It isn’t generally fashionable to admit a fondness for Edna St. Vincent Millay, but I confess to it. Every semester I recite “Love is not all” to every one of my classes on the day we talk about love, and I think most of my students are surprised that a sonnet can sound like that. Like regular spoken language. I don’t think they’d realized, either, that Romeo and Juliet spoke to each other in sonnets. Ah, well.
The title of this post comes from Millay’s “Assault,” which isn’t even a sonnet; but it captures Millay’s sharp-edged view of romance just well enough. Imagine being able to follow a title like “Assault” with a line like I am waylaid by beauty.
I’ve been trying to articulate the ridiculous surprise of spring, and having a hard time with it. What about this season should turn up surprising? It comes about every year, after all. It is an assault in an unholy number of ways.
I don’t have a single intelligent thing to say about what goes on in central Texas in May, especially when we’ve had some rain as we had this past week. It’s humid, that’s true, but it’s not “Houston humid,” nor “Nacogdoches humid.” It’s just Austin humid, and settling into the ’90s as we turn the corner into June. Suddenly it feels like there’s no oxygen outside, and we droop. Then mad winds blow the sun back into place, and all the growing things get really busy.
Flowers, flowers, flowers everywhere. As I bike my endless circuits through the ‘hood I sail through clouds of fragrance ranging from the pungency of photinia and ligustrum to the heavy perfume of honeysuckle and jasmine. Flowers, flowers, flowers, and green, green, green. We all savor this abundance while it’s here.
I now have two rock roses (Pavonia lasiopetala) and wouldn’t be upset to have a dozen. They will bloom all summer like bright lights shining alongside the dark purple salvia at the end of the driveway. Out by the stop sign on the corner I have one parked between two spineless prickly pears, and before long purple lantana will be pouring over the curb at her feet.
Most of the spaces I fret about in the garden all winter are filling in quickly. That seasonal amnesia that makes every spring surprising makes it hard for me to remember that many plants like to get big during the growing season. I have some crowding going on down in one end of the sidewalk garden, where salvia and wild lantana are forcing the Pride of Barbados and the esparanza to push hard toward sunlight. Beside them the bee tree has finally put forth its first round of sweet-smelling white clusters of tiny blossoms. It’s happening out there, that’s for sure.
Speaking of growing, there are a number of agave in the ‘hood that are in their flowering (final) year. It’s quite a spectacle, and I want to present this particular specimen as the blossoming process unfolds. It lives a few blocks away on a busy corner, and always looks festive at holiday time with a silver Christmas ornament on the end of each enormous leaf.
I’ve just become unable to resist sharing this initial photo with you, because it seems like overnight the agave go from a mere astounding potentially lethal array of broad leaves that terminate in three-inch hypodermic needles to the hosts of one single stalk easily six inches in diameter shooting up ten or twelve feet.
They look like giant asparagus. That’s what I wanted you to see. More about that later.
On a much smaller scale, many local cactus continue to amuse us with their fancy flower hats. From tiny spaces in the garden these explosions of color pop up, perched on cactus that might be only a couple of inches tall. The flowers hold as tight buds for weeks, then burst into bloom all in one day. For one day.
For some spring surprises, you have to remain alert: they’ll be gone tomorrow. Not that I’m looking for sympathy or anything, but to photograph this puppy on the right I had to kneel on some pretty uncomfortable rocks and bend perilously low over a couple of cactus that would be in the foreground if I’d been sensible enough to shoot from a distance. I suffer for my art, I’ll tell you.
What else have we seen in our rambles around this suburban, um, heaven? One neighbor has a few clusters of the pinkest day lilies I’ve ever seen. They are as optimistic as anything the botanical word has to offer. I told Travis we really need more day lilies in our yard. He seemed uninterested. Dogs have but two interests in most landscape plants, and Travis is not the type to chew on any of them. So that rather limits his attention to one purpose, and choosing colorful flowers is not it.
We have three day lilies in the front yard, not counting the one that’s so hidden by Texas hibiscus and a crape myrtle shrub that I really must move it out to better sun. They are of the yellow and yellow-orange variety, and were transplanted from the Appleby, Texas garden of Floyd’s late fraternal aunt Villa Belle. She was quite a character, strong-willed and intelligent. She worked as a nurse alongside Dr. Michael DeBakey long before heart transplants were a commonplace. She made our “summer quilt” many years ago from scraps of shirts and dresses, as quilts were made then, and could tell you who’d worn what.
Villa Belle was also the keeper of the family genealogy long before Ancestry.com made it simple to conduct such searches. To her we owe many outlines of the family tree and extensive narratives about people on both sides of Floyd’s family. For the two families had known each other for many years; when she was a baby, Floyd’s mother slept in what had been Floyd’s father’s cradle. When Villa Belle was embarking on her last illnesses at the age of 95, as we sat by her bedside Marye looked at me sadly and said, I’ve known her all my life.
It is something of a surprise, to have spring stir such melancholy; but it does. How about a very brief anecdote about Villa Belle to dispel the sadness? During that slow decline we were visiting her and at one point I said that the day lilies from her garden were doing well in our yard. (You know, life goes on and we’ll have your day lilies and think of you when they bloom and all that.)
Not one to be too openly sentimental, Villa Belle replied with her own special edge, capturing the day lilies’ hardy nature: Well, you can’t kill ’em. So much for my gardening talents creating a lasting legacy in her mind.
Meanwhile, back in Austin, spring persists, and so does the east Texas connection. I first saw vitex in Appleby when I was first dating Floyd and we’d driven out to visit Marye while she still lived in the house Floyd’s father built – right next to Villa Belle’s house on the land their parents had owned. It soared in a towering wall of shrubbery out by the workshop where Floyd had spent many nights working on model airplanes, its purple flowers reminiscent of lilac but not as fragrant.
We have two in our side yard, one to contribute to the foliage curtain shielding my neighbors from the sight of me slaving away at the kitchen sink, and one in the corner of the fence where every day the space for my bench grows smaller. The six-inch spires of purple flowers swell into bloom over the course of a week, and the bees love them. They reportedly don’t produce the best tasting honey (Floyd’s father kept bees), but it must be good enough for newly hatched beelings, or whatever baby bees are called.
This one on the left is the one that lives out by the bench I won’t be able to get to pretty soon. I cut it back pretty severely last fall, resulting in impressive density of foliage and this lush first flowering. The vitex will bloom again this season after the dead blossoms are cut away; the second flowers won’t be quite this large but will come at a good time for the bees, toward the end of summer when flowers can go awfully quiet around here. The bees will by then be spending a fair amount of time at the bird baths, sipping water use in cooling the hives.
It’s not only flowers that waylay me. There are places here and there in the ‘hood where I’m apt to pull over suddenly and practice some landscape photography skills. One spot beside the main road into and out of the neighborhood is usually utterly nondescript – well, in a pretty, woodsy, wildflowery way if you can call that nondescript – until we’ve had a good rain. Then, with the clear stream flowing toward the creek it looks like one of those idyllic locations where you’d play as a child, with fairies darting in and out, or clues to some mysterious tragedy waiting to be discovered among the rocks by our youthful detective team.
(I realize that a person fully committed to their art would walk down closer to the burbling stream to get a better shot, but I haven’t felt the same about tromping around wooded areas since that guy almost got killed by a rattlesnake a couple of years ago. Call me a coward, that’s fine.)
Waylaid by beauty.
Around here things get slow when spring presses down and summer is just around the corner. It’s nice. I can’t stay indoors for long stretches, and find myself wandering out one door and in through another all day when I’m home. Something fantastic is always happening out there, and I hate to miss it. Vitex opens layer by layer, another rock rose has popped up, Turk’s cap blossoms are red lanterns lit suddenly on their own mysterious schedule.
We often don’t have a spring at all, going from New Year’s Day to the mid-nineties seemingly overnight. But this year we’ve enjoyed weeks of mild days and cool nights, and didn’t use the AC even at night until last week. Most of the heavy planting is done, landscapes are in, the biggest wave of vegetable plants are starting their abundant production. Last night I mixed up a batch of mojitos with mint from the herb garden; I have enough basil now for pesto, enough parsley for anything I can imagine doing with parsley.
There are bachelor buttons in one of the herb beds, just as there should be. I’m hoping they’ll seed themselves and return next spring.
A few feet away, in the steel planter, a little guy called “Cooper’s Ice Plant” has survived the awful winter well enough to produce a few brilliant blossoms. There’s no rational thought necessary when choosing a new member of the landscape, and all this citizen provided was a meeting of my California mind (SoCal where ice plant abounds) and one beautiful grandson’s name. That’s all it takes.
I guess that’s what’s waylaid me today: the sheer, galling beauty of continuity. Season to season, year to year, place to place, generation to generation. Things arrive, die, return in memory or take root in the enormous volumes of the forgotten. But they were here, and we were here, and that had better be enough.
Spring surprises me every time, and never surprises me at all. It’s spring: that’s what it’s supposed to do.