This essay was originally published on September 19, 2001.
LISTEN: “Field of Innocence”
On the morning of September 12, 2001, I hiked the Butler-Freeport Trail. With me were seven other members of Pittsburgh’s Wissahickon Nature Club. We decided our scheduled outing must go on, in spite of the events of the day before. We were not there, however, just to look for birds and flowers. Although no one actually said it, we were seeking consolation in the company of friends. As a group, we turned to nature for reassurance. We were desperate for a life-affirming experience. We were seeking images in nature to counteract the horror we witnessed the day before.
The Butler-Freeport trail is an old railroad right-of-way — a rails-to-trails project. Along the way, I stopped to examine the plants growing from a steep embankment. On top of a rock, we found some dried stems, no more than two inches long. They were the remains of a clump of bluets.
Bluets are small flowers about as wide as the end of ballpoint pen. They have four pale-blue petals and bright-yellow centers. The dried stems on the rocks still had some tiny elliptical leaves in a tear-shaped seed capsule. I opened my wildflower guide. Bluets, I read, are also called “Quaker ladies” or “innocence.” They grow two to eight inches high and bloom in spring and summer. It said nothing about the seed. I gently placed one bluet stem in the book and caught up with the group.
When I got home, I looked in my reference books but found no information on bluet seeds. When I’m puzzled on matters botanical, I turn to Otto Jennings — curator of botany at the Carnegie Museum. In 1950, he published The Wildflowers of Western Pennsylvania, the most comprehensive study of plant life in our area.
The text is more than a compilation of scientific plant descriptions. It is peppered with observations and insights. As I scanned the two paragraphs on bluets, one line caught my eye. Bluets, Jennings wrote, are sometimes so abundant in stony pastures, on the mountain uplands beyond Stoystown, Somerset County, that the fields from a distance appear as though covered with snow.
Bluets, Jennings wrote, are sometimes so abundant in stony pastures, on the mountain uplands beyond Stoystown, Somerset County, that the fields from a distance appear as though covered with snow.
I drive east on Route 30 through Stoystown at least once a week. I never gave those fields much thought. Now, there they were for the second time in two days. I could still here the announcement on the radio: And in Pennsylvania, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Somerset County, in a field east of Stoystown. A hijacked plane crashed into a field that once was full of flowers—flowers called bluets, Quaker ladies or innocence.
I reread the line in Jennings several times. His image was powerful, a stony meadow full of tiny flowers. “Bluets so abundant that it looked like a field of snow.” I thought about the tiny flowers. I pictured a meadow of Quaker ladies, little flowers, all proper and tasteful, not plain but never fancy—the antithesis of everything unjust and violent. A field of innocence.
I will always have vivid memories of the televised images of the crash site. Those memories are a tormenting contrast to Jennings’ description of the field. I can still see the scorched trees and the huge crater with almost no sign of the plane that made it. The meadow that was once full of bluets was now forever stained with the blood of innocent people.
The fields of innocence that Otto Jennings described are long gone. One field, however, will never be forgotten. It will be remembered as a place of sorrow. It will be honored as a place where many people died. And because of an act of extreme selflessness, the lives of many others were spared. That field has become a symbol, both of insanity and of heroism.
I picked up the dried bluet stem and examined the tear-shaped seed capsule. There was the life-affirming assurance I was seeking. Life will continue. Bluets will return to the field. Seeds of innocence will overcome the fruits of hatred.