I was at Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam, the botanical garden built in 1682. Plants from around the world had been brought here by ship, to study and be cultivated. It is here that plants from everywhere in the world can be seen.
I strolled along on this warm summer day, unhurried. Today Hortus was open past sunset and into the night, because today, it was the longest day of the year.
I’d chosen to be here on this day, to be alone and ponder the plants, my heart thrilling at every view of a succulent, a cactus, a palm tree: all plants I’d grown up with in Southern California.
It would not be until later years , traveling the cities of Spain, that I would see this same terrain, foliage and desert mountains of my birth home. It was in that moment that I understood this about my own history: After years aboard ship, the crew of the Spanish sailing expedition of 1769 had seen the beautiful mountains, the succulents, and yes, the palm trees of California, and cried out: ” Por fin estamos en casa.-” “Finally we are home.”
My Spanish was minimal but as I looked at the familiar aloe plants, the deep green succulents, the vines of plum colored flowers and mountains, this cry came from my heart. And that day in Amsterdam, as I walked among the plants, felt the warm air on my skin, I was transported back to my birth home of Los Angeles and felt that longing again, that ping in my heart for my home country.
True, most years I can visit there. But not now, during lockdown. Dammit. I can visit but it’s not the same is it? To walk every day on the smooth hot pavement, feel the warm sun on my skin. To watch the bees hover over brightly flowered vines and perfectly shaped gardenias, the scent wrapping seductively around me.
These thoughts accompanied me on that longest day of the year.
My pathway led to a sort of wooden shack that seemed to be so out of place among these well tended gardens. Looking a bit tired and worn out, it reminded me of a visit to Mississippi.
There, I’d stayed in the home of a long time friend who I’d known as a child. An older widower, who’d never learnt to read or write. She kept her home tidy and well scrubbed. The floorboards were worn and creaked, the paint flaking. Newspaper pages were stuffed into the frames of the window to keep out the winter cold.
It was this wooden shack that had triggered those images. I said aloud a ‘thank you‘ for this memory I still have, this ability to grasp the exact details of a yesterday so long ago. To see the smile beam from her cocoa skin, my cherished friend. She had not been rich in money but her zest for life could be heard in her laughter, shown on her face and her smile .
Growing up, I thought that all grown ups smiled. Maybe that was a different time. But no, the marches for civil rights had been going on then, as well as protests against the Vietnam War. But somehow back then, people still treated each other with respect: nodding to each other, saying hello as they passed on the street, men even tipped their hats. Being raised in a suburb can feel like living inside a cloud or a bubble. But even then I’d seen glimmers of racism, the leers of chauvinism. And the poor, or at least the less well off, were also treated slightly different. Actions discreetly acted out in whispers. I’d watched and listened, too timid or intimidated to speak. I never forgot nor forgave myself.
At the Horica Botanicus, I walked toward the screen door of the shed and gently opened it. Inside it was shady and cool. A completely separate world from the bright sun outside. All around me, plants set on wooden tables, their seedlings barely sprouting. It was very quiet, like a church. The few people inside spoke in whispers. I saw no windows, only screens which were tinted but kept the air circulating. I felt I was standing inside an Egyptian tomb.
Yet as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I caught glimpses of color flashes and the gentle flittering of shapes floating around me. Then I heard-could I have heard it? Because Butterflies don’t sing . And yet, I heard the sound of a hundred butterflies. Surrounding me, each one a distinctive color or size, all exquisite. Like gentle angels, they fluttered to my shoulder, my forearms, around and on my face. The experience demanded from me absolute respect and stillness and yet, it was the gentlest touch I have ever felt.
The whole city was silent on this longest day of the year. Because that day in the city, every single person was crammed into a bar, a pub or the home of friends. Why? It was 1998, and the vital tie breaking match of the world soccer championship was happening at that very moment.
Yet I had not jumped into the hysterics of the crowd, with all its excitement and drinking and cheering. Instead, I chose to be alone, here at Hortus Botanicus, to feel the vibrations of my hometown, to wrap myself in the memories of my youth, surrounded by the shades of green that grew only here, in carefully tended gardens, or in Spain or on the streets of my hometown: Los Angeles with it’s silky mountains, the minty scent of Eucalyptus leaves in the warm desert air and of course, the palm trees.
Here, in absolute silence I remembered sitting high atop a red mountain of Sedona, Arizona, under a perfect blue sky. Complete stillness surrounded me with only the gentle flap of a chihuahuan raven’s wings and the almost indistinguishable, “Puff” of a hot air balloon, floating in the distance.
Because of this, as I stood in such silence, I became aware of a sound I’ll never forget. As if a symphony of humans tried to rise and fall. Tried to but couldn’t break into this silent moment of mine. I almost did not hear this sound rarely heard: That of humans calling out in unison but as if from a different outlaying village. Seemly more like a memory than a current event, I heard the far off, barely detectable hum of, ‘yeah!’ A goal had been scored. And throughout evening, all over the city, every now and then, I heard, this distant, almost imperceptible, quiet roar.
I’d thought of all this as I stood in front of a blank canvas, a book of pictures of butterflies open before me. I’ve forgotten if I actually read this somewhere: that after the long hibernation inside a cocoon, a butterfly emerges. But she only lives for one day. Whether it is true or not, that image stayed in my mind.
I thought about how heartless that would be, after all that effort to survive inside a cocoon, then be given only one day to live. Beautiful, vibrant and free to fly but with restrictions.
Of course, this is the knowledge that separates us from other animals and insects- even butterflies. Because we are given at birth the knowledge – or curse – of knowing that we will not live forever. So what will we make of our time here? How will we treat not only each other but the precious bounty of color and shape, scents and sights, wind and rain and sun that is the beautiful Mother Nature that surrounds us? What will we do to hear, and then calm, the Quiet Roar?