Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lilac Time in New England

Photo by Cathy Alger

Early spring and the lilac coming into leaf behind our old cabin in Vermont.

At the bottom of my grandfather's garden was a tumbling stone wall.  Yearly a neglected grape vine--wild grapes, we called them--trailed its bitter fruit over the remnant of a fence. A few stunted lilacs found a toe-hold in the ledge-y ground that sloped away toward the wide meadow below.
Lilacs grew in the yard of the one-room school up the dirt road--white lilacs that had survived the careless tramping feet of decades of school children.
Lilacs, blue-purple, ruddy-lavender, pure white, grew in nearly every door yard in town or in the country. They drooped, dew-wet over the fences of old cemeteries, defined piles of tumbled moss-grown rock, all that remained of nearly forgotten houses.

As the end of May approached with Memorial Day programs scheduled in the schools and on village greens, we watched anxiously, hoping that lilacs would be at their best to cut and cram into tall baskets or the biggest vase brought out from the dining room cupboard.
Never mind that the graceful leaves wilted as soon as the sprays were picked.  The fragrance of the lilacs made up for any difficulties in arrangement.

A warm spell early in the month might bring the lilacs into bloom too soon.  A late frost theatened to nip them just as the buds were tight beads of color.  A hard rain followed by muggy weather would leave the petals browned around the edges.
We loved them anyway--the sure promise of another summer--a link with every remembered New England spring.
My next younger sister sent a brief e-mail last week wondering if I could access a particular piece about lilacs.
I blundered around, suggested Amy Lowell's "Lilacs" and then Walt Whitman's  elegy to Abraham Lincoln which begins "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed."

The work in question eluded me for several days. Eventually I recalled that our late mother had watched the local paper each year for a familiar essay.
A rather imaginative entry on google's search engine finally produced the prose I sought.

It was first published in the Rutland Herald [Rutland, Vermont] in 1929 in the editorial column.
The writer was William H. Field, for several years the Herald's editor.

The untitled, much-loved essay is copied below for your enjoyment.

(Reprinted from the Herald of May 29, 1929)

Now is the brief season of the lilac bush, modest and enduring symbol of the depth and permanence of New England traditions. It has given a name to color, perfume, poems, songs, story.

Translated into many languages, its name is upon the lips of millions in many lands. Yet it remains unspoiled by such widespread fame. It is still the sturdy, wholesome dooryard emblem of the New England home.

With what eager anticipation has it been planted at the threshold of new, bravely begun homes.

With what poignant grief has it been left behind for long bitter migrations from whose hardship and loneliness homesick thoughts have turned in anguished longing.

To what strange and distant homes have its roots been transplanted, there to grow blossoms and, in turn, be abandoned again.

On this very day in mountain pastures and along deserted roads, over the graves of dead homes bloom the lilac bushes planted by the founders of those pioneer households. Many of those graves would be otherwise indistinguishable, their timbers long since buried, their cellar holes filled in and grassed over.

Were it not for the steadfast lilac bush, there would be nothing to mark that here once dwelt human souls who shared happiness, sorrow, hope and despair.

Who lived there, whither they went or what their adventures nobody knows. No descendants make annual pilgrimages to remember and decorate these forgotten graves of the homes of ancestors. But each year at this season, the lonely, faithful lilac bush blooms again and lavishes its sweetness in memory of the hands that planted it.

(W.H.F. 1877-1935)


  1. Nice post, I love lilacs and we can't grow them here. Well, that's not quite true, we can grow them, they just won't bloom.

  2. When I lived in VT in an 1835 brick house there was a lane from my property thru to the adjacent field where always bloomed a very large lilac. I welcomed its blossoms each year and felt the presence of the old homestead that it marked.

  3. I am so behind in my visiting! I've been spending a lot of time doing a couple of projects for the church and for my husband's next trip, coming up soon. I love lilacs, especially the deep purple kind. I don't know too much American Literature but I do know Walt Whitman's piece.