Stretching his hand up to reach the stars, too often man forgets the flowers at his feet.
Jeremy Bentham philosopher
This musing was stimulated when Stephen and I took our three grandkids to the Grampians in the recent school holidays. We stayed in a pioneer mud brick cottage surrounded by kangaroos, mellifluous birds and some very friendly hens. We visited Brambuck, the national park and cultural centre to learn about the indigenous people and their ongoing custody of the place they call Gariwerd. We visited ancient rock art depicting the creator, Bunjil the eagle, and wandered through the excellent zoo with its animal conservation and rehabilitation programs. The kids jumped and splashed around on rock strewn riversides and we had a rowdy last night eating pizzas at a local café. Of course we walked on high rocky paths that culminated in dramatic vistas, and along the way I photographed wildflowers. The Grampians’ famous wildflower glory was only in the early stages, and my mission involved searching and delighted discovery.
I like to take flowers when I go visiting, but cringe if they are dumped directly into a vase. If I can, I offer to arrange them. If I can’t do that I’m uncomfortable. I always have flowers in the house and spend a lot of time arranging and re-arranging to keep them ‘happy’.
Flower arranging: It has been going on for a long, long time, encompassing everything from the delicate minimalism of Ikebana to the extravaganzas in five star hotels. My Facebook friend Michelle Black of Picardy Blooms is a talented professional floral artist. And yes, this is an art, an act of creating meaning with the shape, lines, colour, size and perfume of leafy plants and flowers.
The language of flowers, and herbs and trees, is ancient and deeply embedded in religions and myths. It features in literature, from the Bible to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In the restrictive society of nineteenth-century Victorian England, feelings were expressed covertly through small floral bouquets called tussie-mussies. The study of this complex language, known as floriography, was formalised and reduced to rules. Even today a lover will bring a gift of red roses, rather than yellow ones that in tradition mean jealousy. The palm remains a sign of victory; white lilies of purity. And the red poppy stands for sleep, probably from the opium poppy (below), and also death and sacrifice that still evokes a tinge of sadness on Anzac Day.
At home I have a preference for vases containing a singular species – tulips with tulips, sunflowers with sunflowers and so on. I think many people do. Could it be because of the language affinity? Conversations readily take place when like is with like. I’m not so keen on shop-mixed floral bunches. Tucked into cellophane and paper they look fine, but they have been devised to sell. Remove the wrapping and you have to seriously re-compose them. Arranging different kinds of plants requires sensitivity and care. It’s similar to speaking with another person when there’s a language barrier. Yet the result can be a wonderful interaction.
Little attention is given to the source of our deep-seated response to plants. But as Haiku poet Matsuo Basho wrote: The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers. Somehow we know that every plant speaks.
What is this speaking? Forester Peter Wohlleben, has drawn on his years of experience and study to write a book about the ways trees and plants organize themselves for the benefit of the whole*. It is scientific yet he uses emotive human language: they are social beings that nurture their young, nurse the sick, participate in tree school and warn about danger if they are under attack. Wohlleben writes of the forest speaking through a ‘wood wide web’ in electrical signals via roots and across fungi networks in a manner very much like our own nervous system. American poet Theodore Roethke encapsulated this in a potent image: Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.
Do you ever hear the plants talking? I certainly did as a child in a language I could only begin to understand. I hear them rarely now, and when I do it’s a vague impression, yet paradoxically I know more about what they are saying.
In all the years I have had gardens, and a couple were rather large, I never attended any kind of garden event. But here it was March 2016 and one of those perfect Autumn days when the mornings are crisp and cool and the afternoons unfold in sunshine that’s not too hot. Stephen and I visited the Melbourne Flower and Garden Show. I only have a courtyard garden now, with a small patch of earth but mostly large pots. I had little use for the massive range of garden equipment and settings on sale.
But the floral displays were absorbing. Some were arranged in marvelous abstract designs; others had been transformed into imagery that conveyed a message or story. Some became elaborate costumes.
This part of the show was ephemeral. Displays were already wilting. For me this evoked a question I hadn’t asked before. Can plants communicate when they are not rooted in Mother Earth? Can they really speak after being picked and turned into the product of a designer’s imagination? Or arranged in a vase at home?
The answer lies in another level of communication. I have written about the finer layer, the invisible field called the etheric. This spiritual life force pervades all nature. And I believe that plants communicate on this level as well, with one another and with the world, which includes us. When a plant, or any living being, dies the etheric life force departs. In plants it flows most powerfully when they are in their environment, with their roots in the earth. But does it continue to flow when a flower leaves its home?
Yes, it does. I know the etheric lives on because the plucked flowers still radiate beauty. And I reiterate, beauty is a spiritual quality beyond physical attractiveness. The story of nature continues to be told via the etheric and so we can nurture its spirit. Beauty and the etheric are intertwined and speak to us first through feeling. Beauty strikes the heart.
Behind the artist’s urge to portray flowers is the longing to embrace beauty. When a visual artist depicts plant life it is more than an imitative process. And I include here those whose overt purpose is to accurately record a plant species. This cannot be done without a feeling for beauty – science and art come together because of the etheric.
Claude Monet said, ‘I am following Nature without being able to grasp her; I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.’ For the artist, because of beauty, there’s an opportunity through plants to explore colour, form, line, balance and emotional impact to create a personal vision. A vase of irises by, for example, Van Gogh has a distinctive voice unique to the creator. That’s because the life within the flowers radiates through the artist’s choices.
Van Gogh – Irises, 1890
A genuine artist can hear on an intuitive level what is being said by a flower, and wants to both honour and interpret those words of life. It’s how August Rodin could write: ‘The artist is the confidant of nature, flowers carry on dialogues with him through the graceful bending of their stems and the harmoniously tinted nuances of their blossoms. Every flower has a cordial word which nature directs towards him.’
Georgia O’Keeffe said, ‘Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven't time, and to see takes time. So I said to myself, I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me – but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.’
And that is how she approached flowers in her paintings.
Georgia O’Keeffe – Squash Flowers, 1925
On one level the actual plants have been subsumed. Or we might say that a new relationship is being forged between plant and human. And this is the opposite of what happens when flowers are carelessly snapped off and dumped, when forests are torn down to make way for a mine or a palm oil plantation. Wholleben writes of trees screaming. I don’t doubt him.
Right now my courtyard is beautiful. The plants are flowering and they are abundant enough to attract bees. For a while I worried about the small crepe myrtle tree I bought last year. The poor young sapling struggled when we were away in Europe last (southern hemisphere) autumn, because back in Melbourne the weather was exceptionally hot and dry. A year later, although the bare twigs were green inside, I still wondered whether it had survived.
Over the last month, each morning I went out and spoke encouragingly to my tree. And now to my delight it is covered with red-green shoots. Flowers will follow; they will radiate beauty, and yes, Ralph Waldo Emerson was right: The earth laughs in flowers.
*Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: How they feel. How they communicate – Discoveries from a secret world, Black Inc. Melbourne, Australia