A Cattail Tale

“Cattails? Did you say cattails?”

My husband Don looked incredulous when I said I couldn’t possibly move to Upstate New York unless he could assure me that I’d find cattails in abundance.

We were hiking through the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, a 96,000-acre preserve in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Don had proposed to me in the refuge on a late October evening two years earlier.

Now, as then, the autumn air was nippy. The ponds and marshes reflected the setting sun’s golden hue. Migrating Canada geese, weary from their long flight over Lake Superior, glided onto the water, splitting off from their perfect V formation into pairs.

The cattails whispered in the light wind. I ran my hand over their brown furry heads; many exploded with seeds enmeshed in white fluff. Marsh birds line their nests with the fluff. White-tailed deer, raccoons and cottontails seek cover among the tall spikes.

Don, a geologist and earth science teacher, told me he had to return to New York to fulfill his state retirement plan. In my heart I knew I’d go with him, even though it meant leaving the deep Michigan wilderness that I loved beyond measure. As dusk fell in the refuge, I silently recited our wedding vows. We’d pledged our abiding love to one another, and to the forests, rivers, backwater ponds, marshes, sand dunes and granite cliffs we deeply cherished. What would I find in New York? I worried and wondered.

Trekking to New York

A year later, we set out. Don drove a rental truck with our golden retriever by his side. I followed in our Jeep. We crossed the Mackinac Bridge’s five-mile span into Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. We crossed the Blue Water Bridge at Port Huron that brought us into Canada. We crossed the Peace Bridge that took us into New York State at Buffalo. From there we caravanned across the state’s Southern Tier.

I was weary and disoriented. The place names on the maps and road signs were so strange – Painted Post, Big Flats, Horseheads, Sing Sing Road. How would I ever sort out all the places that begin with O? (Owasco, Otisco, Owego, Oswego, Onondaga, Oneida, Oneonta!)

We settled into our new home – a sun-filled brick house shaded by a spreading butternut tree – in a small village. On our first free weekend, Don packed a lunch, pulled on his high-top boots and took me on a “mystery tour.” We climbed through a deep east-west gully carved during the Devonian period, some 380 million years ago. We searched for brachiopods, trilobites and other fossils along the shore of a long, sinuous Finger Lake. We hiked a Finger Lakes trail into Punchbowl Lake, above Watkins Glen.

Cattails galore! The west edge of Punchbowl Lake was a riot of cattails that had filled in a bog created by an immense beaver dam. We admired red-winged blackbirds perched on them, and how they camouflaged a deserted mallard’s nest. We watched frogs and salamanders slip into the bog and hide behind the cattails.

Don had saved the best for last.

At that moment, everything fell into place. I knew that I would fall in love with the small lakes, even though I yearned for the largest freshwater lake in the world. I knew that I would eventually accept brittle shale, even though I longed for hard, unyielding granite – what I called “rock that knows it’s rock.” I knew that I would find serenity on the Finger Lakes trails, even though I still dreamed of the trails I’d blazed in the wilderness surrounding my secluded log cabin in Upper Michigan’s Huron Mountains.

One evening, Don and I were reading by soft lamplight in “Butternut Cottage,” the name we bestowed on our New York home. Don looked up from his geology journal, studied me for a time and said, “You’re still here?”

I nodded and whispered, “Cattails.”


by Susan Black