I had a job to do this evening while it was light. Cleaning up a mess, a pile of stems and their roots clogged with dirt, pulled up from a patch of Trout Lilies.
I will not tell you where they are, these lovely trout lilies, native to Minnesota and impossible to transplant. I know because I’ve tried. I won’t tell you because they are rare, not in some places, but here, along a St. Paul alley half a mile from my house within walking distance, which is where I found them one early spring years ago.
Trout because their long low leaves are flecked with dark shadows, like water running over rocks in a trout stream. The white flowers with back-curved petals bend low yet are perky with a shape like a jester’s cap.
What a charm, the first years of their discovery and spring return. Because they die back completely. Now, for instance, it is almost impossible to perceive they grew there. The first time I saw them, I knew they were rare because I had never seen them in the neighborhood before.
The Moyles’ book of Northland Wild Flowers lists them as abundant in Nerstrand Big Woods Park near Northfield, along with their even rarer kin, the Minnesota Trout Lily. They grow, write the Moyles, along the margins of streams, where perhaps once trout swam. It’s possible the alley margin where I see them was once a stream. Over 300 years ago what is now Ayd Mill Road was a river which has been diverted underground, yet the high banks on either side of Ayd Mill Road, and even the “Mill” itself, suggest a river to turn a water wheel.
It puffs me up with unnecessary pride to know these small local secrets–of trout lilies and hidden water–and to keep these secrets except now when I tell you. And it infuriated and horrified me when about five years ago, someone on the other side of the alley discarded slabs of concrete in the trout lily bed. I moved some, but the ground was scarred, which opened the way to noxious weeds. This spring when I visited the trout lilies, I saw how starved out they were getting from these huge spiny weeds. I vowed after the next big rain, I would pull the weeds. Which I did, and left a pile of broken stems and clods of roots along the alley. This evening I cleaned that up.
On my way back across Ayd Mill Road and the railroad tracks that run beside the road, I was stopped by a huge line of ominous black tanker cars. The train slowly clunked by, car after car as I memorized the messages on the cars: Chemical Spill, call 800-424-9300. I stopped counting at 75.
Possibly the cars were empty, returning to the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota for refills. Slowly it occurred to me how close the tracks are to the houses I pass on my way to the lilies. How close in fact the tracks are to my own house, three blocks away. There have been terrible oil fires and contamination of rivers and ground water from overturned oil cars just like these.
These cars, in fact the whole business of digging up tar sands and leeching oil out of it, are analogous to the slabs of used concrete someone threw on the trout lilies. They are a disaster.
I will call our Congresswoman Betty McCollum and our city council person, and urge that these trains be rerouted away from homes and families. But the truth is, there is no safe place for such trains. The practice itself is so damaging environmentally that it’s only because it has flooded N. Dakota with jobs and because we all use far too much oil that we tolerate it at all.
Trout lilies–persistent even in their secret spot until some careless remodeler turned their small slice of land into a dump.
Note: As I return home and begin writing this message, our lights flicker and go out. The darkness is intense. I am in an island of darkness with no help, Sometimes, even if only for a few minutes, I feel alone and endangered. Until I remember that the lilies wait underground. Perhaps our humanity and good sense must wait too.