I have a favorite spot in the woods where I go every spring to see the blooming of the fairy slipper orchids. I don’t have to walk very far off a well-worn path that wanders down through the salal bushes and spruce trees and out along the dunes to the broad sandy east coast beach at Tlell.
The shoreline forest here is windswept to say the least. Winter storms on this east-facing beach are relentless. The southeast gales of winter roar and screech full force across the wild waters of Hecate Strait and come ashore with formidable power.
Near the beach, tough pine trees have grabbed a root-hold in the dunes and survive in their own way, all stunted and gnarled, many of the branches sandblasted bare of any greenery at all. The shape of trees is gone all one-sided, with all the surviving branches swept back away from the windward side and pointing inland.
In wind and weather, in rock and sand, it’s a rugged exposed place to be, here where land and sea meet together.
But just behind the sentinel trees and the sheltering dunes, there exists a remarkably different world. In the deeper forest, the air goes suddenly still, the roar of the wind and water recedes, and it is so calm. The forest moss is deep, deep mounded, and silent and feathery-soft underfoot, lush with dampness and a rich mustiness. The sunlight fragments and pools through the high spruce canopy, and the underworld is illuminated in all the shades of green— emerald and viridian, sap green, moss green, golden green, and dark, shiny salal green.
Here is the place where this dainty, exotic, and exceedingly delicate orchid of the forest is found. It’s called Calypso bulbosa, after the Greek goddess Calypso, a daughter of Atlas, (or of Oceanus and Tethys, depending on who is telling the story) whose name means “concealment.”
This tiny plant will grow only in association with particular fungi that are found in the mosses of the forest floor and to which its bulb is attached with tenuous filaments. If the plant is disturbed at all, this relationship is broken and plant perishes.
I have to get down on my hands and knees and crawl around to see the blooms properly in all their solitary and stately splendor, being careful not to disturb the mossy bed in which the plants are nestled. The ground is wet from a passing rain shower, but it’s soft and a comfortable place to sit and to be still. It takes quite awhile for me settle, and even longer to come slowly into the silence of the forest and see anything at all.
The madder-purple and pink orchid blooms with their airy petals seem so fragile, so delicate. And, yet, at the same time, that there is something so fierce and powerful that can be seen while I am looking deep into the face of the flower, even as it waves sweetly in a passing breath of air.
I have been coming to this place for years and years to see these particular flowers when they bloom. Some years I missed the moment, either because they bloomed too early, or I showed up too late.
And it is over this long period of time that I have come to a state of wonder: how ancient the orchids are! Out of all the Great Ice Ages that covered Haida Gwaii, and the long coming of the forests across the bleak tundras of the north eons ago, out of what primeval dreaming of creation does this elegant presence emerge, year after year, and call me into the imminent beauty of the world?