Finding seeds of the familiar abroad
Among the detritus of Mount Vesuvius, whose 4,000-foot twin peaks loom large over all of Naples, more than 10,000 plant species make their home in the rich volcanic soil.
Until my family and I landed in Italy in 2010, relocating from the Fort Smith River Valley to the near-constant spring of the Mediterranean so that my husband could teach military kids enrolled in Department of Defense schools overseas, never before had I seen such an abundance of vegetation. It was on our drive from the airport that I first spotted the region’s famed umbrella pines, which can grow to more than 80 feet tall, branches pruned to a perfect canopy. It was on a tour of Italian cemeteries that I learned the cypress tree, that thin, towering conifer most people envision lining avenues leading to Renaissance villas, is regarded as a symbol of death to Neapolitans. It was on a trip to Sorrento, a seaside town located on the road to the Amalfi Coast, that I saw citrus trees, carefully cultivated, bearing both lemons and oranges. And it was in my own yard in the town of Monteruscello that I feasted on the bounty of the land—our garden a host to grapevine, bougainvillea and six varieties of fruit trees: loquat, fig, pomegranate, tangerine, plum and two kinds of pears that, although my Italian landlord labored long and hard to explain their names and qualities to me, I still cannot differentiate.
But it wasn’t the novel plant life that thrilled me; it was the familiar that sped my heart and put a smile on my face. In my neighborhood—what the Italians call a parco—I saw wisteria growing on fences, crape myrtle stretching its fingers through the gates, and stately magnolias anchoring ancient boulevards come spring. I thought of those Easters when I woke up to a basket filled with a nest of crinkly plastic grass and hot-pink marshmallow Peeps and button-eyed stuffed-animal rabbits, my mom standing by, commanding me to get my lacy white Easter dress on and go look in our yard for the eggs we had dyed the day before and she had hidden after I went to sleep. Look next to that tulip tree! Dig under those azalea bushes! See what’s in the middle of that patch of irises!
The sight of these recognizable plants thriving across the pond made me long for the flora I knew I could only find in Arkansas: the purple clusters of thrift and the gnarled roots of the sweet gum trees and the blossoms of daffodils. Daffodils, my favorites. Daffodils that, while findable in Italy if you search long enough in a botanical garden, did not grow anywhere near my home overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Daffodils that my mom and I would pick near our home, pinching the base of their stems quickly and sharply in order to keep their stiff stalks rigid so their bright faces would shine upward from our Depression-glass vases filled with food coloring-spiked water, where we’d watch the inching blues and reds crawl along the veins of the flowers’ delicate yellow petals. Daffodils that my mom just informed me are, right now, blooming in her backyard.
As I sit in my Conway bedroom this morning, watching what is supposed to be the last snow of the winter melt, flooding my yard into a mud pool that my two preteen boys will love wading through, it is the spring that I am most looking forward to after returning to live in our home state of Arkansas. It is the pageantry of our native foliage I can’t wait to see unfold, to smell, to revel in. It is the daffodils I want my toddler daughter, born in Italy, never experiencing an Arkansas spring, to run among looking for Easter eggs.
Here’s to spring, in this, our Natural State.
After four years in Italy, Heather Steadham has returned to the States to pursue an MFA in creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas.