A Memorial Day Elegy

A Memorial Day elegy: Week of May 29th, 2012

This Memorial Day, families across the country will go to cemeteries in droves to re-connnect with their predecessors, placing flowers and recounting stories about their husbands, wives, parents, grandparents and on and on. This practice has been a tradition in my own family and in many of my friends’ family as well, going back generations. In the Kaw Valley, and many other places across the United States, one of the ways families planned for this day was to plant a wonderful perennial, the peony, amongst the gravestones in the family plot. These ornamentals pushed up its leaves in the spring, creating deep green bushes that would reliably produce buds that were tended by ants, opening up just in time for producing single or multiple layered blossoms on Memorial Day. When I was a child, there were peony gardens in North Lawrence where you could go and get bouquets of the extravagant blossoms to put at the graveside if your family hadn’t planted them.
Most area cemeteries this time of year are still dotted with peony bushes, planted near so many loved ones who have passed away. But alas, a sad thing has happened in my lifetime: the seasonal shift caused by global climate change has shifted the blossoming time of the peony away from the last week of May to mid-May or earlier. This year, where we are seeing unprecedentedly early things, the peonies were in full bloom on May 5 and have been long gone by Memorial Day. The North Lawrence gardens that sold the peonies have disappeared not only because the changing practices of newer generations, but also because they, too have bloomed and disappeared by the appointed weekend. Back at the cemetery, the dark green bushes stand without blossoms, a testament on the one hand to the foresight of our ancestors, while at the same time a testament to the unanticipated consequences of humanity’s impact on our planet.
Visit a prairie this week and you’ll see the forward-shifted blossoms of many potential substitute peonies that we could start planting amongst the family graves, in anticipation of a warmer, earlier Memorial Day climate: the butterfly milkweed is a showy possibility, as is echinacea, or delphinium, or perhaps the longer blooming gaillardia, coreopsis, or naturalized oxeye daisy. The more drought tolerant yucca has a glorious blossom that has been blooming around Memorial Day this year, and might be a good hedge against the uncertainties of the climate shifts in coming decades and centuries.
But please don’t dig up the peony bushes. Just as the grave markers remind us of those who came before us, the peony is a beautiful but poignant reminder of a climate gone by. Perhaps their blossoms in early May or even earlier in coming decades will draw us to our family plots to enjoy the fruits of our ancestors forethought and to ponder our relationship with the rest of our planet.

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