Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ephemeral Wildflowers

Another great name for a rock band! Though more of a folk-rock group than heavy metal or grunge—not likely to see Ephemeral Wildflowers sharing the bill with Death-Grip Bagpipe. But, of course, the term refers to something else, an actual phenomena in that window of time in certain climates when Winter has not wholly released its grip and Spring has yet to make a firm commitment. My mother-in-law in Ann Arbor, Michigan told me about them just before going out on a walk to greet them.

In short, there is a class of wildflowers—Bloodroot, Trout Lily, Trilliums and more—that have a short-lived, ephemeral blooming period from April to May. They live under deciduous trees and depend on the sunlight that passes through the bare branches before the trees are fully leafed. They are first to dine on the abundant nutrients from the previous year’s autumn leaves and drink up the moisture in the soil before the trees start filling their glasses. They also contain an oil in their seeds attractive to ants, who carry them off and store them underground, where they often sprout before the ants set the table. And so the seeds are dispersed and nature’s number one agenda of survival is fulfilled, while also ensuring some color and beauty in a time of impatient transition.

Some 38 years in San Francisco, I’m far away from my New Jersey memory of March and early April—but not so far that I can’t remember the profound difference between the first magical snowfall of December and the agony of yet another snow in March soon turned to grey slush. I remember my impatience with those bare-branched trees—“Come on, leaves! Hurry up!”—and how the yellow forsythia gave me hope that Spring, and then Summer, would finally arrive. I didn’t know about ephemeral wildflowers, but if I lived in Ann Arbor, I would certainly join my mother-in-law to seek them out. And the way my mind works, not just for the pleasure of seeing and touching and smelling the flowers, but for the metaphor that reminds me to align myself with nature’s wisdom.

For my branches are bare and the wind blows cold and my faith in Spring is low at the moment. I need to remember to look down and see how beauty is present not only in spite of Winter’s unleafed canopy, but actually because of it—that’s how the light gets through. When the leaves come, these ephemeral wildflowers will die and others more lasting appear in other places and that’s a profound lesson, too—beauty and bareness are everywhere at all times, but each in their own place, their own season, their own character. If we can move alongside the natural world, from one particular joy to another, from one specific sorrow to the next, we can learn to wholly accept the seasonality of our lives and remember where to look. Excluded from one place, we remember where we feel welcomed. Lamenting that a door has closed, we turn around and see where it has opened. Shivering exposed and naked in the chilled wind, we look down and marvel at the ephemeral wildflowers that have sprouted at our feet. 

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