Ageratum, Wood, & Water

Tom Poland

Posted 10/25/23

By Tom Poland
A Southern Writer

A blue flower place of learning beneath a blue sky. (Photo by Tom Poland)

On a Sunday walk I spotted a splash of blue. Blue wildflowers. They say blue flowers are sometimes difficult to grow in gardens. “They say.” That was Dad’s go-to validation when he shared news back home. He’d come in from one of his winter school bus driver meetings and make a pronouncement. “They say” we’re going to get some snow.”

We almost never did, but the wildflower I came across had no difficulty growing in the wild. Why do they say they have a hard time growing in gardens? Perhaps it has to do with conditions being too good. Maybe it needs a challenge or two. Struggle can be a good thing. They say the blue wildflower you see in autumn in ditches alongside roadways is ageratum. Maybe so, but the ones I came across weren’t in a ditch. They brought a spot of blue to woods near the Saluda River.

And not just any spot. The flowers grew up and over twelve benches in an outdoor classroom. Facing those benches was a modest lectern of worn wood. What a great place to study, to hear others share lessons, I thought. My guess is it’s a place where naturalists share lessons from nature. What better place to learn about our environment than to sit among wildflowers. No fluorescent lights, sunlight instead. No heating and air, just fresh air and breezes. No tile flooring, just a carpet of grass, a few fallen leaves, and those tiny blue flowers. And no walls. Just a backdrop of trees.

For the curious, you’ll find this outdoor classroom and other joys at Saluda Shoals Park off Bush River Road not that far from Irmo, South Carolina. You can thank the Irmo Chapin Recreation Commission for this wonderful escape from the clamor of car horns and sirens. It’s peaceful, this escape in Lexington County.

I remember back in the 1980s when it was a spot where people ditched old refrigerators and tires. Now it’s a haven, a place where a shady trail winds alongside the Saluda River, free of the Dreher Shoals dam upstream. As you walk the trail, you’ll reach spots where a melody comes to you, faint but growing. One of Earth’s more melodic, peaceful songs drifts through the trees—the soothing sound of water braiding among rocks. To me it’s as welcome as wind in treetops, as pleasing as a chorus of wild birdsong. White noise, they call it. White noise and blue wildflowers, they make a splendid tandem on a fall afternoon.

But that quaint little outdoor classroom of ageratum and wood close by water? It struck me as the perfect spot to gather a group of writers with an inclination toward nature. What a good spot to send writers out on assignment. “Walk the trail and see what catches your eye. Make notes and come back here in an hour and let’s see what we have. It could be that mushroom growing in a rotten log … the great blue heron you spotted … the shoals glittering white, or maybe the blue wildflowers taking over the benches where you sit.”

I no longer teach, but now and then I speak to classes at the University of South Carolina. Come spring and fall the go-to spot for outdoor classes is the Horseshoe. Many times I’ve seen a class sitting on grass in that shady green space beneath old oaks. I suspect learning goes better there.

As for the little blue flower, I’m not sure what species those pretty blue blossoms belong to. They say it’s ageratum. Well that was good enough for Dad, and it’s good enough for his son, for now at least.

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