Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Sunday, June 10, 2007

My Garden & the Dismal Failure of the England Football Team

Critic, photographer, and our favorite sportswriter, John Levett brings his pepper-flavored insights back to the Human Flower Project. John lives in Cambridge, England, cycling and thinking all over the place. Roll on, John!


Geoff Hurst of England scores against Germany

World Cup Final, 1966

Photo: via Chelmsford Borough Council

By John Levett

Once upon a time in a land far, far away…or however it goes..actually round about half-past five on Saturday afternoon July 30th 1966, England won the World Cup. They’d never won anything before (memorably losing 1-0 to the USA in the 1950 event & how sad, pathetic, crass is that!) & they’ve never won anything since & the reason is that we’re crap at it—very highly paid & on the TV screen continuously, talking without ceasing & never allowing a cliché to die —but we don’t win stuff.

It’s not difficult to see why. I was sitting on Jesus Green two days ago looking at a bunch of kids kicking a ball around. It was as clear as a spot on your face under a neon bulb that they weren’t English. Reason? They were co-operating; joining together in a group endeavour to ensure collective success derived from an understanding of the tactical requirements of the task & possessing the necessary skills to accomplish each sub-task eg. kick ball to bloke with same coloured shirt. I walked past them on the way home; sure enough…Italian.

Our problem is that every kid on the street thinks he & she can play football—you’re English, it’s your birthright. Not. Go to any playground & watch English kids trying to shoot hoops. Lot’s of walking around bouncing the ball, little bit of jogging, do the hokey-cokey & turn around, sashay a bit, where’d the hoop go? No one learning the moves, the techniques; no body awareness, no team awareness, no court awareness; no hand-eye stuff; no day in-day out, 10 out of 10, 20 out of 20; no pursuit of excellence, no nous of what excellence is. Same with football—couldn’t fall down in a brewery! Wanna be Beckham but don’t wanna put in the hours; wanna do the free kicks but don’t wanna practice-til-I-drop & there’s something decent on TV.

Brits are excellent winning stuff where you have to sit on things—horses, boats, yachts, cycles. Reason: you have to learn the thing before you can move the thing & you’ve got to get some sort of spatial awareness & some knowledge of why the thing goes in a straight line & how to turn with it & why there are other people in the boat with you & why they want to go in the same direction as you. Football? What’s in that then? Got a ball, run, kick, score. Sorted!


one of “the usual suspects”

Cambridge, England 2007

Photo: John Levett

So…what’s this got to do with my garden? Well very little really—I just like to get this football thing out my system every once in awhile. Except…think about this in the same way. I’m creating a garden, right? So I’m going to be thinking about…what? Size, soil, aspect, environment, location, climate; what’s going to work in the plot that I’ve got? Which plants work together; which need space to work in; which specimens can be given some freedom. Which are earning their keep; which need to be rooted out. Research work basically. Then I look to my own skills. What do I know about soil type, soil preparation? What do I need to learn about garden design? Am I getting the right advice? Any advice at all? Training, practice, refining, honing, collaboration, tactics?

Then I ask myself: is this me? Do I buy a software package, open the manual & start at page 1? Do I thump! I boot up the programme & play around until something that looks like what I want begins to emerge. (Got a ball, run, kick, score. Sorted!) At least it looks like I know what I’m doing. Some time in the future I won’t—then I go to the manual. Maybe.

Before I moved into my current home I knew that I wanted to go back to gardening; something that I’d abandoned some ten years before. And I knew that I wanted a rose garden; I’d always grown roses & all the family, close & distant, grew roses (this is England innit?) And didn’t I live for twenty-five years in Hitchin where Jack Harkness managed to get H. Persica to grow & raise seedlings & introduce hybrids? So I did the rounds of the rose gardens of East Anglia & beyond—went there in Spring, in high Summer, in Autumn—& knew that I wanted old-fashioned & even-older-fashioned. I finished with a list of, getting on for, two hundred roses—the climbers & ramblers, the species, albas & bourbons, damasks & centifolias, Ayrshires & hybrid musks, gallicas & mosses. I wanted them all. In a back garden squeezed in between the back wall of a carpet warehouse, the back-end of my home & the encroachments of adjoining neighbours’ rain forests. And leave room for the washing to dry. And sit in it.


Albertine below, Rambling Rector above

in John Levett’s Cambridge garden

Photo: John Levett

I had my unique logic to guide me. This could be my last shout at a garden. I could fall to footpads, cut-purses, rogues & villains. Disappear under a bus. Fail to adapt to global warming. Pop me clogs. Why wait? Build the garden. Defy centuries of horticultural practice not to mention common-sense, wise advice, what’s staring at you from Peter Beales’ Classic Roses…get ’em, plant ’em, sit amongst ’em. So I did. All the usual suspects—Blanc Double de Coubert, Chapeau de Napoleon, Fantin Latour, Felicite Perpetue; Gardenia & Goldfinch, Bobbie James & Rambling Rector; R. Virginiana & R. Moyesii Geranium; Souvenir de la Malmaison which a day of rain can ruin & Albertine for which George Orwell cycled from his cottage to Woolworth’s in Hitchin to buy…


Beneath Albertine (worth cycling for)

Photo: John Levett

I wanted R. Doncasterii because it was raised in a Cambridge nursery where old Jack Harkness did his apprenticeship; R. Dunwichensis because I was bird watching at Dunwich on the day Elvis died; hybrid musk Kathleen because it reminded my mum of the contralto Kathleen Ferrier; Old Yellow Scotch because it was my gran’s favourite; R. Cantabrigiensis because it was raised at the Botanic Gardens here in 1931; Canary Bird because I saw it at my first Edinburgh Festival in 1965; R. Virginiana because it was the first American rose to be brought to Europe. And so it went; picking the players ’cos my mum knew their mum & we both went to school together! I looked for all these reasons to have every one of them but in truth I needed no reason at all. It was the only garden I’d got, they’d all be in flower at the same time & most wouldn’t return for another year. So? I’d have the heps & the foliage & the textures of the leaves. And their history. And I could stick in some bulbs for Spring & late-flowering clematis for Autumn. And there’s just gotta be something else to do the business in Winter.

And so it grew (anarchically) & still does. No coaching, no pairing because these two work well together, no adapting to suit the conditions, no changing the game plan. I know where everything is & chat with each one individually. My deckchair follows the sun around & each Winter I visit the neighbours to prune their trees to let a little bit more sun through. The garden’s full so I’m colonising the walls. Next year there’ll be competition—I’m growing vegetables in pots. Every vegetable I’ve ever wanted to grow. What do I know about veg? Run, kick, score. Sorted!

Posted by Julie on 06/10 at 12:04 PM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePermalink

Friday, June 08, 2007

Going to Any Lengths: Columbine

Plants and pollinators haven’t been sharing the workload, of evolution, anyway.


Hinckley’s columbine (Aquilegia Hinckleyana)

making adjustments for survival’s sake

Photo: Human Flower Project

Any couple that hopes to split things—childcare, housework, bread-winning, bread-baking—right down the middle has our good wishes. But we’ve never seen it quite work out in equal fractions. Same goes, it appears, for the chore of evolution.

A new study published in the latest issue of Nature bears evidence that flowering plants and their pollinators, previously thought to be paragons of equality, are like the rest of us. Plants are stretching, curling, bending over backward to make things work.

Charles Darwin noted that the strange shapes of some flowers were perfectly receptive to the nectar-gathering equipment of some equally strange birds and insects that pollinated them. He proposed that plants and their pollinators were in an evolutionary “race,” each upping the ante in accessibility. Over time both species, according to Darwin, would be at an evolutionary advantage (and mutually hung up, too). This seems to have been the prevailing view of co-evolution.

imageAssorted columbines, genus Aquilegia

(they try harder)

Photo: SA Hodges, MA Hodges, D Inouye

via Science Daily

But researchers Justen Whittall and Scott Hodges have found evidence that plants are actually playing evolutionary catch up, as the pollinators in their locality change. “Whittall and Hodges found that evolution acts in a more one-sided fashion in many plants: the plants evolve nectar spurs to match the tongue-lengths of the pollinators. Then the process stops, and only starts again when there is a change in pollinators.”  Call it “the trailing spouse.”

The biologists focused their attention on columbines, and found that these tubular flowers (or spurs) lengthened in stages, as pollinating bees were replaced by hummingbirds and hawkmoths, with longer nectar-sipping (and pollinating) apparatuses.

We’ve posted earlier pieces about symbiotic couples: the sunbird-dependent Babiana ringens and bat-pollinated chiropterophilous. But this new research strikes us as eminently believable. Columbines and their pollinators may not be equals in the work of evolution but they’re the equals of most other couples.

Posted by Julie on 06/08 at 06:20 PM

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Where Have All the People Gone? Garden Photography

Are garden photographers in denial or just taking a species vacation?


Snapshot” entry: Hong Kong Flower Show 2007

Photo: YEUNG Wah-hing

Xris, the Flatbush Gardener, who makes roses and cicada shells tantalizing Sex in the City, alerted us recently to a trove of photographs all taken at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The visitors’ photo pool, with many of Xris’s own fine pictures, began a year ago and already includes over 1000 shots.  Now Xris has the delightful job of selecting a top photo for the month of June and has solicited suggestions. So we took a look.

imageFrom the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor’s Photo Pool

Photo: luluinnyc

Shazam! What a lot of glorious close-ups of blossoms, renderings of space, and highly textured images—mossy, airy, voluptuous. All that’s missing (all?) are the people. On the first page of images, only two of thirty shots are “human”—one of a scarecrow, another of Brooklyn’s rose gardener, who’s described as “beautiful” but nameless. On the next two pages, there were no people at all (even straw ones) out of sixty pictures. We kept hunting through the archive and eventually found a few human-flower pictures—of dancers and paraders at the Cherry Blossom Festival, several schoolkids, and a number of shutterbugs. Here are acres of flowers, but, turning Pete Seeger’s and Joe Hickerson’s good question on its head, “Where Have All the People Gone?”

One might say that since gardens—and photographs, too—are men’s, women’s and children’s creations, they embody a kind of humanism. It just takes a penetrating eye to see the human mind at work in a glorious perennial border or a well-framed foxglove. That’s surely so. But gardens are both by and FOR people, so why are do so few of the Brooklyn Garden’s visitors show us what people are doing there, how they interact with this glorious environment? The same holds true in most gardening magazines and websites. Among the many that feature fine photos of home, public and commercial gardens, one rarely sees a hand pruning or a vagrant snoozing. Why is this?

Many months ago we ran an intriguing essay by Earth Scholars James Wandersee and Renee Clary about plant blindness, the human tendency to screen out perceptions of the vegetative world, to see the people and animals instead of plants. Among garden photographers, might there be “human blindness” at work?

Perhaps people enjoy gardens as retreats from humanity. (In the inner city most of all, solitude is scarce.) Entering a botanical garden and looking through the viewfinder, maybe the last thing a photographer wants to encounter is another face. Some garden visitors may be seeking Adam’s exhilaration—a sense that this abundant place is theirs alone. We welcome ideas from gardeners, photographers, and everyone else on this topic.

image2nd prize winning “Snapshot”

Hong Kong Flower Show 2007

Photo: CHEUNG Sau-mui

It’s also possible that “human blindness” is a feature of garden photography only in particular cultures. For example, the photo contest at this year’s Hong Kong Flower Show includes three divisions, “Flowers,” the people-heavy “Snapshots,” and celebrity cheesecake “Portraits of TVB Artistes and Miss Hong Kong.” Terrific! We’d like to add a “Who Done It?” category, too, for photos of the gardeners and designers. Don’t let these skilled and intriguing (and, often, very modest) people fade into the shubbery.

As Xris has issued his invitation, for suggestions on June’s best photo, we invite images of “humans in the garden” from Brooklyn and beyond.

Posted by Julie on 06/06 at 12:00 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePermalink

Monday, June 04, 2007

In Pakistan: Roses as Klieg Lights

TV stations go off the air and rose petals fill the air, as an embattled judge brings his case to the people.


A man chanted in support of Iftikhar Chaudhry as the suspended chief justice left Islamabad for a speech in Abbottabad on Saturday

Photo: Mian Khursheed, for Reuters

Before there were video-cameras or microphones, flowers brought public attention into focus. (Think weddings, where all eyes follow the biggest bouquet.)

This past weekend in Pakistan, supporters of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry used floral “media” to halo their hero in the national mind.  “Thousands of lawyers and Opposition activists joined a motorcade led by Mr. Chaudhry to the North-West Frontier Province town of Abbottabad, where he was to address a meeting of lawyers. In what has become routine wherever Mr. Chaudhry has gone since his March 9 ouster, large crowds gathered at towns en route to welcome him, showering flower petals on his vehicle.”

imageSuspended judge Iftikhar Chaudhry was showered with roses by supporters in Karachi

Photo: via FOX News

On March 9 Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf suspended Chaudhry from office, a move that many have seen as a serious threat to the country’s independent judiciary. Over the past two and half months, there have been rallies and demonstrations across Pakistan in protest. On May 12, a clash between the opposition and Musharraf supporters in Karachi left 41 people dead.

This piece from the BBC offers some background on the judicial controversy. The president’s supporters charge Chaudhry with corruption and abuse of power; his supporters say that the judge was ousted because he stood in the way of President Musharraf’s attempt to assume a third term in office and to rule Pakistan’s military while serving as president.

imageLawyers presented suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry with roses in Abbottabad, 6/2/07

Photo: Ibrar Tanol, for Reuters

Saturday, several private TV stations that had planned live broadcasts of Chaudhry’s address suddenly went off the air. “The Government has said it was tightening the existing laws (of federal communications), steps to prevent the ‘defamation’ of the Pakistan armed forces and other state institutions.” No TV cameras? No klieg lights? Bring on the flowers! As Chaudhry arrived to speak before he Abbottabad Bar Council, lawyers presented him with what appear to be about forty dozen red roses, wrapped up like a futon mattress. The crowd tossed pink roses and petals over him, a demonstration of support more electrifying than anything plug-in or battery-powered.

Maybe floral “lighting” could illuminate the firings within the U.S. Justice Department as well.



Posted by Julie on 06/04 at 11:46 AM
Art & MediaPoliticsPermalink
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