In 1905, a young Hilda Edwards entered onto the scene in Christmas Cove, Maine, likely weary from her trip from England. She was only fifteen years old and had come over from her home in Bristol to live with her uncle, a professor at Smith College.
I imagine the cool, salty air hitting her nostrils for the first time. The sounds of waves lapping and sloshing. Her eyes would have scanned the pebbled carpet of the shore and the lavender-pink sky that fell as a blanket to cover distant islands, which were turning a deep purple in twilight. She may have wondered what on earth could be more beautiful.
It wouldn’t be too presumptuous to think that she loved this place, because she traveled widely after her stint in Christmas Cove. And she came back. She saw the world, took in its beauty—and then, in her last act, Hilda returned to make her final home on Maine’s shore.
And then she did something curious. She dropped flower seeds.
She let them fall out of her pocket on her long walks to the post office. When she was feeling brave, she would toss them out of the passenger window of friends’ cars. The sharp and salty air from the opened windows made her hair dance wildly, the strands straightened and curled against her face. Maybe it hid a secret smile.
If you feel familiarity rising, you may know the children’s story of Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. Cooney magically wrapped all of these stories up in a little girl, Alice, who sits on the lap of her uncle. The uncle tells Alice (who is a young Miss Rumphius) that she must find a way to make the world more beautiful. Miss Rumphius, like Hilda, travels the world. And Miss Rumphius, like Hilda, comes back to settle in Maine and plant lupines.
Cooney’s Lupine Lady planted seeds in response to her uncle’s charge to make the world more beautiful. But I think the real Hilda Edwards had a deeper storm brewing. I think Hilda planted lupines out of a longing for home, and I think they fell to the ground like hopeful tears.
Lupines are not native to Maine; Hilda sent off for her seeds to be imported from her England home, where she would have seen them standing and leaning with the wind in familiar fields. It’s hard to imagine why she felt compelled to add to Maine’s native Lilies and Rhododendrons in this new land that she loved so much, unless she had a longing to walk with her palms spread and fingers combing through the lupines’ stalks— the way she may have done as a child.
Hilda started with a garden of lupines in her own backyard, and then, in the fall, she would cut stalks of them and shake their seeds over a wider space. Next came her secret imports into town, as she quietly expanded her garden wider and wider. Hilda made the world more beautiful in secret, just like Cooney’s Miss Rumphius. But she made the world more beautiful as a secondary endeavor, after first making it look more like home.
Maybe it's not that we must first do something, but that we must first long for something. Elizabeth Harwell
Last summer, I saw Hilda’s lupines in Maine. These majestic spires spring up for a two-week show all along the Maine coast, and I was lucky enough to be there for it. The sight was arresting and seeing them stirred up the call in me: What must I do to make the world more beautiful? The lupines all stood with perfect posture, like purple and blue maidens, quietly watching the sea. Of course she wanted them here. Of course she couldn’t imagine her life without them. I loved seeing one woman’s hunger for home spreading like a purple-blue fire, burning Maine’s shore with a blooming nostalgia.
When I first encountered the story of the Lupine Lady through Barbara Cooney’s storybook, I felt paralyzed by the charge: You must do something to make the world more beautiful. Because, like Miss Rumphius, I think the world is already quite nice. What could I add to it, really?
Hilda’s lupines tell me that it will not be my striving for a purpose that will spill over with beauty. Beauty will come from a deeper place— a hunger for heaven and earth to collide. And maybe I have something to give there. Perhaps I can squeeze my wrist through the crack of the door to heaven and wiggle it back through with a bag of seeds. Maybe it’s not that we must first do something, but that we must first long for something.
And our longings will fall out of our pockets on the walk to the post office, and they will be flung out into the wind from car windows. And they will grow purpley-blue on the seashore, watching and waiting with their faces to the sea.
Artwork credit: “Ocean Coast Lupine Flowers” by Laura Tasheiko