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Fall 2001 Edition

A Natural History of a Fateful Day
by Sue Holloway

Only a month ago today, our world was shattered, changed.  September 11: a day of incredulity and disbelief, horror and despair, outrage and heartbreak, mourning and prayer.  A day of loss, of ghastly, painful deaths; with also, acts of courage and generosity of spirit.

No one who has seen the images of destruction and heard the tales of suffering will likely ever forget them.  But while a group of men were acting in hatred, spreading violence, death, and destruction, the Earth was arranging her own scenes.   They remind us that a simple act of beauty can also provide an unforgettable image.

The day before, a neighbor had informed me of an unusual gathering of birds - about 200 assorted egrets and herons at a nearby pond.  She was certain their departure was imminent.

So the morning of the 11th became, for me, atypical from the start, with a motivation to join the avian assembly and wish them well on their migratory journey.   It was not yet light, upon my arrival, grey tones just beginning to appear through indistinct forms that slowly materialized into leaves in the distant canopy.

Only about 15 great egrets remained.  Walking a nearby hiking trail, I checked for the birds’ presence, but only a single great egret showed itself briefly, in flight.  The first great gathering of the spectacular birds was already migrating southward.

So were a steady flow of individual monarchs, who looped their way over waterways, on their journey of 2000 miles to Michoacan, Mexico.  I blessed each, with an ancient Gaelic thank-you: Go Raibh maith agat.  May good things be with you.

Back home, an enormous garden spider had rewoven her large orb on the front porch.   She had been there for days, wafting in the breeze on her harp, until one evening, stiff winds vibrated her tenacious dwelling, testing tensile strength, moving it six inches to either side of its vertical center.  Here she was, with renewed silken structure.

From the back porch, high, excitable voices announced the arrival of goldfinch youngsters coming in to feast on thistle seeds.  While watching them, my attention was drawn to the whirring wings of a female hummingbird.

She hovered, tail swishing like a fish as she fed on hanging petunias and fuscia, then looped across the doorway, within feet of me, to the impatiens.  It is the only hummingbird I’ve spotted here in nine summers, a memorable event from what was to become a long, long morning.

cc-cereustwins-1.jpg (44830 bytes)Then a friend called with the news of the first hit on the World Trade Center.  Even before I left to watch with her the eerie disaster, my mother also called, in tears.   The magic of the morning had dissolved into a surrealistic nightmare, which magnified in intensity throughout the day, with further images and stories of the attacks.

The day had turned.  It would be several more days before I heard from my oldest son, in Romania, who reported watching thousands of people demonstrate on behalf of the U.S.  That was encouraging, but we had become a vulnerable people.   Outraged, yet unable to direct the rage; grievous without the bodies; unprepared for the magnitude of loss; fearful of the aftermath.

But that evening, the night blooming cereus came into blossom, showering the porch with a gorgeous fragrance.  She had already bloomed in early August.  Yet here came two more flowers.  And the next night, two more.

In August, when cereus presented her five huge blossoms, I called in friends to witness the extravagant event.  On this night of September, I sat with her quietly in prayer, thanking the Earth for all the beauty she gives us, and for the miracle of life; offering prayers for peace; sending light to those suffering severe burns.

cc-cereustwinsclosing.jpg (51232 bytes)The ephemeral, spectacular, rare opening of a cereus is an event one does not ignore.  It would be ungrateful, almost a sin.  For only a few sweet hours, the intricate centers open on extravagant blossoms that can be nine inches across.

They dangle in an "L" shape from the leaf, held on by strong inner veins.  By morning, the blooms close again; they begin to droop Within a week, the flowers shrivel and fall. The night of September 11, the cereus became a symbol of life, ephemeral and beautiful, strong yet also consummately fragile.

Normally, there is enormous joy felt with such a gifting.  Yet, this night, there was a weeping down my heart for lives lost; and grief, recognizing immense hatred expressed toward us as a people.  I could not deny any of the experiences which assaulted the senses this fateful day, including the wonder of seeing the exquisite flowers.

I hope the images evoke a memory of the beautiful, as they did for my mother, who recalled visiting Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas several decades ago, when the cereus came into bloom.  A night of pure enchantment.  The challenge that evening for me became the challenge evermore, for all of us, grappling to embrace grief without releasing wonder.

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