It’s mid-July already, and here in Illinois, wildflowers are out in abundance. Fence rows are embroidered with delicate medallions of Queen Anne’s Lace; chicory’s starry blooms form constellations in windswept grass; clusters of pale pink milkweed send up their bewitching perfume. It’s the height of summer’s sweet-petaled bounty.
I’ve always loved making bouquets of summer wildflowers that grow along the gravel road that lopes past Prairie View, our family homestead in Iowa. Picking roadside wildflowers is a pleasant pastime, but it’s not without its challenges. At any moment, a pickup truck or tractor may rumble by, and the whirr of wheels kicks up a cloud of dust that lingers in the air. If the dust cloud happens to catch you, you’ll be coated in chalky particulate matter that creeps into hair, eyes, nose, throat, and you’ll learn not to let this happen next time – that is, not if you can help it. When our children were small, I knew not to take them too far down the road to gather wildflowers. I’d keep a wary eye, making sure we all were within easy distance of the farmhouse lawn – our indispensable retreat from the choking dust of oncoming vehicles.
After a spell of hot, dry weather, the casual summer wildflower-gatherer at Prairie View might be disappointed by the dreary appearance of roadside blooms. A coating of gravel dust turns the clean white petals of Queen Anne’s Lace a dingy beige. It fades chicory blossoms to ghostly blue and conceals the blush of milkweed’s rosy cheek.
One morning last July, I perched on the front stoop at Prairie View, soaking up sunbeams, journal in hand. Just for the joy of it, I was recording how many individual birds I could distinguish within the full-throated chorus ringing in from surrounding fields. Red-winged blackbird, killdeer, barn swallow, I wrote… Canada goose, goldfinch, meadowlark…
Then, the growl of an engine. Raising eyes from paper to road, I spied a veritable mushroom cloud of gravel dust billowing up behind a fast-moving truck. Annoyed, I thought to myself, This driver lacks country etiquette. He lifted no hand in greeting as he sped by, neither did he slow down as he passed. On gravel roads, less speed means less dust, and slowing down to pass someone’s home is a gesture of courtesy. No such courtesy was shown this day. VROOM. Away he raced, and the dust of insensitive wheels hung in the air long afterwards. Good thing I wasn’t out for a walk just now, I muttered. And the poor flowers… another rude coating of dust to mask their summer loveliness.
Then it hit me.
Life’s hardships can come like a speeding truck on a gravel road. One minute it’s sunbeams and birdsong, the next you gasp for breath in the gritty aftermath of Things Beyond Your Control. It’s harsh and bewildering to be caught in a cloud of unforeseen adversity, but you can’t very well fall down by the side of the road, clutching your throat and raking your hand across your eyes. There’s really no logical choice but to trudge on, tears streaming, knowing the dust will eventually settle. Coated head to toe as you are with the soot of inescapable circumstance, your true beauty may not be readily apparent, just like roadside blossoms. Dust has a way of traveling with you. It might be a while before you’re able to stop and rest and rinse away the residue of what you’ve been through. It might take time before you look and feel like yourself again…
As the careless driver roared away and vanished, I watched the pitiless after-cloud descend, covering everything in its wake with grit. I was quiet for a long time…. Then I wrote in my journal: Don’t be so quick to judge. What you see at first glance may be dust from the road.