This lot has been empty for about a decade. Once—sometime back before the Second World War—a small house was raised on it out of the miscellaneous materials that Depression Era construction was likely to entail. Pieces of discarded railroad ties, random chunks of concrete and rock, even the odd tree stump, served as a foundation while pieces of wooden railroad cars covered the walls inside and out. Necessity dictated an approach to getting shelter that would in time become chic with and much admired by folks like the readership (this sometimes includes me) of publications like Mother Earth News.
But I doubt that anyone, then, would’ve related much to the concept of creative scrounging as a job skill. The business at hand was the critical, unglamorous one of getting yourself and anyone you cared about out of the elements and safely beyond the reach of the careless and the criminal.
But whoever the builders were, they also did what people do in even the most straited circumstances. They planted flowers. There are still, here and there, wisps of the non-hybrid German irises, mostly white, that are commonly called cemetery flags on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line. They are unimposing but sweet with the light scent that irises have, and a welcome means of softening the many hard edges of a hardscrabble life.
Nothing else of the sort was added, as far as I could see, during the years when the house was crumbing toward a sad end. A critical corner was turned two decades ago when the last owners, a young couple, went their separate ways due to the husband’s inability to relate to the concept of marital fidelity–especially as wrapped up in the dual jobs of being a husband and father. He hung on briefly with the girlfriend who moved in the day after the wife and children left; then vanished to be succeeded by a series of increasingly questionable renters, many of whom attracted the attention of law enforcement. Finally the bulldozers came and left nothing but the concrete storm cellar, which had long since become a hatchery for toads and mosquitoes while sheltering a few grateful snakes.
The neighborhood got much quieter after that, and the asking price of the lot discouraged new construction. The grass and a few trees were left pretty much to their own devices. And then, following the summer’s last mowing—prompted, most likely, by a complaint from the city– a day in early October brought a surprise.
Lycoris radiata—a member of the amaryllis clan, also called Japanese spider lily—is known throughout much of the American South as a passalong plant. The bulbs are seldom offered by nurseries, and pretty pricey when they are to be found. It’s better, in good Southern tradition, to get freebies from the gardens of elderly kinfolk and like-minded strangers. Or to rescue them from the sites of condemned buildings, as I have.
Once planted, they can linger, unattended and unsuspected, for years, since they are dormant and invisible most of the time. It is only in late summer and early fall that they announce themselves, when the bare flower stalks appear suddenly, exploding almost overnight into what looks like a single wildly exotic, bright red blossom. In fact, the multiple flowers all bloom at once, and the show, consequently, lasts for only a few days. Afterwards, dark green, strap-like leaves emerge to nourish the bulb after the great effort of blooming.
How this single bulb got where it is is a mystery of several parts. It was growing near the tiny slab that once constituted a back porch for the vanished house, which makes sense. But the last person who might’ve planted it is twenty years gone in the wake of her husband’s betrayal. It must have happened, year after year, that the leaves needed to feed the bulb to blooming size were prematurely mowed down, stunting the bulb. Only in this October of 2016, after so many disappointments—which could so easily have killed it– was it able at last to bloom.
I made a mental note to come back shortly with a sharpshooter and a pot to lift this hardy survivor and replant it in a more welcoming location. But someone returned with a mower before I could; once more, there is no trace of it. I can only wait and hope that it will emerge again to offer its small, brilliant testament to the rewards of resilience and persistence in the face of long-running, generally unwitting opposition–a lesson apt to be most appreciated on the other side of many experiences of the kind.
Because I’ve noticed that people generally have a hard time seeing, let alone appreciating, things–even some pretty fine things–when they show up where they aren’t looked for or expected.