The Weeds of Civilization: Daffodils as Reminders of What Once Was

Why is there a square of daffodils peeking through the crispy brown kudzu off Alcoa Highway? Why is there a perfectly straight line of them blooming on a hillside in a field off Interstate 75? Concrete steps, chimneys, and other clues provide the answer. The daffodils outline the foundations of buildings since rotted away, or demolished. When the last remnants have crumbled, the daffodils will be the only evidence that buildings once stood there.

The flowers commonly called daffodils, jonquils, or narcissus grow wild in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The most common varieties are man-made cultivars from the Netherlands. They are not native to Tennessee or even North America. And yet it's a rare Southern yard that does not have a few daffodils blooming in it this time of year.

A tangent: I am reminded of a moment in John McPhee's 1967 book The Pine Barrens when a group of amateur botanists led by Edgar Wherry go trekking through New Jersey's unique pine forest—thousands of acres of pine trees, rare plants, and wildlife—to the long-vanished town of Martha. In the midst of those pines, the "old and weirdly leaning catalpa trees" planted by settlers in the 1800s stuck out as the only sign of the old town.

"‘The catalpa trees sure don't look happy,' said one woman.

‘They are the weeds of civilization,' said Wherry."

I think about that small passage more than one might expect—those yard trees swallowed up by the forest.

Privet, English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, and other non-native plants exploit biological niches without predation or competition, but the catalpa trees in the Pine Barrens—and the daffodils in East Tennessee—are benign weeds. They grow where they are planted, spread a little, but they don't metastasize. I don't know anyone who would say daffodils don't look happy, though. If daffodils are weeds of civilization, it is a comfort to be civilized, sometimes.

Unlike the catalpas, the daffodils only give up their secrets for a tiny window of time. All year they are there, secretly maintaining underground. Every spring, they pop up, revealing the ghost of someone's sunny front porch, or their back stoop. During this season of renewal, they are bittersweet reminders of impermanence and death, but also of life after death.

Daffodils mark some hidden graves on my parents' land. Back in the 1980s my parents mowed a small field near an abandoned house and found a few toppled tombstones from the 1800s. They propped up the stones nearby in a small grove of trees to be more visible and out of the way of the mowing machine. Daffodils mark the yard where the bones lie.

We made rubbings of the stones. One was a child who used to be older than me, and is now so much younger.

I was trying to think of a word or symbol I'd like to live on for a long time after I'm gone. I was planning to trace it out in my yard in daffodil bulbs, a bit of floral graffiti. I can't settle on anything, though. My name? No, though it gives a new layer meaning to the term "narcissism." My children's names? A smiley face? Daffodils live for hundreds of years, and birds and deer do not eat them. You can expect them to be reliable. But anything could happen. Someone could put down a parking lot.

It is also possible that explorers hacking their way through the privet and honeysuckle may stumble upon a clearing full of blooming daffodils—the only part of you left to show that people once lived in this lonesome spot. How romantic is that? That's the kind of thing I think about, anyway, when I look out into a field and see a pile of bricks grown up in daffodils.