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Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Smell of Summers Long Gone By…

Buddleia bushNot only do our five senses (or “5 wits” as they were called in medieval times, thus the saying “keep your wits about you”) serve us in real time but they are also powerful fonts of memory. This is especially true with our sense of hearing and past experiences with music. Not long ago I heard a piece of music on the radio and immediately was transported to a film we saw in 1973. The music was “Tubular Bells,” the theme from the movie “The Exorcist.” Quicker than a Google or Bing search the piece brought back vivid impressions of a little girl (played by Linda Blair) possessed by a demon called Captain Howdy. It was a movie that spawned nightmares for me for some time afterwards. What frightened me most—more than the hideous physical transformations the possessed little girl suffered, her heading spinning on her neck like a top—was the sudden loud thumping and banging that came from the attic of the house. After that film you were never again sure if your attic—any attic—basement, or crawlspace was safe.

Thank goodness not all sensory-evoked memories are unpleasant. I had one a few days back that recalled my boyhood and summer Augusts of many years ago. Three years ago, inspired by a friend in Pennsylvania, I planted a buddleia bush, and although gardeners and landscapers may refer to the plant by that name, most folks just call it a “butterfly bush” because of its appeal to butterflies. (It is interesting to note buddleia has been designated a Class B noxious weed by the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board.) Encouraged by my friend who had noted and identified some fifty species of butterflies nectaring on his bush and disregarding its notoriety I planted one myself. With a pair of sharp pruning loppers I figured I could lop the “nox” out noxiousness should the bush prove problematic.

The other day I decided to check the asparagus bed, which by the way is now a fern grotto, for a late season stalk or two. asparagus fern grottoTo access one side of the patch I had to pass by the buddleia bush, now in full bloom. The afternoon was a warm one and instantly the pungent fragrance of the bush doused me in memory. When I was a boy, my parents would load us kids in the car and for a week of Dad’s allotted two week summer vacation, usually the second week in August, we headed across the Cascades to the coast to visit the paternal grandparents a day or two before heading to the ocean beaches. The neighbor lady, a nice Philipino woman named Mrs. Adriatica, had as a centerpiece in her side yard landscaping a huge buddleia bush. The second week of August the bush was in full bloom and a hundred or so little orange skipper butterflies (common name “woodland skipper,” Ochlodes sylvanoides) thronged to the pendant-like lilac flower spikes for their nectar. In those days—as I remain to this day—I was fascinated with butterflies and would spend an hour or so watching these hyperactive little insects flit about from one plume to the next. The heady fumes of the buddleia must have seared my memory, I guess, because when I passed my bush that day all of a sudden I was back on Mrs. Adriatica’s lawn in the company of buddleia and butterflies, just a kid again in delighted wonder, spellbound by the spectacle.buddleia and friend

But then the years piled up one after the other and the fiery little skipper became a symbol of foreboding. Mid-August. The skippers’ arrival was a sign summer was in its waning days, the next school year just around the corner, and that meant going mano-a-mano with the Sophomores for another nine months. buddleia and skipperThe skippers and the Fair Days parade banner over Main Street spelled double doom to me. I would open the mailbox with dread, knowing any day the school district letter would arrive and seal my fate for another year. Our “Greetings” letter we teachers called it, a direct order to report to duty. Even though my exit from the halls of public education happened twelve years ago, I still get a momentary rush of panic when I see the first skipper of the season dart by. Why the buddleia then, you wonder, if its blossoms are skipper magnets, harbingers of the encroaching school year (I’ve seen at least a half dozen at a time on my bush)? I guess because it’s a “butterfly bush,”and I had hoped it would attract a number of Western Washington species. In that regard it has been a disappointment. Since the bush matured enough to flower, in our butterfly bereft Pacific Northwest environment I’ve only tallied five species to date. But the bush attracts fond memories, fosters nostalgia, doesn’t it? I planted the bush for the butterflies and got memories instead…not a bad tradeoff, I’m thinking.

Western tiger swallowtail on buddleia
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