In first grade, I often visited my classmate Blanche’s house. Her name was impossibly Southern and matched her mother’s, which I thought was very cool. Blanche’s family lived only two neighborhoods over from mine, but it felt like another world. At Blanche’s house, at six years old, I was introduced to the woods.

As young confidantes, Blanche and I wove through trees collecting nuts and berries from the forest floor. We filled our adventures with imaginary names and storylines, and at some point, turned a big, sprawling shrub into a magical little cottage all our own, a place where we tucked ourselves away to whisper secrets. The fortress held us snugly, along with our treasures, and we reconvened there every time we were together. We climbed in and stayed, cloaked in leaves, until we were ready to again reveal ourselves to the world.

I’m not sure what plant served as our hiding spot so long ago, but I can still see it in my mind’s eye, and it looks something like rhododendron.

Rhododendron was one of the first plants I got to know after making a home in northwestern South Carolina several years ago, though I’d be lost if I tried to name all its variations. But I recognize our local version when I see it, which is on every single hike. When I started exploring the Blue Ridge foothills after moving here, rhododendron leaves, still green in the winter and shaping magical hallways in the woods, immediately caught my eye. That spring, I watched as their blooms came to life like tiny, buzzing, blazing fireworks. After that, I looked for them every year. My favorite variety has white flowers with red stripes that look like peppermint candy.

Through every season, rhododendron grows, providing a fairytale canopy no less enticing than the one Blanche and I discovered in elementary school. Its limbs extend something akin to an embrace, there in the middle of the woods, even in the depths of winter. Low and draping, rhododendron surrounds you almost like Mother Nature herself reaching out to say we’re in her grasp. 

Last fall, my husband and I finally put together the garden we’d started in 2017 but abandoned when life put us on the road for a spell. We began again, built a fire pit for low-risk, virus-friendly socializing, hung lights from trees, and covered our yard in native plants. We’ve long been interested in native gardening, drawn to the idea of giving the birds and the bees exactly what they want, what they’ve evolved to love most, understanding that many ornamental and invasive species used in landscaping harm our local ecosystems.

“Our lives, stripped of their former layers, mirror the forest in this season. Life is quiet on the surface, but beneath the ground, our roots are deepening and strengthening, preparing us for new chapters ahead.”

 

Around the new fire pit, we installed a ring of rhododendron, putting our fingers in the soil to soak up whatever good is there. The ring is alluring, like the mystical woods crept right into our backyard, calling us closer. Every week, we sit down with those rhododendron and stay a while, just like Blanche and I did when we were six. It’s a comfort.  

Our garden’s plants came from the South Carolina Native Plant Society, whose volunteers asked about our dense clay soil and frequent shade and helped us find pollinators that can live happily in our little slice of the neighborhood. We added climbing plants on one side of our fence: American wisteria, Virgin’s Bower, Carolina jessamine, and Coral honeysuckle. On the other side, we put wild blueberry shrubs that, to our delight, should soon bear fruit. 

The Native Plant Society became a real source of joy for us this year. We eased the young plants’ roots into the ground, lovingly patted them into place, and fed them with mulch at the base. Now, we wait, wondering what they’ll do come spring. 

There’s something meaningful about caring for the land that holds you, and this year kept me in one place long enough to explore that in my own backyard. 

Last spring after lockdown, I listened to the birds go wild, singing as if their lives depended on it every day from my porch. I was no longer due in New York, Atlanta, or Nashville—I was home, with the birds. Nature had my full attention.

Once summer hit, I needed a change of scenery and visited the trails at The Carl Sandburg House in Flat Rock. The habit stuck, and from there, I watched the seasons turn. In July, a field of sunflowers tipped their faces toward the sky; in August, they bowed their heads to let aster and goldenrods take the stage. In the early, teasing fall, green leaves began to flirt with red, amber, and gold brushed on like paint. October became kaleidoscopic, and I kept looking up, up, caught in a spell of autumn’s prize. By November, the colors faded to brown and swept me into swirling storms of falling leaves, gentle as snowflakes on my shoulders. As December approached, those leaves formed a thick carpet on the ground, and my heels crushed them back into the dirt, nourishing the very earth from which they came.

Now January has arrived, holding us with something of its own. In the quiet midwinter, the forest is sparse, and trees are stripped of color and activity. But I notice that with all those branches free of leaves, it’s easier to see what’s ahead on the trail. Mountain views open up, sweeping far and wide, and it feels like I could reach out and touch their peaks. Winter is gray, yet I see clearly in all directions. 

Our lives, stripped of their former layers, mirror the forest in this season. Life is quiet on the surface, but beneath the ground, our roots are deepening and strengthening, preparing us for new chapters ahead. Nothing invites presence, it turns out, like staying in one place and watching the seasons change. It helps us reflect on where we’re going. 

This winter, I’ll bundle up to walk the same trails, looking for new life. I’ll sit by many fires. The rhododendron will happily hold us till we’re ready to emerge. After all, it always has.

Lauren Maxwell is a writer living at the southern tip of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She publishes a weekly column called WE’RE ALL FRIENDS HERE.