The heralds of summer: mini-stars and Maureen
Round here, there are two infallible signs of summer. They are inextricably intertwined.
The first is Maureen.
The second is a small, airy wildflower with smooth-edged, narrow leaves, filamental stems, and - perched delicately at the ends of these stems - a dancing array of minuscule white daisylike blooms with radiating petals. A tiny constellation.
Maureen is the lady who dog-sits next door. She's done so for several years now. She reappears every time the owners go on vacation or are living it up at their other house, in Spain. When Maureen climbs up the hill from the bus stop and crunches through the front gate, Thumper and Daisy are suddenly in a state of optimal, brimming, wide-eyed ecstasy.
They stage a welcome that is jubilant enough to destabilize the equilibrium of this quiet neighborhood for a day or two. I suspect they like her even better than their real owners. After all, Maureen (who answered the ad for a dog-sitter because, she says, "I was really missing having dogs around me") gives them wall-to-wall, dawn-to-dusk, 101 percent attention.
She treats them, in fact, to a ceaseless round of entertainment. Most important: throwing tennis balls and engaging in enthusiastic ramblings along the wild, natural area that slopes below our houses down to the bank bordering a highway.
It's amazing how frequently either my wife or I, when we are taking our dogs out, bump into Maureen down there on her first, second, or third walk of the day. It is a place of liberty where dogs can run safely. They leap and dart in this ocean of summer grasses and reeds, plunge through the white lace of the cow parsley, and weave through the yellow buttercups. The buttercups!
This year they need to be seen to be believed. Talk about multiplication. It is a cosmos of pointillist yellow dots. Trillions of small suns.
I heard an astronomer on the radio the other day being asked if he could convey, without resort to the usual ungraspable figures, the quantity of stars in the sky.
"What if," he replied, "we were to say there are about the same number of stars as there are blades of grass in the world?"
If he had said "as many stars as there are buttercup heads just now in the wild area on Glasgow's south side where Maureen and other locals exercise their dogs," I would still have been dumfounded. But blades of grass! I can't even try to begin to grasp such numbers.
All I know is that the grass in this wild place is magnificently various, splendidly rampant, and, not being mowed to make hay or create lawns, it goes through all the stages of maturing. It shoots, flowers, and seeds without interference, like an old-fashioned meadow allowed just to do its own thing under the sky.
All this summertime growing and burgeoning enormously appeals to Maureen, nature lover extraordinaire. I know because she keeps saying so. "Do you realize how fortunate you are to live near this?" And she gazes across the waves of yellow and green, rippling and swaying in the wayward Scottish breeze, with a rapt look on her face.
One day, I was greeted by Maureen and her sister Betty near home. "Have you seen the amazing flower that grows by the gate in the fence down by the motorway?" she asked. "I've never seen it in my life. Have a look next time you're down there. Perhaps you'll know its name. It's a lovely wee thing."
Next time I was down there, I hunted for this astonishing plant, wondering how I had failed to see it before. The footpath runs parallel to the fence. The gate is about halfway along. I looked. And I looked again ... and then I saw it.
This was the kind of modest and fragile summer wildflower that cyclists and joggers and time-watching dog-walkers - anyone with his or her head in the air and looking forward rather than focusing on the ground and concentratedly searching for nature's minutiae - could easily overlook. I had no notion of its name.
I tweaked off a fragment of stem and flower, and when I got home again, out came the books. It took some searching, but in the end I felt sure I'd identified it. So I tore off a strip of white paper and inscribed the name in large silver letters on it. I then went next door and pushed it through the mail slot.
It was a day or two before I saw Maureen once more, and I was surprised she didn't immediately mention the name of the plant. After some chat I said: "So now you know what the plant is called."
"The little white one by the gate you liked so much."
"How would I know what it's called?" she said.
"I put it through the front door."
"You did?" Pause. "I never saw it. I must have scooped it up with the rest of the mail. I'll go and look."
She found it in the end. And now, every year, Maureen and Betty and I all watch out to see if this delightful plant is thriving and spreading. We weren't sure at first this year. But it turned out the plant had shifted position a little along the grass verge, that's all. We think there is more of it than last year.
And now, a couple of weeks after Maureen started once again to act in loco parentis, it is fully out and sparkling away with as much verve as ever.
And that is how Maureen, and a plant with the odd name of "Lesser Stitchwort" (I am thinking of renaming it "Maureen's Flower"), and the arrival of summer are all part and parcel of each year's cycle. If the weltering buttercup is a microcosm of the sun, Maureen's flower is a microcosm of the stars. I wouldn't be without either.
And neither, I suspect, would Maureen.