Friday, May 11, 2012

In the Perfumed Garden -
bittersweet  memories in the season of the white blooming things

Most people in Florida are from elsewhere. About three of every four to be exact. And most come from places that have more pronounced seasonal changes than Florida, a good number of them coming from “up Nawth” with its nasty winters and laws that apparently mandate that retirees must move to Florida upon reaching age 65. Clearly these Yankees are law abiding people.

The tendency among these emigrants is to see Florida as a place without seasons, a land of 50 weeks of summer and two weeks of brief winter-like temperatures. And perhaps from their perspective, that is true. But many of us natives (and especially those of us whose families have been here five generations like my own) recognize the very subtle changes that mark Florida’s four clearly definable seasons.

For a plant nut like myself, one of the cues that allows us to discern distinctive seasons is the kind of plants that bloom at that time. Fall showers us with golden blooms of rain trees and yellow jacarandas and the leaves of our Florida maples, sweet gum and Chinese tallow trees which turn first yellow, then scarlet, before falling around the first of each new year. I’ve always loved fall, the season of my birth and the season in which each new school year begins. I’ve often said that life begins anew in fall.

But as my husband and I engaged our nightly walk around Lake Underhill last week with our celebrity beagle, Daisy (for whom people actually stop their cars and get out of them to kiss her!), a wonderful scented warm breeze swept  over us. In the grassy area of the park across the street from the lake itself, the city has planted a number of magnolia trees. There are few things more truly wonderful than magnolia blossoms.

Magnolias are among the white blooming things that transform Florida into a perfumed garden each spring. They are joined by the heavy perfume of Confederate jasmine and gardenia and the delicate smells of citrus trees in blossom. It’s almost worth enduring the occasional cold snaps of December and January when my yard with its many tropical specimens resembles an Okie or Arkie refugee town shrouded in sheets and newspapers to protect them from freezing just to be rewarded with such wonderful scents come spring.

Author Marcel Proust once wrote about how certain sounds, smells, sights can trigger memories of people, places and events gone by. In Swann’s Way, he said, “The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends upon chance whether we come on it or not before we ourselves must die.”

As we walked through the dried grasses of the park last week, blades crackling from lack of water in a spring dry season beginning to show the first signs of impending climate change, wave after wave of magnolia perfume swept over us. And for one second, I was transported back to earlier, more innocent days of Springs Past, of magnolias growing in our shaded yard in the country, of venerable, ancient magnolias blooming in the quad outside the dormitories at the University of Florida where I was a resident and my parents had studied three decades prior, of magnolia family bay trees blooming along the tracks of the Walt Disney World steam railroad where Andy and I both worked as conductors in the summer of 1975, even of the magnolias blooming in northern California during our four year sojourn there whose scents roused modest homesickness. All of those moments, long gone but fully present in the breeze swept park last week.

It’s this connection to the land, to a life history in this place, that largely proves to be the trump card in our decision thus far to remain in a state whose radical political and developmental changes in the past two decades have long since caused it to lose any semblance to the Florida in which I grew up, the Florida I once knew and loved. And so it was with no small amount of irony that at dinner at Dexters the other night, my long time friend and fellow Florida native, Bill Fite, and I suddenly broke out into the song we had learned as children in a Florida who once actually provided music teachers for its elementary school children:

I want to wake up
in the morning
where the orange blossoms grow.
Where the sun comes apeepin’
in where I’m asleepin’
and the song birds say “Hello!”
I love the fresh air
and the sunshine
it’s good for us, you know…..
So, make my home in Flo-ri-da
where the orange blossoms grow.

In the Perfumed Garden the white blooming things provide a bittersweet reminder of the wonders of this beautiful, flowered place (hence its Spanish name) even as its current human occupants seem hell-bent on destroying it. 

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D. 
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status) 
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA) 
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law 
University of Central Florida, Orlando 

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. 
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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