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Down by the Riverside

Skunk Cabbage

This time of year, three years ago, my husband and I were walking in the woods, scared out of our wits. We weren't afraid of wild animals—bear and cougar and wolf are long gone from these parts. We were afraid of a virus that was picking people off like a hidden sniper perched on a rooftop, sighting random victims with a cold eye.

     Though the elderly, service workers, and people in poor health were especially vulnerable, healthy people, too, had died of COVID-19. Died. Morgues in Italy had closed because there were too many bodies. Our niece, a nurse on a COVID-19 floor, described what was happening in hospitals here in the U.S.: "I'll never forget the nights we heard dozens of emergency intubation calls," she said. "Gearing up to hold iPads in dying patients' rooms and trying not to cry while their families prayed and sang and wept with them." 

     The governor of our state had told everyone to "shelter in place," hoping to slow the spread of the virus. Ed and I went the only place we could—to the parks and hiking trails around our home.

     At Pinckney Recreation Area, we hiked alongside Pickerel Lake and stopped on a wooden footbridge over a channel that connects two sections of the lake. Tall oaks with tattered leaves and needle-less tamarack trees bordered the lake. When other hikers passed behind us on the bridge, they flattened themselves against the railing, giving us wide berth. Whenever we encountered others on the trail, we did the same.

     Ed and I stood on the bridge a long time, looking at the water, trying to calm our anxious hearts.

     When we finally crossed the bridge and stepped back on the dirt trail, I stopped short. There it was: a mottled purplish horn breaking through the dark earth. Unmistakable.

     Skunk cabbage.

     A member of the Arum family, skunk cabbage protects its round, lemon-yellow spadix with a pulpy, purplish-brown sheath. In larger flowers, the sheath curves over the spadix like a finger pointed toward the ground.

     The plant would manifest its distinct odor in a month or so. One guidebook described it this way: "The broad leaves, which appear after the flowers, are at first coiled, later become very large and have a foetid odor when crushed."[i] Foetid. Now there's a word.

     Skunk cabbage might be classified as a flower, but it didn't look like a flower to me. Not white or pink or delicate or pleasantly-scented. The round yellow spadix with its knobby little flowers poking out of the sheath looked like the head of a tiny alien emerging from a spaceship.

     It heartened me, however, to see the strange plant emerging from dead leaves. A sign of life in an otherwise gray landscape.

     I quickened my step, and smiled at other hikers under my mask.

     Just this past week I had another experience of being heartened by signs of life in a seemingly bleak landscape. Since the mass shooting at MSU in February, I've despaired at our nation's inability to stem gun violence.

     Last Wednesday, however, I participated in an Advocacy Day in our state capital organized by the Michigan Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Three hundred people gathered in Lansing, going in small groups to the offices of their senators and representatives to ask them to support common-sense gun legislation.[ii] They told stories of how they'd been affected by gun violence. They rallied, wrote letters, sang hymns, and prayed.

     I got to meet my representative, Jennifer Conlin, and thank her for what she's already done. A former New York Times journalist, Conlin ran for office last year because of the Oxford school shooting.[iii]

     It was good to be there last Wednesday with others who are concerned about gun violence. The House Judiciary Committee was considering safe storage bills that very morning. After the event, organizers told us that "Our support had an impact at a critical hour. Later in the day, the House of Representatives passed all the safe storage bills with bipartisan backing."[iv]

     I don't kid myself—the process of political change is fraught with opportunities for grandstanding, self-righteousness, name-calling, and inflammatory rhetoric. Divisions run deep on this issue, polarizing people in the same families, communities, and churches. Political change isn't any prettier than the strange-looking skunk cabbage that rises in the spring.

     And I know we've a long way to go before children are safe in their schools. But, bit by bit, concerned citizens can make a difference. Polls show that a majority of people in Michigan, even in red districts, support common-sense gun legislation.

      So, here is my plea: do what you can to end gun violence, whoever and wherever you are. I think it's particularly important for Republican legislators to hear from gun owners who support reasonable gun controls. Partisan divides on this issue are not doing our children any good.

     We found ways to come through COVID together. We can do this.

     Don't lose hope. God is always at work for good in the world. If you look closely, you can see signs of life everywhere. In an overheated gymnasium at a downtown church last week, a bunch of motley United Methodists, many of them gray-haired ladies in sneakers, sat around tables and planned what they would say if given the chance. And in the damp black earth along creeks and hiking trails, mottled purple horns are poking out of the ground. 

     That's how spring comes in Michigan. It isn't pretty, but it comes.


Scripture: "For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come." – Song of Solomon, 2:11-12 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Step by Step," John McCutcheon, Step by Step: Hammer Dulcimer Duets, Trios, and Quartets, 1986.

[i] Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny, A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1968), page 368.
[ii] Universal background checks, safe storage laws, and extreme risk protection orders.
[iii] https://www.bridgemi.com/guest-commentary/opinion-oxford-inspired-me-seek-office-msu-must-inspire-gun-reform
[iv] For more information about the Advocacy Day, see https://michiganumc.org/um-advocacy-day-impacts-state-capitol/


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