"I imagine we are in accord about the use of certain words and I never use a word without first considering if it is replaceable....The whole thing is, it seems, that one should never use words which shock altogether out of their own value or connotation--such a word as for instance fart would stand out on a page, unless the whole matter were entirely rabelaisian, in such a manner that it would be entirely exaggerated and false and overdone in emphasis. Granted that it is a very old and classic English word for a breaking of wind. But you cannot use it. Although I can think of a case where it might be used, under sufficiently tragic circumstances, as to be entirely acceptable."
--Ernest Hemingway to Maxwell Perkins, 1926, from Selected Letters, p. 211--
These ladies I spotted in the park recently are variously known as Naked Ladies, Surprise Lilies, Mystery Lilies, Resurrection Lilies, or Lycoris squamigera. They speak to me on several different levels, which is not surprising considering their origin, bloom habit, as well as common and scientific names.
Thought to originate either in China or Japan, Naked Ladies--or Surprise Lilies if you prefer--exhibit growth and bloom characteristics that harken back to a more inscrutable world than my (maybe your) Western one. The lilies grow from bulbs and produce first only leaves in the spring which wither and disappear beneath the soil until mid to late summer. Then the bulbs resting underground seem to almost magically sprout stalks topped with buds opening up in just four to five days to reveal fragrant, delicately pink flowers. After a brief but glorious time of bloom, the bulbs retreat from view once again, living a secret life in the dark until the next growth season, silently reproducing themselves and creating ever larger colonies. In similar fashion, Oriental women were once--but not that long ago--expected to remain hidden from public view for the most part and to keep themselves beautiful but silent before their husbands. I remember as a teenager reading Pearl Buck's masterpiece The Good Earth with disbelief and chagrin that men could treat women like so much property and with so little humanity and respect. Even more troubling, I noted that the women were complicit in those social transactions, submitting themselves to a fate over which they had no control. Even so, as I recall, family ties were depicted as being undeniably strong, and there was a fabric of life covering, connecting, and sheltering individual family members and entire communities. Women kept that fabric mended and renewed, despite suffering what Westerners would consider humiliating treatment. They considered it their destiny and privilege because it meant contributing to the continuation of a cycle, not unlike that of the Naked Ladies.
Those seductive ladies I captured in the park, wearing nothing but their fragrance and pretty pink hats, intrigue me with not only their growth pattern and Oriental heritage but also the etymological side of their story. What possessed someone to call them Ladies? Why not Naked Men? If Eleanor Perenyi, the author of Green Thoughts (copyright 1981) is correct in her general assumptions about a woman's place in the garden, the common name of this specific flower may have come about because of men's historically "superstitious fear that women were in league with nature in some way that men were not." Perhaps men have assigned female traits and monikers to flowers because, according to Perenyi, "flowers are of all plants the least menacing and the most useless. Their sole purpose is to be beautiful and to give pleasure" (261). On one website I encountered, the author invited comments pertaining to the name and culture of the lily. One comment was particularly noteworthy. Its author remembered a grandfather calling the lily a Naked Lady only to be reminded by his wife that its "correct" name was the Mystery Lily. The elderly gentleman retorted (I'm sure with a twinkle in his eye) that a naked lady is no mystery.
The Naked Lady's scientific name certainly contains some mystery that warrants investigation. Lycoris means "twilight," perhaps referring to its late-summer bloom time or maybe to its evanescent appearance above ground. Its species' name squamigera means "bearing scales." I take that descriptive term two ways: it either has a scaly appearance (maybe the bulb?) or, like the blind lady of justice, it--as any other living thing--weighs our faults against our merits while the fate of our planet hangs in the balance and depends on the decisions of the men in control.