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49 Daffodils It’s one of those afternoons that offer promise. Promise that the days actually are growing longer, that the last bitter winter blow may be history, that birds may soon sing again, that brown will yield to green, that native flowers will color the pale duff underfoot with verbena and phlox purple and mustard yellow and anemones the color of a radiant summer sky. It’s all longing, of course. Great expectations born of the fact that it’s still late winter, yet the thermometer has climbed to sixty on a practically balmy day. Native plants are genetically programmed to be more cautious than my imagination on a day that feels like spring. The groundhog says six more weeks, and while I’m not inclined to trust a weather-forecasting rodent, I’ve learned from living on the prairie throughout what has been a reasonably long life that winter will nip at the heels of the growing season well into April. The only flowers prone to cast a rainbow shadow weeks before the vernal equinox are those brought here from somewhere else, flowers carefully planted by loving yet long-forgotten hands. Daffodils are awakening today in remote locations along these late winter hillsides, despite the cold winds that prevailed until early this morning and a wan sun that’s struggled to raise the temperature above 50 Daffodils freezing the past few days. It’s still weeks away from official spring, yet some of the signs are in place—a temporary pool incubating the opaque globs of salamander eggs, an eastern phoebe in a willow by the pond awaiting afternoon midge swarms, skunks on the march, oblivious to busy highways. A terse weather bulletin underscores the vicissitudes of the season: a high of 67 degrees one day falling to just above freezing the next. Even so, the daffodils unfurl with panache, consummating the business of being a flower during the warm days, surviving the cold snaps with customary daffodil hardiness. Daffodils are not native here, yet they seem so common that most of us assume they’ve always been around to flower when the sun attempts its annual effort to wrest control from late winter. Even modern country homes seem almost naked without these waxy tubular flowers, most of them a rich butter yellow. Jonquil is how they’re known by most rural folk, a perfect flower to ward off winter blues, a colorful border plant to presage the heirloom roses yet to bloom. Bright yellow jonquils also are a gravesite choice, flowering before the end of the frosts, in place to brighten up a spring visit before relatives arrive in May toting armloads of artificial blossoms picked from the shelves of superstores. These prairie hills have been as tough to live in as they are handsome to look upon, and stark evidence of those who labored and lost still remains—piles of rocks from nearby fields, stumps ensnarled in vines and shrubby second growth, a hole in the ground that once served as a cellar. And always there are daffodils. They’re like Johnny Appleseed’s trees, except they signify expectation eroding into resignation, a final resting place of futile hopes and dreams, fenced by golden flowers. Narcissus is the name botanists prefer for these flowers on loan from Europe. Various texts cite anywhere from fifty to a hundred cultivated species, but it is the solid yellow variety that appears most commonly around abandoned homesteads. Immigrants brought daffodils with them from the Old World, and the plant marks their passage from east to west along a mountainous spine—the Appalachians, Alleghenies, and Ozarks—and out onto the prairies. Few newcomers could have chosen a more rugged path or a better keepsake to accompany them. According to Greek mythology, Narcissus was a youth noted for his uncommon beauty. As legend has it, this young man knelt beside a 51 Daffodils pool and grew so enamored with his own reflection that he fell in and drowned. Afterward, the narcissus flower grew from the place where he died. The legend provided not only a name for the flower but also the root for the word “narcissism.” Yet “narcissistic” isn’t a term that would apply to the settlers who struggled to survive on corn, potatoes, and beans until the bounty of the land eroded and entire families were forced to move on. Today small clearings remain where only daffodils grow, a testimonial to those who arrived with little more than an...


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MARC Record
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