There is a feast in these gardens here at Festival Hill in Roundtop, Texas. It’s not the usual meal that we think of with vegetables and edible flowers and herbs, but a feast of flowers, indeed, food for the senses as well as the spirit. Driving here to Roundtop, our eyes feasted on fields of bluebonnets, purple winecups, Indian paintbrush, splashes of magenta, and generous expanses of yellow.
Who could not fall in love with a flower? How could you ignore one? That little being whose soul must be acknowledged and met? Georgia O Keefe once said that people rarely see a flower, for “to see it takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
We require flowers. They are a gardener’s spiritual nourishment, bringing us joy and beauty, love and comfort. Imagine a milestone birthday celebration, a wedding, a Valentine’s Day, the birth of a child, or the funeral of a loved one without flowers. Flowers open up our hearts just as they open up a room, creating warmth and beauty.
While we don’t normally eat the flower bouquet from a wedding, or a Valentine’s Day arrangement, we savor it with our eyes, taking in the beauty and meaning that the blossoms convey.
Janice Ross, a friend and Houston potter, once told me that she was ready to sell a particular teapot because she had “eaten it.” She went on to say that the Japanese have an expression to explain that type of nourishment. It means: I have taken it all in, it has become a part of me, there is no need to hold on to it any longer, and I can part with it. I have never forgotten that concept. Eat flowers with your eyes and they become a part of you.
What shall we eat next? A poem, perhaps, a song, a piece of embroidered linen, a handmade necklace…the possibilities are endless.
Our lives without the presence of such beauty become anxious. There is so much to be fearful of these days. Are we in a recession? Is the price of gasoline really going up again? Will this war ever end? Is technology edging out the human connection? Will we be able to teach the young to truly cherish the earth, our mountains and oceans, our beloved plants and animals?
We are afraid of illness. We are afraid of aging. Are we doing okay? Do we feel fulfilled and accepted? Are our loved ones safe? How do we create hope? We do what brings us together as humans: we celebrate—sitting at the table, eating a meal, breaking bread together; we grow flowers. We create peace.
In Mexico, there is a wonderful feast of flowers that occurs in late October and early November. To let go of the fear of death, the Mexicans celebrate it. Christianity merged with ancient Aztec harvest rites and saints joined the gods at a festival for the dead. Celebrating life conquers death. In Oaxaca, I saw home altars filled with fruit, flowers, food and gifts. In preparation, the markets were brimming with marigolds, calla lilies, baby’s breath, jewel toned dahlias, gladioli and Mexican mint marigold. Even the simplest graves and home altars were covered with flowers to welcome the spirits that had passed on, and returned for a few days near All Soul’s Eve.
This past November, I witnessed Old-World reverence and customs in the cemeteries of Krakow, Poland; the celebration was not as elaborate as Mexico’s feasts, but just as moving. At night, we took the tram to Krakow’s largest cemetery to see hundreds of votive lights intermixed with armloads of flowers to honor the ancestors. Out of death comes life: the flower creates seeds, dies, and new life is born. Or, as May Sarton wrote, “…the door is always open into the ‘holy’—growth, birth, death. Every flower holds the whole mystery in its short cycle…”
Most of us have favorite childhood memories of flowers. My mother grew red spider lilies that bloomed every September. I remember the fragrant sweet peas climbing up her fence. She particularly loved a small antique rose, called Perle D’Or, plump and peach colored. I grow them now and remember her. Flowers have a language all their own, and there are dictionaries that can tell you what each individual flower means. Every flower holds two messages: the folklore and history of the flower, and our own personal memories of them. They evoke the past and celebrate the present.
There are also stories about flowers that were once mortals, who were changed into blossoms by the Greek and Roman gods. Remnants of flowers have been found with human remains in ancient tombs. There is more lore than we can cover here today.
Mary Oliver, the New England poet writes that she “cultivates astonishment.” She has faith that if she goes out into the garden or the woods and “pays attention,” she will be astonished, and that paying attention brings love. “How shall we speak of love,” she writes, “except in the splurge of roses?”
In 1975, I gave a pouch of rose-scented potpourri to a gentleman I taught school with. In his beautiful cursive handwriting he wrote me a letter of thanks:
Did you stop to think that potpourri smells of memories, old gardens on late Sunday afternoons, bouquets of flowers in shaded rooms, the quiet of another time and another place? Thank you for this gift of memory.
Quite by accident, I came across an essay “In my Mother’s Garden,” by our keynote speaker Kathy Barashe. In it, she talks about all that her mother taught her about gardening and flowers, and about how the Easter bunny would always leave her a beautiful purple hyacinth in her Easter basket. Once her mother found her lips stained blood red, from a rose petal that Kathy had eaten. She was eating flowers even then!
Flowers decorate tables where we welcome guests to eat. They cheer hospital patients, adorn altars. They are part of the celebration of all the stages of our ever-changing lives. They often speak of what our voices cannot.
Flowers offer nourishment of another sort. My heart will never forget the image of a single rose that had been placed on a brick courtyard step in Auschwitz. It said, “We remember.” Flowers tell us that love is greater than death. They affirm our being and bring us hope.
Flowers teach us how to live in the present moment. Last week while driving down the street, I saw an elderly Asian man helping his granddaughter ride her tricycle. He picked a few fuchsia-colored azaleas to place in her helmet. She was smiling widely, and our eyes met in mutual delight.
With spring, we look upon the world with new eyes, after the dark and inward contemplation of winter. I am reminded of the words of a poet I discovered in college, e.e.cummings. He often wrote about the vagaries of life, about love, and relationships, and he was especially fond of Spring. He said, “The thing perhaps, is to eat flowers, and not to be afraid.” Let us take his advice.