“They have horizontal snow in Canada right now,” Jock reported. “I sent them some pictures of the azaleas to make them feel better.”
Somehow I thought it might not be the spirit with which the pictures were received after close to seven months of snow.
Every year I fall in love with the city all over again in the first two weeks of April. Everything bursts into bloom and color; it just takes my breath away that we live in such a beautiful place.
One of my friends commented recently how part of why she loves azaleas so much is the ephemeral nature of them: you don’t really have them delivered by a florist. You pretty much have to enjoy them on the plant during the brief period of their blooming, or not at all. It is not common to see them grown in a hot house and shipped in December or February for floral arrangements. It feels like every year conversations abound about whether or not we will have any azaleas for the festival, should they have peaked by the garden party. The same friend pointed out in her yard, the azaleas in the shade usually make it to the festival date, even if the ones in the sun have finished their display.
It is believed azaleas first came to the American South in the 1830s by way of a plantation outside of Charleston called “Magnolia on the Ashley.” Now known as Magnolia Gardens, it is open to the public, similar to our own Airlie Gardens. From the beginning, the azalea’s popularity and ability to thrive in our climate spread. Azalea festivals, in some form or fashion, take place in several cities in the South. Of course, Wilmington is the home of the North Carolina Azalea Festival.
Walking around Greenfield Lake this time of year shows the drama of nature unfold in story form. All around us the beautiful display of color informs how Mother Earth is waking up from her slumber—celebrating the return of her daughter with the gifts of spring. It is downright infectious: I find myself slobbering over seed catalogs the same way I used to pore over the Sears and JCPenney’s catalogs when I was little. Massive landscaping and gardening plans take shape in my head. Beautiful waterfalls of color await to burst forth in my yard; I can feel it just beneath the surface of the ground.
Way back in time, humans admitted we were dependent upon nature for survival: food, shelter, water, etc. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman observed in “Good Omens” that “almost the entire drive of human history has been to get as far away from Nature as possible.” Given the revelations about the state of our river and drinking water in the last few years—from coal ash spills, hog lagoon breeches and the GenX situation—clearly, we are in denial as to how connected we are with that large ribbon of wet stuff that looks so picturesque next to Water Street.
But we used to be more honest with ourselves about the interdependency, instead of behaving like an abusive partner in our relationship with the planet. Spring fertility festivals were common to celebrate the return of the food-producing part of the year and to hope for a successful crop in the coming year. Frequently, a beautiful young woman would be crowned the queen of the festival and attended by a group of young ladies whose youth and beauty all reminded people of the promise of a fertile year ahead. A fair might be part of this celebration with dancing and singing and hopefully good parties and feasts.
I remember the first year our school went to watch the Azalea Queen arrive. We particularly were excited because that year it was Phylicia Rashad, who we knew as Mrs. Huxtable from “The Cosby Show.” It was before the Henrietta II or III riverboats were running on the river, when the Azalea Queen would come in on the fire boat, surrounded by her court. The downtown riverfront was filled with beautiful girls in Azalea Belle costumes.
The daughter of one of our teachers was a belle that year—and we were all beside ourselves to see her holding a parasol and twirling in a beautiful dress. We caravaned to one of the garden parties and watched the ribbon cutting. One of my classmates brought a bouquet to give the queen, but of course we never got within five feet of her.
If he had gotten to shake Mrs. Huxtable’s hand and give her the bouquet, I don’t know if our class could have survived the excitement. For 5- and 6-year-olds, it was possibly the best day ever. Many of our parents had tickets to the big concert at Trask Coliseum over the weekend, but all we could talk about on Monday morning was the street fair—with funnel cakes, balloons and knick knacks galore.
The parallels are pretty obvious.
But so is the money.
The Azalea Festival continues to be a huge draw economically for the area, with people traveling to see the gardens, celebrities and big concerts. This year they include country artist Billy Currington with Drake White and Kenton Bryant, along with classic-rock icons 38 Special with Tuesdays Gone (see page 10), and of course, rap artist Ludacris.
As my landscape friend Dagmar Cooley of Dagmar’s Designs reminded me, people come for the garden and home tours too. Dagmar should know; she has two clients on the garden tour (see page 43) this year. It is a draw that appeals to folks who just want to enjoy the beauty, to those as nearby as Brunswick Forest and from areas all around us who can see our city in its most colorful light.
Who can blame them?
The area is beautiful and we put on an amazing show. We manage to bring people far and wide to spend money here; that is the modern equivalent of a successful and fertile harvest.
How much money are we talking about, though?
UNCW conducted an economic impact study of the Azalea Festival in 2011 and concluded $48.3 million was spent by locals and visitors combined during the course of the festival. They estimated close to 6,000 households visited from outside the area for the festival. The parade alone is estimated to bring over 100,000 people to view and participate in it.
“Fertility” is an awkward term in modern America. It conjures up images of pregnancy (wanted and unwanted) and all sorts of thoughts about the female body—which somehow continues to be a contentious and controversial topic (in spite of having shared the planet for the same length of time as the male body). Fertility of the soil, though, is essential for our survival, physically (food to eat) and financially. To a large extent, it is what we are celebrating with the return of spring: a return of hope and fertility, birth, new life. It is certainly the return of the tourists who are the bread and butter of so many businesses in the area.
Maybe this year, while we are walking around, enjoying the beauty of the area and the collective excitement that comes with Azalea Festival, we could spare a few thoughts for the natural resources we are celebrating and exploiting. Or we might not have them in the future.