The Middle Distance 3.28.14: A Sprightly Dance

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5min 44sec
Credit Sean Cayton

This time of year I begin wishing for the sight of daffodils in bloom. Where I grew up, they usually began to show their yellow faces in late February or early March, depending on whether they enjoyed full sun or grew in dappled shade beneath a tree. I remember the appealing instructions for naturalizing a lawn with daffodils: Pick up of fistful of the bulbs that look like small onions, and toss them as you’d toss chicken feed or grass seed. Plant them where they land. Plant hundreds of them. The next spring you’ll have a lawn of daffodils, like Wordsworth’s “crowd/A host of golden daffodils … /Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”

“Ten thousand saw I at a glance,” said Wordsworth, “Tossing their heads in a sprightly dance.”

Out here in the Rocky Mountain West daffodils don’t grow so abundantly, and though the calendar may say it’s spring, the frilly yellow cups that prove it’s springtime are slow to come. By the end of March their green leaves have emerged, but cold nights slow the formation of flower buds. And once they do bloom they’ll be lucky if they’re not clobbered by a late spring snowstorm.So thank goodness for grocery store florist bins bursting with rubber-banded bunches of daffodils — our answer to the urgent call and delayed response of springtime out West.

Last week, a friend brought a few bundles to an event we were both attending in a beautiful church. The next day would mark the spring equinox. Daffodil yellow pinged against the gray stone walls and made us smile.

A few days later, another friend who’d attended the same event invited us to breakfast. It was a chilly morning, but her kitchen was warm with a brilliant spring flower arrangement of yellow daffodils, light green glads, and deep purple iris. Though signs of spring were sparse if not invisible outside, thanks to the local supermarket they were in full, dramatic evidence indoors. We ate muffins and drank coffee and parted by mid-morning. On the way home, I stopped at the grocery store.

Daffodils, budded but not yet fully bloomed, were banded in clumps of ten thin stems each in buckets near the front door. I grabbed a handful and was lured by a sweet scent to a nearby table of lilies — tall and thick-stemmed, about to explode in blooms of creamy white and deep burgundy. I chose a bunch of each color.

Crossing to the checkout stand, a woman glanced at the yellow bonnets peeking out from beneath their more exotic kin. “Where’d you get the daffodils?” she asked and I pointed to the nearly empty bins. She rushed over and plucked some of the last few stems.

At checkout, I laid the flowers out on the black rubber conveyor belt, and the woman in front of me glanced over her Corn Flakes at them. “Oh my,” she said, “those lilies are going to be gorgeous.” I pointed to the table behind us and as I paid for my flowers, she took her sack in one hand and her little boy in the other and wandered into that fragrant corner of the store.

Out on the parking lot, the sun was brilliant but a cool wind still cut the morning air. As I was laying the flowers out flat in the back of my car, an older woman walking with a cane stopped by the trunk to admire them. She was bundled in layers of sweater, coat, hat, gloves and scarf and her hands were occupied with shopping bags and the cane. “Oh, look at the daffodils,” she said. “Do they have tulips too?” I extended a lily to her to sniff and we said our goodbyes.

A symphony of flowers filled the air, a chain reaction of wishing for spring though the Colorado landscape remained brown and dormant.

At home, I filled jars and vases with flowers and arranged them throughout the front rooms of the house. That night, it snowed, wet and heavy enough to crush whatever daffodils might have fought their way to the surface in carefully tended neighborhood flowerbeds. The next day the snow melted and frost lingered in the highest branches of the trees.

I remembered the late poet Jane Kenyon’s observation in one of her last books, A Hundred White Daffodils: “It’s not just more flowers I want, it’s more light,” she said. “A person gets her fill of shade-loving plants. She wants … a hundred white daffodils that glow after dusk against the unpainted boards of an old barn.”

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.