The Resurrection of Irises

The specificity with which Easter falls in the year, tracking with the prescribed dates of the Passover festival, convinces me that God is delighted to have the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection be in the midst of the turning of the seasons. It is spring for us in the Northern Hemisphere (as it was for Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem), autumn on the other side of the world, and often in the midst of the shift from dry to rainy in the tropics. The jarring reality of defeated death is timed to catch our attention in some visceral way. Violent shifts in weather, the transitions of plants, even the behavior of insects, participate in this liturgical choreography.

Something is coming. Something is passing away. Everything is different now. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ is alive. Christ is coming again.

In John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” (which I love), he says that Christ’s resurrection “was not as the flowers, each soft Spring recurrent.” The fundamental uniqueness to the second person of the Trinity being revealed as the firstborn from the dead can’t be captured by simple metaphors of life re-emerging from winter dormancy. The flowers weren’t dead, just waiting. Yes, we mark Christ’s resurrection every year, but it is on a whole other level than the guaranteed return of seasonal vegetation. But I don’t want to rush past the floral metaphor with the same hand wave Updike gives, on botanical or theological grounds.

Here in Tennessee, irises are the grammar of spring. Irises of every shade and shape imaginable. They love it here, and we love them (it’s the state flower). This one (pictured below) is my favorite, both for its outlandish style and its understated resilience.

When we bought our house in 2007, the grounds were a portrait of neglect, unkempt shrubs protruding at odd angles from knee-deep leaves killing the grass. That first spring, these irises came up all over the yard, without rhyme or reason. Not wanting to cut them down when I mowed the grass, we gathered them up, transplanting them all into one bed. They kept growing, but did not bloom again for at least 5 years. But they did eventually come back to life.

Irises have pedigrees, records of centuries of cultivation to produce minute variations, all catalogued by institutions like the Royal Horticultural Society or American Iris Society. As near as I can tell, these are a variety called ‘Fabian’, first attested by an English gardener named Salter in 1868. They were listed by the AIS as extinct in 1939. But here in 2022, beside a house built in 1960, they bloom with reckless abundance in April—a testament against exaggerated reports of their demise.

Once hybridized to a gardener’s specification, irises are set and shared by propagation through the multiplication and division of rhizomes—every iris that is a distinct varietal is a clone, a continuously living part of a part of a part of that first plant that some gardener thought was just perfect. Our “resurrected” Fabians are a testimony to this long-dead Mr. or Ms. Salter looking at the first bloom of their new variety and pronouncing it “good.” I do not know how they made it to our corner of Tennessee, or who else along the way thought they were “good” too, to keep passing them on, but they are a gift.

I could have the ID on these wrong (they didn’t come with papers), but whatever cultivar they are, they speak a testimony to life and love bursting forth from long ago. And this is where my tweak on Updike rests—most plants are not merely “recurrent”, but continuous, connected to past years’ growth by a continuous chain of DNA and stored sugars. They are kept alive year after year in the complex dance of ecosystems, or by the loving hands of nursery workers.

In this way, the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection points to ours as well. According to the Apostle Paul, Christ’s resurrection was how, through the spirit of holiness he was declared with power to be the son of God. The body of the man Jesus Christ that died was raised to life and is seated at the right hand of the Father—that part is the miracle, the point of Updike’s poem. At another level (what Paul is getting at, I think), of course God almighty could never die, so the resurrection of Christ is in some sense “expected” once we recognize his divinity—it the proof that Jesus is God. This speaks to continuity of life, such that Paul can say in another letter that all things hold together in Christ. The power that raised Christ’s body from the dead is the same power that gave his body life in Mary’s womb. It is the same power that gave Mary life as well; the same power that made the world; the same power that brings flashes of purple and yellow from a starchy underground tomb in my yard each spring. It is the same power at work in every moment of every day of every life, upholding the universe by a word and working it toward final glory in the midst of every unspeakable brokenness wrought by evil.

I need these flowers at Easter as a ritual reminder of new life, a sacramental blow to my retina each time I walk out the door that engages the gears of theology with the churning mass of thoughts and emotions that overflow my heart and mind and mouth. I need the unsought abundance of wonder packed into each blossom because I can’t make it through a day of reading the news, listening to the pain of friends, or cowering before my own rage and inability to control even the process of getting the kids out the door to school without it. 

God knows I am weak, and he sends flowers. They speak of his goodness in such a way that I can’t help but remember all of it. It’s often considered unbecoming of men in the violent culture of the United States to be moved to emotion and action by beauty, but it is how God made us. I can’t stop fawning over irises and every other created thing that crosses my path because I refuse to be “embarrassed by the miracle” as Updike cautions. The God who raised Christ to life is the God of irises and springtimes, because He is pleased to be so. He said, “I am making everything new!” and lest we forget, He makes it new in small ways every day. I’m trying to write this down as instructed, because these things are trustworthy and true. And all creation is groaning in participation.

Into the Woods: Allegheny Front

In 2012, my wife and I spent our anniversary exploring a corner of the Eastern U.S. that we’d never visited before. We found it so delightful that we hoped to return soon. A few years (and a couple of kids) later we were able to return this month with the whole family to Tucker County, West Virginia.

I’m sure this place is beautiful in other seasons, but having only ever visited in October, I can confirm that it is positively magical then. The quality and quantity of fall foliage is blinding—thick forests of maple, birch, and aspen punctuated with the deep green of spruces and firs, or open plains of knee-high blueberry bushes, each outstretched leaf turned to a crimson candle in the setting sunlight.

This time around, because we had a toddler with us, the hiking was limited in both speed and distance, but we still spent plenty of time outside. A few of our favorite spots are listed below.

Canaan Valley State Park and National Wildlife Refuge

This is where we landed when we first visited the area, and we were still taken by it this year. Canaan Valley is a geological curiosity, a nearly perfectly flat depression (give-or-take, 8 miles long by 3 miles wide) on top of a high plateau. Given this, the valley floor is still over 3,000 feet above sea level, which, coupled with its location at nearly 40° north latitude creates a biome more akin to Minnesota than the Mid-Atlantic. Its flat topography lends itself to swampy terrain, with numerous ponds, sphagnum bogs, and tall-grass wetlands lining the meandering headwaters of the Blackwater River.

The state park has a fine network of trails (and cabins and a nice hotel, to boot) along the river and into the hills on the west side of the valley. In the southeast corner of the valley, the park also operates a small ski resort with a respectable 1,000 ft. vertical drop and an average of 200+ inches of natural snow each winter. If you’re there in October, you can ride the chairlift (which we did) to look at the leaves and enjoy great views of the valley.

Much of the remainder of the valley, apart from one other privately owned ski resort and scattered houses and farms, is occupied by a national wildlife refuge, preserving the boggy wetlands for migrating waterfowl. There is an excellent boardwalk for birdwatching in the heart of the refuge, circling through a fir forest, meadows of cotton grass and swampy tangles of wild spiraea. Quiet gravel roads snake through the refuge into Monongahela National Forest, with opportunities for hiking, wild cranberry picking, camping, or just country driving.

Blackwater Falls State Park
If you follow the Blackwater River to the northwestern end of the valley, it drops over a lovely 50′ waterfall and then dives into a canyon on its way down to the Monongahela River basin. The spectacle of fall foliage in the canyon rivals any show I’ve ever seen anywhere (and, seeing as our anniversary is in October, we’ve witnessed peak fall color in quite a few parts of the country over the years). You just want to sit and soak it in for hours.

We didn’t do any real hiking here this time around, though there are plenty of trails. The kids found some trees to climb and made leaf piles to jump in and throw at one another, and we enjoyed the (rather crowded) walk down to the falls.

Dolly Sods Wilderness and Bear Rocks Preserve
The thing that drew us to WV in the first place was Dolly Sods, which I’d read about on other hiking blogs—a place of mystery (including unexploded WWII training bombs!) above the clouds, a vast plain where the virgin forest was clearcut and fires seared the soil so that the trees may never return fully. Whatever the origins, the current state of the place is sheer, inexpressible beauty.

We only had a fleeting moment to visit this time (due to a sewage issue that forced us out of our AirBNB and cut the trip short, another story altogether—par for the course on our family vacations!), but happened to be there near sunset. All I can say is that the pictures speak for themselves. For someplace so close to civilization (ca. 2.5 hours from Washington, D.C.), it is as otherworldly as any spot this side of the Rockies. There are dozens of miles of trails zigzagging the wilderness, some of which we hiked last time, but we took a toddler-paced, restful amble this time.

Seneca Rocks
The only spot we hit on this trip that we didn’t last time was Seneca Rocks, a tourist photo-op standby and rock climbing Mecca. We managed to hike to the observation platform (a steep trail gaining 600+ feet in 1.3 miles) with the whole family, and then the older two girls coaxed me up to the knife-edge ridge for a better view and a dose of adrenaline. Well worth the visit.

We’ll be back again sometime, I’m sure. I’ll leave you with one obligatory New River Gorge Bridge shot to invite you to try it out as well. This is a state hard hit by centuries of environmental destruction and decades of economic devastation (it’s the only state in the U.S. with fewer people than it had in 1950), but there is a wealth of beauty and sparks of resilient community around the state. We’ve grown to love it, and hope others will, too.

The Ground Knows

A week of rain swells the runoff creek,
Its muffled roar suffusing the woods
As the blank-blue sky of Northern air
Sidles down the plateau to cradle
Our valley in momentary chill
Fixing in time every splashed droplet.

Winter in Tennessee is a pendulum.

Ice grasps rocks and branches, layer by
Layer accreting into crowds of
Overnight stalagmites and a lone
Ephemeral agate at the end
Of a string dangling from a footbridge
That sways with each splash, marking the time
Till warmth rushes back, which the ground knows
Well, watching an Iris bloom too soon.

Winter in Tennessee is a pendulum

Yellow light bursts from a stem, calling
January’s bluff for a moment,
But it dies—a raisin in the frost,
Hoping for a slice of spring before
The long flat note of summer goads it
To try for glory again next year.

Life in Tennessee is a pendulum.

Image: Ice pendulum, Glen Falls, Hamilton County, Tenn., January 2020

Into the Woods: Snake Mountain

When my family moved to North Carolina, in the summer of 1998, I was fourteen with an endless imagination for the adventures these hazy blue mountains would hold for an erstwhile Georgia flatlander. I moved away after a short while (to Dayton, Tenn., for college in 2002, and I’ve lived in Chattanooga since 2006), but these hills have always felt like home. Fortunately, my parents still live in the same county, so I get to come back and stay often.

Of all the mountains, perhaps none captured my fancy quite like Snake Mountain. It was due north from the back deck of the house we first lived in up there, its silent, volcano-like visage staring at me every morning. Unlike many other peaks around the area, it was also inaccessible—private property with no marked trail or easy access to its 5,555′ rock-strewn summit.

Some years ago, the property owner allowed for a hiking easement, but I’ve not found the time to check it out. Most hikes with family opt for more easily obtained objectives. This Christmas break, though, my sister, my brother-in-law, and I decided to give it a go. As a bonus, we even talked my dear wife and our oldest two girls into tagging along. Were we ever in for some fun.

The trailhead, such as it is, is a metal farm gate on the southbound side of Meat Camp Road, across from a gravel pull-off just big enough for three or four cars. It’s about 1/2 mile past the entrance to Elk Knob State Park (which is a worthwhile hike in its own right). There are several gates on the same side of the road, so look for the one with the “Practice Leave-No-Trace Hiking” sign on a telephone pole next to it. A quick hop of the gate (if it’s closed) and you’re off.

The first mile or so is a wide (if quite steep) unpaved road—whether for logging or access to utilities. The steady ascent moves between woods and fields, and opens up some fine views of nearby peaks.

After nearly 700 feet of elevation gain, the trail splits off the road and becomes excruciatingly vertical, navigating a narrow way through grass, rocks, and mud. Passing some impressive cliffs, the sweeping view to the north and east begins to take shape—taking in much of Ashe County and on up to Mount Rogers and Whitetop in Virginia.

The ascent slows at a sub peak, with a semi-level stretch along a narrowing rock-ledged ridge. At this point, off to the right, you might notice a road and parking lot, which is part of a failed housing development accessed through Tennessee (at this point, the ridgeline—and trail—follows the state line). I think you can access the trail from there, making a shorter approach. The easygoing stops abruptly when the trail appears to dead-end into a small cliff. We made the mistake of following some trodden ground to the right, but the trail actually goes straight up in a tough scramble (because it is private property without an “official” or maintained trail, the whole route is unblazed).

Because of the error, we ended up sidehill in thick woods as the false trail petered out. Rather than going back, we made a tree-to-tree sprint back to the top of the ridge to re-find the trail and made it to the north sub-summit for lunch. The view west and south (encompassing the Holston Valley, Grandfather Mountain, the Roan Mountain massif, and the Black Mountains) opens up. On this well warmer than average day, the wind was low, and ravens were circling the cliffs (likely eying my kids’ cheetos).

After a knee-busting descent down a stair-step of amphibolite outcroppings, a look back shows the difficulty of what you’ve accomplished.

The rest of the descent back to the road portion is a nice mix of deft, ACL-preserving maneuvers through leaves and mud and step-downs with some good, old-fashioned butt-busting slides. Once you hit the walkable section it’s a quick hustle back to the car. The whole descent from the summit barely took 30 minutes (covering nearly 2 miles). An afternoon well spent, with views as good as I’ve seen anywhere. My oldest daughter said the rock climbing work was harder than what we did at Joshua Tree this summer, which did my Carolina heart proud.