Last weekend, I walked with my mother to a small pond tucked in the woods by the family ranch. We call it the Frog Pond because when I was young, we would gather tadpoles there early in the summer and bring them home in water-filled plastic bags. The tadpoles then went into a big metal tub converted into a frog farm by the addition of water, rocks, mud, algae, and a few other pond plants. Our little amphibian community grew from squirmy, tailless infants into full-sized frogs over the summer, when we would release them into a big pond right near the cabin.
On Sunday, Mom and I sat next to the Frog Pond, listening to bird song and quiet.
“I’ll write my next blog on Bear Paw,” I said, thinking to myself but speaking aloud. “My last two blogs were about bears; I need to write about simple beauty.”
I was holding a meadow rue (Thalictrum occidentale) between my fingers, looking at the way the leaves were unrolling into full foliage to create an intricate pattern of mixed green hues. Those leaves look like little paws, and Mom and I have always called the meadow rue Bear Paw. I was a young adult before I found out that the plant has a different common name.
Mom heard my musings and said, “The bears wouldn’t like that. They’re beautiful too.”
“You’re right…. But I was just looking at this Bear Paw.” I was seeing the beauty, the detail and color of that small plant unfolding before me. “Bear Paw! Well I guess that keeps the theme.”
Meadow rue is dioecious, meaning that it has separate male and female plants. The male has a crown of small wind chimes; the pollen comes off each dangly little chime. (Mom thinks they look more like lampshades, but that’s up for interpretation.) The female has a cluster of “flowers” that resemble little sea creatures (at least to me), like an anemone of sorts. Meadow rue is not bright; both the chimes and the anemones have muted colors, their beauty derived from an interplay of tones and a quirkiness of shape. And of course, their leaves look like little bear paws.
The beauty of the Bear Paw is easy to overlook. The plant merges into the undergrowth, mixed in with other greenery. No one overlooks a grizzly bear or the stump it leaves in the trail or the stash it plows out in the meadow. Yet so often, we walk by the commonplace, the small, the obscure. In that quiet moment by the Frog Pond, I held the small plant in my hand and took the time to see it.
Holding the plant, I smiled, for the more personal beauty of the Bear Paw is that Mom created a name for it. As a family, we have created many names – for plants and especially for places, like the Frog Pond. This is part of our belonging. This is part of how we have woven our memories and experiences into this place, in small things like afternoons spent sitting by the Frog Pond, soaking in the simple beauty of the Bear Paw.