What Do Daffodils Mean?
Strange. For the first time in my life of devotion to daffodils as the highest and best flower, I greeted the inaugural blooms this year with unexpected tears.
I have loved these small flowers for a lifetime, receiving their beauty, sturdy health, and lack of neediness as one of my life's greatest gifts. To me, daffodils mean gladness for the end of bitter weather and earth's turn toward warm, daffodil-yellow sun. They mean benign innocence and gladness unguarded, the sort one gets from watching a beloved two-year old child's way of turning squarely toward each moment. No holding back: daffodils never worry about beauty trends or whether they look sophisticated enough. They mean what they meant to William Wordsworth in 1804: joy that can lift a heavy heart, even in memory. (See Mr. Wordsworth's whole poem, here (manuscript) and here (print).
So why the tears? What do they mean?
Start with the absence of Mr. Wordsworth's "host of golden daffodils." Instead of a host, we have a few pioneers. So far I have found two stems of the sweetest, most delicate, oldest strain of our daffodil collection, plus one barely standing stem of the beloved cultivar King Alfred, first registered in 1899.
These are my two favorite daffodil types. Each has managed to bloom in spite of this past winter's crazy weather pattern. So far, however, they are outliers. Their sisters and brothers and cousins seem dazed, fazed, slowed down by what they have endured. It may simply be too early. We'll see how many clumps manage to produce blooms this year. We'll begin to know whether the manifesting turmoil of constantly contrasting weather patterns will cripple even this most faithful and independent of plants.
In that heart-opening moment when I saw this year's daffodils debut in my back yard, grim worries about the future of our planet slid past my usual restraints. They fastened onto a more private grief: one short stab of longing for Mother and Dad. Instead of the quieter, more familiar sense of missing them, I felt a painful vacuum, two voices absent from the quartet of ecstatic connection to daffodils that once included Mother, Dad, Handsome Younger Brother and me. We'd do call and response:
"The 'Peeping Toms' are showing color!"
"You should see the place. I bet we have thousands of blooms this week."
"Here comes 'Professor Einstein."
"My 'Tête-à-Tête' miniatures have grown enough for me to divide—I'll bring you some next week."
And always, "How are Aunt Georgia's (now cousin Carol's) daffodils doing?"
Daffodils usually equal cheer. Instead, that bleak upsurge of anguish and fear that followed my longing for Mother and Dad brought with it an inescapable sense of responsibility for the earth's future. Although I usually work hard to keep that sense pressed down out of a sense of despair and, I must admit, laziness, in this open moment I grieved for the ways my generation has harmed our irreplaceable world. I felt a sense of hopeless failure, even a dishonoring of my parents and their parents, and all the blessed ancestors. I felt complicit in breaking a birthright chain—the right of every human in every place to enjoy the peace and beauty of what grows there most naturally. Beauty itself seemed at risk. Will daffodils, in all their dancing glory, survive to delight my four grandchildren's great-grandchildren, as they have lifted the spirits of humans and most likely other species for between five million to 33 million years?
As always, many extraordinary people have been working on these questions, some for decades. On Saturday a beloved farmer had enough time at the Lexington Farmers Market to tell me what organic growers are learning and teaching each other, now that global climate change has begun showing its form and shape. The changing nature of weather defies what growers have learned across generations of farming in a particular place. So farmers, being the world's best solvers of complex problems, have begun growing more of our food under protective cover. They are learning more about the importance of farming in ways that include both animals and plants in virtuous symbiosis. They are—courageous souls and the opposite of lazy—facing the change we have all made and working on both fixing and adapting to it.
Many regional growers use high tunnels (hoop houses) to gain more control over temperature and water; the number of these structures in central Kentucky increases each year. Lexington-based FoodChain has five years' experience in learning and teaching indoor aquaponic gardening. EcoWatch described other approaches, including shipping container gardens, vertical gardening, many more home gardens, increased urban gardening.
In 2014 the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development took a look at the intersection of hunger and environmental crisis and produced a landmark document: "Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate." Many media stories about this study carry headlines like this one from Huffpost Green: "UN Report Says Small-Scale Organic Farming Only Way To Feed The World." And heal our planet in the process, the report asserts.
My favorite missionary might say the daffodils "convicted" me, raising up a mirror and saying, "Do more." My favorite healer might point out my in-born missionary instincts and remind me I'm one tiny person and have received no special commission to save the world. As I listened to a beautiful interview On Being's Krista Tippett conducted with Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer recently, another way of responding to the present world and its changes came to me. It involves moss. Later this week I'll say more about it.
You can listen here to "Why is the world so beautiful?", the podcast of the On Being episode featuring Dr. Kimmerer.