Earlier this week, not far from my house, I discovered what I call a trumpet tree. Its height slightly exceeded my own and the flowers, pale pink trumpets that hung bell -down, were each the size of my hand. They did not have much of an odor but the fragility of their color – the hint of pink that heralds the dawn – and the sheer number of trumpets covering the tree, held me for several moments.
Farther down the block, I started to walk past a telephone pole but movement at the top drew my gaze upward. A long and leafless double strand of vine climbed to the top of the pole where it exploded, a wild welter of green leaf and orange trumpet flower, like the ivy crowns of the Maenads. But although a breeze lifted leaves and then allowed them gently to settle, this was not the movement that had caught my eye. I waited. One, then two hummingbirds made an appearance. Their wings ablur, their beaks needle-sharp.
Continuing down the street I spied a bird cage hidden near the trunk of a large bush. Its wire frame was rusted from exposure to the elements; the inhabitants, two small ceramic birds, refugees no doubt from some yard sale, seemed no worse the wear from sun and rain. In the same garden, a tree limb had been painted the blue of the robes of the Virgin Mary and planted in the side yard. Each of the many branches held a cobalt blue bottle.
The bottle tree is a familiar Southern feature. It is said that the bottle tree originated in Africa, where it was believed that evil spirits would be first attracted by the light glinting off glass, then trapped in the bottles.
In my yard too, there is a bottle tree. In addition to bottles that once held water, also cobalt blue, there are bottles the color of the shallows of the Mediterranean Sea, bottles that once held gin, Sapphire Bombay. The fence behind my bottle tree is painted blue, ocher, and brown, its inspiration taken from the painted houses of the Basotho in South Africa.
Basotho women in South Africa and Lesotho paint their prayers. Brilliant splashes of color and striking geometric designs decorate the outside walls of their homes. When the rain washes away the color, it is said, it means their prayers have been successful.
So it is that what at first appears to be mere whimsy may hold a deeper meaning, the line between the sacred and the profane determined by the maker’s intent.