My 14-year-old glared at me as I reached for a bright-red tulip outside the science building where I’ve taught for twenty years in the mountains of western North Carolina.
“Stop!” she said. “You can’t take a flower if it’s the last one standing! That’s not okay.”
My daughter looked behind her, scanning for the tan Subaru Outback driven by the public safety officers, whom we knew well.
She was right, of course, so I backed away, leaving the red tulip among its yellow neighbors. Their blooms were beginning to fade, the petals wrinkling. Since the onset of the coronavirus, this campus in full-blown spring was deserted, like a movie set where the actors had gone on strike.
This land and its trails once open to the public were closed to everyone except employees like me who lived on campus. Since the students left, I’d measured the weeks of online teaching — and the pandemic — by the flowers I’d selectively taken to fill four small vases in my 900-square-foot rental duplex.
A pink and white rhododendron rested in a squat glass vase in the bathroom now shared with my ninth grader and my 21-year-old daughter, reluctantly home from her own school. Next to the shower, there was barely room for two people to stand, but the graceful flower made the space feel sacred to me. To find some grounding amidst the emotions in our home, I sometimes stepped into the tiny room to stare at that one flower.
We’d picked a handful of daffodils at the beginning of the pandemic, when my stomach churned before each online class, as I tried to teach place-based environmental education lessons on a screen. At the time, the bright yellow flowers in my kitchen reminded me of children’s raincoats ready for adventure. I placed the daffodils in a textured pottery vase made by a friend who once grew all her food in her front yard on campus. The stems reminded me I could do hard things, even when life was turned upside down for my children and my students.
On my desk, a pink dogwood stem later stood alert in a vase that once belonged to my grandfather, an Episcopal priest who tended a rose garden on his knees after he lost his eyesight. And on my small deck, pink and purple azaleas rested in a sturdy mason jar to withstand high winds in this valley overlooking the college’s cows, sheep and a donkey named Tallulah. The animals weren’t fazed by my own anxiety or uncertainty about the return of teaching and learning in person.
When our students first left campus, I jogged through the trails with the education professor as the azaleas were bright in bloom. “The flowers are gorgeous!” she said. “But it’s such a shame there’s no one here to see it.”
She meant the students dispersed across the country, with only a handful who stayed and picked up to-go meals from the cafeteria. Essential staff in facilities, the farm, and garden drove their trucks or golf carts past the blooms, and the landscaping supervisors did their best to maintain the land without their crew of student workers.
Our students had planted these floral masterpieces since this school is a work college, one of nine in the country, where undergraduates log ten to twenty hours on campus on crews that include forestry, instructional technology, library, garden, and even blacksmithing. Some alums who once worked on landscaping crew have pursued jobs such as an arborist, landscape architect, or even flower farmer. The beauties that grace my house—the few blooms in four vases—gave students a true hands-on education. The job provided both a refuge and an intersection with their studies — weeding a flower bed on their knees and talking to peers about relationships, professors, their courses, the world.
When my daughter and I biked to pick flowers every few weeks, I carried a fabric bag that wouldn’t crush the tender buds. With my daughter’s supervision, I was careful to only take a few, but I always felt guilty, like I should apologize to the landscaping supervisor or maybe even the president of the college who lived down the street. The land here in the mountains was — and is now — sacred ground, occupied first by the Cherokee, as evidenced by the archeological sites on campus.
At the end of the semester, I snipped an iris at its base, the luminous purple petals reminding me of our history as resilient people in diverse places. During my closing online class, I showed the students a vase of flowers, which my daughter and I had arranged on the wrought-iron table on my deck. Maybe I was subconsciously using perennials that return each year as some obvious metaphor for persistence as they peered at me from their childhood homes in California, Texas, South Carolina, and Maine.
This spring season during the pandemic felt like a good time for comparisons that don’t require explanations. As my youngest sorted flowers by color and height, she bent her head, arranging and rearranging, before carrying the vase into the house.
“I like having flowers in the bathroom,” she said. “It gives that tiny space more life somehow.”