Spider Lilies Awaken Autumn And Years Past September in the South means crisp air, cool breezes and an annual sign that ushers in autumn as surely as the equinox itself: spider lilies.
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Spider Lilies Awaken Autumn And Years Past

Spider lilies soak up the afternoon sun. Joel Andrew/AP hide caption

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Joel Andrew/AP

Spider lilies soak up the afternoon sun.

Joel Andrew/AP

It's September in the South, and the spider lilies have begun to bloom again.

There they are, with their long, green leafless stalks and crowns of crimson flowers, looking a bit like red daddy longlegs. They take their cue from the autumnal equinox — a lovely phrase that invokes all the delicacy, but also the bittersweetness, of the season change. The spider lily blooms, after all, when bountiful summer foliage starts to fade and grow dusty, when the too-strong sunlight endured for so long becomes slanted and yellow and foreign. They take their cue from tomorrow's autumnal equinox.

They are blooming in the same places I've seen them the past 50 years: in the crook of my grandmother's ragged pecan tree and around the foundation of her old white bungalow, and in the untidy vacant lot next door to her property. Only the most attentive passerby would ever see them there, all the way in back, past the sawed-off trees and the thickets choked with weeds and vines.

Teresa Nicholas is a freelance writer who divides her time between Yazoo City, Miss., and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She has just completed a memoir about growing up in Mississippi, which is on submission to publishers. Courtesy of Teresa Nicholas hide caption

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Courtesy of Teresa Nicholas

All around our town it's the same story: spider lilies in other vacant lots and in the pocket yards of poorer houses, next to fallen wooden fences and atop the oldest graves in the cemetery. They grow in rows and clumps, in shadows and sun. They seem to stand guard over property lines. Through casual observance, I've noticed that spider lilies aren't as plentiful around the fancier homes in town, or in the newer subdivisions.

It may seem that there is no logic as to where the lilies pop up, but I believe there is, and it's the logic of the past: Spider lilies grow not where we must remember to tend them, but in places that tend to cause us to remember.

Like Marcel Proust's tea-soaked madeleine, the spider lily reminds us not by taste or smell, but through visual memory, re-blooming every year in those odd, forgotten places. Take that exuberant bunch in the vacant lot next to my grandmother's house. It blooms because nearly a hundred years ago she lived there, in what she used to call a cabin. When it burned in the 1920s, she and my grandfather were able to scrape up enough to buy the "grander" bungalow next door to it. I imagine that my grandmother, a lifelong gardener, planted that bunch of spider lilies near the cabin's back door; people and dwelling long gone, what remain are the spider lilies.

It's for good reason the spider lily reminds us of the past, and of passing. Of those that have gone before us, of the year that goes before us. Sweaty Little League games give way to crisp Friday night football, and raucous bird song to the occasional cry of a lonely blue jay. There is poignancy here, and yearning. But there is also elegance, and the welcoming promise of renewal.

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