I met Cap’n Brown while chasing my big grey tom Clancy over to the other side of the island. Cap’n Brown was more than a Cap’n by courtesy, but less than a retired master mariner. He was a handy boat builder. And, respected in the community. He was known to be tolerant of grandchildren in his shop, and he put up with an elderly cat who was as cantankerous as my Clancy. Tiger had been there and done all that in his youth. Clancy, naturally eager to learn from the very best, became a fast companion for Tiger.
On the day I found out where Clancy had been lighting out to every morning, Cap’n Brown had just finished laying out a bowl of ice cream for the two buddies to share. The shop was a cavernous barn with molds, patterns, and lumber everywhere. Half hull models lined whatever space was available on the walls not already taken up by photos of a much younger Cap’n Brown standing by the many boats he’d built. Cap’n Brown was not too friendly but offered a cup of strong black boiled coffee to take the chill off the early May morning.
Being that Clancy and Tiger were regular buddies, I found myself walking over frequently to make sure that my cat was not overstaying his welcome. My father in law warned me that Cap’n Brown had some strange habits, like being seen shambling about the woods near his house, mumbling to himself. I took this with a big dose of salt; my father in law thought everyone not in his family was strange.
Still, the first time I found him walking by the side of his driveway bent over looking intently at something I could not see, I wondered. Seeing me, he called over and excitedly showed me the early Trout lily coming into bloom—the leaves were green mottled with bronze, and the small flowers a pale yellow. Over the next few weeks, I became familiar with the early blooms of Trillium, woods anemone, and other springtime ephemeral flowers. These flowers were the initial sign of spring. But, the calendar could not tell the date on which they appeared. Every day in early coastal spring could be a surprise, and this was why neighbors saw him wandering the woods hunched over mumbling. Appear a couple of days too late, and you missed the flowers of bloodroot until next year.
My father in law was more concerned with when he could get a date for hauling out Psyfhe than little weeds in the woods. I got the impression that he thought Cap’n Brown a bit odd, but as with most things with my father in law, all was made right by the correct maritime credentials. Brown was a boatwright of local renown. He could mumble all he wants in the woods if his curves are fair, and the sheer lines of his boats sweet. End of issue.
Many years later, my second wife and I wound up buying a house bordered in the back by a local Audubon sanctuary. The dense cover of cherry and maple in the rear of the lot precluded growing much. The kids had already decided on digging out a pond, so I put my mind to what sort of landscaping I could do with that much shade. I decided on re-wilding the area with native plants. Some volunteered from the neighboring woods: false Solomon’s seal and Sasparilla. Some I bought through plant sales, and from nurseries.
Eventually, one year I noted that my next-door neighbor was peering at me from her window. Was she looking at me?
I realized that there I was fussing over the little patch of trout lily that had green and bronze leaves, but not yellow flowers yet.
I had bluets, May apples, black Cohosh, dolls eyes, spikenard, spirea and lots more. There was a lot of mumbling and shuffling going on in my yard. My current cat Xenia ( empress of all she surveys), was being watched by Sam, the great hunter of pond frogs. I smiled. All was well; it was spring in New England. Patience, abetted by some mumbling and stumbling, helped you get through.