Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Flowers of Guatemala

Plumeria rubra, from Flowers of Guatemala, © Carol Rogers Chickering
Fifty years ago, when I was three, my grandmother was treated for emphysema.  Doctors opened her throat, and attached a breathing tube into the hole.  She was mostly confined to her bed and to a breathing apparatus, a machine that I think compressed air into her weakened lungs.  As a little tyke, I had no idea what Gran was being treated for, but I don’t remember her except being attached to that machine.  I did know that Gran looked at me as I ran up to her bedside as if I were an all-purpose salve or a lovely aroma, and she struggled to get the clamp on her tracheal tube that allowed her to speak to me and my brother.

Gran lived in the hilly oak woodlands of the central California coast.  She loved Prince Charles.  She kept a tidy photo of him in an 8 x 10 frame near her bed.  I don't know why Price Charles, but she was well ahead of the royalty-celebrity trend.  Her bed was one of those hospital tip-up beds, common now but pretty exciting then to a young boy in 1965, all knobs, levers, and buttons.  

Funny to think now that, except for the hole in her throat, the whole thing seemed kind of exciting to me, living in one’s bedroom. Big windows. Painting at one's desk.  We often brought her flower samples from our trips to the Sierra Nevada.  She had a great garden outside, a natural landscape with a dwarf birch holding a bird feeder.  And she had binoculars and a camera close at hand.  She would have some helper prop the empty Skippy’s Peanut Butter jar outside on the lichen fence.  Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Scrub-Jays were her main quarry. 

One Sunday visit she showed me a photo of a Gray Fox with its head in the jar, licking about. Hilarious. I had never seen a Gray Fox, or any fox before, and this miniature wolf on this familiar fence left a big impression on me.  Gran stayed mostly in bed in that sun-lit room in Woodside from 1965 to 1972, her beautiful thick hair, long and gray.  She died in September 1972.  I was ten.  Mom got the call; she burst into her tears.  I hadn’t known of anyone who had died yet.          
Gran was a painter, a botanical illustrator really.  She illustrated a book on Lake Tahoe wildflowers that was printed before she died.  It was written by Kenneth Legg, a California state parks ranger from Donner Lake State Park.  I never knew much about Mr. Legg, never got to meet him, but I was given another book of his – on Lake Tahoe mammals - when I was still young.  I remember being particularly impressed by his bio.  Kenneth Legg was a naturalist.  That sounded like me, like what I wanted to be; I would be a naturalist too.  I held onto that for years as my career goal, as that thing you say when you are asked my well-meaning but nosey adults: “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

 “I’m going to be a naturalist.”

Gran painted and authored her own book entirely, her magna opus, but never saw it as it was printed after she died: Flowers of Guatemala.  It was a coffee-table book, published by the University of Oklahoma Press and covered in a strangely garish green.  Gran painted in water-colors and her flowers, stems, sepals, petals, had a touchable quality, as though the tiny velvet hairs of certain plants could be felt on the smooth page of the book.  I touched my book’s pages often, just to check.  I got to know the plants of Guatemala as I looked them over again and again.

As much as the paintings and the plants interested me, so did the mere fact of her books, the fact of their existence.  What I mean is this: somewhere lies my grandmother, ashes cold or twelve feet underground somewhere, and I cannot talk to her anymore.  But she left these books.  Especially the Guatemala book; this was her book in her voice.  If it was important to her – I figure – that’s why she wrote it here.  She left a message for me.  For all the people she loved.  For all of you, here is what I know about the world.  Here is my book.  I loved the authority of that.  The declaration of pages, pages packed in cardboard, cardboard covered in cloth, printed in multiple copies with a garish green cover.  I am dead but you still have to read this.  That is the message of her posthumous publication, for me.  My grandmother was brilliant.

When I was about thirty, I was walking up to Hawk Hill to the hawk-counting site for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory.  This is the place I know best in the world.  This is the nexus of the fall migration of birds of prey at the Golden Gate near San Francisco.  It was a non-descript weekend day.  GGRO volunteers were counting birds on the hilltop – I was unhurried, unscheduled, relaxed.  On the steeper part of the short hill-climb, I noticed a woman in her 80s, stopped, and smiling with some concern at a man still in front of me.  His back was to me, but I could see that he was old, and, I guessed, the woman’s husband.  I could see that his steps were unsteady, and that he checked his balance with a cane in his right hand.
As I passed the man, I turned to look at him as if I might recognize him.  I didn’t.  But around his neck were the most beautiful pair of old binoculars I had seen in years.  They were some variation of Leitz, but most exciting to me were the bright shining spots on the fronts, big brassy circles buffed out of the black paint.  They were the points of contact between his fingers on his binocular barrels, over a long stretch of time.

I couldn’t help myself as I stopped next to the man: “Judging from those brass spots, you’ve been lifting those optics for an awfully long time.” 

He looked up at me, smiled, and tapped his binoculars with his left hand.  “Got ‘em before the war,” he confirmed. 

“They’re beautiful,” I added, and our exchange became full-fledged conversation as we reached his wife and I introduced myself.  “I’m Allen Fish – this is kind of like my office; I’m director of the Raptor Observatory. You must be here for the hawks?”

“Yessir, we’ve always meant to come out and see this,” said the man, “I’m Kenn Legg.”

“Kenneth Legg, the naturalist?”

“That’s right.”

For a few seconds I couldn’t speak.  How could this be?  How could Kenn Legg still be alive?  Gran died two decades ago.  My head got a little loopy and I had to remind myself to inhale. 

“Mr. Legg, I’m Allen Fish, Carol Rogers Chickering’s grandson.”  

Kenn Legg eyed me closely and smiled slowly, "No kidding."

Oncidium splendidum, from Flowers of Guatemala, © Carol Rogers Chickering
I managed to tell him the facts of our deep relationship (which he didn’t know about) and his celebrity status in my life (which he didn’t know about) as we walked up Hawk Hill slowly together.  But I also sat with him for an hour and asked about his friendship with my grandmother, how their collaboration had begun, and other stories that he know about my family. I told him that his books had a great impact on me; I thanked him for writing them.

I was aware of the amazing circle of this meeting but was unaware of how to speak about it right then.  As much as anything I wanted to shout two things to all the bird-watchers on Hawk Hill, “This is Kenn Legg, naturalist!  And he wrote a book with my grandmother!”  But I didn’t yell.  I kept it together.  We watched hawks together, we watched kestrels hover and accipiters flap.  His bird identifications were all spot on.  A few hours rolled by in what seemed like twelve minutes, and then I walked the Leggs back down the hill to their car.

Later on, maybe that night, maybe days later, I got the third thing.  That elusive third piece, the one about yourself, maybe not the kind of thing you yell on a hilltop however much you might want to: “I’m going to be a naturalist someday like him.  And here he is right now!”  I am thinking now, twenty years later, who gets that chance?  I made a circle!  I got to say thank you!  It was magnificent!