Spring Terrain #46

Sophora secundiflora “Texas Mountain Laurel”
Lost Maples State Park, West Ridge Service Road

The first thing to bloom around these parts is the mountain laurel. As I discovered this spring, it’s everywhere. I didn’t notice it at first; the clumpy mountain laurels looked just like other clumpy bushes from my other homes.

Walking around the city in February, I noted a whiff of something vaguely sweet in the afternoon breeze. There were no obvious blooms in my field of vision so I ignored it. Then one sunny day a few weeks later I found myself strolling along with some native Texans and noticed the same strange smell–surely they must know. “What’s that smell?” I query. My classmate points to a wall of bushes along the sidewalk, now dripping with grape-like clusters of light purple blossoms. “Ooh! Those things are everywhere. What are they?” “Mountain laurels” Cool! New plant!

I make a beeline to investigate my new find, pushing my face into the bush and immediately regretting it. My companions laugh as I jerk away in surprise with a twisted grimace. My nose feels like I’ve just snorted a double dose of children’s cough syrup and I try to shake it out in disgust. Mountain laurels, you see, have somehow evolved through nature a a smell that mimics artificial grape. I’ve heard analogies to jelly beans, pop rox, kool-aid, and other synthesized chemicals. Whatever it is, it’s delightful wafted in on a light spring breeze, but may induce a gag reflex up close. For the next two weeks while the mountain laurels bloomed, I walked around trying to figure out how something in nature could produce a smell that humans have tried to make up to resemble something else entirely.

The hills of Texas springtime are places of magic and the unknown (not just the mystery of the grape-soda flower). With no advance warning you can wake up and find yourself enveloped in a dense fog where the night before you gazed through a chilly clear sky at the stars. As we packed up our tent to hike out of Lost Maples State Park, I stopped on a misty ridge-top trail to marvel at dew-covered spider holes dotting a small clearing. I’d heard tales of the nasty brown recluse, but hadn’t seen any evidence of it to date. These sticky, sparkly nets of white converging to a shadowy core managed to convey a sense of beauty and foreboding at the same time. This sensation, combined with the sense of being in a strange land of layered shadowy growing things not quite alive recalls other faraway lands, equally unmoored from traditional notions of sense and continuity.

On an equally dreary morning several years ago, I sloshed through another mountain path on my way to Intipunku, the Gate of the Sun. Likely delusional after four days of hiking at an altitude about equal to the place where you’re permitted to turn on electronic devices on a commercial airplane, I was admittedly in a bizarre state of mind. Adding to the experience was the mad rush of tourist adventurers hoping for a postcard-esque view of the ancient Incan capital. That Macchu Pichhu didn’t exist the January morning when we heaved off our backpacks at the “puerta del sol”. You could see about 10 yards into misty ambiguity, and whatever sol managed to seep through the clouds merely cast the surrounding forest in an unearthly shade of grey. Things can be strange up in the mountains; there’s a reason Tolkien chose them to protect the magic of Moria. You can lose yourself in the mist without a clear view of your destination. The path below your feet becomes your only guide, literally grounding your efforts in navigation.

There are things out there in the hills that confound your senses, that don’t necessarily relate to the world of mortals in the way we’d expect them to. It’s not bad necessarily…but certainly unsettling. I actually happen to like that sort of thing.

The following is a segment from a photo essay “Spring Arrives in Central Texas,” to be published May 2012. 


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