Cottonmouths and Cypress Knees: An Elegy
My Dad was not popular with my elementary school principal.
The problem was, Dad prioritized RV-education over classroom education. To that end, he plucked my sister and I out of school and took us camping. A lot.
In February, in the cold, swirling heart of Iowa blizzard season, we’d pack a month’s worth of supplies, swoop up Grandma from her precarious cabin perched on the icy Mississippi, and fight our way through the storm. Snow banks grew into glittering fortress walls, flanking the rural roads.
We will flee in our RV! My sister and I sang with gusto. We dug out our most vivid markers and tipping our heads close, drew side by side on a giant sheet of bright white pad. A breezy row of Jungle Shock Green palm trees. The ocean, a blazing swath of Deep Electric Blue. FLORIDA OR BUST! we painstakingly wrote out in multi-colored block letters across the top. We spread open the curtains, pressed this exuberant masterpiece to the back window, waving at the cars behind us. People honked and smiled as they passed.
Crossing into Illinois, the highways straight and cleared by plows, Dad relaxed. He drove while playing his harmonica. He’d belt out the lyrics of Wabash Cannonball, smacking his knee.
Oh, listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar…
“Both hands, Alan! Both hands!” Mom’s shriek, when the RV swerved a little too much.
Illinois was interminable.
My sister and I napped, waking only to call out, groggy, “Where are we?”
“STILL?” Groaning, we’d drop back into the pillows.
“We’re never getting out,” my sister declared.
Every trip, we believed this, with a mounting sense of despair.
And every trip, when we finally broke free, when the gloomy expanse of mown down Illinois cornfields gave way at last to the white plank fencing and rolling horse pastures of Kentucky, we’d erupt into cheers of gratitude, and salvation.
Grandma spread liverwurst thick on golden crackers, passing them around, humming along with Mr. Sandman as it crackled from her red transistor radio. Bring me a dream…
I took the co-pilot’s seat in mountainous Tennessee, and one year, the year I turned ten, Dad handed me the map. “Find us a road,” he said, confident in my nonexistent ability to navigate. That was the year I suffered in Ms. Bentschneider’s 5th grade math class, the object of her mockery and scorn, along with a handful of other struggling students. I’d lost a lot of faith in myself. I took a breath. Finding our way, the greatest responsibility I’d ever been given. As I studied the complicated tapestry of roads, tracing them with my finger, Dad flicked on the radio. The sky deepened into night, and Doris Day sang Que sera sera.
Dad, what does that mean?
You can’t predict the future. It will be what it will be.
His words gave me a lonely chill, and I returned to the solidity of the map in my hands. Dad taught me that sometimes you should choose the longest route. You should exit the interstate, and meander for an hour or more, following the splendor of a back road, slowing to a crawl behind a tractor, slow enough to see, to hear the red-winged blackbird perched on a cat tail, singing opera. For that alone, Dad said, the extra time was worth it.
We’d spend weeks immersed in warm, sandy, starry places, inhabiting our favorite campgrounds. Mom strung a clothesline between saw palmettos, where our sea-drenched swimsuits hung to dry. Our bikes lay in a homey tumble near the orange tree. The peacocks drifted from site to site, fanning their glory of feathers, and expecting, in return, a small part of sandwich, which in Florida, truly lived up to its name.
The pleasure of escape, of relief, was sharp in me.
In Ms. Bentschneider’s math class, I’d dismally erase another word problem gone terribly awry on my already mangled worksheet. With a great sigh, she’d stride over, tear the paper from beneath my hands, and crumple it into a ball. The class watched, in potent quiet, this declaration of my futility.
Instead, I glided on roller-skates through Highlands Hammock State Park, beside my Dad. The dense, overhanging canopy of virgin hardwood forest formed a cool, mysterious tunnel of trees. The narrow roads were sleek, freshly paved, like skating along the deep, smooth curves of a silky black snake.
Ms. Bentschneider loved to call on me, the way she called on kids slinking down, down, into their seats. She’d smirk when we didn’t have the answer, circle her finger beside her ear. “Duhhh!” she’d crow, inciting the class to a violence of laughter, the kind that echoes down through the years.
Instead, I stood in the dappled light of a growing day, my Dad placing his hands on my shoulders, turning me toward beauty. He pointed to the Cypress knees clustered in the swamp. Drenched in moss, they resembled a huddle of ancient gnomes. What are they? he asked. What do they do?
Dad quizzed me on strange and beautiful things.
Growths from the Bald Cypress, I responded. They stabilize the trees. Keep them from toppling into the swamp.
He squeezed my shoulders. A firm, proud A.
Off we’d go, skating side-by-side to the Hammock Inn Restaurant.
For breakfast, we’d lean in, sharing a slice of wild orange pie.
Twenty years later, the sweet tang of that pie is in the air, and for the first time in a very long time, feels near.
My husband, Aly, and I sit side by side, legs pressed together, on a bus to Carolina Beach State Park.
We moved to North Carolina a year ago. And only now am I on my way to see the famed Venus Flytraps. Even though, along with grad school, that was my reason, my dream. These days, I wonder why. I accuse myself of having chosen the wrong road, made a bad choice.
I tug the window open wider. It’s September, peak hurricane season, and the sky is soft and rumpled gray flannel. The wind sprints, kicking the tops of tall trees into a frenzy. Cresting a bridge, Aly and I sit forward in unison, trying to catch a glimpse of the churned up sea. At this very moment, Hurricane Irma is shredding south Florida. In Wilmington, we hear, see, and feel the knife edge of her.
I think of the places Dad took us in the RV, our roaming class-room.
I think of our favorite campgrounds: Highlands Hammock, Juniper Springs, Koreshan, Silver Springs, Fort Myers, Myakka River State Park. These places, an extension of my own backyard. Woven into me, and bearing the sweet, sorrowful nostalgia, of home.
Here on the bus in North Carolina, I send love to the people in Florida, and also to the sandy palmettos, the frisky armadillos that jump straight up in the air, the fiddler crabs scooting sideways, and the great blue herons who, in the mornings, flutter down from the trees and stand poised by the picnic table, on one foot, full of quiet anticipation as bacon pops and sizzles on the green Coleman stove. They are all, like family.
I could barely believe my luck, accepted into an MFA program in Wilmington, by the sea. More than that, I wanted to go where the Venus Fly Traps grew wild. I cherished the notion that I would share this quest with my Dad, and the discovery, the magic of those carnivorous plants would reunite us.
But my Dad passed away, two months before I moved from Austin, TX, to Wilmington, NC. He didn’t tell me he was sick until it was too late. Too late to find a road back to each other.
A year later, I am still reeling, parts of me ripped from the very roots, and flung. Grad school is hard, in a different way, at age forty. My cohorts are young and gifted. They hail from schools like Brown, Georgetown, and Harvard. I am a kid from Iowa who didn’t get math, who was labeled slow learner, and dropped out of high school to home-school. I’ve traveled one too many back roads, and it’s taken me longer than most. In this new place, my childhood fears swarm, and haunt me. They tell me, I’m not good enough, not smart enough to be here.
Outside, the wind shakes the Longleaf Pines into a flurry as we approach our destination. Something Dad once taught me surfaces in my mind. Longleaf Pines develop an impressive root system, and it anchors them.
My husband quietly takes my hand.
I entwine my fingers with his, and hold on.
Dad dreamed, and believed, that one day he’d fire up the RV another time, and we’d all go together to see the Venus Fly Traps.
They are native only within seventy miles of Wilmington, North Carolina.
And now, I’m here, here I am, walking the Flytrap Trail, a surprising surge of anger tying a knot in my chest. I don’t believe you can fulfill someone else’s dream. I don’t believe the cherished mythology that children are the way that parents go on living. Dad, I know, would want to be here himself. He was the most independent crank I’ve ever known, my own personal Henry David Thoreau. He’d want to soak up the marvel of these plants with his own consciousness. I don’t want to do this for him…or without him.
If things had been different. If my sister hadn’t fallen gravely ill with inexplicable grand mal seizures. If Dad’s business hadn’t dried up, leaving us on the brink of financial disaster. If my mother’s mental illness, untreated, hadn’t spiraled to a place where she became abusive. If my Dad hadn’t planted himself in firm denial, believing to the end that he could make Mom better, make us all better, and rescue single-handedly the sinking ship of his family. If I hadn’t left, choosing a road that took me far away, to rescue myself. If these things hadn’t occurred. At some point, I imagine, we would have made it here together, walking this boardwalk as a family. I can see him now. Dad, cowboy hat secured over his bald spot, binoculars round his neck, harmonica wedged in back pocket, whistling Wabash, leading the way.
Aly and I can’t find them. We’ve looked, and we’re lost, and we don’t have a map.
In spite of this, we keep walking. Our hair, lifted by a sudden fierce breeze. The pines lean this way and that, they creak and cry. The green so alive, it breaks me.
I’m ten years old in overall shorts, ratty tennis shoes, and a pink ball cap, treading the boardwalk at Myakka River State Park. The boardwalk threads through swamp so thickly green I can breathe it. We stop in our tracks, frozen by the sight of a fat water moccasin, coiled on a fallen tree. The snake’s mouth yawns wide, fangs on showy display. Beside me, Grandma says, “Hell no. You see why I pee in a can at night? I’m not walking to the restroom with that Lucifer out here!”
I gaze up at Dad, and catch my breath. The way he looks at the snake, it’s the expression he wears when he speaks of God. Reverent, enchanted.
He turns to me. How do Cottonmouths lure prey?
I answer. They move the tips of their tails back and forth, hypnotizing frogs.
My Dad’s hand, squeezing my shoulder, this is what makes my soul rise up.
I don’t know fractions.
But I do know the secrets of Cottonmouths.
The Venus Flytrap Trail is not what I expected, not what I hoped. There are no boardwalks here with neat signs, freshly painted bright white arrows pointing to flora, detailed descriptions to read aloud.
Here in North Carolina, they expect you to find things through riddle. Directions are delivered, sphinx-like. Take a right on that road where the new Baptist church is going up, then a left at that gas station/diner, you know the one…
After an hour of fruitless, Fly Trap-less searching, I surrender. Aly continues to explore, while I flop down under a pine, tilt my head back. Oh, that sweet, sharp whisper, rising and falling. That was his favorite song. The wind playing through the pines, violin-like. He could listen to that music forever, he told me once.
I close my eyes, and I see him. His face, raised to the steeple of tree tops, aglow with wonder in the gold evening light. Every bit of earth was sacred to him. Sometimes it seemed, the earth was his alone, and he belonged to it in a way he never belonged anywhere, not even with us.
Dad, I say, give me a map.
And the pines sing, Que sera sera…
I open my eyes, and Aly is near. I sit up. “Did you find them?”
He shakes his head. His smile crooked, sad.
I rise, slowly. “Let’s look, one more time.”
And one more time is enough.
Venus Fly Traps, tucked low into brush. You have to shimmy through weeds. You have to kneel, press your knees deep into dirt, and peer. You have to get muddy.
And the reward is the exhilaration of these flowers, like blushing dinosaurs, pink-mouthed, baring sword-like teeth.
We kneel, Aly and I, side by side, like worshippers.
My Dad would have lost his heart to these ruthless beauties. He would have settled in, forgetting everything, to watch them for a long, long time. In that time, they would become God. Eventually, he turns to me. And he says, how do Venus Flytraps know when to close?
I dip my head, chin to chest, and tell him the truth. I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know.
Because my mind sprints like hurricane wind. Because I don’t listen to trees anymore. I listen to fear. Sometimes, Dad, the whole world feels like Ms. Bentschneider’s math class.
He sets his hand on my shoulder. Warm and solid as ever. He squeezes. It’s the pride I yearned to feel from him, to know he still felt for me, before he died.
I sit for a long time, maybe an hour, just looking at our treasure.
Pay attention, my Dad says.
The baby Flytraps are no bigger than the fingernail of my pinky, tiny and exquisite. I take in a breath as one closes around a clambering black beetle, doing so almost sweetly, with the tenderness of an embrace. Pay deep attention to what matters.
After awhile, Aly’s hand on my shoulder. We rise together.
When I get home, I will read about Venus Flytraps.
I will find out how they know when to close.
I will answer my Dad’s question.
I will write, and read what I wrote to my class, standing there at the front of the room, wobbly kneed, my voice cracking on the words of this elegy.
I will claim my place, thanking all the back roads that brought me here.
And I will continue, all my life, to know strange and beautiful things.
Summer Hammond grew up in rural Iowa, reading and writing alongside the Mississippi River. She skipped a lot of school, traveling with her vagabond family in an RV. The state parks of Florida rooted in her, and became a second home. She home-schooled through high school, and went on to teach 9th grade Reading in Austin, TX, connecting great teens to great books. She is a proud 2019 graduate with her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where she currently resides, neighbor and friend to Venus Fly Traps.