History

The Language of Flowers

So, we were talking about flowers, way back, five hundred years ago in Iceland, when you picked a bouquet of wildflowers for your sweetie and they were instantly civilized, just like that. Just by choosing them, and feeling their rough, sun-warmed stems between your fingers, you translated them into a new language. Talk about powerful!

Posy in Waiting, Lake Myvatn, Iceland

Why, if you picked some of these, you’d grow up, just like that. By the way, Icelandic cows eat these posies all winter long. Lovely creatures!

But, of course, every tradition grows up, changes, adapts, and sometimes, just sometimes is reborn again as a new language. Here we are in Jena, Germany, where the Neo-Nazis have their headquarters and the first Department of Botany was born, gangly child of the local botanical garden, so what is someone who’d rather see a little peace in the world to do? Why, pick a bouquet of flowers, right?

Flowers for You, from Your Beloved

Graffiti-style sticker advertising an anti-terrorist art show. The weapon of choice? Flowers.

Well, not just flowers. Kind of a game of chess, really. Or a quilt. This is, after all, an old language. It has been renewed again and again and again, but remains collected in no library. That’s a good thing, perhaps. Here’s what it looks like when it does get squeezed into the library stacks. This is one of the beds in Jena’s botanical garden…

The Flower Becomes a Book

If you thought books were a versatile technology that might outlive the Internet, or eBooks so versatile that they might outlive Random House, how about flowers, eh? This language is as old as the hills.

Here’s an even different language of flowers, an example of what you might do if you owned a Kingdom that was flat broke, had no natural resources in the traditional sense,  little industry on top of that, and your neighbours, the Prussians and Austrians, oh my, they’ve got that stuff in spades, and the ambition to go along with it. Well, you might just start with what you had at hand: a little dirt from your soil, a dash of fire, girls from the countryside with sure hands, keen, young eyes, and deep knowledge of, well, the countryside, et voilà:

Meissen Porcelain Urn

King August the Strong of Saxony was a clever and cunning king. Instead of making money the hard way, by oppressing his peasants, ouch, and then spending it on pricey imported Ming porcelain that had clinked and rattled over the Silk Road from China, he got his girls from the country villages up and down the Elbe River to paint flowers on porcelain, then sold that to every kingdom and dukedom in Europe for half the Chinese price (and about a zillion times more than cost.) Kind of like Wall Street, really.

And why flowers? Well, because they grow in the fields, for one thing, and the job of a king is to be his fields, as if they were a poem. Actually, in those days they were — but only if you were a king. Here’s some of that porcelain in its wild state:

Wild Porcelain

Marienstern, Saxony

But then, of course, it gets translated into a human language. Here’s one of those:

Early Attempt to Translate Love into a Language

This statue of the Holy Trinity stands in the main yard of the Marienstern Monastery on the old Pilgrimage Road to Minsk. The convent, however, is devoted to Mary, so that’s a little complicated. Note the geraniums to soften all that triangular golden-wheat = golden-light of Heaven imagery. Mary herself is inside the church. She doesn’t get out much.

Don’t worry about Mary. She has staff. They keep things trim, or as far as you can on post-Communist budgets, you know, after the idea of paradise on earth just went, well, bankrupt, really. Here is her staff hard at work:

 Abbey Staff Hard at Work Eradicating Flowers

Good to see that they gave up and went to have some lunch. The nuns are serving. Oh, on the menu today, cabbage soup.

No doubt, the poor guys couldn’t hear themselves think. Fortunately, some other languages are a bit more respectful of their sources, human ears, and the planet they’re all a part of, and are, overall, just a bit more integrated. This one, for instance:

 

Classic Meissen Dinnerware

What a delight to eat your cabbage soup from a basket of flowers. And wit, well, wit was the point of the baroque era.

Nothing stays the same, yet nothing changes. Back in the 1920s, my grandmother and her friends in Silesia used to gather around and make books on a Sunday. As the river flowed past the billowing rose gardens of their fathers’ estates, they’d paint cards with watercolours and lush flowers, directly into the pages of a guest book to commemorate their afternoons, and they’d illustrate those with poems. Each young woman would take her turn, one at a time, while her friends sipped tea. My grandmother, Charlotte, thought it was excruciating — not the art, but the conversation. She went on to become a doctor, and moved to a villa in the countryside along the Rhine, where she planted her back yard with roses. My other grandmother, however, Martha, was one of those Middle-European peasant girls, also from Silesia. Instead of sending her maid out to pick roses, as a kind of memory act, though, or stitching up an escaped concentration camp prisoner in her basement, Martha was making head cheese and pickling beets and cutting up flour sacks for clothing in the wilds of Canada. Still, she had time for this:

Martha’s Embroidery

Note the flour sack that she used for a cloth, and the wood scraps my grandfather used for a frame. I think an extra five minutes put into that frame might have brought great dividends, but, hey, at least it’s still here.

It’s not that Martha had time for embroidery, really. It’s that even in the deepest poverty and hunger it was important to speak. This is what she chose to speak. She had a deep laugh and went around the house humming old light opera tunes. She didn’t remember the words. You can find Martha and Charlotte’s story here and here, as well as the story of how my mother ended the tradition one afternoon in 1969 when she bought some Liquid Embroidery ® and stopped making the earth into an object of devotion but entered the modern world instead. I remember the day that happened. She was excited. I was sad. To me, it was the first day of poverty.

The Women’s Story of German British Columbia

Despite everything, every generation of women in my family has passed a tiny spark on, which has been enough to keep the tradition of speaking through flowers alive. Somehow, it got passed on to me.

I am working here to pass it on to you, but not as a spark. This time, let it be a full flame that lights up the dark.

Saskatoon Blooms in the Bella Vista Hills

 9 pm. Even the birds have gone to sleep.

This has been a tiny sampling of what is one of civilization’s longest traditions of speech. We could go on for weeks, but perhaps another day would not be too much to ask. Tomorrow, let’s come close to home in the Okanagan Okanogan, and see some ways in which this language, and this long, physical tradition, can offer hope for the future, in our task of moving into our land until we can’t tell where it stops and we begin. After all, as they say in Meissen…

 What Happens When the Meissen Porcelain Factory Moves on From Flowers

Hey, it’s better than what the Neo-Nazis are up to in the side streets.

As for the church, it’s fighting the Neo-Nazis in its own way. Like, um, this…

Station of the Cross, or Devotion in a World Without Flowers, Meissen Cathedral

It’s too bad that the palette is so limited here. Without flowers, we have the dark. We wait for rebirth.

Rejoice. It will come, where you least expect it…

East German Dolls Looking After the World, Radebeul DDR Museum

Note the flowers, of course. Down the road at Meissen, the factory directors tried to turn the handwork of the Meissen factory into dignified, machine-operated, efficient modern designs, but they didn’t work out, no one wanted them, and the directors reverted, quickly, to the oldest language, the language of flowers.

And we’re not done translating it yet.

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