Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dancing at La Madeleine

Is love guaranteed? If you’re in a streetside flower market in Paris with Gene Kelly, sans doute.


Gene Kelly makes a discovery at the flower market

“An American in Paris”  (1951)

Gene Kelly was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, August 23, 1912. By his teens he was working in a dance studio, then escaped to New York and later Hollywood, where he would make—with Vincent Minnelli—one of the strangest and finest musicals of all time: An American in Paris (1951). Okay, so it did thieve from Michael Powell’s wildly innovative The Red Shoes, made three years earlier. But Powell’s movie, revolutionary as it was, didn’t have George Gershwin’s music. And it didn’t have Gene Kelly.


Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance next to La Madeleine

in An American in Paris (1951)

Photo: Film and Fashion for the Oscars

We pay tribute especially for the role a flower (carnation?) plays throughout the film. For the young American painter it signifies the love that he can’t shake, that keeps turning up across the city. In one of many memorable scenes, our confused hero comes upon his heart’s desire on a mound of white flowers as he wanders through the old market next to La Madeleine church. (The market is still there today, though the flower sellers don’t wear broad brimmed bonnets and they seem dour and irritable, even for Paris, where irritation can be form of foreplay). Of course, in Gene Kelly’s Paris, the Madeleine is on a set in California. Finding again the bright red flower with the long stem, he touches it and it becomes his gamin ballerina, Leslie Caron.

imageFrom Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron’s long finale

An American in Paris

Speaking of red, we were intrigued to learn of Kelly’s leftist politics, a commitment that brought him to side with the Carpenters’ Union in its strike against the Hollywood studios and later to appear, along with John Huston and others, before the House Un-American Activities Committee. And we thought he was just a delicious, virile dancer!

Kelly died February 2, 1996. A biopic that aired on US public television said that after his achievements in the 1950s, he endured 40 years of disappointment as an actor and artist. But who ever would have known?  The “spring” Gene Kelly created on film—An American in Paris—has outlasted him and his disappointment, too.



Posted by Julie on 08/22 at 08:36 PM
Art & MediaFloristsTravelPermalink

Monday, August 20, 2007

Star of the Cevennes ~ Cardabelle

Picnicking in rocky Southern France, Roger Sanderson comes upon a barometer in bloom.


Cardabelle (Carlina acanthifolia), in the Herault, France

Photo (detail): Roger Sanderson

Nearly one year ago, we did some hunting around Olargues in the Herault region of Southern France, searching for the wild cardabelle plant. We’d read about how country people of the region had used this native thistle both for carding wool and predicting the weather. The cut flowers, so we’re told, open in the sun and begin closing up when rain is on the way. (A word to tourists: museums, even European ones, keep more reliable hours and locations than do wildflowers.)

But now we hear from Roger Sanderson, a photographer in Lincolnshire, England. “I was lucky enough to find a few plants growing high in the Cevennes above Anniane this summer,” he writes. And we are lucky enough to present a few of his gorgeous pictures (for more, see Roger’s portfolio on Flickr.


(Carlina acanthifolia)

w. of Lodeve, France

Photo: Roger Sanderson

“The flowers I found were near the peak of Saint Baudille which is east of Saint Guilhelm le-Desert and west of Lodeve. We drove up a rocky track to find a site for a picnic, before the sun got too hot. While we where trying to photograph butterflies we came across a patch of the flowers on very poor stony ground.” See what chasing butterflies can accomplish?

“I recognised them from tiles and paintings that were in the Gite we stayed in. They were in full bloom and being pollinated by at least two types of bumble bees.”

Our reading suggests that Carlina acanthifolia blooms in spring and early fall, so we’re a bit surprised to hear Roger found this patch flowering in summertime. Again, wildflowers don’t necessarily go by the book. And with reference to our post from yesterday, about mythological Clytie who turned into a “sunflower,” we now wonder if she perhaps didn’t become a cardabelle, as this plant is actually a Mediterranean native (some varieties of Carline thistle are even “violet”—a word that described Clytie’s bloom in some translations of Ovid).

imageCardabelle barometer

Photo: Fritz Geller-Grimm, via wiki

Roger Sanderson adds, “In the ancient fortified Templar town of Couvertoirade, there were lots of dried Cardabelle tacked onto the doors of the houses and (touristy) shops, in spite of the prohibition on cutting them. The French have a more relaxed attitude to edicts from government than other countries.” (We’d be eager to hear what our French visitors have to say.)

Roger noted that he’d spotted the same plaster cardabelle we photographed in Pezenas. But to the butterfly chaser, by all rights, goes the reward. Thank you, Roger!

Posted by Julie on 08/20 at 10:51 AM
Culture & SocietyEcologyTravelPermalink

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Clytie: Obsessive Heliotropic

Jealousy can turn your head around, and around.  Just ask the mermaid.


La Metamorphose de Clytie (detail)

By Jean-Francois de Troy, Meaux, Musee Bossuet

Photo: Bill Bishop

For Roman poet Ovid, the natural world was the outcome of feeling. Plants, trees, rivers, and stars grew out of the old gods’ emotional entanglements. At death, a human hero beloved by some goddess, might be installed in the heavens: a new constellation. A virgin who fled one lusty deity could be transformed by another into a laurel tree just in time to preserve her honor.

The Metamorphoses, Ovid’s masterpiece, is really about how the inner life is inevitably exteriorized. Feelings bring change (often tragic) into the world. For the sea nymph Clytie the transforming emotion was obsessive love which, as it tends to, turned to jealousy. Clytie was fixated on Apollo (Helios) the god of the sun, following his every mile across the sky. When Apollo began a love affair with Leucothoe, Clytie went to the other girl’s father, a Babylonian king, and informed on them. In a rage, the old king killed his own daughter, burying her underground, out of Apollo’s sight.

Far from currying affection with the Sun God, Clytie of course had inspired his fury, and he refused ever to come near her again. But she maintained her fixation, tracing his ride across the sky each day.


La Metamorphose de Clytie

By Jean-Francois de Troy, Meaux, Musee Bossuet

Photo: Bill Bishop

The story appears in Book Four of the Metamorphoses. Here’s one translation of the finale:

“Shunning the Nymphae, beneath the open sky, on the bare ground bare-headed day and night, she sat dishevelled, and for nine long days, with never taste of food or drink, she fed her hunger on her tears and on the dew. There on the ground she stayed; she only gazed upon her god’s bright face as he rode by, and turned her head to watch him cross the sky. Her limbs, they say, stuck fast there in the soil; a greenish pallor spread, as part of her changed to a bloodless plant, another part was ruby red, and where her face had been a flower like a violet was seen. Though rooted fast, towards the sun she turns; her shape is changed, but still her passion burns.”

imageKircher’s Sunflower Clock

Via: Ursi’s Eso Gardens

The term heliotropic refers to plants that, like Clytie, rotate their floral “faces” in the direction of the light. Many commentators have concluded that the sea nymph turned into a sunflower (Helianthus). But we’re not so sure. Sunflowers are American plants, and not “like a violet.” Could Ovid have been referring to something more like heliotrope? It’s purple, and rotates with the movement of the sun, also. But it’s not native to the Mediterranean region either.  Readers, can you provide more information or, at least, give us your thoughts on this human-flower mystery?

Certainly, many European artists have associated Clytie with the sunflower: George Frederick Watts (note the yellow blossoms in the background) and Jean Francois de Troy, whose Clytie wears her tournesol like a third eye.

After all this wringing emotion, let’s retreat to a bit of science—Kircher’s sunflower clock (discovered on the wonderful site Ursi’s Eso Garden). “To illustrate his belief in the magnetic relationship between the sun and the vegetable kingdom, Kircher designed this heliotropic sunflower clock by attaching a sunflower to a cork and floating it in a reservoir of water. As the blossom rotated to face the sun, a pointer through its center indicated the time on the inner side of a suspended ring.” Talk about obsessive!

Posted by Julie on 08/18 at 02:29 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietySciencePermalink

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Toward the Smell of ‘Progress’

Catching us up with Utopia, John Levett revisits Letchworth Garden City, where the movement for ‘town planning’ began a century ago.  (Let us know if you laugh or cry.)  John lives, writes and gardens in Cambridge, England.


Roundabout in Letchworth Garden City, England

All photos of Letchworth: John Levett

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When Orwell lived in Wallington in the mid-1930s he passed through it on bus & bike (no doubt on the way to Woolworth’s in Hitchin for roses). He had it in mind in The Road to Wigan Pier when he was writing of socialism, how it drew “with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, Nature-Cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England.”  In Coming Up For Air he wrote: “I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast…They’re all either health-food cranks or else they have something to do with the boy scouts—in either case they’re great ones for Nature and the open air.”

Letchworth Garden City. Full of “vegetarians with wilting beards” & those “who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.”

But first, some background.

In 1971 I went home, newly qualified to teach, to South London from Liverpool (shortly after Liverpool had lost the FA Cup to an extra-time Charlie George goal in an era when footballers were more interested in the winner of the 4.30 at Haydock Park than they were in suits & hair). In the spirit of the time & of social engineering, I intended to take my qualification to some back street pit of a school close by Surrey Docks or some site of similar cachet, raise the red flag & build Jerusalem. They deserved me. It wasn’t back-street Hanoi, a favela outside Sao Paulo, a project in Santiago but it was on the 47 bus route & had dockers who struck, frequently (I let it pass as unfortunate & indicated a state of false consciousness that these same dockers had come out in mass support of Enoch Powell’s racism three years earlier).

I never got that far. London recruited early & I was late. That summer, on a stiflingly-hot July morning, I arrived at Euston station with two invitations to interview—one in Liverpool & the other in Watford. Watford was thirty minutes away, Liverpool three hours. Watford won. I’d change England there instead. Fade to black.

Six months later I’d moved mum, two cats & a dog to Hitchin in north Hertfordshire. It was cheaper to live, easier to travel & had a garden. Summer of ‘72 Stan Smith won Wimbledon, George McGovern hesitated, the dockers struck & the government bent. I was back in south London on an education course, walking back to the Isle of Dogs to write poetry. It didn’t register that some of the wharves had closed. Soon to come, Surrey Docks to Surrey Quays in a generation; Isle of Dogs to Canary Wharf in another. I went home & bought roses from Jack Harkness up the road.

imageSo what’s all this got to do with Letchworth Garden City? Well it’s this…there was a time in teaching (and I’m not making this up!) when you felt that your job involved social change; that education was, above all things, a source of liberation; a way of moving out from the prospect of working down the pit, on the assembly line, behind the shop counter, hedging & ditching; and, you the teacher, provided the armaments to move on out & move on up. Education & its prospects was part of the ‘New Jerusalemism’ (to use Corelli Barnett’s phrase) that permeated British social policy in the immediate post-war years. Being one of those post-war people I was going to do the changing & do it in the places that promised little. In some ways it was patronising & smacked of middle-class benevolence “flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.” And I’d finished up in Hertfordshire, home to New Towns (Stevenage, Hemel, Hatfield) & Garden Cities (Letchworth, Welwyn). In my frame of mind there was something ‘heroic’ in them fashioning lives away from slum, pollution, war devastation, over-crowding, resource poverty—starting again how we should have started had we thought.

In 1898 Ebenezer Howard wrote Tomorrow: a peaceful path to real reform & a year later founded the Town & Country Planning Association. In 1903 a plot was purchased outside Hitchin & in fast-as-reasonable time competitions for cheap housing run, architects appointed, zones of activity allocated, agricultural green belts protected, railway station built, excursions from London organized & vegetarian cycling clubs put in place. Industry was separated from housing, pubs frowned upon, manufactories for corsets, fire-engines & dustcarts attracted, traffic roundabouts emplaced. Land would be held in common & lease rents ploughed back for the public good. You can see the attraction. New century, new start. No war yet.

imageWhen I lived in Hitchin I often bussed over to Letchworth somehow expecting the stuff of history & progressive vision to seep upwards through the soles of my shoes & permeate me with utopian endeavour. I went back a week ago. Not to get the same but to kick off some dust from my soul.

Nothing had changed, so it seemed. Sure there were different shops, some new buildings; eateries reflected a different Britain & clothes a different convention. But…the model shop still with its ‘50s façade; the summer-bedded roundabouts; the high-street cottages backing-off behind privet; the villas in styles nodding towards Shaw, Webb & Voysey; the freshly-matted-and-glossed ‘20s & 30s social housing with neat hedges & hollyhocks. Always hollyhocks. Then the stolid library & town hall (1930s-built, sure that the ‘experiment’ now had its foundations & early maturity); Councillor Charles Francis Ball’s memorial garden (with the stone plinth of Sappho’s recently-nicked statue bizarrely in the background); the Methodist hall & its Polish luncheon club; the Broadway gardens once dedicated to Jack Kennedy but re-dedicated in 2003 in commemoration of its own centenary (presumably JFK didn’t measure up posthumously to his living promise); David’s Bookshop, who twenty years ago bought my book collection.


And the people. ‘A cut-price crowd’ Larkin might have thought (Betjeman wrote about Letchworth; Larkin wouldn’t have gone near it) & ‘urban yet simple’ seemed to fit. I began to notice what wasn’t there—no graffiti, no junk, no mess of rubbish, no drunks, no louts, no kids-on-bikes-on-pavements. No threat. Maybe it was the time of day but each person on the street seemed to be playing the role of person-in-a-garden-city; not much to do, no buzz, no edge. It has its tourist centre now; it has features. Nothing much happens. The words ‘bland’ & ‘smug’ came to mind but then again maybe the picture in Howard’s head had worked. It seemed to me to be a community that was getting on with itself; not as isolated on all sides as originally but sufficiently detached to feel different; maybe ‘dwelling where only salesmen and relations come’ (Larkin again) but none had that look of desperation and anywhere-but-here that I register in new towns of post-war vintage.

imageI walked away north past the old Spirella corset factory (corporate offices now) & across the wheatfields towards Hitchin. At the fag-end of a sad, spitting month the sky was cloudless. “Such a day it is when time piles up the hills like pumpkins, and the stream runs golden” wrote Laurie Lee sometime during a war. I walked past the fields that used to be Jack Harkness’s; all gone to corn now. Down on into Ickleford & sat under a tree in the churchyard thinking of Letchworth. Open-air Shakespeare in Howard Park this evening? Morris antics in Broadway Gardens? Fresh-pressed cider at the vegetarian stall served by a smocked Esperanto-spouter? Auras detected & primal dances at the Edward Carpenter commemorative barn?

I strolled on, stopped at my once-home & thence around the town where I lived the happiest & the darkest times of my life. As I walked I dwelt within the times & knew that I was done with them & doubted I’d come back. When I arrived in 1972 it was at the tail-end of being a small market-town grown slightly prosperous with the coming of the railway. Its shops were in the family & they still delivered to the door in their own vans; the book seller still published subscriber editions & teashops received their Indian & Ceylon in wood chests. Now Starbucks. I left for the station. Sorted.

Posted by Julie on 08/14 at 10:57 AM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePermalink
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