What Stray Flowers Teach About Endurance and Beauty

Tall enough now to lift its flowers well above the edge of our kitchen porch, the bergamot mint gladdens us all summer long with scarlet blooms that look as though they were designed by Dr. Seuss and are loved by hummingbirds.

There is a story to this clump of bergamot. It came to us as a gift from someone we never knew, someone who lived a hundred years ago or more on a farm on the top of Bullmoose Hill, a few miles from our small farm in Maritime Canada.

Real estate "development" is creeping up the southern edge of Bullmoose Hill, where the height and lay of the land open up a long vista down the peaceful valley below. So far, though, the long rugged spine of the hill has been little touched by the 20th century. My wife and I drive up there at times to admire the view out across the valley.

It was on one of our excursions that we noticed, in what had obviously once been cleared ground, a few bright flowers among a jumble of weeds. We stopped to explore and soon found all that was left of what once had been somebody's home: the trace of a cellar hole as a depression in the weeds. Around it, some of the flowers someone had planted and tended were still blooming, in spite of and after all the long years of neglect.

Carefully, we dug up a few of the survivors and brought them back here to see if they might once again be encouraged to flourish. The bergamot that now makes such a splash of color outside the kitchen was just a few thin stems. It is impossible to look at it and not think of the farm wife who tended it, up there on Bullmoose Hill. Perhaps she herself had it from some friend, who had it from a friend, who....

And now, we will tend this gift from someone we never knew, tend it and enjoy it all the more because it is, like all things beautiful, not our possession.

There is something special, I think, in waifs and strays like this bergamot. One can always open a seed catalog and find the same thing after some searching and no doubt get a "new and improved" strain, for a price. We like the "old and unimproved" varieties, though, the kind that have survived our long, harsh winters and the neglect that ensues when the busy dooryard falls silent and the wild that had been pushed back (with what effort!) moves in to reclaim its own.

How pleasing it is to see the scraggly stragglers dug up and transplanted to a bed where they can survive without having to struggle with the far more aggressive weeds for a bit of light and nourishment. Here they can begin to rise and flourish and establish themselves, not as single plants but as a clump with a triumphant crown of flowers.

The bergamot was all but buried, when we found it, in the thick grass, shouldered aside by burdocks and overshadowed by goldenrods, still hanging on in spite of weeds, an old bedspring, bits of china, and shattered fragments of what had perhaps been a parlor stove. Like the flowers in Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," the plants seemed "... born to blush unseen,/ And waste their sweetness on the desert air. "

Surrounded by signs of ruin and decay, this waif moved us both by virtue of its apparent fragility and by what it said about the human spirit. Blooming among the ruins, it spoke eloquently of the permanence of hope, the persistence of beauty.

The first time we came to the abandoned property, driving down the back roads, we knew we'd find something special. We stopped because we were struck by the apple trees growing in the middle of nowhere. We knew that if we got out and poked around, we were sure to find, somewhere near the apple trees, a lilac bush or two and, not far from the lilacs, a weedy depression bordered by a rough rectangle of stones - the trace of the house that had once risen above it.

On another summer afternoon's ramble, we found the site of an earlier ruin on this farm, now in the midst of woods and completely overgrown, because we were startled to notice, down by the stream at the far edge of the property, an apple tree hanging on in spite of the overarching canopy of taller trees. Then, a moment later, we spotted a lilac and then, close to the cellar hole itself a rose bush.

It is really ugliness that is fleeting, not beauty.

The evidence is in those abandoned farmyards. Long after the stone monuments of human activity have fallen into ruin, the flowers are still blooming, still testifying to someone's hope,someone's delight in beauty, which endures when even the memory of those who hoped has perished.

Hope, beauty - yes, even love itself - radiate outward, as fragile as the ripples on a pond. And as unstoppable.

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