Letter from Birdland: The ghost lily: A talisman of hope
In Birdland, we continue with bright, mild days interspersed with mild drizzle. A highly unusual summer. I made a joke and Ellis rewarded me with a half grin: "Seattle called. They want their weather back." Any grin, even a half, from my youngest is precious, especially these days when I find so much to despair about: wars erupting; the specters of racism and Apartheid; our children being gunned down; challenges in our country to our dearest held principles, freedom of the press and academic freedom; a great, generous heart succumbing to sorrow; and even small despairs, like the predation in Birdland, which has decimated my flock this summer.
A friend introduced me to the idea of a "talisman of hope," an idea that he discovered in Scott Russell Sanders' book "Hunting for Hope." These help us keep hope alive, like an ember from a fire that can be passed on to light another hearth.
I look around and find one, right here in my yard. The annual visitation of ghost lilies is almost over, but I am gleaning some hope from this talisman.
One stereotypical sign of aging is that we repeat our stories, and if you've read this column for a while, you know that I return to the topic of ghost lilies again and again. But the stories my grandmothers repeated over and over are those that I remember best and now retell to my own children and the children of my sisters.
If we listen, we will find that each telling is different. With time, each story gathers detail and perspective.
Just yesterday, I picked two stems of these naked ladies (one of my favorite things about them is how ghost lilies (like the goddess of wisdom or the god of war) have gathered so many names. I grew up calling them ghost lilies, but naked ladies makes my yard seem like a party) and they perfume my living room even now. I cut two stems to put in a simple bowl of blue glass. Their long stamens curl upward, like eyelashes on a cartoon bird.
Ghost lilies first come in the spring. Sideways stacks of flat leaves push up from the earth. In the first days, they look like tiny green books with fat pages emerging. The leaves grow quickly and become long blades arising from a central point, like a giant grass plant.
Knee-high, they gather sun for a while, adding a vertical green to the garden, and then one day we find them collapsed in a heap. They yellow on the ground, and then just disappear. Now they are quiet. Gathering time is over.
I don't know what happens underground, in the deep, cold earth. But above, we go on with our lives, mostly forgetting about the ghost lilies. But they are at their quiet work and patient waiting.
In mid-summer, when we least expect it, we'll see the buds rising on crisp, bright stems. Again, they grow quickly, magically, and unencumbered by leaves.
The buds are clustered at the top of the stems and push up toward the sky. In the beginning, they are a dark, dusky pink, almost maroon. But as they stretch and open, they lighten until they look like little pink lamps, shining in the morning.
Each stem has six blossoms trumpeting outward from a circle. They call a variety of pollinators with their perfume, but what interests me the most is the bulb below. What kind of magic does it hold down there in the darkness? How does it take in June sunlight to light lamps in August? What calls those trumpets back up to the sky?
Here, now, the flowers are fading. They are tattered and the petals are bruised. Some stems have already flopped over. They are at the end of their cycle. Some of the blossoms have created new seeds — we can see swollen ovaries where the petals drop off. Again, they will fade. Again they will disappear.
But I have dug deep into the earth to find the source of this loveliness.
The bulbs are big and crisp and deeper than we think — deeper than we planted them. The bulbs themselves are growing beneath the ground, dividing and creating more colonies. And here is what gives me hope: That growth and planning and gathering and waiting is all going on beneath the surface, without our help, without our attention, maybe even without our knowledge.
They will go on, with or without us.
This is not meant to be an argument against action. Now, more than ever, we do need to work for peace and justice. But I do offer it as an offering of hope, a talisman against despair. May the trumpets call us to our urgent, peaceful work.
Perfume beauty; trumpet peace; blessed be.
Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. You can read more about Birdland at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Mary would love to hear from readers where you find hope. Please write and share your talisman. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via snail mail care of this newspaper.