I answered my phone. My 3-year-old granddaughter cut to the quick.

“Opa, why do flowers have colors?” 

Knowing that my answer had to be brief before she moved on to another unrelated question, I took a breath and gave it a shot.

“Flowers are like pretty invitation cards to bugs.  Flowers say ‘Come here!’ by using their colors.” 

“Why?” she asked. 

“The bug stops and walks around on the petals searching for sweet nectar or pollen to eat. Sometimes little specks of pollen get stuck to its legs; kind of like when you are playing out in the yard and get pieces of grass on your pants.”

“Then the bug flies to another flower and walks around on it. Some of the pollen rubs off on the different flower. This is the way that the flower will  make seeds. The big word for this is pollination.”

It was all I could do to stop there but I imagined her eyes glazing over. I dared not tell her that the second flower had to be the same species. I could only hope that she understood some of my explanation.

A couple of days later, Miss Nancy and I headed to the St. Croix River for a day of paddling. With Nancy in the stern and me getting the better view in the bow, we headed upriver. It felt good to paddle and feel the work of going against the river’s grain. Ahead the broad river made a graceful bend to the northwest, almost like the beckoning curve of a question mark. Slowly we made our way into the river’s query. 

After a monochrome winter, we are starved for the barrage of greens found in May.  There is baby green, avocado green, light green, and lime green.  The silver maples flanking the river stand like soft green explosions, tinged in subtle fireworks of reddening flower buds. The white pine are content with never changing dark green foliage. Aspen and birch give rise to their own arguments of spring green. 

Freshets tumbling downhill on the Wisconsin shore beckon us to explore. We pull the canoe ashore and walk slowly among the carpets of flowers. These are known as spring ephemerals. Ephemeral means “short-lived.” It is a perfect description of these plants that will bloom only for a handful of days.

Yellow marsh marigolds illuminated the hillside seep.  As a kid I was taught these early wetland flowers were cowslips; not incorrect, just another name for the same plant. 

Marsh Marigold

I leaned over a clump of marsh marigold and watched a couple of bees go spelunking into the depths of the bloom. They were enticed by an ultraviolet color they see as “bee-purple.” The center of the flower, where the pollen-loaded stamens are located, is a bullseye of yellow to an insect.  

Off to my right the slope was painted with what resembled shards of a  rainbow. Purple and yellow violets, light blue spring beauty, yellow bellwort, white woodland anemone, trout lily and tiny white miterwort all merged onto a common palette.  Just uphill, it appeared as if someone had thrown a box of tissue into the wind as the ground was littered with white large-flowered trilliums. This was ephemeral ecstasy. 

Spring Beauty
Trout Lily

We hovered over clumps of wild ginger. To find its flower you have to get  on your knees and probe in the leafy duff at the base of the twin heart-shaped leaves to find the flower that looks more urn than bloom. The small red cup and its nectary attracts the attention of ants as well as bees. 

Leaning in for a close look at a small bee disappearing into a trout lily blossom, I realized that in the scope of things my own life could be considered ephemeral. I wondered, how many more seasons will I view this  carnival of color? How long can I contribute to my grandchildren’s lives?  Caught in the gaze of a single bloom, I felt an urgency to live ecstatically and leave a legacy where beauty is valued.

 A smear of cloud cover was moving in so we headed back downhill to the river. We had been hijacked from our paddle by the silent party-covered landscape. Back in the canoe we pulled away from the riparian garden and headed downriver and back into the big question mark seeking another “Why?”

Drifting downriver, I looked into clouds reflected in the water and felt contentment in their brief moment. We are surrounded by ephemeral.

Two days after our paddle, we received a photo of Eleanor sitting out in the sunshine with flowers tucked into her ponytail. How could I not smile, when I was told that she asked, “Are the bugs pollinating my hair?”