I am an unabashed lover of summer.
I love the heat. The unstructured time. All the activities that involve water. I love the lingering smell of coconut oil, the fragrance of chlorine. I love tan lines and tired kids. I love shells in my swim bag, ice cream sandwiches after lunch, the excuse to visit the library — again. I love our neighborhood pool and I love the long legs of sun at dusk.
But summer is not for everyone: It’s humid, it’s hot, there are a lot of children around. Bug spray is involved.
Many of you love Fall. I know — the foliage. And, yes, the pumpkin spice.
Or Winter’s peppermint scented wonderland with endless holiday magic.
And then there’s Spring.
“I just love this time of year,” my neighbor said a few years ago, the morning air crisp against our skin. She held clippers in her hand and wore smears of dirt on her jeans. She wakes early each day to spend time dead-heading, gathering sticks, pruning. She probably owns multiple pairs of work gloves. Her yard is enviable.
I enjoy Spring’s hints of fresh green growth and the purples and yellows and whites of early flowers peeking their heads up as if asking “Can I come out now?” And while I wanted to agree wholeheartedly with my neighbor, my allegiance forever is to summer.
So I smiled and asked the best of all questions, “Why?”
“I just love watching how everything comes back to life.”
She’s right. There is something about Spring.
It was spring of last year, I can’t remember the specifics of where I was going or why, only that I remember thinking how odd it was that I hadn’t needed to take this one particular exit for a number of months. It’s not far from my home and if you know the metropolitan DC area at all, or have ever driven I-95 and tried to get around DC, you’ve been here. We call it ‘the Mixing Bowl.’
Under its current configuration, may God never allow another, the Mixing Bowl has over 50 bridges and at its widest is 24 lanes. It’s a part of the concrete landscape that makes up so much of life in this area (and begs the regular questioning of why we still live here).
The off-ramp I drove that day has the feel of being its own little highway. At first, you drive just the slightest bit right. Then the curve starts in earnest. You’re surrounded by lanes and lanes of traffic and concrete dividers. You have to drive for another half mile before the next 270-degree turn, which takes you (finally) to the road you wanted to exit onto from the beginning. On your right the entire time is a sixty-foot concrete wall which separates a neighborhood from the roar of the over-crowded highway.
That spring day, I made the turn, turn, keep turning, tuuuuurnnnnnn onto the runway of an exit ramp with my head lost in thought.
Then before I could register it — I saw a flash of purple.
I jerked my head up to look out the rearview mirror. Purple?
And because this is the most accident-prone area of the entire 64-mile beltway, I quickly looked forward, eyes back on the road.
Then again — purple!
You have got to be kidding me.
In the middle of this enormous, mile-long barrier wall, ten and twenty-foot splashes of grape-like clustered blooms flushed down the concrete.
We usually see wisteria over private trellises or pergolas or hanging over a decorative wall in Old Town. The plants bloom for a couple of weeks a year, but driving by at sixty-some miles an hour, seeing wisteria on the highway lasted only a moment.
Billowing clouds of soft petals resting against a hard, harsh unwelcoming place.
Lilac tapestries, unfurling in the wrong room.
A gift, all the same.
Wisteria are woody vine plants in the legume family. So just like your summer peas, they climb and vine onto whatever they can. They’re native to Asia and the eastern US and can grow as much as ten feet a year — and up to sixty feet high, if well supported. (There’s a single wisteria plant in California that has grown and spread over an entire acre.)
Wisteria grow quickly and, like humans, can tolerate poor soil conditions. But, also like us, they do best in nutrient-rich earth with full sun. A wisteria plant can take decades to bloom if started from seed, so most planters use root cuttings to multiply them. Planters have also learned that a plant (again, heartbreakingly like us) will mature faster if their trunks endure physical abuse, if it’s under stressful conditions, or (I had to take a long slow deep breath after reading this last one) when they intentionally prune its roots.
I’ve been thinking about this wisteria for over a year.
Why do you think a plant, whose base is on one side of a highway, grew into, onto, and through a concrete wall, to bloom there?
Do you think the city, or the contractor who built the subdivision, or a well-intentioned homeowner planted those vines years ago and ever thought the plant would bloom on the other side — where nearly half a million people pass per day?
Winding tendrils of each plant latched on where they could, clinging to the strength of the concrete, following the warmth and welcome of even the smallest hint of light.
When the wisteria plant was young, growing out from established roots and reaching for its own security, did it always look up? Did it wonder if it was possible to grow through the wall? Did it ever hear hushed rumors of life “on the other side” and dream of trying to find its way there? Did it want a special spot, away from everyone else?
Do you think it grew there to be a shocking joy to drivers, anyone really, awake and aware to catch — even out of the corner of their eye, even as an afterthought — its beauty, even if for just a few moments?
Did it simply explore? Do what it’s made to do? Stayed curious, open? Hmmm, I wonder what’s goin’ on over here?
Maybe those plants grew alongside a mother or a father, a group of friends, or a mentor who cheered it on, was thrilled by its adventures and saw its potential. And despite the unknown path and their own fears of what could happen, did they speak truth and encouragement into it, saying, “Grow, darling. Grow”?
I’ve also thought about the plants on the other side. I’ve never driven back there. Maybe next spring I will.
Do the rest of the wisteria bloom block after block behind that wall, next to those houses?
Do any of those plants feel frustrated? Like they did what was expected of them, grew where they were supposed to, where everyone else was, even when they didn’t want to? Did any of them feel a pull towards a barely-there spot a little arm could’ve attached to, but resisted the urge for what it meant? That following that path could take them away from what they know, what was familiar. Safe.
Were they scared? — of what everyone else would say, of the work it might take, of not knowing where they would end up? Did they ever secretly think the other plants grew through the wall out of defiance, so sure they were that it was only right to stay where they were?
I wonder if they ever regretted being cautious and conforming, acquiescing when they really wanted to protest.
But maybe they’re perfectly content. Maybe they’re really happy.
On the way home from wherever I had gone (Dentist? The mall? Please, no. The big Home Goods store?) I tried to get a picture of the wisteria from 24 lanes away at highway speed. It . . . isn’t great. I didn’t even catch the big blooms.
And I didn’t have the time to drive back around. (This is Northern Virginia we’re talking about, that little change would have made me at least 45 minutes late for preschool pick up.)
But I’ve kept thinking about this wisteria because they were just so unexpected. The shocking juxtaposition of hard and soft, dullness with beauty, death and life.
But more than the contrasts, I love those plants for all the reasons it got there in the first place.
Because it may have asked, “Is it safe?” and not known the answer, but grew anyway.
Because it may have been told, “That’s not for you” but needed a better reason than it was given after it asked, “Why not?”
Because it may not have known the destination, but still followed the call.
If I had to, I’d say the wisteria blooming in concrete ended up there because it did what it was made to do — reach out and secure itself with faith (not in itself, but in that which holds it up) — then grew until the next tendril found the next right place to hold on.
Just the next spot. Grab on there. That’s it. That’s all you have to do.
And then, years later, it blooms in season as millions of us drive past. A botanical waterfall, cascading down a concrete wall.
A life never imagined.
Thriving where it never could have been planted.
I will always love summer the best.
But every season has its metaphors.