Paulownia tomentosa

When considering the amount of time I spend walking during a typical day, I should really invest in walking shoes. More often than not though, I forget a change of shoes altogether and walk the gravel trails along the Schuylkill River in my work shoes. My work shoes are probably more comfortable for walking than most people’s tennis shoes (Eccos; don’t settle for anything else if you are a person who loves their feet), but with their flat soles, they are not really designed for walking on rocks.

As I tread along, I can feel every pointy stone and rough branch that lies along the path. The worst part of this fact is that it pulls my focus from looking forward toward my destination; it makes me look at the immediate trail before me. I am able to cast the occasional glance up and around me, but my primary focus has to be on what is directly in front of me.

I was tramping along yesterday, eyes fixed firmly on the trail in front of me, silently cursing myself for once again forgetting that I have a pair of retired running shoes in the drawer by my desk (placed there just so I would have them to wear while I walk), when I noticed a spent seed pod. A soft brown, almost orange color, with its shell cracked open, inertly lying there amongst the leaves and detritus on the trail in front of me. I bent to examine the pod more closely, pulling out my phone to take a quick picture as the wind cut through my wool coat, numbing my hands the moment they were exposed to its cruel bite. A quick google search revealed that the Princess Tree (paulownia tomentosa) was the source of the seed pod. It is a beautiful tree, flowering in the spring prior to producing leaves. The flowers are enormous and range from a light pink to white in color. It is not a native species to North America; rather an immigrant brought over both intentionally by botanists and gardeners for its beauty, as well as accidently in shipping crates bearing porcelain for the gentry of the early 19th century.

The parent of my seed (or more likely great grandparent as Princess Trees have a similar life expectancy to humans at about 70 years) was likely one of the unintended settlers of the area. The trail I was walking along runs along the curve of the river, about 40 feet below an old railroad grade. Because the seeds of the Princess Tree are incredibly lightweight, and each tree produces so many of them, they were used as packing material for shipping porcelain from China prior to the advent of polystyrene in the 19th century. The rails of Pennsylvania were not easy on the crates, so many burst open during transport, leaking their packing material and leaving a swath of beautiful immigrants along the rail lines of the Eastern US. Of course, the rail line above me has long been decommissioned, but, thanks to the suitable climate of the Schuylkill River Basin, the seeds of the Princess Tree continue to appear every fall.

The human brain is subject to fits of pareidolia, and mine, in this moment, anthropomorphized that seed for me. The curving line of the open pod became a smile, the shell having completed its purpose of protecting its progeny until it was ready to be deposited into the rich soil where it will unfurl when the earth warms and grow upward, someday to produce its own smiling pods.

The smile of contentment that my brain put on the face of that spent seed pod as I trudged through the cold wind in turn changed my whole disposition. It was like the laugh of a child at the end of a hard day. Like the wag of an old dog’s tail when you say the word “walk.” All of a sudden, it didn’t matter that it was 30 degrees and windy; it didn’t matter that I had the wrong shoes on; it didn’t even matter that it was only noon on a Wednesday. I was happy, recharged, and ready. The thought of a seed contentedly at rest after accomplishing its life’s purpose brought joy to my heart and a bounce to my step. It is wonderful the effect that little things can have on us when we just open our minds and let them.

by: Tim Kiester with extensive grammatical and composition edits provided by Laura Nelson (check out her blog; she is hilarious).

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