From Forest to Facebook

by Allaire Diamond

It was one of those days that I had to remind myself I was actually working. As I motored along the dirt roads of the upper Ompompanoosuc River valley, glimpses of faraway hills flickered through the trees in early June sunshine. Soon, I was walking down a meadow with two siblings interested in conserving their family land. At the base of the hill, solid ground gave way to wet, mucky soil as we entered a small basin ringed by seeps, which supply groundwater to wetlands such as fens and swamps. The soil was alkaline, not uncommon in this region, where the calcium-rich bedrock weathers easily, and minerals reach the surface via groundwater seeps.

We saw plants that thrive in such places, such as starry-leaved false Solomon’s seal, Robbins’ ragwort, yellow sedge, and alder-leaved buckthorn. We traversed the fen and entered a hummocky swamp. Suddenly, amid the foliage and sun-dappled moss, they appeared like illuminated golden lanterns on a fairy path: Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens, or large yellow lady’s slippers. The orchids filled these mossy hollows, glowing at the peak of their bloom, striped petals twisting outward like aviators’ scarves. I knelt down and snapped a photo.

Yellow Lady's Slipper - photo by Allaire DiamondFast forward several weeks to the opposite of that remote swamp: Facebook, where one-seventh of humanity gathers to share the mundane, the ridiculous, and everything in between. Facebook never pauses, unlike these plants, which don’t produce leaves for the first three years of their lives, or flowers for another 7-13 years beyond that. My photo, captioned with this fact, went modestly viral on VLT’s page, reaching more than 100,000 people.

Many shared stories and memories. People recalled yellow and pink lady’s slippers from Greensboro, Granby, Holland, and Vergennes, Vermont as well as West Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine. One person wrote: “My Grampa used to take us camping… We had to backpack, carrying supplies in… We would see lady’s slippers in the woods along the way. Grampa said they are rare.”

Each memory was sweet, and the collective reminiscing and rejoicing about lady’s slippers felt like a shared cultural moment, a virtual yet powerful connection to a particular flower that brought viewers back to the forests of their childhoods. I, like others, remember being told not to pick lady’s slippers, that they were rare and protected. In fact, pink lady’s slippers are fairly common and yellow lady’s slippers, while considered ‘uncommon’ in Vermont, are not legally protected.

In a way, that doesn’t matter. Lady’s slippers, more than perhaps any other New England flower, seem inextricable from their forest and wetland habitats. Odd and gorgeous, taking nearly as long as a human to mature, they belong in the woods, not in a flowerbed or a bouquet, and most people intrinsically recognize this. They are rare, especially in places frequented by deer, yet not so rare that people won’t run into one if they spend enough time in the forest. Perhaps these qualities inform our associations with these orchids, driving adults to warn children of police pursuit should they pick one. The awe these forest denizens inspire may help protect them.

At VLT, we dream about all Vermonters having a deep connection to the land. Can such connection grow with social media? A photo from a brilliant day, celebrating a plant that taps directly into our collective forest memories, may be a start.