For an audio version of ‘Being in Mysteries’ click the play button
The petals are like stiff velvet against my fingers, and the entrancing colour of blood. There is something otherworldly about this parasitic species; they don’t seem to belong to the surrounding community of plants. They’re amongst the rarest flowers in Europe and yet so conspicuous, so revealing, that they’re easily distinguished by being the exhibitionists of the meadow, as though having compressed all the bright and possible vivaciousness of their entire genetic lineage into a few scattered specimens, sacrificing plenty for personality. They seem to bask in their unusual difference, catching the eye from afar.
Diphelypaea boissieri are known from only two locations in all of Europe; this meadow where in May and June I find them thinly strewn and another some hundreds of kilometres further north. That’s all there is to their European presence: a car park or two would take them forever away.
Rising on a dark stalk and without the aid of chlorophyll, a scarlet flower opens into the sun. It’s as distinguished as a Remembrance Day poppy pinned to a veteran’s lapel. And inside nearly every bloom in hot weather nuzzles a small beetle coated golden by pollen dust. No one really knows what kind of beetles they are, or whether their relationship with the plant is mutually exclusive and of necessity to each species; whether they’re as rare and unusual as each other. In fact Diphelypaea boissieri occupies a blind spot in floral knowledge; there’s no certainty as to the precise plant that it’s parasitic on, or what constitutes its life cycle and span. It is an isolated enigma, further deepened by appearing in two far-flung places.
Tethered to a single territory, endemic species suggest something whole despite their limited range, like a long-settled clan or like-minded tribe, a sustained and stoic tenure, a sense of belonging to the land. But a species that exists in two distinct localities, separated by a wide geographic gulf, reminds me of a line divided, or a forked trail you might meet in the woods, conscious that each choice carries with it the negation of the other, the path forever untaken.
Those untrodden ways become more discernible as we age, easily recognisable as our choices are increasingly compromised by dwindling time and the nature of our lives. Certain paths will never come into view again. But the mystery of not knowing how they might have unfolded, or where they might have led, lends life some of its depth – a sweet sadness intangible and shifting as mist, an awareness that, given immeasurable days, so many lives might be lived.
Mystery is a measure of our imaginations. When Venus recently passed in a poignant dark arc across the surface of the sun I was astonished by what its smallness signified for the enormity of our star. Roughly the size of the Earth, the black disc was dwarfed by the seething sphere that breathes life into our planet. Whatever knowledge we have of the universe, whatever we’ve pieced together of its form and complexity through observation and experiment, can’t diminish its raw and ineffable immensity. No calculation of distance, or explanation of orbit, could make sense of that dark, dawn trajectory for me. We are a few grains of sand amidst a startling desert.
In a letter to his brothers in 1817, in which he was critical of what he saw as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s elevation of knowledge over beauty, John Keats wrote: “I mean, Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” While I take great pleasure in fact and reason, whether from trying to understand the intricacies of bird behaviour or the elemental forces and time it took for marine creatures to be transformed into ancient limestone beds, it stirs the deepest part of me to know that in this day and age mystery still exists, that a strange flower can hang on to its secrets, that a passing celestial sphere has the capacity to raise our eyes from our labours and leisure and distractions, put us in touch, if only for a few minutes, with the vast and baffling extent of existence. Perhaps Keats knew that to clasp the two would hold us better in place.
I leave the meadow with the glow of unknowing. Wrapped up in the Diphelypaea is the wonder of what is and the mystery of what might have been. Whether these flowers are the relics of a wide dominion, ragged bands of survivors from the age of glaciation, or adapted to such nuanced peculiarities of place that only a couple of meadows across an entire continent meet its specific, parasitic needs, we have no way of knowing at present. I turn back at the last moment to see scarlet scattered like stars across the slope, a constellation of rare things brethren and beholden to a distant congregation that unknowingly makes up the night sky of their kind. And for a few seconds I long to see that other meadow, to know the sibling field that sustains this flower. But my desire soon passes like Venus before the sun, dimming as it moves out of the glare. Being in the mystery of other paths is enough.
Notes from Near and Far will be on hiatus for the next month or so as I set out with my father to walk half of the Coast to Coast path (that’s England rather than Canada for anyone whose eyes just popped!). It’s been an idea of ours for the best part of a decade, and with neither of us getting particularly younger, we’ve finally set it in motion. Beginning at the edge of the Pennine hills at Kirkby Stephen in northern England, the route will take us over moors and dales, bogs and becks, with plenty of country pubs for sustenance all the way (and to shelter out of the rain), before ending, at least theoretically, at Robin Hood’s Bay and a dip in the North Sea (well, a splash anyways…). The ten days should take us about 180 kilometres in total, but as John Muir so wonderfully put it, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
I’ll be writing about whatever the journey reveals when I return. Until then, happy wanderings!