Yellow alchemy prevails during summer

Posted July 25, 2010, at 6:31 p.m.

True story.

On an expanse of mown grass in Unity not long back, I glanced down and caught a glint of yellow in the green, and bent down to look. A low, creeping plant with roundish, shallowly lobed leaves had escaped being leveled by the lawn machinery. It had small blossoms with green petals and a dusty gold center disk. No idea what this is, I thought, and broke off a piece to check with the wildflower books. Long chapter short, I looked and looked but couldn’t find it.

Every spring the green ones come again from the other world in supernatural abundance like this and start their mercurial transformations, and the anchoring color of the whole process from spring to fall is yellow, that glint in the unknown flower. A lot of eruptions crack the earth open in March and April, but the first full-blown sign of life is the forsythia. After that all heaven breaks loose. Dandelions strike full force about the first of May with a tipsy cheerfulness hardly to be believed. By June the hawkweeds are part of the glee, and in meadows all kinds of buttercups. Even bluets are golden at the core.

Patches of roadside turn bright yellow with birdsfoot trefoil and hop clover. The tiny heads of least hop clover pop out, and then the petal-less, greenish pineapple weed masquerading in scent as chamomile. Clumps of St. Johnswort, unkempt in the distance but neat up close, back the ditches, and everywhere are black-eyed Susans in an intense state of yellow that’s already started the journey along the spectrum to orange, and to what will be the red and gold of autumn.

By midsummer, while cow vetch and fireweed, Queen Anne’s lace and oxeye daisies are lighting up the day, the color yellow is channeling sunlight everywhere: Goldfinches and sulphur butterflies haunt the brush; yellow wood sorrel with little cloverlike leaves shows its face through veils of grass; toadflax, or butter-and-eggs, in places you’d think plants can’t grow; and on field edges, cinquefoils with petals so precisely carved they look like some divinity handcrafted them. Venus, maybe, after she used the silvery dusk to unfurl evening primrose blossoms. Pale yellow, pale the primrose, the sunlight changes and moves away.

When low-angled light filters through green leaves, in the translucence you can see yellow is transforming the world green. Ball field grass by July is tinged with that pervasive sulphur hue, while the next generation of summer emerges restlessly out of the copper earth: Goldenrod to me is the emblem of the transformation to maturity. Where there isn’t goldenrod there are groves of wild parsnip. Sow thistle like raggedy dandelions. Yellow goatsbeard in tall grass. Fringed loosestrife and swamp candles half-hidden in wet grassy spots. Mullein by the railroad tracks, and the little blossoms of gangly black mustard. Tansy for all of us, buttonlike disks.

Summer culminates in sunflowers, as though the whole green world was preparing all along to break open in those huge blossoms. Their heads bend toward the sun from morning to night, as if every day was an ecstatic rite of worship. On their watch, the red giant arrives and turns maple leaves martian orange, birch leaves yellow, and ripens golden apples in the sun.

All this was visible back in July if you knew how to look at it. The fleabane and daisies have gold in their disks like sunflower harbingers, not to mention that unknown plant in Unity. A few days after I spotted it, I was walking across my rough-hewn lawn in a sort of silvery, moony state of consciousness when the word “saxifrage” came into my head. Where it came from, I don’t know. It was as if a rock cracked open and the word appeared like a glint from another world.

What does “saxifrage” mean? Is it even a real word, or is it something J.R.R. Tolkien might have made up, like “elanor” or “Borgil”? No, it seemed like a real word, and I wondered if it might be a flower. It sounds like a flower name.

I got out the wildflower book. In the index was the word “saxifrage,” yes. The picture showed a creeping plant with roundish, shallowly lobed leaves, small green blossoms and a reddish-gold center. The flower in Unity was golden saxifrage. If your eye can find it, the ore is everywhere. In my case, I need more grace than I thought.

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