Goodbye, Helen

There were many things I did not know about Helen McCallie, but none of them surprise me. For one, I didn’t know she had hiked across Central Africa as a single woman in the sixties. I didn’t know she played classical piano, or that she sang opera— though I remember how her laugh sounded like a shrill bird.

Helen used that laugh whenever my family stopped in at the Visitor’s Center of Shaw Nature Reserve. She was a greeter there for twenty years and became dear friends with my grandpa Larry and grandma Karen, who volunteered there. Her white hair was cropped, and it flitted around when she talked. Her teeth were big and pretty. She wore hiking boots and her glasses on a beaded chain.

Helen was a part of our visits to the nature reserve. We’d stop in at the Visitor’s Center, say hello, look around at the books of natural history, then set off on our family hike. We did this for years, so that Helen became a friend, and so did the trails and trees beyond the Visitor’s Center. The reserve made nature familiar to me growing up, and I think it’s where I learned to love the bigness of the sky.

I realize the reserve is beautiful due to folks like Helen who preserve it. I’ve heard she could be grouchy with people who trampled the coneflowers or let their pets run loose. She cared for the land with the fierceness of a mother, and knew it as well as one. Her own home was an old hunter’s cabin on the backside of the property, so when COVID closed the reserve’s gates, Helen still had access to the springtime that was breaking forth in the woodlands and wetlands. She walked the place every morning— the only soul on the prairie— and I imagine she didn’t mind. Because of those romps, Helen could tell visitors exactly where the owlets were fledging or the last place the bobcat had been seen.

Well, Papa Larry and I went to the yearly wildflower market at the reserve last weekend, where all the old volunteers greeted him like a wizard of legend. But Helen wasn’t there.

“She’s gone.”

Papa said it like a fact when we got back in the van, and we both looked straight down the highway ahead.

The reserve has changed since Helen came there over twenty years ago. The winds have shifted from an old-fashioned enjoyment of nature to a research environment for botanical study— both beneficial, of course. But Helen seemed to have sensed the end to her days befriending folks with nature. She had sneaked away quietly and moved home to the Cumberland Mountains.

I can’t imagine anywhere being home to Helen like the reserve, with its sycamores towering in the green river bottoms or its wetlands blooming with a thousand lily pads. I can’t imagine anyone else behind the desk in the Visitor’s Center, sitting on a yoga ball. That place was a part of her, and Helen belonged to it as much as one of the prairie coneflowers.

There were many things I did not know about Helen McCallie, but I knew and loved the place she did; so along with the grasses under a prairie wind, I can only offer a kind wave to say—

Goodbye, Helen.

3 thoughts on “Goodbye, Helen

  1. This brings “before Helen” memories rushing in!!!! Before grand children appeared on the scene, my oldest daughter and I also enjoyed hikes, bike rides and picnics at Shaw. My fondest memory is listening to the wind rush through the pine trees….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bethany!! This is so beautiful and sweet and picturesque!! I’ve never been to the reserve, but you make me feel as if I’ve gone there 100 times! Thank you so much for your beautiful words. And thank you for always, reminding us of the lovely and simple and sweet.

    Liked by 1 person

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