Postcard from Hardwick: Rugged, Indestructible, Indomitable
Walking the shortcut behind our house, my friend stopped and studied a strange, prickly-stemmed flower in the sand. I had puzzled over the plant before — a pointed-leafed pale beauty with a deep yellow center the hue of a hardboiled egg yolk. Little else grows on that sandy patch, save for some scrappy blackberry brambles where the conifer forest begins.
Something happened in this particular place that no one around seems to recall. The topsoil’s gone, scraped up and moved elsewhere. Flanked by prolific wild honeysuckle and the cemetery’s wire fence on one side, the plot is used by neighborhood cats and burrowed into by woodchucks. These unusual flowers push up, solitary, isolated in that sea of sand.
In the cemetery, families bring bouquets of homegrown and store-bought blossoms — crimson dahlias and blue carnations. Down the hill in the community garden in Atkins Field, wooden beds rise above the soil choked with debris from the granite cutting sheds, closed down a few generations ago. Interspersed among the beds are blocks of granite benches, broken columns, odd-shaped pieces of unwanted stone that never made it out of Hardwick into the wide world. Each rectangular bed is unique — some grown more wild than not, others tidily weeded, their tomatoes bound tightly to straight poles beside trellised peas, fat rows of greens, broccoli sprouted to seed with tiny golden flowers. In the hoophouse, sweet peas and magenta cosmos woo in pollinators. Flowers spread everywhere over this field that, a hundred years ago, was barren dust, the neighborhood around it brand-new housing for granite workers and their kin.
Along the roadside, wildflowers lead me home: milkweed — with a honeyed fragrance — forget-me-nots, mighty Joe-Pye weed, blue chicory. Flowers have the undeserved reputation of a tender kind of beauty, more decoration than strength. But anyone who has ever attempted to separate the hard knots of iris roots or braved a thorny tangle of roses know that velvet petals are elements of rugged plants. Vermont’s late great poet David Budbill, in homage to the day lily, wrote, “A plant gone wild and therefore become/rugged, indestructible, indomitable…”
Ephemeral blossoms belie the persistence of flowers. The common dandelion transforms sunlight into gold, later into seedheads not just in our croquet-game patch of grass but in the school playground, the sidewalk cracks, in empty lots, and up against granite foundations: in short, all over town, leaf by leaf with asters, mouse ear, St. John’s wort.
And that prickly plant in the sand behind my house?
Our friend guessed devil’s tomato, a rogue plant seeding its way north. Poisonous in varying degrees — including possibly death — this flower isn’t a child’s handful of purple violets to float in a tiny glass of water on the kitchen table. Perhaps that’s one of the things I love most about flowers: their symphony spreads the full range — from healing to harm, from death to hastening a woman’s labor to soothing infection — implicitly warning us to be respectful; our eyes and our hands are but parts of this infinitely complex world, the 10,000 manifold variations of leaf and bent stem and petal.
What an unimaginable world we would live in, without this summer beauty.