When I first started going to Cape Cod more than forty-five years ago, I learned about the things that live and grow there including ones that were deemed to be vulnerable. In fact, for a long time a wooded area across the road was closed to development while a huge dispute occurred about whether some plants that grew in this place were endangered or threatened. I don’t remember all the plants that were discussed, but one was the lady slipper. The debate must have ended at some point because many houses were eventually built and the plant discussion ceased. My guess is that the people who bought and lived in those houses never heard about the environmental controversy.
I hadn’t thought much about this episode for many years until one spring day – maybe twenty years ago I looked out at a tree close to my house and there, sitting quietly among the decades-old fallen pine needles, was a lone, vibrantly pink lady slipper. I had never seen her before. I had learned enough from the years of disagreements about threatened local plants to know that I had to be cautious around this brave little flower – an orchid actually. So, when I went to look at her, I treaded carefully. I noticed how she rose out of a nest of thick, short, pointed deep green leaves, and how she glowed when the sun shone through her delicate fuchsia skin-like pouch. It was mysterious, sensual, compelling. Every spring when I returned, I checked to see if my lady slipper had survived the winter. Sometimes she showed herself and sometimes she didn’t. Either way, no one knew she was there, except me. I loved the secret.
Then, one year when I checked for emerging leaf-tips, I found ten – maybe fifteen lady slippers around one tree. Some were quite noticeable with others were semi-hidden as they did their reaching up through the growth and debris. Over several weeks I watched as a little stand of magnificently hued plants encircled the tree on all sides. It was quite exotic and daring – all of this deep, rich color in the dull green and brown wood. Time passed and the blooms shriveled up and died, and I began to think about the next year, excited about seeing this display again, but I was disappointed. For many subsequent years there were either no lady slippers or maybe one or two. That rich parade of color hasn’t happened again. But I’m optimistic and I wait. Each spring I look carefully around the tree, stepping softly on the spongy ground, anticipating another spectacular pageant of pink or at least one – my “one.” I have learned to be very patient.
I could try to find other places that may have lady slippers but I desist. Maybe I don’t want to spoil my relationship with this single secreted flower and any of her companions in this one tiny spot. If my lady slipper doesn’t show up, I shove her image to the back of my mind –until the next season. I guess I like the mystery of not knowing if she will appear from one year to another. This uncertainty always gives me something to look forward to. It provides me with a miniscule annual suspense. I just hope she doesn’t wait for twenty years to show herself.