When I was 10 or 11 I was obsessed with wildflowers. Obsessed.

Coincidentally, I was also obsessed with 4-H.

See the 4 H’s  (head, hands, health, heart…pretty sure that’s right…funny how those logistics kinda slip the mind ) was a country girl’s lifeline to the rest of the world. It meant to me, not only PROJECTS (which I LOVED, and  devoted my entire summer to), but also that I had one glorious weekend to spend in town with my almost equally nerdy friends comparing creations, eating fair burgers and flexing our flirting skills in the stands at the rodeo.

Yes, the county fair was a big damn deal people. Because my almost equally nerdy friends were from little and big farms dotted in a 30 to 50 mile radius from where I was  headquartered, the fair provided the only time I actually got to see them the entire summer. A typical bike ride to meet half way would have surely killed us both.

Yeah, the seeing the friends thing I did not take for granted. But given my athletic ability and the fact that the outlook of a successful sporting and rodeo career seemed pretty grim even at 10 or 11, the real reason for my devotion to the sport of 4-H was its trophy potential.

Trophy Potential.

(I feel compelled to mention here that I was the kid who followed 4-H dress code to annoying perfection. White pressed collared shirt buttoned up to the very top, strategically placed four leaf clover badge over my heart, tight wrangler blue jeans and polished boots. I was the epitome of 4-H, a model member, a spokes person. I should have been on the cover of “4-H Weekly” really. And if that magazine doesn’t exist, it should. Call me and I’ll make it happen).

Over the summers I had tried my hand at various activities. Like latch-hooking.

Does anyone even do this anymore?

I spent my evenings hunched over on the living room floor hooking yarn piece after yarn piece onto a pattern of a sunflower, cow, or horse.  I would then commission the help of a third party to actually make the creation functional as well as decretive. My sunflower became a pillow, the two animals were rustic wall hangings…now that I think of it, I wonder what ever happened to those works of art? I mean, they weren’t tacky at all.

Anyway, latch-hooking was the only activity that even resembled girly that I decided to try. I refused baking and wasn’t going to kid myself in the sewing department, considering my mother had once sewn a pair of my sister’s pants together at the hem, and she was my sewing role model.

So I tried my hand at things like wood-burning, which always turned into an inspirational piece about the heartland or living your life to the fullest. I also did educational projects on gardening, beavers and beaver dams, tried my hand at drawing my favorite stuffed animal and took countless photos of my cats, dogs and horizons.

All of these projects I would present to the judges with pride. Even though I knew it was going to be tough to compete with my friend who would pick a needlepoint project off of her grandmother’s wall the night before the fair and make up a great story about how she had learned so much working alongside her dear granny. (I have always been freakishly honest, so I knew I didn’t stand a chance if I tried that shenanigan. That, and no one related to me actually knew the definition of needlepoint).  Regardless, that friend and I would usually walk out with a respectable blue or red ribbon and a couple dollars in our pockets.

But let’s get real here. I generally do not have a competitive nature, but when it came to 4-H, I was out for blood. A hundred blue ribbons meant nothing. I wanted the grand. The purple. The TROPHY!

Which leads me to my wildflower obsession. I can’t remember, but I imagine it had been a long winter, giving me the time to consider inspiring projects that would surely land me a top spot at the State Fair (the county fair on steroids). I’m not sure what exactly gave me the idea to set out on a quest to hunt, gather and identify every living wildflower in McKenzie County, but it really was genius. It really carried massive potential. And it is exactly what I did.

As soon as the last pile of snow disappeared and first spring rain hit the earth, I hit the hills with my “Wildflowers of North Dakota” guide book and a whole lot of ambition. I became a hunter, a wild woman with a hawk’s eye for a splash of new color on the landscape. I would make my parents pull the car over if I thought I saw a semblance of a species I hadn’t collected yet. I was a seeker of the rare, fragile flower. It was a big day when I came across an in tact gumbo flower or perfectly assembled tiger lily. I remember taking my best friend out with me into the woods on our bikes with gloves and scissors because I NEEDED to collect a sample of Canadian thistle, which poked the shit out of your hands when you tried to pluck it from the ground. It is funny to me now that this became such a sought after specimen, considering every rancher would strongly disagree that this should be considered a wild flower. Wild yes. Flower no. But it had color and zest and, to me, it was beautiful as far as flowers go. I NEEDED it.

I would like to tell you that at the end of the summer, I took this project into town, stood proudly in front of the judges and confidently explained what I knew about the purple prairie cone flower and the blue flax. I would like to say that I had a worthy declaration of why I chose to include the creeping jenny and the Canadian thistle into a flower project. I am sure I was brilliant. And I’m pretty sure I got a purple ribbon, which prompted me to march my butt to the State Fair and receive the same result. I am pretty sure that is what happened.

But if I were to tell you the truth, which I aim to do here, (it’s that freakishly honest thing again), I would tell you that I guess I don’t really remember that part. What I remember is the sheer wonder I felt that summer in discovering the little gems in my surroundings. It was like searching for gold or diamonds out there in the landscape. Each yellow daisy I came across, each lady slipper I pressed and put in my book, gave me such a sense of accomplishment, such a sense of pride. I was in complete awe at the fact that the rough landscape, littered with rocks, clay and cactus could produce and sustain a vivid, fragrant, magenta flower that was so fragile that it only lived a couple days. It was the juxtaposition of it all.

This could be a brutal place, I heard stories about draughts, and how my grandparents had struggled on this landscape. But I just couldn’t believe it when I literally found myself frolicking in rolling hills of crocuses and sweet peas. Little rays of sunshine pushing through the earth. I became so engrossed, that at times, I felt like one of the flowers myself.

This came to mind again to me so vividly last night. 16 years after that monumental project I found myself walking out in the June evening air with my camera, ready to take photos of the horses, or the dogs or some form of exciting wildlife. But I continued to point my camera to the ground, snapping photos of these flowers sprouting out yellow as a single stem from between a rock, growing in flocks across the peak of a hill or in a coulee, scattered like heaven’s perfect garden along the landscape. I became fascinated again.

And I was downright giddy. Because that girl I had been looking to find again–on the road, in books, at work,  in crowded bars–was finally at home with her flowers.

12 thoughts on “Wildflowers

  1. Jessie: This was such a pleasure to read, and the accompanying photographs are gorgeous! Seriously, you have a book developing here about growing up in ND. There are men’s stories galore, but not many by women.

  2. Jessie, What a delightful read. You dad posted it on my facebook page, and I was in awe of your connection to the land, flowers and your heritage. I must tell you that your Great Grandpa Veeder would be very proud. From generation to generation the torch is passed. Thank you for sharing and stirring my memories of picking flowers and roaming the hills with your dad and all of the cousins. Well done Jessie.
    Marge Reed

  3. You know Kim, Dale, and Marcia would all get a real kick out of this one! Love your blog:):) I just need to find the time to keep up with it!

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