Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Friday, December 14, 2007

Tenugui—Gift, Simple and Sublime

Wrap it, wrap in it, wrap with it.


logo of Eirakuya, in Kyoto

a textile shop 380 years old

Our friend Eishi Adachi surprised us one winter with unexpected gifts (the best kinds). From Japan, he had brought back two beautiful textiles, hand-silkscreened with flowers. One bears a geometric design and plum blossoms—the emblem of hope and fortitude, harbinger of spring. The other, its background a rich purple blue, has yellow and orange chrysanthemums, the flower of the imperial family.

These are tenugui. In Japanese culture they were once considered fundamental tools of living—to wipe, bind, bandage. We suppose the Western equivalent would be a dishtowel or, better, a bandana, basic equipment for anyone doing physical work, be that house-cleaning, gardening, blacksmithing, plumbing….You need something to dry your hands with or hold the perspiration out of your eyes, to tie up a cut or carry home a few apples. They were always made of thin cotton gauze until a few decades ago when terrycloth (known as Seiyo—or Western—Tenugui) came on the market. Nowdays, tenugui have evolved from head scarves and mop-ups into beautiful handprinted keepsakes— to hang on a wall or decorate a table. Not only do they make wonderful gifts, they double as the perfect gift wrap.

imageChrysanthemum tenugui, from Eirakuya, in Kyoto

Photo: J. Ardery

Those Eishi brought us were made by a textile shop in Kyoto that’s nearly 400 years old—called Eirakuya. Take a look at their gorgeous website and note all the floral designs ~ morning glories, peonies, ferns, and what appear to be sweet gum leaves. We’ve only skimmed the surface. The company, with the well-accessorized kitty Momotaro as its logo, also sells handbags, hats, and t-shirts, but their reputation rests on the beautiful towels.

Tenugui, even these fine ones, are always unstitched. They’re meant to fray at the ends and be trimmed. Could this be yet another example of furisode—the aesthetic that Masashi Yamaguchi wrote about here on HFP several years ago? He described how the Japanese sense of beauty appreciates mutability, the ways time—without seeming to labor at it—works down the physical world.

Maybe some of this aspect of tenugui has been lost, now that the towels are less to be used, more to be admired. They’re considered a “necessary part of matsuri (festival)  costume….  Also still today some shop owners and business firms distribute tenugui at their openings or simply as Thank-you gift.”

And in Kendo—Japan’s martial art of fencing—tenugui remains part of the uniform: traditional, practical, and philosophical. Jinichi Tokeshi explains, “The primary purpose of the tenugui in kendo is to absorb perspiration, cushion impacts to the head, and keep the hair neat. Often the tenugui display words of wisdom that are important in the training of kendo or words related to Zen. Japanese, by tradition, feel the head is one of the most sacred parts of the body, so wrapping the tenugui around the head has a special meaning in kendo…. It is strongly frowned upon to just crumple the tenugui and pack it in the bogu bag, because the tenugui will be damp and smell musty at the next practice. The instructors should teach these lessons to beginners.”

imageTrying our hand at tenugui wrapping

Photo: Bill Bishop

With apologies to all students and masters of Kendo, and to Eishi, we had to try folding and wearing our chrysanthemum tenugui. The instructions we followed, found here, are the most elementary version of several you’ll find in Tokeshi’s book (check p. 37 ff.) No matter what you may think, we feel spiffy—if not quite ready for sword-fighting.

Many thanks to Eishi for this enduring gift. We’re not sure about shipping schedules from Kyoto, but who knows? There may be time to order and receive several of these marvelous pieces by December 25th for the cowboy, art historian, dishwasher, blogger, girl scout, and ceremonial fencer on your list.

Posted by Julie on 12/14 at 07:02 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietySecular CustomsPermalink

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Horticulture 201—Learning to Leap

Marcia Eames-Sheavly’s innovative course in art and horticulture may only look like an elective.


Cornell student Zach Aburahma and his tiki bar

class project for Horticulture 201

Photo: Courtesy of Marcia Eames-Sheavly

In our overlong stay at school, interdisciplinary research was a lot like motherhood: much extolled but hardly respected. We’ll leave the defense of motherhood to those better qualified. But we can and do endorse mixing up fields of study. Psychology and botany, cooking and philosophy, poetry and math, dentistry and military history (Really – If a face can launch a thousand ships, how many battalions might aching jaws have conscripted?)

Marcia Eames-Sheavly at Cornell University has been mixing it up for years now with a popular undergraduate course that’s also a human flower project: The Art of Horticulture. (Many thanks to our compadre Craig Cramer of Ellis Hollow—and Cornell U.— for the spark.)

Marcia is a member of the horticulture faculty who’s at ease drawing and contemplating plants as well as growing them. In her Fall 2007 syllabus, she calls this course “a unique chance to view the world of plants from a very different perspective—an important one, given that observation and creativity are cornerstones of advancement in science.” For those of us knocked in the head with two other cornerstones—control and measurement—this approach to science brings out the sun.

Horticulture 201 invites all comers. In the semester just over, the class included,  “a horticulture major, a handful of natural resource majors, some hotel school students, some art students, engineering…,” Marcia writes. For the most part, those differences don’t surface, she says, except when “we’re grafting, or doing something that is more horticultural—then the hort students might jump in to assist others.”

Students select readings from an eclectic list of titles – including Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential, and David Masumoto’s Epitaph for a Peach,  But two less orthodox assignments are central to the class—the keeping of a journal all semester long and a final project demonstrating the connection between horticulture and art. It’s with these reflective and expressive elements that, in our mind, Horticulture 201 takes the leap. Yeah, Mother!

imageNatural orchid sculpture, and its maker Chrissy Dykeman

for “The Art of Horticulture”

Fall 2007, Cornell Univ.

Photo: Marcia Eames-Sheavly

On the Hort 201 website, you can see many intriguing class projects past: a young woman sitting underneath a table, exploring “garden archetypes”; someone’s “turtle corral”; a young man proudly extending a scarf just dyed with indigo; “A Girl’s Life as Told in Flowers” (We’d be eager to read that); a very fine sod cow.

Throughout the semester, there are guided writing assignments. From the student journals, Marcia has graciously sent us these excerpts:

“The truth is that flowers speak many languages, hold many meanings, and, depending on the moment, the same variety can conjure up totally opposing feelings.  In the best of times, I can see the face of God in them.  In the worst of times, they remind me of my mortality.”

After a class on floral design, one student wrote:

“It’s interesting, after the labs on ikebana and floral arrangement, how the concept of beauty has evolved for me. In a world so driven by immediate gratification, most of us have come to view beautiful plants as only those bearing a dramatic flower bursting with color. But I have found that beauty is not just flower-deep; so many other parts of the plant can be used in so many creative ways, that the possibilities of creating something beautiful are endless.”

One writer found her conscience stung by the flowers provided in a design workshop. “While I fretted about the way in which the flowers had been grown (Organically? Sustainably?) and the conditions for workers (Were they fairly treated? Fairly paid? Exposed to chemical pesticides and herbicides?), I also battled the desire to have a giant, colorful ikebana, complete with giant southeast Asian ginger flowers. After much deliberation, I decided I wanted to create a display that would showcase plants we could find around town.  I tried to pick items that looked like they could have been found locally (Ithaca, New York)—cattails, goldenrod flowers, and a few stones from the driveway. At the end, I was pleased with my display.”

Another assignment drew out a memoirist – descendant of William Wordsworth?

“My boyfriend and I drove by this huge field of orange tiger lilies every day that he picked me up, which was frequently. Every time we drove by I was fascinated by how colorful they were, and by the sheer volume of how many there were growing wild in this field.  Then one day, when he came to pick me up, I got a huge pile of these flowers. Tiger lilies don’t last that long, and these were almost at the top of the hill, but they were still brilliant, and I got to think about the huge field of color whenever I looked at them.”

Interdisciplinary research, at least ten years ago, when we were breaking loose of the academy, had constantly to make a case for itself. Is this work publishable in a scholarly journal? Or will it lead to a tenure track job? Professor Eames-Sheavly tells us, “My sense is that the change is more internal and within students, less about which class comes next.  By that I mean they often indicate, at semester’s end, in their journals, that through the course they have learned that they need reflective time in their lives, time to intentionally bring in opportunities for creativity, and that they want to continue journalling. They often talk about how they have discovered that engaging in the course activities, final projects and so forth, they have discovered that taking time to take a walk in a garden or to work on a painting actually refreshes them, and that they are more ready to finish that paper, or take that exam, than they would have been had they ground away at that paper all afternoon(!)  What an important life discovery!”


Flowered shoes, by Bethany Tong, the Art of Horticulture, Fall 2007

Photo: Courtesy of Marcia Eames-Sheavly

And what an important time to make that discovery, Marcia. Idyllic as the college years might seem to those of us who’re pre- or post- or just non-academics, it’s not all whiff-n-poof on campus. May we turn back to science – psychiatry; it’s disclosing that more and more students are under strain. An article in Psychiatric News showed out of a survey of 16,000 college students (in 2000), 64% reported being “emotionally exhausted”;  38% reported they felt “so depressed it was difficult to function.”

What are college counselors recommending to help? A number of things, but among them are journaling, setting aside quiet time, and deepening one’s spiritual life – to this endless end, the University of Georgia’s Counseling Center specifically mentions gardening.

Professors and students – and whoever else would like to be “pleased with my display” – you may want to take a closer look at Marcia Eames-Sheavly’s syllabus. Whether you’re enrolled at Cornell or not, these assignments with their interdisciplinary arcs are efforts the best of times reward, and the worst of times demand.

Posted by Julie on 12/12 at 07:04 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyMedicineSciencePermalink

Monday, December 10, 2007

By Way of St. Giles

Taking the long way, through Walden Pond, the Spanish Civil War and Larkin’s poetry, writer John Levett gets up to speed.

imageChurchyard wall

at St. Giles

Cambridge, England

Photo: John Levett

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The fine Journal of The Philip Larkin Society, imaginatively entitled “About Larkin” (took some thinking-up did that), arrived this week—Number 24, all twenty-four of which can now be had for £115 which seems steep to me but why complain while it seems I’m sitting on a goldmine.

I joined up some decade or so ago just as it was starting up, joining up to some half-dead but still resonant connection I had with Larkin, Hull and a sunny afternoon in October 1964. I remember a December afternoon a couple of years ago having a splendid chat in The Eagle (a local pub famed for stuff) with a student who was writing a dissertation on Larkin and his readership, and he asking if Larkin predominantly appealed to a particular generation and me agreeing; being of that generation born in a decade spanning 1940 and remembering England (always England, never Britain) in its shoddy 1950s parochialism, its frayed & faded threads of Empire and influence. I read Larkin and know why I do. More to do with a time rather than timelessness, I can’t take Larkin out of a time in my life and his.

Back to “About Larkin.” There’s a quote from “Autumn” (1953, Coronation, conquest of Everest, how we cheered!) and its phrases catch: “the year goes suddenly slack”; “And summer, that keeps returning like a ghost, Of something death has merely made beautiful.” Last Tuesday I took myself off on a sad, spitting afternoon on the road out to Girton to St. Giles burial ground (it’s called something else these days but I can’t recall what and it’s probably got corporate sponsorship and a Health and Safety Certificate as well).

Burial grounds are ripe for encouraging bad photography and even worse amateur poetry. When I arrived in Cambridge in the mid-‘90s I got wind of Wittgenstein having been buried there. I’d invested time over decades in LW so went looking for his remains. The stone, scattered once with coins (I wish, I wish, I wish…) was appropriate, as sparse and downbeat as his alleged deckchair in his room at Trinity. It’s more washed out now, coinless but with candle (disgracefully extravagant).

imagePhilosopher with ferns

St. Giles burial ground

Photo: John Levett

I’ve kept going back there every year or so, usually for want of somewhere fresh to walk to, someone new to trip over—economist Alfred Marshall in a corner, scientist Max Perutz in inappropriate off-white, the appropriately-named philosopher John Wisdom, George Moore sulking under a tree, a Darwin & Cornford pairing with a view of the wheat fields. All so low-key. So Church of England. So provincial. So suburban. It could do with something Roman, steps to catacombs, evidence of vampire activity, magnificence, decadence.

I’m reminded of the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof in Berlin. Fichte and Hegel together forever, Brecht and Weigel similarly and a useful guide map to their location beside the less-lionised. Or the Orthodox graveyard with its extravagances the other side of that city. Even better the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Death in England as always an unfortunate interruption, to be got over, got through, dispatched.


Darwin and Cornford, double headstone

St. Giles burial ground, Cambridge

Photo: John Levett

But then again…the reason that I keep returning is the expectation of being surprised. So it was with Frances Cornford. I’d never noticed the stone before and my thoughts went direct to her son John. He’s mostly forgotten now (if he was ever that remembered outside family and the Left). He fought in Spain and died there near Lopera outside Madrid. Reading his poem “Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca,” I feel I’m missing a time that was never a part of my life. A lot of it’s moonshine on my part—pictures in my head of collecting tins, food parcels, street battles with fascists, “Commitment” writ large. Operation Iraqi Freedom it wasn’t. Here’s the last stanza:

Our fight’s not won till the workers of all the world,

Stand by our guard on Huesca’s plain,

Swear that our dead fought not in vain,

Raise the red flag triumphantly,

For Communism and liberty.

It’s easy to dismiss it as pathetically naïve or ingenuous but in comparison to our century’s infantilizing of politics it’s as shining as the beacon it was conceived under. He was lied to but didn’t know it; we’re lied to, know it but pass on by. Too comfortable by half.

The most difficult time to live though is one’s own. Not just the epoch, the decade, the year or season. But the moment—the only time that one can live in, do something, achieve or fail, try; and it’s so often so unattractive, so without promise, so without momentum. Hence the comfort of falling back into elsewhere. “...And the countryside not caring: The place-names all hazed over, With flowering grasses, and fields, Shadowing Doomsday lines, Under wheat’s restless silence” (Larkin: MCMXIV). There’s a high spot I ride to on a sunny day around harvest time which overlooks the Cambridgeshire plain, not far from Orwell’s cottage near Baldock. In the past I’ve taken “Coming Up for Air,” sat there in the quiet and with ease imagined myself the best part of a century back.


St. Giles burial ground, Parish of the Ascension, Cambridge

Photo: John Levett

I went back to the burial ground the next day and sat on a tomb reading John Cornford’s letters to Margot Heinemann. They’re like his poetry—immediate, a sense of living out on a ledge, the last thing he might write, what he writes might never get read. It’s what I contrast with Larkin. With Larkin I always get a sense that something-someone-someplace has just been left, lost or never quite happened, out of reach.

Back home I shelved the Spanish Civil War verse and snatched a glance at the pile nearby: Poetry of the Thirties, Poetry of the Forties, English and American Surrealist Poetry, David Gascoyne’s diaries. Old stuff. Stuff I didn’t live through. It struck me that I’m living too much in another time, too much of a generation. Not quite walking through a graveyard but close by one. Like Roquentin’s chestnut tree in Sartre’s La Nausée, the books by my bedside took to life and rose up: Galsworthy’s A Modern Comedy, Kierkegaard’s Journals, Thoreau’s Walden, a Left Book Club edition of John Strachey’s The Theory and Practice of Socialism, Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames. Too much in the past, too much looking for meaning there, not enough present.

It didn’t take long to recognize that my current photographic project is about remembrance and family narratives. In a real sense all photography is about the past but not every photographer anchors themselves there, and it struck me that that’s what I was choosing to do and the reason for my choice was to do with narrative. I’ve never been more than less-than-half-convinced that post-modernism (or Post-Modernism if you are convinced) has substance, so “narrative” and the search for it has always featured in how I’ve gone about life and I know I’m not singular in that. Even when there isn’t any, we still seek (maybe convince ourselves of finding) narrative structure in the most mundane of occurrences and when it comes to lives and deaths it’s hard to avoid.

There’s another burial ground in Cambridge that I often walk through on the way from somewhere to elsewhere, and one stone I stop by occasionally is that of Private HJ Slack. The dates seem so significant to me that my story seems it must fit.

Private Slack (no Christian name) was killed on 8th November 1918—three days before the Armistice was declared.  He was 31 years of age. There are two others in the grave. A daughter died in 1935 aged 17. Born in 1918; conceived on Private Slack’s last leave? Was she born while he was still serving? Think of the young married couple, knowing that the war was coming to a close, a bairn to care for; a new life awaiting.

Sarah, his wife, is in the plot too; the same age as her husband. She’s widowed; childless now; never re-married. She died on 3rd September 1939, the day that Britain declared war on Germany. Could she not take the thought of another slaughter? Was she so overwhelmed by her memories of what might have been in her life that she took it away herself?

It’s easy to make histories for these families but, for the Slacks, my story of them has never seemed far from the likely.


This evening I’m off to the opera—Britten’s (out of Henry James’) Turn of the Screw. Ghosts, hauntings, imaginings, lives bent, lives dwelling elsewhere. This afternoon I’m looking out onto rain and grey with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book on Mindfulness Meditation on the couch beside. I bought this back in the mid-‘90s (that would be the 1990s) at a time when creative visualization, psychosynthesis, self-hypnosis, affirmations, shamanistic practices, candle lighting, aromatherapy and sundry works of late-capitalistic creative demand invention occupied most waking (truly awake) moments. Judging by the way the book falls open I’ve never got past page forty-five but now I’m trying. To get past the past.

Gravestone of philosopher

Ludwig Wittgenstein (with coins)

Photo: John Levett

Posted by Julie on 12/10 at 11:01 AM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyPoliticsPermalink

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Gina’s ‘On-the Fly’  Lavender Cookies

Our friend in Singapore, Gina Choong comes through with a floral cookie recipe in time for the holidays. (Pardon our rough conversions.) Thank you, Gina!


Lavender Cookies

Photo: Kitchen Capers

By Gina Choong


180g all purpose flour (@3/4 c.)

1/2 tsp baking powder

125ml corn oil (@ 1/2/ c.)

125g fine sugar (@ 1/2 c.)

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tsp dried lavender flowers


1. Add the oil, sugar, egg together to mix.

2. Add sifted flour, flowers and stir till well mixed.

3. Use a cookie scoop or spoon to form balls and place on cookie tray.

4. Bake in preheated oven of 180C (350F) for 10 mins.

5. Remove to cool completely on wire rack before storing in air tight containers.

This was actually a Chinese recipe originally, using another flower, called osmanthus. But I figure that osmanthus may not be readily available in the West so I tried it with lavender instead.  It’s a fairly simple recipe and can be modified using other types of herbs, spices or flowers. I have tried using even chopped kaffir lime leaves with a bit of spice.

imageLavender field

Blanco County, Texas

Photo: Julie Ardery

Fresh flowers are better, but in Singapore there are no fresh lavenders. We get them dried, as these flowers are often sold as tea leaves. If you use fresh lavender, you need to make sure it has no pesticides sprayed into it, and it has to be clean from any bugs or ants. Use just a pinch of the lavender; if you rub it with both hands, it will bring out the fragrance. As they say, too much of a good thing is bad. Don’t put too many flowers into the cookie. It makes it smell like a soap: too fragrant. The flavor of lavender does take a bit of getting used to, especially if you have used lavender-laced products like soap and deodorant.

I think these cookies go great with a weak tea with a bit of sugar, no milk. Try them with Earl Grey; it’s very nice. I’ve enjoyed them with friends when they come over for a leisure talk and tea. It was fragrant and somehow it gives them a sense of home, of love and comfort—a soothing feeling.

I have always believed that if you are passionate about doing something, you make the best out of it. Most of my recipes are created on-the-fly, taking from a familiar recipe and changing the ingredients along the way. Some will say that it never seems to work when you substitute one for another. But I have more successes than failures, because I find great pleasure in cooking. The thing that keeps me going is the look of contented faces.

Note: You may find many more of Gina’s recipes at Kitchen Capers.

Posted by Julie on 12/08 at 10:52 PM
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