I was introduced to the night-blooming cereus by English architects John Adams and Marina Dunbar in the summer of 1991, in Clapham, London SW4, while boarding at their customized avant-garde house on Macaulay Road, and interning at English Heritage, where John also worked.
The situation during the summer months began straightforwardly but became increasingly complex. At the outset, John Adams had put up a flyer at English Heritage seeking a boarder (a fairly typical way to supplement household income in London at the time, and to keep creative energies flowing, I suppose), and, via my sponsor (US-ICOMOS*), I was simultaneously seeking a place to board, so the twain met neatly, working out for both parties. If memory serves, I paid sixty pounds per week for room and board at John and Marina's in Clapham, and the same (which became a discount, at first a slight source of tension) when relocated to Bob and Tatiana Blagoveshenskaya Dunbar's (Marina's parents') labyrinthine flat off Bentinck Street (London W1U) due to unforeseen circumstances.
My stay in London started like a verse of Bob Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate" and took off from there. I'd end up with an English architect girlfriend, have dinners and wine with John and Nick (Nicholas) Dunbar, hear about Marianne Faithfull (John's ex-wife and Nick's mother) and Mick Jagger, discover how John Dunbar had introduced Yoko Ono to John Lennon, learn about Bob and Tatiana's life and film work in Mexico, Russia and the UK, hear about Marina and John Dunbar's twin sisters Jennifer (married to American poet Ed Dorn) and Margaret, speak at length with their son Lev (whose break in mental health was the catalyst for my relocation), hang out with Italian poet-sculptor and fellow Bentinck Street lodger Livia Livi, and yes, yes, see the great night-blooming cereus growing from what appeared to be latticework in a sort of solarium-and-socializing space at the Macaulay Road residence.
Marina Dunbar and John Adams told of the Mexican varieties of night-blooming cereus, the Queen of the Night. This strange and resilient cactus plant represented something about Mexico to them. In 1968, while Jennifer Dunbar and Ed Dorn headed to Paris to see the "disturbances" there, John worked as an architect at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the one caught up in the Tlatelolco student massacre and featuring the Black Power salute. Bob and Tatiana had married in Mexico City at the beginning of the Second World War, and had started their family there before being redeployed to the British embassy in Moscow. In a sense, the night-blooming cereus was Mexico.
The mystique of the night-blooming cereus came in its name and origin. It bloomed rarely, and at night. Maybe once a year, maybe more, maybe never.
When I was preparing to return to the USA (or "States" as they would say), Marina gave me a couple of moistened leaves in a plastic bag, and back went strands of their night-blooming cereus to the Americas. Twenty-one years on, several plants have sprung from these "mustard seeds." It's a hearty and weird cactus, this night-blooming cereus, though I have yet to see one bloom at night or at anytime at all, with my own eyes. In due time, I suspect. Somewhere, somehow. Meanwhile, the story of its origin remains for me as transcendent as the night-bloom of a summer's dream.
Today's Rune: Fertility.
*The US National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a fully paid internship, enough to survive on overseas. Pictured at top: cover of Night-Blooming Cereus: Stories by K.A. Longstreet (University of Missouri Press, 2002).