Spring dogwood in bloom Crooked Bayou Swamp
Dogwoods under the Pines
The following story is from my novel, The Wayfaring Stranger. This passage takes place in March of 1850 western Louisiana.
This dogwood story details the growing love affair between the Irishman Joe Moore and the Redbone girl, Eliza Clark.
It was over a week before Joe’s next visit. Mid-March in Louisiana was nearly always a good time. It could still turn fiercely cold as late winter storms moved through. However, these storms, with their strong winds and lightning, usually moved through quickly and left behind wonderful cool, clear days.
On this day, Eliza wanted to take Joe to the swamp to see the new green of spring. She had looked forward to this time of year to show Joe about the dogwoods. So hand-in-hand they walked toward the swamp. They had their faithful chaperon, her younger brother Eli with them. He stayed back, watching a woodpecker peck on a sweet gum tree.
Eliza stepped behind a pine and embraced Joe. “I’ve got a surprise to show you this morning, Joe Moore.”
“I always like your surprises.”
She led him into the woods where the pines and oaks began intermingling. Turning to Joe, Eliza pointed to a smaller tree in the understory of the large ones and said, “That a dogwood tree.
Throughout the year, no one notices these small trees that grow under the towering pines and oaks. They seldom get over thirty feet high and grows slowly in the partial shade. However, in March, they become the queen of the forest as they bloom for a two- to three-week period. You can see for yourself how beautiful they are.”
Joe surveyed the dozens of dogwoods in the distance. Their white blooms were impossible to miss amid the bright green of the newly leafed oaks and evergreen pines.
“Come over here and let me tell you their story, Joe.”
She led him over to a nearby dogwood that was about twenty feet high. Liza rubbed the rough bark lovingly. ”It’s got a thick bark that helps it survive the woods fires. For all but about two, three weeks in March, it’s indistinguishable and easy to ignore under its towering neighbors. Then just as quickly, its white flowers drop and it becomes green-leafed and easily ignored for the rest of the year until March brings it to the forefront again.”
“You really love these trees, don’t you Liza?”
“Let me tell you their story and you’ll understand why.”
Bending a limb downward, she showed Joe the delicate white flower, “Legend has it that the dogwood was a large, tall tree growing in the bible lands. Because of its strong wood, it was what crosses were made of, and Jesus was hung on a dogwood cross.
“Being used to crucify the Lord greatly distressed the tree. So Jesus, while on that cross, said to the tree, ‘Dogwood tree, because of your pity for my suffering, never again will you grow big ‘nuff to be used as a cross. From now on, you’ll be small, bent, and twisted.’“
Breaking off a flower, she handed it to Joe. ”And that ain’t all. Jesus told the dogwood that from now on, it would be one of the only trees with flowers, and stand out among the trees as a reminder of his death for folks.”
She pointed out how the four petals were in the form of a cross. “See here how on the edge of the petals is brown nail prints, stained with red. Those colors remind us of those rusty nails and the blood they caused.”
Eliza pointed to the yellow center, “And that part is a cross of thorns. It’s all here to remind us about Jesus and his death on that cross. Can you see all that, Joe?”
He looked at the beautiful flower and could see every detail she had just pointed out. He then looked into her brown eyes. Glancing from the white flower to her dark eyes, he said, “Liza, I can see it all.”
When he said it, Eliza wasn’t sure if he meant he could see the story in the dogwood flower—or in her eyes.
Later that day Joe plowed the back field for Miz Girlie. As he worked the ground behind the mule, he had plenty of time to think about the morning’s events. Liza’s enthralling smile and eyes never left his mind. However, the morning’s trip to the dogwoods had affected him in a way that went way beyond romance.
He couldn’t get off his mind how her face glowed when she talked about Jesus. It was something real that just came out of her when she talked about him. He wasn’t sure that the legend of the dogwood was true or not. But he did notice the way she talked about Jesus, especially his death on the cross.
It was real to her. It was a part of her—just the same as her love of the woods, knowledge of the birds, and sweet smile.
It kind of made him jealous. His thoughts made him pull up on the reins.
Well, no wonder she can believe deeply in God and Jesus. She’s lived here in these fine woods all of her life. She’s not seen the hard side of the world like the rest of us: the oppression of the English, families starving when there’s food aboard ships in the harbor, the meanness of the streets of New Orleans, the sight of slave families being broken up and sent to the four winds. Things like that’ll make a man’s faith not quite so easy.
But this battle in his soul had a retort: She had seen the hard side of life in her own way. Babies dying with no doctor help, the cruelty of people to others when there’s no law to make them pay or answer, the questions that bug all mankind: the seemingly unfairness of life, the injustice, the pain and sorrow.
And in spite of that, she’s kept her simple faith. Man, I wish I could be like that.
With that thought, which seemed nearly like a prayer, Joe clicked to the mule and began plowing again.
After finishing plowing and enjoying a good supper with Miz Girlie, he walked home. It was a cool clear perfect evening with no moon. The stars overhead were unbelievably clear and the bright sky was “clean-swept.” There wasn’t the wisp of a cloud, fog, or haziness.
Looking up, Joe did what men had done for centuries when staring into the night sky—he prayed: “Lord, I know you’re up there. Looking around at dogwoods, the stars, and these pines, lets me know somebody done made it all. I’m convinced it’s you.
Honestly, Jesus, I got a lot more questions than answers. I see Liza’s faith and know it’s personal. I’d like that same faith. If you could, give me a little dose o
f it. I need your forgiveness and I need to know that there is some kind of plan. I thank you, Jesus. I believe in you. I really do. Amen.”
No lightning flashed or angels sang. That wasn’t what Joe Moore expected or even needed. His was a quiet prayer of faith from a seeking heart. However, that’s exactly the kind of prayer a great God always listens to and answers – in His own mysterious ways and in His own unfailing time.
We’re very pleased with the continued positive response to The Wayfaring Stranger. Stepping away from non-fiction short stories, which I love and readers enjoy, was a risk. However, I found an additional love and many new readers through writing historical fiction.
A Good Place, the followup to Wayfaring Stranger is finished and is awaiting a publisher. Visit www.creekbank to stay informed.