. What kind of tree is that? One of them will explain that, for example, it’s a black tupelo and the way to tell is that the bark is gray and uniformly fluted around the tree. Hardy taught me how to tell false rue anemone from true rue anemone—it’s the number of petals, although the flowers look remarkably similar, of course, when massed on the ground. There’s a rare patch of true rue in our woods, a name so lovely and poignant I’m reserving it for the title of the new novel. He also showed me that the new, second edition of Wildflowers of Ohio by Robert Henn has given the two separate names for the first time.
I set whole sections of one book of creative non-fiction, Where The Trail Grows Faint: A Year In The Life of a Therapy Dog Team, in a nature reserve where I hike with Hannah every day. I’ve wanted to use the forest in fiction ever since, so the novel in progress is set mainly in the rolling hills of southern Ohio—and believe me, it’s so I can use these spectacular woods as a setting again. Remember the geocaching? Here’s where I’ll practice so I know what I’m talking about. Doing this in the spring won’t hurt a bit. Here’s what the forest floor looks like right now. You’ll understand.