Witnessing with Wildflowers: an Essay

Sometimes a dogwood is just a dogwood*

Sometimes a dogwood is just a dogwood*

At yesterday’s wildflower hike, none of the other registered participants showed up, so the leader was all mine. The walk is up, over and down a steep ridge, quilted in overlapping habitats. It begins with the nature sanctuary’s meadow and pond, stumbles along a creekbed and drystone slave wall, doglegs through a cedar barren, and then climbs from beech-maple to oak-hickory along a burped-up bit of the Highland Rim before it drains into the old orchard.

I’ve been here before—it’s only a short drive from Nashville—and have had guides eager to name and explain every bud, leaf scar, petal and tree: the type to never leave base camp without at least one wildflower manual and a hand lens. Yesterday’s guide was not this type. He was pleasant, and no doubt adequate for introducing inner-city kids to “nature” on field trips (a primary function of the sanctuary) but he was not eager to explain much, if indeed he knew much to explain. Which I doubt. Which he admitted as he drawled, “I know some of the flowers, but trees, butterflies, birds. . . I let all that go.”

After I realized I was the wildflower expert of our duo, I gave myself up to the wind and the trees and each wet, leafy footfall. My chatting skills are poor, but I made an effort to listen and to rattle off replies.

And then it happened. Just as I was marveling at a gold and white swathe of dwarf dandelion and false garlic it came, as surprising and as expected as always: “So, what church you go to?”

Even at a crest of the Highland Rim, surrounded by leaf litter and hickory snags, accompanied by only one other person, I am right smack in the buckle of the Bible belt. I hate to sound paranoid, but sometimes I feel I am the eyelet of the belt itself, poked by the same questions again and again. Why is “So, what church you go to?” a standard conversational gambit?

The question feels automatic, perfunctory, as if part of an old etiquette catechism bred in the bone. Old may be the key word. In my experience, only older folks have this question at the ready. My guide was 75, which fits the demographics of this phenom like a white glove at Easter. It is as if they still live in a town small enough to imagine a two-degree separation between all people. It is as if they know someone at any church—pick a church, any church, it’s all the same habitat anyway—and are prepared to link any stranger to a friend at the particular church named. Trouble is, Nashville has a lot more churches than any one person can know. About 700. And nowadays, we have them in all flavors. Including mosques, Hindu temples, and get this: six synagogues.

So, what did I answer this pleasant man? I’d like to think I employed my intended response protocol: counter a question with a question. I’ve supposedly prepared myself to respond with: “Why do you ask?” or “What brought that question to mind?” in hopes to redirect the inevitable. But no, my brain froze and I simply provided the information requested: the name of my church, which happens to be a synagogue. Shocked silence, followed by the launch of “Jews I have known:” a rambling description of the few Jewish people he has encountered in Nashville (all of them surprisingly decent folk and thus exceptions to the rule) which lasted all the way down to the paw-paw patch. The usual.

It could have been worse. I’ve been told I’m going to Hell, told I don’t look Jewish (and exactly why), asked personal follow-up questions about if I converted and why (“Well, what church did you used to go to?”), and been invited to Bible Study on Wednesday nights (which does rather sound like Hell).

I suppose there is nothing really wrong with non sequitur questions about my church, but I find the presumption distracting at least and unsettling at worst. I’ve been advised to make the situation a “discrepant event,” a teachable moment for the person to whom all strangers are Christians they haven’t met yet. That would be great, but sometimes I just don’t feel like being a light unto the nations. Sometimes I just want to know the name of that purple flower over there. (Fringed phacelia / Phacelia fimbriata. I looked it up in the car after the hike.)

I see two puzzles: the puzzle of being asked about my church again and again, and the puzzle of my discomfort at being asked. I felt this percolating in the back of my head the rest of the day, the night, and all next morning. And then, as I sat with my wildflower manuals and checklists, trying to identify all the plants neither the docent nor I knew, I solved the puzzle. Or rather, I named it. The man was doing precisely what I was trying to do. I wanted to identify, name, categorize the flowers, to know them. He wanted to do the same to me. And for him, the church question is the first step of a dichotomous key. Where I look for color or flower shape or leaf type, he goes straight for the name of my church. No doubt the tactic works sometimes, else I wouldn’t hear it so often. It must occasionally key out the discovery of a common acquaintance, and the reward of categorizing a stranger as friend of a friend.

Next time I get the question “What church you go to?” I will try, try, try to remember my wildflower metaphor and remain unruffled. I will try to “let all that go.” As long as the questioner is as harmless a chap as this fellow, I will allow myself to be sorted into a taxonomy over which I have absolutely no control.

*Photo note: Do you know the legend of the Dogwood? I should, since I’ve heard it eleventy zillion times.

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