But of course we were flower children, heeding the call to freedom and delight, stopping to savor what pleased us: this is how we lived, away from the madness of the world, rejoicing in our love and asking nothing more, from the shore to the field to the mountaintop rejoicing, in the upland meadows and mossy bottoms, in the grassy pockets and rocky clefts, rejoicing in the wildflowers whose color and fragrance filled the air of what seemed to us an immense chapel without ceiling and without walls.
It was a kind of madness, I see, not of self-delusion but of youthful rapture, the madness of spring, of eros and of love: the madness of wildflowers.
None of us alters the terms of existence, but heaven-on-earth was for me more accessible and more tangible in those wildflower meadows than in the profoundest cogitations of the wisest ecclesiastical and political authorities. Books piled high never elevated a body to heaven, and not one of history’s revolutionists or accomplished Machiavels ever brought heaven a rung closer to earth.
Eros, assuming a human form, comes, I think, barefooted or sandaled in a robe of wildflowers loosely open at the front, belted with plaited fibers and piped around with blossoms, a smudge of pollen on the cheek, catkin dust in the hair, and at the ear an airy escort of bees and butterflies.
The celebrity mammals get the lion’s share of attention in Alaska, the bear and wolf and moose, but an overlooked emblem of the wild, of the fertility and animating energy of nature, the source of so much of nature’s exquisiteness, is the wildflower. What I get from a wildflower that I don’t get from a cultivated flower is something more than a childish surprise, it’s the sense of the earth as a procreative force preceding and superior to me, independent of me and my designs. Show me a geranium in a planter in Montreux or Malibu and I’m jaded. Oh, I like it enough, the bright colors impress me, but are they real? But put me before a wild geranium on a Kodiak clifftop, the veined and violet petals starting softly up from the grass and moss, and my knees shake.
My gratitude among the spring wildflowers is the twin of wonder. The wildflower is the spring, the rebirth, the second chance, the reprieve of the condemned, the paschal mercy, the pellmell dash into sunlight, the festal awakening, the warm-bellied embrace, the desperation of desire become the inspiration to life.
It’s hard to overstate the joy of that first encounter after a grueling winter, a life steeped in dark and steely twilight. The beginning of May finds me surrounded by ruins, the country gray and desolate, the meadows unredeemed fields of blasted stems and seared leaves. I look closer, and seeing through the old skin into a new life, I find a blade of grass, a fern uncurling, a leaflet trembling. I happen on a flower blossom and am struck by its beauty, a beauty as simple as the space around it is momentarily sacred. The first wildflower might be a violet, a cluster of marsh violets in the streamside moss — tiny, five-petaled darlings! — or it might be a shooting star or an early salmonberry, a spray of magenta or a rosette of pink, it doesn’t matter which: this is the warrant of life, the usher of the spring, and I’m a believer now, I welcome the advent of plenty.
Flowers are nature’s mass indulgence, granted to all of us. If flowers were bells I’d never tire of ringing them. Here are enough shooting stars to win a war with. All the stained glass windows of all the churches of the earth lie shattered underfoot and fused to make this garden. Fresh corridors open, cool moist shades rich with the blended smells of elder and fern and loamy earth. The primrose blooms on the mountain, the creamy anemone over the sea. The cliffs brighten with purple lupine and yellow cinquefoil. Starflowers gleam in the forest glades. A sweet-as-candy mist hovers around the valerian. Fumes of photosynthesis leave me giddy. I nuzzle close and taste pink petals. Diminutive bells swing in the currents of my breath. Fragrances vie in the solstice air, pink distillates and green liquors, sun-gold juices and palate-drenching elixirs. Green, more green, from the silvery green of the willows to the dark impasto of the evergreens. Yellow paintbrush, purple-throated iris, wild rose and Jacob’s ladder, immortal bog candle, shy maiden, blushing spirea, pink pyrola, nagoonberry, chocolate lily, saxifrage, rockcress, black-tipped groundsel, spring beauty, northern bedstraw, Sitka burnet, large leaf avens, fluorescent sweet pea and ooh and aah the rose-purple orchid.
A blustery wind blows over this wild bazaar.
Get up! Come on! We’ll wake in their lairs the wild snapdragons, we’ll stir the grass of Parnassus, we’ll fetch the gentian and the rhododendron, the harebell throbbing with its strange blue light, and lethal and purple and velvety the fabled monkshood. At the dome of the wild chive, at the tower of the goldenrod, at the spire of the fireweed we’ll stop and raise our eyes. The engine of the sun sounds in our pulse, our wrists and throats and thighs, the plants mass around us, entwining ankles and calves and rubbing at hips, every square foot of earth hosting its cosmos of wildflowers.
May’s flowers are long gone now. Petals lie like spent confetti in the moss. We’ve climbed the bloom pole and it’s done. Seed heads blacken and rattle. Berries redden. Mushrooms populate the woods. Rusty stalks prophetically point skywards.
On the last day of September I find a yellow fleabane on the beach, and in the cottonwood grove three violet willow herbs. The yarrow soldiers on into October but can no further. They will be back. They’ll all be back, blooming over their graves, and I’ll be with them.