The meadow was in its late season dying. What had been purple and gold just a month ago was all browns, grays, and blacks. The old stalks were rattling on about the future. Would there be a future? It didn’t look promising. Even if there were, how to get there when you can’t travel. The mower would be here any day, so the question was urgent.

The wind died down and there was a long silence.

The jewelweed spoke first and was surprisingly pithy. Having lost its bloom, it was all wound up inside, and oh so touchy. “Ballistics!” it burst out. “Ping!” The spiderweb trembled; the beetle paused in its tracks. The projectile had little impact. The meadow was used to these explosions. Some seeds were catapulted several inches off and landed in the dry loam. The stream bank was more promising, but already crowded, so the future would look much like the past.

The burdock was biding its time. What it had to say needed to stick. “Why all that energy turned inward just to advance a few inches? I’ll get my hooks into a hide or a fleece, a sleeve or cuff, and hitch a ride! Wherever it’s going, it will get you out of this meadow.” Nobody said it but a look around the meadow made it clear. The grazers and amblers had been bypassing the burdock, clingy and irritating free loader.

The thistle now made a surprising point. Only a week ago it resembled a bottle brush, but it was going soft in the head. “I can be sharp against encroachers. But to reach the future one must dream!” This seemed a vague directive until a gust of wind came up and pulled out a handful of fluff. A lot of it drifted into the pond or collected in the road. But some floated farther off, who knows where.

The coneflower offered nothing during this debate. A highlight of the meadow in summer, now its withered petals were sorry to behold. The plant stood tall but inert on its stalk. It seemed to have no plan. It wouldn’t go far, was the silent consensus.

Just then a surfing goldfinch looking for rest and food on its journey south paused on the grim pedestal and pecked. “How can it let itself be devoured like that?” the other stalks whispered. The wind gathered up the goldfinch, leaving an even more pitiful stalk, and a cone head emptied of seed.

An hour later, on a pit stop in Connecticut, the goldfinch dropped some of the seed from its gut. The litter was swaddled in a bit of nourishing bird dirt and nestled in garden loam, where it soon froze. The next spring, up it came, into its new surroundings.

The gardener was a careful steward, but not rigid about her design. She knew the world was changing. She liked surprises and would not call them weeds. So she let the coneflower flourish, at least for that season.

And why not? Hadn’t her own children—she could see them still, eyes wide, noses dusted with pollen—gone off and rooted themselves among strangers? What, after all, is the future? Not a place you could point to. A link with the present, not a repetition. Even the seasons were shifting. High winds were toppling her favorite trees. She was worried and took measures. But gardeners are optimists by disposition if realists in practice. She didn’t like the current talk of doom. Let the wind blow, the seeds disperse. Let the whole yard become a meadow once she moved on.

And what of the meadow where our tale began? Now there is a forest or a parking lot. But here’s a purple thistle out of the broken sidewalk, some jewelweeds strung along the ditch. And here’s a passing stranger who remembers what a meadow is.

Bonnie Costello, a professor emerita in English at Boston University, has published many books and articles on modern poetry, and literary essays on art, travel, and landscape.

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

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