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Column: Nature’s mystery lady hides in plain sight

“I love the flower girl, was she reality or just a dream to me,” – Artie Kornfield/Steve Duboff

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MARQUETTE — The first time I recall seeing her, she was standing alongside an old country road.

I had just crossed a cement-railed bridge on a cold afternoon. I was headed north over the gravel with snowflakes falling through the air.

The sweeping riverine landscape – frosted and bleak – where a creek twisted and turned in slow glugs beneath the ice, was dyed in grays and rifle green.

I was numbed in a gray winter-day daze, staring into the bland passing backdrop that was topped with an even duller white, cloudless sky.

I could have been thinking about anything or nothing at all.

I can’t really remember.

What was certain was that I wasn’t contemplating seeing her, standing there by the side of the road.

Then, suddenly – there she was!

Her beautiful red-beaded coat first caught my eye and stopped me dead in my car tracks.

She didn’t say a single word.

She didn’t even nod.

She just stood there, her beauty blazing like a voracious wildfire.

I got out of the car door, still kind of dazed.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

I walked up to her slowly, reaching for her hand. Her fingers were cold to the touch and spread faintly apart.

It was difficult to stand this close to such exquisite and fascinating beauty.

My eyes had trouble focusing. The beads from her jacket, covering her arms, blotched into each other in a red-orange neon glow.

I could feel warmth all around me.

After a few moments of standing together in the silence, I backed away slowly, moving toward the car. I glanced back a couple times over my shoulder.

I was bewildered by the whole encounter.

Who was this enchanting damsel, who could snap a distracted traveler from his wandering reverie on a pale afternoon?

I took her picture, but like trying to fully capture any raving beauty, it fell far short.

As my wheels began to slowly roll again, my mind was racing.

I had no recollection of ever seeing her before. Not even through all my childhood days of exploration and wonder.

Never once.

But clearly, she was here.

All the way home my mind insisted I find out more about her.

I discovered she was known widely throughout these parts – from across the entire state, out west through Texas and south to Florida, out east too, and even as far north as Quebec.

How is it we had never met before today?

Or worse yet, could we have met, and I’d forgotten?

Bluebirds, robins and wood thrushes knew her well, but mostly from down south – from the Carolinas – those piedmont states.

She has been prized like black Oriental tea, a friend to animals and the Indians.

I found out her beautiful beaded jacket was given to her by a local Lothario who lived nearby. He’d gifted similar coats to beautifully adorn the forms of more than a handful of other grand ladies.

I knew I would never forget her now. Not after this meeting.

Like many others she’s met, she left me feeling light and contented. It was like I was starstruck – meeting Judy Garland, James Dean or Marilyn Monroe – weak in the knees, too nervous to really speak, my eyes devouring everything at once.

The sun is down and I’m still bathing in the afterglow.

Those less enamored, call her “poison” and “toxic.”

Their insults aside, she retreats grandly to the lowlands of the forest, those moist places home to the muskrat and the mink, where dark soils push between her toes like modeling clay.

She has cousins with interesting and unfamiliar names like “Red Sprite,” “Cacapon,” and “Aurantiaca,” and male cultivars named “Jim Dandy” and the “Southern Gentleman.”

Still, the misplacement in my mind of any recollection of her was troubling me.

It wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I think I finally figured it out.

I was in a car again, this one moving much faster, rushing along the Lake Michigan coastline on a late autumn afternoon. Heading north again, this time, not alone.

The driver was a friend who was taking me home. I had the luxury of being able to just ride and watch out the window for whatever I might see.

The shoreline was wild and blue that day, with whitecaps, cold water and gulls holding their positions in the sky, lifted by the winds.

The highway was dry and largely deserted, rolling and rocking.

As we crested a hill, we moved down through a wide stretch of lowland, where the rain had helped flood the bogs, the slough and the marsh.

Suddenly, again at the side of the road, I saw the shimmering beauty I’d come to first know on that cold, wintry afternoon years ago.

This time, one of her sisters was next to her, with another standing behind and still another just a few feet away. They all bore the shiny red-beaded jackets of the Lothario.

My breath caught at the showy sight.

“Did you see that,” I asked my compadre.

“See what,” she said.

“At the side of the road – the red…”

They were gone by in a blur.

Before I could suggest turning around for a closer view, we approached the outskirts of another town. We kept driving on through.

“Nothing.”

Though strange to consider, I have concluded that the vermilion beauty of these majestic matriarchs – though brilliant and bedazzling – can surprisingly be missed if you’re not looking for it.

As unlikely as this seemed to me, it was apparently true.

Hiding in plain sight, like the giant rabbit only Elwood P. Dowd could see.

I’ve asked others if they have seen these beautiful ladies standing in the lowlands along the highways and backroads.

With few exceptions, many say they haven’t.

I can’t criticize.

I too, was among them – for years.

Until that one afternoon, snow falling, when I was jerked from a daydream to behold the glorious wonder of the one who they call the black alder, Michigan holly or most simply, and commonly – winterberry.

For me, the journey of Madame Winterberry from obscurity to prominence in my mind was ultimately a swift one. Just one fleeting encounter was all it took.

I see her everywhere now. Each time, I want to stop my car and get out again, to touch her cold hands, to feel my heart warm and soften, like candle wax.

There are far worse ways to dispel the chill of a winter’s day.

I suspect there are many others like me who once they’ve seen her haven’t been able to look away again.

I know the mail carriers have seen her. They have even put her likeness on forever postage stamps along with juniper, soap and beauty berries.

Her relative obscurity still mystifies me.

I imagine it’s got to be a magnificent parlor trick of sorts.

Maybe it’s like the light-refracted properties of a blue jay’s wing that makes us see Tyndall blue feathers that are really, in fact, black.

The common winterberry shrubs can stand there so openly and magnificently – like truth herself – there in plain sight but often remaining unseen.

Unseen, that is, until you turn your head, or she turns hers, to look.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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