It looks and feels like July in Central Maryland, but it’s only the beginning of June. Not surprisingly, this year’s unusually early spring has given way to an early summer.
A lot of things are blooming far earlier than what I used to consider normal. The semi-wild orange daylilies have been blooming for a couple of weeks, as have the hybridized Stella D’oro daylilies. Deer come in the early, early morning hours to nibble the tender daylily buds.
Euell Gibbons, the late author of “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” and promoter of eating food found in the wild, was a big fan of daylily buds, and wrote of dipping them in batter and frying them. Back in my hippie days in the 1970s, I experimented with gathering and cooking wild plants, using his books as a guide. Among many other wild foods, I tried daylily buds, but they weren’t anything special as far as I recall.
Daylilies, called Hemerocallis from the Greek words for “day” and “beauty,” are native to Korea, Japan and China, where the flowers and buds are consumed in dishes such as daylily soup, hot and sour soup, Mu Shu pork and Buddha’s delight.
Our familiar wild tawny daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, grows in many of our 50 states and is sometimes considered invasive and a nuisance.
Daylilies = summer
As a kid in New Jersey I always thought of daylilies as summer flowers, raising their bright orange petals up like miniature Fourth-of-July fireworks. Daylilies meant dusty summer roadsides, walking barefoot, stopping to catch a breath in the cool blue-green shade of fully leafed trees. Not May flowers. There’s something odd going on when daylilies bloom in mid-May.
Daylilies in bloom spelled July and the start of Estonian summer camp on Long Island, tucked among the sandy pines and farms of Middle Island.
I started going to Eesti Laste Suvekodu (Estonian Children’s Summer Home) when I was seven, usually for a single week, sometimes two, because that’s all my parents could afford. They needed a mental health break from the perennial squabbling between my younger brother and myself. When he was old enough, he went to camp too. My parents must have celebrated their freedom.
Camp was sponsored by the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in the U.S., and took place for six weeks in July and August every summer. We were required to speak only Estonian at camp, and to take part in Lutheran church services there every Sunday. We had morning calisthenics, swimming, sports and lessons in Estonian language, history, folk songs and folk dancing. Though I disliked folk dancing at the time because I was usually stuck with one of the awkward boys, I can remember the dance steps and the music on the record player and the smooth tiled floor of the Suur Saal (Great Hall).
We put on plays, had athletic competitions, and had vast and memorable all-day team scavenger hunts, borrowing pigs or cows from neighboring farmers to score the ultimate number of points. The year I was 13, I suddenly keeled over with pain in the middle of an exciting scavenger hunt, and wound up having my appendix removed that night. I was upset about missing the rest of the scavenger hunt and being stuck in a New York City hospital for 10 precious days of summer. I suppose now the doctor takes the thing out and they boot you out the door the same day.
Every Saturday there was a big bonfire for campers and our visitors, and we gathered around for an evening of songs and funny skits. I don’t remember the skits now, but I remember the sparks flying high into the night sky, the scent of wood smoke, the joy of singing together with our faces lit by firelight.
And when the fire was dying down, came the hypnotic closing song. We all joined hands and swayed side to side singing this lullaby:
“Uni tule rutuga et magama ma jääks.
Ka kata silmad kätega, et väsimus must läeks.
Olen homme parem kui olin eile.
Olen homme parem kui olin täna.”
(Dreams, come quickly now so I can fall asleep.
I cover my eyes with my hands, so tiredness may go away.
I will be better tomorrow than I was yesterday.
I will be better tomorrow than I was today.)
Stuff we learned at camp
I learned so many useful things at camp. During the group hike back from a North Shore beach, out of view of the counselors, a friend offered me my first lit cigarette. I was 12, and was I ever nauseous afterward. I learned that some of our counselors purchased beer, vodka and other amenities and sometimes shared them with older campers. I had my first kiss, and later practiced making out with various boys when I was 12 or 13, although I was known as a shy goody-goody back at school. I learned dirty jokes and the racy lyrics to some Estonian folk songs from our counselors. And I learned to cuss gloriously in English from the New York City kids, who were way more sophisticated than their sheltered suburban counterparts.
After returning from camp one summer — I must have been 9 or 10 — I proudly demonstrated my new collection of four-letter words to the neighborhood kids, most of whom were a couple of years younger. Their mothers promptly informed me that I should have my mouth washed out with soap, and forbade their children to play with me or my brother, because we were Bad Influences.
During camp, we mastered practical jokes such as short-sheeting beds or hiding a harmless snake in a counselor’s bunk. Some of us learned to run very fast after trying these things. We older girls stayed up late at night reading romance magazines out loud, or making up scary stories about a mysterious Black Cabin said to be in the woods. One summer we terrorized the little boys with a tale about a fictitious bloodsucking moth called the Orange Mooom (with three o’s) that would one day fly into their cabin, bringing doom.
Tower of bees
Once we made a tower of bees. One morning at breakfast, kids began catching the bees that buzzed around the mess hall between plastic juice glasses. It was tricky, but we succeeded in making a nice apartment tower of nine or ten furious bees trapped in a similar number of tumblers. Too bad for the poor kids who had KP duty that day, because they had to separate the glasses and dodge the bees.
During our rare free time, I rambled around the camp property alone, looking up wildflowers in a little pocket guide. I identified orange butterfly weed, Queen Ann’s Lace, chicory and many other familiar summer flowers. I taught my friends to peel and chew on the roots of sassafras saplings for the taste of root beer, and we were always hunting for frogs to be our pets.
Still vivid in my mind is the time one girl’s pet frog was caught and slowly swallowed by a garter snake. Ignoring Ines’s tears and pleadings to rescue the frog, one of the counselors instructed us to watch nature in action, even pointing out how the hapless creature’s front feet, the last part swallowed, were clasped as if in prayer. It was a horrible experience.
Change comes to Estonian camp
The Long Island Estonian community still owns the campsite and hosts a number of events there, including a sports competition and summer solstice bonfire this coming weekend. Part of me is tempted to go back and see the place again, but in addition to being an awful drive, the Suvekodu has inevitably changed over the past 50-some years. They stopped holding summer camp for a while, but then it was revived due to popular demand from a new generation of Estonian-American parents with camp memories of their own. I wonder if today’s campers manage to get away with the stuff we did. I certainly hope so.
Where there were once deep pine and oak woods and strawberry farms surrounding our camp, friends tell me it is now surrounded on all sides by suburban development. It’s no longer an isolated island of carefree Estonian kids in a setting of rural beauty, except in our fragile memories.
I don’t think I can bear going back and witnessing the changes there. There’s far too much change taking place in the world, particularly all the shifts and alterations in climate patterns that are bringing us daylilies as May flowers.