The Year of the Iris

2019 in review

About halfway through the year, I got on the bus to go home and sat on a decapitated purple flower. What do you call this part of the flower, which holds the flower, when it is detached from the rest of the plant? The bud? The head? Off with their heads!

Based on my memories and my journal entries, it seemed to be windy all May and June this past year, and I took my lunch breaks to sit outside in spite of it. Rather, I ate my lunches at my desk while working and later would slip outside to lie down on a bench because laterally was the only way to go about it, this wind. Busy with its monarchal sentencing, it went on ripping off the heads of flowers, scarcely noticing me as it blew them about. I picked them up here and there as they landed, and snapped them shut between faraway pages in my journal. They seemed like messages, like tiny decrees—something to pin down, at the very least.

Each year, May, and this one in particular, is like a miracle to me. And I wander beneath warm sunlight and yawning petals like a Bradburian citizen of Venus in a seventh year, full of uncaged wonder and perpetually on the verge of tears. It is almost worth it, winter—almost—for the rush of biophilic, rhapsodic rapture each spring. The sweet-nothing cherry blossom petals softening the still winter-harsh blue of the sky and carpeting sidewalks in pink shag, the elegant unfolding of magnolias—and then the lilacs.

I began the year reading Lucia Berlin’s posthumous, partial memoir, Welcome Home, which opens with lilacs (both of which I wrote about for The Chicago Review of Books):  

“I recently read that the scent of flowers, especially roses and lilacs, actually was more intense years ago, their perfume now diluted by hybridization. True or not, my remembered Idaho perfumes are more vivid than any flower today. The apple blossoms and hyacinths were literally intoxicating. I’d lie on the grass beneath the lilac tree and breathe until I became giddy. In those days I also would spin around and around until I was so dizzy I couldn’t stand up. Maybe these were early warning signs and lilacs my first addiction.”

Though overlaid with the shadow of Berlin’s own future, this likely conjures a memory for many of us, from a time when we may have stood at eye-level with a flower or romped freely enough to spin until our heads lurched and we tumbled to the earth. I read the passage and saw immediately the bed of sweet irises along the side of the house I grew up in, stuck my nose in and smelled their violet pixie dust scent again. It’s a moment, or a collage of moments, I return to often (I even wrote about it in my 2018 year-end letter): a reward after watering the gardens for my mother or delicate grass seedlings for my father. Unlike the annuals my mother and I perused and planted each year, and the bulbs for tulips and daffodils she buried on misty October mornings, the irises preceded and permeated my earliest memories. Each June, they arrived seemingly without our tender intervention, smelling uncannily of grape Pez candies like a child’s summer siren song.

An iris looks like an alien flower, a glitch in a genetic sequence—particularly the sweet-smelling periwinkle frills of the iris pallida that sprung up outside our kitchen window. And to a degree, it is; the plant’s careful manipulation of red anthocyanin pigments and pH produces the bluish petals we find in nature. A bearded sweet iris, like thread pulled too tightly through chiffon, gleefully cocoons a fool’s fuzzy golden caterpillar, a fabulous landing strip for fuzzy golden bees as they follow the petal’s gentle striping through the stigmatic lips to the flower’s stamen—yes, impossible to describe without conjuring other activities! Nature replicates its forms and with our overloaded, arrogant eyeballs we imprint whatever most resembles us onto what we see. 

What we see is the iris; what we smell, we call orris. And the particular scent of orris comes from the iris pallida’s rhizomes beneath the earth, which are extracted, dried, and ground. The scent bears a similarity to violets—and to the cosmetics, soaps, and powders that have long been infused with the fragrance of the latter. These powdery associations can often veer a perfume into what is known as “mature” scent territory, or perhaps more accurately, a bygone time against which current tastes and trusts have soured (talcum powder lawsuits, Coco Chanel’s undercover work for the Nazi party, etc.). But in these and more contemporary iris/orris scents that tend to pair orris with spice or sandalwood, embracing the buttery richness of orris but ultimately beckoning it to recede (Le Labo’s Santal 33, Etat Libre d'Orange’s La Fin du Monde, Imaginary Authors’ O, Unknown!, etc.), what tends to get lost—sacrificed and transmuted instead to total wearability—is the fizz of surreal sweetness and murmuring earth.

In 2018, I purchased a pocket spray of Commodity’s Orris, and wrote in my year-end letter that in it I had found a near-perfect scent. When I later learned the brand was folding (though it has since been purchased and promised a revival of sorts), I ran, literally and through rain, to purchase a full bottle. And I still stand by my statement that it performs the best, most uncanny approximation of the uncanny apparition (and roll your eyes all you want, but to a more “wearable” extent so does Glossier’s You!). But the necessary earthiness is missing—and on the skin, alas, it doesn’t last. 

Perhaps it is for the best that such memories should resist easy capture and commodification. Yet it should be clear to the reader by now that this was not the great lesson I accepted in 2019. I was, and remain with only slightly more restraint and self-awareness, hellbent on clearing a path straight to the implacable feeling through whatever means available to me. But it’s a tricky matter (and, of course, a fool’s errand). You can’t just bring irises into your apartment as I have so many other plants—they require deep and dedicated earth for the rituals of planting, freezing, rooting, sunning, blooming, pruning, and slumbering. The cut irises florists tend to carry no scent at all. And as for a pilgrimage to the literal source, we moved out of the house with the bed of irises when I was eighteen; Google Earth shows me that the new owners have since paved over them to park a trailer instead.

It’s miraculous parity that the perfume of lilacs wafts—across lawns, down sidewalks, and into open windows—but an iris just doesn’t. You have to really bury your face into one. Watch the bee pollinate it some time, if you can: abdomen to the sky, wriggling in frenzied stupor. This method requires boldness and nary a care for decorum, especially if the bed of irises sits at the foot of a stranger’s inherited brownstone. What if the owner catches sight of me from their window, burying my nose in their irises? Even if I catch a sneaky whiff by the cover of moonlight, I can’t clap my journal closed around one and carry home the scent with me, too.

At the start of last year, I scribbled a few goals onto a piece of paper out of mere necessity and exhaustion, and with little ceremony. By mid-year, miraculously, they were met; but, of course, a consequence of a year heavy on plot development is that time feels as if it’s moving faster. It was busiest in the summer, when the irises were in bloom, and it seemed that each time I passed one I was rushing somewhere, somehow, too busy to stop and—and what? Stop right in the middle of the sidewalk to lean down and inhale deeply? But it seemed I blinked and then they had dried up, and I was vexed by the notion that I had missed something essential by not properly appreciating them this year. But what does it mean to appreciate something—properly?

What I really wanted most amidst the upheaval of the year was to somehow return again to water a garden that no longer belongs to my mother, to stop beside a bed of irises that no longer exists outside a house that no one I know lives inside of anymore. But you can’t stretch out time and live in a season, a moment, a memory, a feeling.

A lot of my conversations with friends this year were about growing up, by which I mean just being a person—the inevitability of it, the avoidance of it, the satisfaction of it, or the constant work of it. My few goals for the year included zero notes for daily behaviors, habits, or attitudes. But I did buy a journal and begin writing in it, in earnest. I ran a half marathon, and started swimming again for the first time since I was on the team in high school. I also probably stress-ate over 100 tubs of Trader Joe’s guacamole; I bought so much guacamole that one of the cashiers always asked me if I was having a party. And I probably drank another 300 cups of Starbucks dark roast coffee—but I began doing so from an environmentally responsible vessel instead. My lifelong poor posture and overpacked shoulder bags caught up with me, and I had to start physical therapy; now I carry only a fanny pack whenever possible. A tiny white noise machine gave me my sanity back from noisy neighbors. But I still don’t think I woke up or went to bed at the same time two nights in a given week.

I really only finished a few books this year, and one I did read, belatedly, was The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. And I will leave you with this passage, because for the foreseeable future I have left myself with it as well:

“The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinante or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.”

Happy (belated) 2020, and thank you for reading.

This letter was belated, in part, because I was finishing the second (and final) issue of HUMANxNATURE. You can preorder it here.