Lily of the Valley

Sunday January 27, 2008

The Lily of the Valley is not technically a lily, but it is of the Valley, in at least the same sense that I am. By that I mean that we can both be found, or could, in the Fox River Valley, toward the middle of Wisconsin. There again, the Fox Valley may not technically be a valley at all. An adult once tried to explain to me that the land is depressed some handful of feet over many miles of farmland specked with forest, so that by the time you come to the the suburban metropolis where the mighty Fox River joins Lake Winnebago, you can hardly expect to observe directly the characteristics typical of valleys. I never had this on better than say-so.

My family lived, and still does live, just exactly where the Fox is in the business of joining the Winnebago, or vice versa. Two short winding arms connect Lake Winnebago with Little Lake Butte des Morts, which is not technically a lake at all since it is really just a wide, slow part of the Fox River. Nestled in this freshwater embrace is Doty Island, where my family has lived in two different houses. In both houses I think we speculated that Doty Island may not technically be an island, being simply bordered by an excess of river on the shore of a lake, rather than isolated out in the middle of anything. It's easy to think that, with everything built up so much that roads hop rivers on unobtrusive bridges and factories lean out over shallows on tidy concrete pylons.

In grade school I remember we learned all about land-forms, most memorable in their oddity the plateau and the isthmus. What a load of malarky!

Our old house was surrounded by a pleasant land-form called a yard. I understand now that the British call the yard of a house its garden, even if it isn't a garden at all. This would have been confusing at my family's home, since we had distinct gardens inside of the yard.

My mother tended a triangular flower garden bordered with old brick in a front corner of the yard, opposite the driveway. Along that driveway was a neighborly row of hosta that led back to a tall neighborly fence. Along the fence back there was a narrow plot of flowers, sometimes magnificent and sometimes fallow. The opposite edge of the yard, back from the brick triangle, was edged thick with lilac bushes, tall and woody, under which sometimes mysterious flowers would appear. As with the crocus and violets that appeared here and there in the lawn now and again, my mother would generally just smile when we noticed, if she took credit at all. The yard was allowed to be miraculous.

Hosta, incidentally, is like Lily of the Valley in that it was once classified as a lily, but is not any longer. The botanists must have their reasons.

The yard was backed by another fence, this one older, shorter, and grayer than the other. Square in the middle of the rectangular back yard so enclosed was a rectangular vegetable garden with a wire fence to keep out the rabbits, closed up with a homemade gate. It could have been a full acre to a bunch of kids, and for the amount of work it was to keep properly tended. There was always a lot of rhubarb. We kids had our own little plots in there to putter around with too. Mine was right by the gate. One summer I just dug a hole where my plot was and buried a time capsule, which was a plastic tennis ball canister containing such memorable items as a pair of black dress socks.

The yard had trees as well, big sturdy Maples that gave us presents through the year: sugary sap, helicopter seed pods, and colorful leaves overhead and underfoot. The trees were old, old, old, like the neighbors, like the neighborhood. Their young cousins in sprawling developments are easy to pity, easy to mock. One day those too will be dignified matriarchs, the landmarks of an old area, providing nearly as much shade as they allow sun.

A last garden lay along the side of the brown-painted garage. It was a raised bed of rich soil, sweetened with compost and mulched with fresh grass clippings. It was held up on one side by the old garage wall and on the other three sides by moisture-cracked railroad ties. If you followed the ties back past mint and chives to the limit of the yard, near the raspberry brier, there was a quiet space between the rotting fence and the garage. It was a passage.

I had, and perhaps I still have, only an introvert boldness. I will do it, try it, explore it - as long as it doesn't involve interacting with people. This tended to make me respect the borders of our yard more judiciously than the family dog, and without any need for a remote-control electrocution collar. There could be neighbors in the neighbors' yards, after all. There were fences. The adults must have their reasons.

So it was only ever carefully that I ventured out behind the garage where the neighbor’s yard melded with ours. The trees there were more sprawling, more clutching. Their joined canopies swaddled hard moist ground in a relative darkness and grass grew only here and there, struggling.

That unfriendly expanse was a kind of barren sea, and the strip of shore behind our garage was more alive than all of it. It was there that grew the Lily of the Valley, and neither of us would venture farther afield. This was a real bed of flowers, ankle to knee height, too dense to walk through, with leaves of rich green parchment curving around delicate stems that tentatively raised up bashful bells so white and pure, so impossibly small.

The fragrance of the Lily of the Valley is a wonder of the world. If you crouch and put your nose to those constellations of dainty flowers, your eyes will widen with the power and beauty of it. They smell exactly like Eve.

Standing there with them, there was no reason to step out into any other place.

I tried to dig up that tennis ball time capsule I buried, years before I had really planned to, but I couldn’t find it. The family moved since then, and I don’t think I’ll ever have another attempt. It’s gone.

I don’t know if there are Lily of the Valley behind that old garage any more. I tried to find some at flower shops much later. I found out they’re difficult to be had. Sometimes they can be special-ordered, usually for weddings, for a few weeks in the spring. When I want flowers, I tend to get Stargazer Lilies, true lilies, huge and flashy, pungent enough to fill a whole room with their sweet scent. Stargazer Lilies were bred by someone in California. Everyone can agree about flower eugenics.

I was looking for Stargazer Lilies just the other day at Whole Foods Market, underground at Columbus Circle in New York City. They didn’t have any. I examined a White Hyacinthus instead, put my nose to it. The delicate sensation was like a vision of a lost time. It reminded me of the Lily of the Valley.

It reminded me that perhaps lilies are things we call lilies and valleys are things we call valleys, and that will have to do.

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