Flowers & plants


Lyman Conservatory

Both today and yesterday have been unseasonably warm: well above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is all but unheard of in Massachusetts in January. Yesterday I met Leslee and A (not her real initial) at the Smith College botanic garden in Northampton for a belated holiday celebration, and it was warm enough I could sit comfortably on a bench outside the Lyman Plant House before the two of them arrived.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

It was strange–unsettling–to go inside the plant house on a mild day: usually, the whole point of going to a greenhouse in winter is to experience a moment of tropical weather as a respite from the cold outside. These days, however, the world itself is a hothouse: Australia is burning, Indonesia is flooding, and everywhere denial and indifference rage rampant.

Lyman Conservatory

When the world is on fire, you save what you can, starting with your sanity. Every year, Leslee, A, and I meet for conversation and cocktails at, after, or around Christmas, New Year’s, or my birthday: a chance to catch up, exchange gifts, and feed our psychic fires.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

On yesterday’s drive to Northampton, I listened to Paula Cole’s This Fire, a CD that invariably takes me back to the rage and restlessness I felt in the 1990s, when I felt trapped in my first marriage:

Where do I put this fire
This bright red feeling
This tiger lily down my mouth
It wants to grow to twenty feet tall.

These days, I feel rage and restlessness for different, more global reasons. Right now the earth herself is raging through an unsettled spell. At the inaugural Women’s March several years ago, I overheard one woman compare global warming to the Earth experiencing hot flashes, and a half-dozen women of post- and perimenopausal age perked and turned at the comment: you talkin’ to me?

Inside Lyman Conservatory

When the world is on fire, you save what you can. Spending time with friends is one thing that soothes my spirit; spending time with plants is another. Those of us of post- and perimenopausal age have weathered our share of literal and figurative fires, and our hard-fought wisdom is tempered by flame.

Lyman Conservatory

As Leslee, A, and I looked at a chart of the various evolutionary epochs up to the present day, Leslee mentioned Rebecca Solnit’s “Letter to a Young Climate Activist on the First Day of the New Decade,” an essay that describes hope and rage as complementary sides of the same coin:

We need to love the earth as it is now and to see how worthy it is, now, of our greatest efforts. To look for that beauty and to treasure it is perhaps a crucial part of the work we have to do. This is what reminds us that the world is still full of things we love and want to protect and the effort is worth it. Galicia, the fury you feel is the hard outer shell of love: if you’re angry it’s because something you love is threatened and you want to defend it.

Inside Lyman Conservatory

Rebecca Solnit is a woman of a certain age; not accidentally, the various activist groups I’ve joined since the 2016 election largely consist of middle-aged, post- and perimenopausal women who like me are mad as hell at the state of the world these days. Where do we put this fire, this bright red feeling? We pour it back into our friendships, our passions, and our determination, again and again without fail.

Countless steps

On my way to a meeting at Framingham State last week, I stopped to take a handful of pictures. Behind one of the academic buildings, a green vine was climbing a brick wall, and below that was a tall, lush stand of Asiatic dayflower abundantly blooming.

Climbing

Dayflowers are so named because each blossom lasts for only one day: bloom today, gone tomorrow. But you’d never know that by simply looking at any given cluster of dayflowers, as each plant blooms with fervent, verdant abandon. Tomorrow, there will be new dayflowers to replace today’s: one cohort arriving as another retires, a rolling legacy of bloom after bloom.

Admiring a patch of dayflowers is kind of like teaching first-year college students: every year, a new crop of youngsters arrives, the whole world new and full of opportunity. College campuses stay evergreen through a continual influx of new students, and this is one of the things that keeps me from becoming too jaded. What’s old-hat to me is new and exciting to my students.

Asiatic dayflower: blooms for only one day.

The strange thing about teaching, however, is the simple fact that I grow old, but my students never do. The freshmen I teach today, more than two decades after I started teaching, are just as young and green as the ones I’ve ever taught. Whenever I grow frustrated with the feeling of having repeated myself over and over and over on some incredibly basic point, I remind myself that this is the first time my students have heard this lesson from me, or possibly at all.

Butter and eggs among clover

I wonder if dayflowers have any idea how short their flowering lives are, or if they have any idea of anything at all? Is any blooming day a good day if you’re a dayflower, or are some days simply better and more sunny than others?

Today was, I’m guessing, a good day to be a dayflower–sunny and warm, but breezy and comfortable in the shade. If you bloom for only one day, what basis would you have to compare your life with any other? Any day is a good day if you’re young, green, and open to the sun.

Mountain laurel

This time of year, when the mountain laurel is blooming outside our front door, I silently thank whoever it was who planted it. I love flowers but don’t have a green thumb, so I’m grateful that someone chose to surround our house with rhododendrons, euonymus, and pieris as well as spiderwort and spirea: a flowering legacy that continues from year to year despite burying snows and nibbling rabbits.

Mountain laurel

Want to make a lasting difference in the world? You can have and raise children, or start and grow a charity, or make and donate millions. Or, you can plant a long-lived and hardy perennial, something green and growing that will outlast you. They say the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and I’m grateful to the gardeners who had the foresight to plant the flowers and shrubs that fringe my house with beauty now.

Vanhoutte Spirea

At some point this week, I blinked and spring slipped into summer. Trees that were leafing are now in full leaf, and fragile spring flowers have faded and given way to hardier replacements.

Just bloomed

Where there was honeysuckle, now there is beauty bush, and lily-of-the-valley is blooming where there had been glory-of-the-snow. In our front yard, the pieris is starting to fade, the mountain laurel is about to bloom, and the turkeys that were loud and emphatic only a week or so ago have started to quell and quiet.

When, exactly, does spring start and summer begin? At exactly the moment when green passes into green, the pale neon glow of fresh foliage deepening into a more somber and shadowy hue.

Bleeding hearts

The past few days have been wet, with weather that alternates between mist, drizzle, and outright rain. This morning was foggy and damp, and even now the trees are still dripping with moisture.

Lilacs

Drippy spring days when you can almost hear the grass greening always remind me of Genesis 2, where God plants a garden “in the east, in Eden,” where “no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth.” Eden is a paradise because it is lush and well-watered, with streams that “came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground.”

In the midst of a lush spring, it’s easy to believe in an Edenic garden where there is no shortage of water and the plants all but water themselves.

Daffodil field

When A (not her real initial) and I went to the Tower Hill Botanic Garden back in October to see Patrick Dougherty’s stickwork installation The Wild Rumpus, we didn’t know more than 25,000 daffodil bulbs were quietly sleeping beneath a grassy field we passed along the way. Yesterday, that field of daffodils was blooming, and the flowers were buzzing with families, photographers, and parents posing their babies for pictures.

Pigsqueak bergenia

Spring is a season of surprises. Throughout the long months of winter, the earth lies bare and barren, completely devoid of the lushness of summer. It’s easy to think the earth is dead or depleted, Persephone descended to the Underworld forevermore.

But the earth never tires, nor does she forget. When the days lengthen and the soft rains come, something underground starts to stir. Out of barren dirt, green shoots appear, then leaves, buds, and flowers. In Zen, we say that when spring comes, the grass grows by itself, and that truism applies to daffodils as well. When spring comes, the flowers open by themselves.

Desert Room, with Desert Gold Star

Yesterday on NPR, I heard a story about a super-bloom of wildflowers in the California desert: a surge of lushness caused by an unusually wet winter. I listened to this story as I loaded the dishwasher, my eyes looking out on our snowy backyard.

Congregating

Flowers in the desert seemed very far away, but that wasn’t the best part of the story. Instead, it was this: the park ranger they interviewed said these seeds had been lying underground, dormant, for decades or even centuries–that in some places now covered in flowers, they didn’t know how long it had been since it had rained.

Right then and there with my wet hands in the sink, I knew who my new heroes would be: faceless seeds, buried and smothered in arid darkness, waiting. “Nevertheless, they persisted”–cotyledons coiled in seed cases, more patient and resilient than any of the rest of us.

Spiny

Trump’s budget has felt like a kick to the gut–so much cruelty masquerading as conservatism. I get conservatism–it’s about values and sacrifice–but Trump understands neither. It’s heartbreaking to think of a party so small-hearted, it would grab food from the elderly, care from the sick, and shelter from the poor. Trump claims to be rich, but he’s the most tight-fisted man I know: a miserable miser who wants to steal beauty and kindness and compassion from the rest of us.

Desert florets

And yet, we are seeds, and we continue to grow and germinate because the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” cannot be denied. Trump’s roots are shallow and his will weak: “Low energy! Sad!” In two years, four years, eight years–however long it takes–we seeds will sprout and flower, a super-bloom of beauty.

Letter to Maezen

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a 2012 trip to Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. The text of today’s post comes from a letter I wrote yesterday to Karen Maezen Miller, who lives in the lushly flowering state of California. Before I sealed that letter in an envelope to mail across the country, I realized it was a letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

Spring peony

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades on Monday but have spent the rest of the week in various faculty meetings and workshops: a flurry of academic obligations before everyone’s thoughts turn to summer. Every year, I feel like spring secretly slips into summer while I have my nose buried in a pile of student papers: one minute, the trees are bare; the next, they’ve leafed into green.

Preening red-tailed hawk.

I think of peonies as summer flowers: the one in our backyard waits until June to bloom. But the peonies at Mount Auburn Cemetery are already blooming while the late-leafing oaks ease into green. For the past few weeks, our backyard trees have been alive with warbler songs, a morning medley that goes twitter, buzz, and sneeze. At Mount Auburn this afternoon, a half dozen tom turkeys puffed and strutted for a lone female, and a placid red-tailed hawk preened in a tree, politely ignoring the inquisitive human below.

Bee on purple coneflower

Every year, summer announces its arrival in ways that don’t necessarily correspond to human calendars. To some, Memorial Day marks the traditional start of summer, but for others, summer arrives with the summer solstice or the July 4th holiday. Memorial Day is in May, the summer solstice is in June, and the 4th of July is (obviously) in July, which means summer arrives either gradually or repeatedly over the course of a month or so, depending on whose calendar you follow.

Purple coneflower

For me, there are two surefire signs that the height of summer is really here: cicadas and coneflowers. Earlier this week, while J and I were walking to lunch on a humid day, I heard the year’s first cicada calling from a shady spot along a woodsy trail that wends through our neighborhood. To my ears, the first cicadas of summer sound shrill and sharp, as if recently honed. Only in August will the collective chorus of cicadas have a deeper, more rattling sound, as if their voices have both deepened and dulled with age.

Purple coneflowers

Last Friday, I took a moment to photograph the purple coneflowers blooming in a garden alongside the Hyde Playground in Newton Highlands. Purple coneflowers are one of my favorite flowers: I love their eye-popping combination of purple and orange as well as the textural contrast between their pleated petals and spiky centers. The fact that these Hyde Playground coneflowers are garden plantings rather than wild blooms doesn’t make them any less a harbinger of summer: regardless of who planted them, these coneflowers open (and are beset with neighborhood bees) only when the sun stirs them.

Purple coneflower

So you can forget about the dog days of summer; we’ve reached the days of coneflowers and cicadas. What do dogs know about summer that the flowers and bugs haven’t already told them?

Cloudy with a chance of magnolias

Between today’s classes at Framingham State, I pulled myself from my paper-piles to take a quick walk around the block, wandering into a residential neighborhood then circling back. Even during a short walk, it’s hard not to notice spring manifesting in the form of greening grass, blooming flowers, and lounging college students.

First dandelions and ground-ivy

It’s been chillier than usual this April: usually by now, I would have been besieged by students begging to have class outside, and I would have been hard pressed to say no. But so far this year, it’s been too chilly for that, and I’ve worn sandals chiefly out of principle, hating to revert back to socks, winter-weight tights, and shoes. But regardless of the temperatures, the flowers know that lengthening days mean spring, so they bloom despite the chill. After a season of snow, the sight of the earth erupting in dandelions seems nothing short of miraculous.

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