I hate the Indian Paintbrush; it is my favorite flower

I grew up in Wyoming, the child of outdoor-oriented parents who themselves grew up in Wyoming, and the Indian Paintbrush played an almost mythical role in my early years. It’s the state flower, and you hear a fair amount about it . . . whether in school or out hiking, it’s spoken of in near-reverent tones.

Indian Paintbrush are not common in most places, it’s illegal to pick them, and you’d expect—or I did, at least, after all the build-up—that finding one would be tantamount to a religious experience. Indian Paintbrush: it sounds vaguely magical.

This was, of course, before the internet, and we didn’t have a book with a picture of one. So, I imagined the flower, creating something beautiful, delicate, elegant, and a little mysterious.

Everything, I now notice, that Wyoming and my childhood were decidedly not.

Then, when I was about eight, my dad showed me one as we hiked.  Goodness, the thrill of excitement.  Joy, O magical moment.  I caught up with my father—I inherited neither his stride nor his intrinsic awareness of the natural world—looked down . . . and then looked around—and around—frantically trying to find what he was referring to.  It couldn’t be this plant, or that one, or that one over there—these were not beautiful.  These were not delicate.  These were not at all what I had in mind.

photo by Ann Hough/USFWS Mountain Prairie.  Used under Creative Commons license.

photo by Ann Hough/USFWS Mountain Prairie. Used under Creative Commons license.

The Indian Paintbrush is spiky.  It has soft petals, and perhaps a tendency toward showing off, but more than anything it looks like a plant that knows how to take care of itself.  If flowers fought, the flaming red paintbrush would more than hold its own, and would cut quite a figure while doing it.

In short, this is a flower you might admire from a respectful distance; then, you’d leave it to do its thing.  Which is, I suppose, to weather hard winters and long months with little water, to stay strong against the winds, to bloom where and when it may, and to offer its seeds to the prairie.

Upon seeing the paintbrush, I was disappointed to the point of disgust.  This was a flower unworthy of a little girl’s fantasies.  This plant was an embarrassment.  Couldn’t we pick something normal, like the columbine?  (Interestingly, this very question was asked by Wyoming’s politicians at the turn of the last century—more on that here.)

Disillusioned, I felt vaguely embarrassed after that—for myself, for my state, for the flower itself—anytime the Indian Paintbrush was mentioned.  I also felt sadly superior, I who knew that there was nothing to know: I’ve seen it, friends, and that flower is not what you think it is.  It’s not pretty.  We’re just pretending.  Other states have REAL flowers; New York even gets a rose.  I saw plenty of Indian Paintbrush after that, and always noted them, but I don’t think I ever truly looked at one again.

More than a decade later, after my sophomore year at the University of Wyoming, I left the state.  I left suddenly, for reasons that are my own and entirely unrelated to plant life. But I wonder now if I had been, in a way, planning my departure for years . . . perhaps even from the day of that hike with my family.  I had read about so many beautiful things, and it was my bad luck to be born where none of them happened.  Off, then, to find my true destiny, and to put all of this hardscrabble, windswept-prairie business behind me.

Then this past summer I had an experience–a series of experiences–that made me know that it was time to tell a story.  A hard story.  A windy story.  The tenacious, deep-roots-and-spiky-stem-story that, it turns out, has bright red petals at its heart.

Friends, that is MY damned flower.  You can’t take it from me, and I can’t give it away.  I know.  I tried.  But it’s there, waiting.  And it’s here, within me.  It’s hardy.  It’s determined.  It grows and adds color in the extremes of the high desert—it thrives where others cannot even travel.  And, despite the intensity of its “notice-me” foliage, it is, above all things, patient.  It has been here always and will be here always and the only choice is whether I will claim it or continue to hide this story of power and meaning behind a wish for empty beauty.

This is my history.  This is my legacy.  Its roots are interwoven into my future.  Spoken or not, this is my story.  The one I was given, the one that happened, the one that I made.

What’s left is to lift up that spiky, strange and challengingly un-beautiful thing.  What’s left is to tell it.

And so I am.  I have been.  I have begun.  And in the process, I have come to understand that there are more sides to “beautiful” than I ever imagined.  In the process, I have come to realize that I have been standing in the shadows instead of raising my face to the sunlight.

I am awed.  And so very, very grateful.

But there is more, because friends, I have a question for you, too: what’s the spiky part of your story?

What’s the name of the flower that you’d prefer to forsake?  What’s the thing keeping you up at night?  The thing making the days seem long?  What is the thing that you not-so-secretly fear will be the end of you if you look it full in the face?

Name it.  Say it.  You are so right that the story has power.  It will always have power. Name that, too.  And then take it up.  Take it for your own.  You didn’t ask for this, but it is yours.  Even this; it is yours.

You don’t want it on your coffee table, and that’s ok.  Some plants don’t belong in vases. But find it where it grows.  Watch how it is held in the sunlight.  And find yourself held there, too.

You may not be beautiful in the same way your eight-year-old self wanted you to be.  And your story is certainly not the one you chose.  But the sunlight is all yours.  It’s waiting for you.

Some things are simply that extraordinary.

You are simply that extraordinary.


3 thoughts on “I hate the Indian Paintbrush; it is my favorite flower

  1. Mine would be the lawn thistle. It is all over Iowa. Like you, I needed to leave, but whenever I see that plant it sends me back to me roots.

    Side note: My mom is from Wyoming and I have spent a lot of time there. I am disappointed I haven’t see the Indian Paintbrush! Wyoming to me is all about the wild sage.

  2. I just clicked on your page at random. I too and from Wyoming. And I felt like I needed to tell you that you are a fantastic writer. Thank you for writing your experience.

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