The flower goes by many names: lion’s foot, beautiful star, snow flower, star glacier, alpine everlasting flower, glacier queen, the star of the snows. In the scientific community it is referred to as Leontopodium alpina. In Romanian, it is called floarea reginei (the queen’s flower) or, more commonly, floare de colt (corner or nook flower).
This is where I am now—Romania—and when I see one of the small white blooms on a mountain hike my first instinct is to sing its most common name: Eeeedelweiiiis, Eeeedelweiiiis, every morning you greeeet meeeeeee…. This is I do with another American girl on the same hike, and we know every word of the song. (If you don’t, please watch or re-watch The Sound of Music.)
The Edelweiss (German for noble and white) is something of a national symbol for the countries whose landscapes are made jagged by the Alps or the Carpathians. It is a high-altitude flower, growing almost exclusively on rocky gorges and alpine pastures. Representing purity and strength, they have been collected for decorative and medicinal purposes. In Romania, they are featured on the fifty lei bill and are protected by the law—pick it, and you face a hefty fine.
On our hike, we see the first few along the path on the way to the peak. A young Romanian woman hiking with us is perhaps the most excited to see it. She recognizes it immediately, snaps pictures on her phone, and speaks excitedly of how she’s never seen one in person.
We don’t see any more on the way up. On the way down, I take a slight detour with one other person to see a neighboring peak. We have to step up the side like mountain goats, but the top is a flat meadow with tall wispy grasses and rocky outcrops and—can you guess? Cluster after silvery cluster of Edelweiss.
Some of my days are spent on mountains like these, stumbling across pastures of rare alpine flowers, but most of my days are spent in a squat yellow building with little Romanian rock climbers. This bouldering gym was created to be an afterschool program and safe space for the area children. They come to us from Cartier Dallas, a neighborhood of block apartments in various states of disrepair that jut up on the hill behind our little building. It’s a neighborhood of poverty and violence and hard and beautiful people—not an easy place to grow up, but they do.
I am aware of an uncomfortable dichotomy. On Saturday I stand on the top of a mountain, the wind like freedom strong enough to push me off my feet. On Monday, one of the kiddos points out his father, a strong-looking mustached man, wearing a small backpack and walking down the hill in front of our gym. “Going to work at the mine,” the kid tells me. This valley was a coal-mining hub in the communist era, but most of the mines have since been shut down. Many of our kids have at least one parent who has left to find work in England, Germany, France, or another European country where employment and earning prospects are higher. Those who still have jobs at the local mine could be considered lucky.
Life here is dirtier than it is on the mountain down the road. I am constantly reminded of how very needy we humans are. I am also reminded that some of us get much, much more than others. The smallest details of my childhood, from brushing my teeth to bedtime stories, now strike me more as precious gifts than inevitabilities.
The Edelweiss has a short, woody stem to protect it from the high alpine winds. It is covered with small white hairs that protect it from frost and high ultraviolet mountain radiation. It is valued for its inaccessibility, for its resilience in unforgiving environments. I have encountered mixed feelings about the beauty of this flower. It is not the most colorful or showy bloom. It is a bit strange, a bit haggard even, but it is my favorite, just as it has been the favorite of so many alpinists, collectors, and proud countrywomen and men.
So too do our means of survival manifest themselves in varying levels of appeal. These kids can be kind and loving and absolutely beautiful little human beings. They can also be surprisingly hard with their words, with their attitudes, and with their hands. They’re not always noble or pure, but then of course neither am I. We try our best, and sometimes people climb mountains just to see us blossom in the cold.
I’ve found it’s harder to sing to people than it is to sing to flowers, but if I did, my song would sound pretty familiar:
Bloom and grow, forever.
Bless your homeland.