In August 2013, I read in the newspaper about the passing of a New Hampshire gentleman named Walter Stiles. The published tributes indicate that he was a generous man in every respect, devoted to his family, active in his community. I met him once over twenty years before his death, had a single unforgettable conversation with him on the subject of lilacs, and never saw him again. In the short time we chatted, he managed to convey his great and contagious affection for this state and its natural beauty.
We were at a political gathering, not a social one, and there was a lot of edgy debate among attendees that day. No matter. By some chance, I was seated next to Mr. Stiles, who I think was a state representative at the time. His kindness and dignity were a kind of antidote to the tension in the room. I asked him what he did when he wasn’t serving in his political office. I realize now that he could have said any number of things, for as his obituary made clear, he was a man of many parts. What he chose to tell me about was his interest in horticulture, particularly lilacs.
I had never paid much attention to lilacs before that time, to tell you the truth. They were just sort of there. Listening to Walter Stiles, I began to realize what I’d been missing. He told me about the Governor’s Lilac Commission, which was a fairly new group at that time. He told me that the lilac was the state flower, and that he hoped to see more people plant them around their homes and schools and towns. He talked about the flower’s wonderful fragrance (which I had never stopped to notice). He told me about the people working with the Commission and with their own local garden clubs to encourage cultivation.
When the day’s proceedings were over, he bid me a cordial farewell and went on his way. He must have been grinning to himself, knowing better than I did that he had dropped an idea in front of me and that I was sure to pick it up eventually.
As I said, that was many years ago. Since then, lilacs planted by my husband have grown to line one side of our yard. I wait impatiently every spring for those gorgeous blossoms. I fill vases with them and bring them into the house so the fragrance can fill the rooms. Wherever I see lilacs in blossom, I appreciate all the colors from white to deepest purple. I’m grateful to everyone who has gone to the trouble of planting the bushes, which take a few years to establish. As I learned to look for lilacs, I learned to keep my eyes open for the other flowers all over New Hampshire. The variety astonishes me anew every year.
It’s no accident that I do more hiking as I get older. I have more to appreciate and enjoy. I’ve benefited from many people who have taken the time to share with me their love of this state’s beauty. From such folks, I am learning more all the time, and I have all the more reason to savor my time on the trails.
If you’re a fan of being outdoors, I hope you’ll do what Mr. Stiles did: share your enthusiasm. I only met him once, and I never had the chance to thank him for expanding my horizons just a bit. I’m guessing he’d consider those lilacs in my yard thanks enough.