There are dark glorious places where there are old white cedars with large hummocks at their base full of mosses and sphagnum and perhaps some liverworts. There are ferns in the understory, and grasses and sedges, and the dark brown waters almost always flow through, and neverwet grows in the mud where the water had been higher in the spring where now the levels are lower.
When the water is high, you can’t see the submerged lattice work of trunks beneath the water, except for those that can be seen on the surface, and at times they make a series of stepped waterfalls as the water seeks another place to flow and flood beneath the canopy of tall cedars with red maples and some sour gums and the like.
You can’t put your arms around the elder trees, but you can balance atop their fallen brothers as you edge out along the trunks. Saplings and bushes like sweet pepperbush are grasped as handholds. You swing out further and further. Flies and wasps buzz and swarm around your ears, and the water is deep enough, and the undergrowth tangled enough that it’s just easier to inch along the slippery trunks like natural bridges then to try to wade through the water where the moss could suddenly give way as you sink into thick sucking mud.
Now if you’re younger and fit, this is not such a forbidding landscape at all. If you are raised in it it’s second nature to you. My son was much further along as he can fairly run along the trunks and jump across expanses I have to pause spread eagled between, until I decide to go for it, tethered as I am with cameras and a hat and walking stick that I use to probe a safer way.
So when he called out that he had seen a strange thing I felt that bittersweet pang of envy, that I could be “young and immortal” again, but I am young in spirit and am always in the mood to see that strange thing to be found in the woods anyway.
This was mildly strange, such as- how did tomatoes come to be in the middle of a cedar swamp? My son had seen big fully ripe tomatoes glowing deep orange in the distance, hanging suspended in a beam of light that had pierced the canopy and shown down below on a tangled hummock of bushes. He wanted me to come out there to join him and see this.
“Were they bright orange, do you think?” I already had a suspicion of what else they could be. So out he went again guiding me, to find the gilded spot among other gilded spots that speckled the dark humid swamp on off into the distance.
There is always only one spot that you are looking to return to where your treasure should lie. Crooked tree limbs, clumps of pitcher plants, and signs like broken branches and grass blades should lead you there.
Well I wish I could tell you that they were tomatoes, because that would have been a juicy treat on a very hot day at least. But a treat of a different sort awaited us. They did look like pendulant orbs shining in the sun, just out of reach in a very difficult spot, but as we swung our way in closer, you could see that each orb was actually a cage of spotted petals, pulled back up and over their pistil and stamens.
There were two tall spindly plants. Turk’s Cap Lily ( Lilium superbum) a native lily of the New Jersey Pinelands.
Although the stems were stretched and weak with the effort of finding the sun in this shaded place, the flowers borne were spectacular. The four of them were perfect, silky, brightly colored, but subtly shaded. A feast for the eyes.
We had to twist and turn to find a foothold. I was bent like a pretzel as we juggled lens caps and lenses and cameras- and don’t you know it- the sun went past or ducked behind a cloud. I wound up having to use a flash to record the moment.
Now there are spots where you can just drive up and view these beauties from your car, it’s true. But being out there on that hot day, in that place of green and darkness, of tangles and buzzing insects with my son, and coming upon this hidden and unexpected place where these flowers bloomed, well, to me, that is a treasured memory of living within the joy of the Pinelands.