FIRST Saturday in May, 2003. Spring on the Atlantic seaboard had settled into a sultry, perfumed affair that hinted at the damp torpor to come. Throughout the city unremarkable lumps of hedge had burst into bloom: azaleas, lilacs, roses, all the botany of domestication. To a lifelong Westerner raised amid rabbitbrush, they seemed impossibly exotic.
Flimsy, though. The white and magenta azaleas, while sweet-smelling, proved poor material for a birthday lei, wilting after just a few hours. Not that it mattered. By then the party had begun its migration through a series of smoky bars, the listing birthday girl in the lead, and nothing was going to survive that journey in good shape. Now it was a harsh and clanging late morning that did not seem exotic at all.
The mail brought a white tube three feet long bearing familiar handwriting and a FedEx label. Inside was a single wild California iris carefully wrapped in damp paper towel and plastic. Liberated from its makeshift travel compartment and placed in a tiny green glass vase, the small flower made a startling statement in the plain room, its slender emerald stalk set off against the vibrant purple petals that stood pertly or spilled outward like a small inky fountain. For the next week and a half the wild iris stood on the dresser, a specimen from another world, witness to mine.
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Last week was the first taste of spring in Central California. One evening, taking advantage of the extended daylight hours, a friend and I went for our first hike of the season at Wilder Ranch. It was unusually warm, even humid, as we trudged up the long hill of the Engelsmann Loop Trail, past the wide meadow with its view of the Monterey Bay where marsh and sharp-shinned hawks hunt. We had reached the top and were deep in conversation when we came upon the irises. There were hundreds of them, ranging from palest lilac to near-midnight and every permutation of purple in between, nodding on their innocent stalks in stands that seem to proliferate everywhere the eye looked.
It was shockingly beautiful. True, it's earlier than usual for the wild iris bloom, but somehow I had forgotten all about them. I made a mental note to come back later with my husband. He's always loved the wild iris.
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