Daughters of the Wind

Wendy Johnson

EVERY YEAR around the spring equinox, the prevailing westerly winds begin to gust, battering the California coast just a scant half-mile from Green Gulch Farm. These westerlies are a swollen river of air moving across the face of the Pacific, blowing shoreline sand into long drifts and heaving spindrift spume against the dark bulk of the March headlands.

In the garden, the upwelling of the west winds is heralded by the opening of the first flowers of spring, coronaria anemones. "Only the winds of Spring," wrote Pliny the Elder, early in the first century, "can open the anemone " In the simplicity of their petals sleeps an old mystery: Anemone flowers are called "daughters of the wind." Growing in the cool shade of windswept forests, they have a long association with sorrow and death. Greek legend describes the god Adonis dying on a bed of anemones, changing the pale white flowers to bloodred. In early Christian symbolism, the anemone is linked with the crucifixion of Christ, and in Byzantine mosaics Jesus is shown standing in a windy field, surrounded by drifts of anemones.

Anemones have been in cultivation since antiquity, but they are ephemeral flowers. Grown from a black, clawlike mass of roots planted in the late autumn, the roots of the anemone penetrate to the bottom of the garden, where death moans below the cultivated roots. Unvanquished, the anemones drink up death and rise out of the ruin of their own stalks and stems. The wreathed petals of the flower encircle an inner crown of dark stamen. Unique in the plant community, anemones bloom with startlingly blue clouds of pollen.

In the early spring of 1980, our great friend and teacher, the British horticulturalist Alan Chadwick, returned to Green Gulch Farm to die. Alan had cultivated the first formal gardens at Zen Center in the early seventies. All along the coast of California, from Santa Cruz 300 miles north to Mendocino County, Alan worked for 25 years to create a chain of magnificent gardens. He was my primary garden teacher and now he was terminally ill with prostate cancer. Every time I visited him he would raise himself up from his bed and announce, "I intend to be in the garden tomorrow." He never made it to the garden. Instead, we brought the garden to him.

I remember cutting the first bouquet of anemones for Alan. He massed the vivid pink, violet-blue, and crimson flowers by his bedside, breathing with them through the windy spring nights. His nightstand was dusted with midnight blue pollen. Alan treasured the anemones and changed their water every day. After a week, I appeared with a fresh handful of garden flowers. "Please," he said, waving me away, "leave me with the windflowers a little longer. They are releasing their secrets to me."

It is seventeen years since that spring. The first anemones are arching up out of their woodland bed not far from Alan's grave. The westerly winds tug open their ring of flowers. In the Bible, the anemone is the "lily of the field." I consider them now, these natives of the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. In the stiff zephyr winds of March the lilies of the field toil not, neither do they spin. But as I lean over what Rilke called their "far-sprung petal rim," they stain me with their blue pollen and mark me as a daughter of the wind.

Wendy Johnson has been gardening and practicing meditation at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in California since 1975. She is at work on a book about meditation and gardening.

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