Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Thursday, December 06, 2007

On the Trail of Zempasúchitl

Jill Nokes tracks marigolds from India back to their homeland in Mexico, asking how this flower first made its way abroad—with ceremonial punch intact. The plot, like mole sauce, thickens….


Marigold seed, suitable for worldwide celebration

Photo: Jill Nokes

By Jill Nokes

Earlier this fall, I was fascinated by a HFP story about pandals, those ephemeral shrines in West Bengal dedicated to Durga, a Hindu goddess of feminine power.  The accompanying photo showed extravagant arrangements of pink lotus flowers and tables draped with long garlands of marigolds.  The story explained how marigold flowers are also thrown into fire pits in a purification rite.  The pandals reminded me of some of the more elaborate ofrendas (home altars) in Mexico lovingly constructed to honor departed loved ones during the Day of the Dead fiestas. I wondered how the marigold became an important flower in sacred celebrations in continents so far apart.

By chance and good fortune I have followed the marigold trail before.  A few years ago we were hiking in El Cielo, a biosphere preserve in Tamaulipas, Mexico, that contains the northernmost cloud forest in our hemisphere. The foothills of the Sierra Madre rise 4,000 feet above the otherwise steamy mattoral (thornscrub) ecosystem that dominates the rest of the state.  Instead, the landscape at El Cielo (closer to our home than Colorado) seems more like Guatemala or Costa Rica, with abundant waterfalls, orchids and bromeliads, pine trees and maples, sweetgums and magnolias festooned with wild begonias.

A friend who had done research in El Cielo urged us to seek out a certain young family living in one of the biosphere’s villages.  He said we could help support the ejideros (communal landowners) by buying a meals or services there as part of the plan to promote ecotourism.  So one day we left the research station at El Canindo and hiked a winding trail past one village towards the next cluster of houses nestled in the sheep-sheared green-carpeted hills.  We asked an old man where the family lived, and he pointed to a low ridge where a concrete block house painted tempera-paint blue was perched. We followed a goat trail in that direction and as we drew near, we saw that the dirt path to the house was strewn with vivid marigold petals: it was November first, All Saint’s Day.


Children sprinkle marigold petals leading to the local cemetery

for El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Alta, Puebla, Mexico

Photo: The British Museum, from The Skeleton at the Feast

by E. Carmichael and C. Sayer

In Day of the Dead celebrations, marigolds are used for both decoration but also to guide and welcome the spirits of the beloved deceased back to the fiesta where their favorite food, drink, and family await them.  The pungent fragrance of marigolds is said to represent the smell of death, and also the short duration of life.  (Once, while hiking in Jalisco in early November, each step we took released the sharp aroma of licorice: we were walking on fields of dried hierba anise, a type of annual marigold.) Marigolds (Tagetes spp.) include about sixty different species of annuals and perennials originating in the New World. In Mexico they are called Zempasúchitl (also variously spelled as Cempasúchil or Cempazúchitl), the old pre-conquest Nathuatl name. (Nathuatl was the lingua franca of Mesoamerica, and many place names and common nouns are still called by their ancient moniker).

imageOfrenda, altar for the Day of the Dead in Chicontepec, Veracruz, Mexico with cempasúchil and mano de leon (coxcomb)

Photo: Chloe Sayer, from The Skeleton at the Feast

So how and when did zempasúchitl travel to India and become an important element in that culture’s religious celebrations?  Surely someone has written a dissertation about this somewhere. Mexican marigolds, along with chiles, chocolate, and vanilla, must have been part of that great exchange that introduced cinnamon, sesame, and peanuts to the New World, where they are now essential ingredients of the famous mole (pronounced mole- A) sauce.

The poet and novelist John Phillip Santos calls this blending and cross-pollination of cultures the globalization of meztisaje. Because of their unique history of isolation preceding the “epic rendezvous” with Europe in the fifteenth century, Latin America—and especially Mexico—possess overlooked wisdom and experience to offer a modern world straining to accommodate populations on the move, to answer questions of identity and belonging, and to mitigate fear of “outsiders.”  We may think mole is an indigenous regional cuisine, but many of the “essential” ingredients actually came from the Old World (once in Zaachila, we watched the molinero pour animal crackers into the Molino or mill, along with a customer’s personal blend of chiles, chocolate, and other ingredients to make the basis for their mole sauce. The animal crackers served as sweet thickeners.) These assumptions of origins are easily unraveled. It’s like having your mother’s mitochondrial DNA analyzed, thinking you will confirm the link in your ancestry to William, Prince of Orange, only to find that you are actually a distant cousin to Pocahontas.

imageMarigolds decorate an offering to Durga

during Durga puja in Calcutta

Photo: Sandy Ao

But back to zempasúchitl.  One explanation for its use in these autumnal celebrations must surely be because, like ruby coxcombs, bachelor buttons, and goldenrod, fall is when the blooms appear. A popular cultivated species of marigold (Tagetes erecta), is actually called African marigold, though we know now that it never grew in Africa until someone planted it there. In turn, true African weeds like Lion’s ear (Leonotis leonurus), asphodel (Asphodelus luteus), and castor bean (Ricinius communis), have become naturalized in the roadsides and overgrazed fields of Mexico. Now it’s hard to imagine a Mexican landscape without them—or burros and goats, either—yet none were known until Europeans brought them in what ecological historian Alfred Crosby calls, “their portmanteau biota.”  Marigold petals may guide the dead home on their annual visit, but for the living they lead to some surprising connections with our extended family here on earth.

Posted by Julie on 12/06 at 04:48 PM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsTravelPermalink

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Suit That Alt-ed Country Music

Gram Parsons staged a collision of glam-rock, C&W, Southern gospel, and rhythm and blues that survives him, as alt-country music. A new biography shows how a glittering floral suit set him up for stardom in more ways than one.


Backside of “The Gilded Palace of Sin”

first LP of the Flying Burrito Brothers, 1969

Photo: Barry Feinstein

In our weekly browse through the record bin at Woolco one evening in 1969, we came upon a peculiar sight. A new LP pictured several long-haired guys (one of whom we recognized as Chris Hillman of the Byrds) standing out in the desert with vixen-models – nothing so strange about that. The flipped out part of it was they were dressed in glittery suits, like the stuff that country singer Buck Owens wore on television. Sure, the Beatles had put on day-glo band uniforms for Sergeant Pepper, but this was different. What were a bunch of hip musicians doing twinkling like Liberace? On second take, we noticed that the suit of one dude – the handsome one—had been decorated with sequined marijuana leaves.

imageGram Parsons (with friend) in the destiny suit

made to order by Nudie Cohn

Photo: Barry Feinstein

We went home with “The Gilded Palace of Sin,” fire and brimstone preached with a psychedelic pedal steel guitar. Our new favorite band was The Flying Burrito Brothers, led by Gram Parsons, a redneck Beau Brummel and human train wreck. Nearly forty years later, our friend David Meyer has written a whopper biography of Parsons and the alt-country music scene Gram, in a stupor, managed to create. What makes it a Human Flower Project is this suit, now enshrined in the Country Music Museum in Nashville.

It was made by Nudie Cohn – the same tailor who dressed up Roy Rogers and the country and western singing stars. Though this was several decades before celebrity “branding,” all Nudie’s sequined ensembles were indelible. For Porter Wagner, there were glittering wagon wheels, prison bars for Webb Pierce. And for Gram Parsons, the poor little rich Southern preppie hippie addict, there would be appliqué Seconals and sequined poppies.

In 1969, the Nudie suit looked like a devilish joke on all those rubes who wouldn’t know cannabis from cactus, an opium poppy from the San Antone rose. But when Parsons died of a morphine overdose in a motel room at Joshua Tree, age 26, the suit with sequined poppies began to look eerie – like a smuggled plea.

We think David’s book Twenty Thousand Roads is a masterful piece of work, orchestrating scores of interviews and piecing back together another time and its psyche. Way back then, to sing an anti-war song with a twang and invoke Buck Owens with pot on your breath were acts of trespassing. Among all Gram’s sins, time has forgiven—even gilded— these.

Posted by Julie on 12/04 at 06:34 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyPermalink

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Afghan Flowers—Living Embroidery

Did silk stitching inspire the floral aesthetics of Afghanistan?

imageBoys working at the Gul-e-Maryam flower shop, Kabul

Photo: ICRC

When you think you’ve seen it all, whoosh! Here comes something gorgeous and completely new—to our American eyes, anyway: the floristry of Afghanistan.

European flower arrangements (which still prevail in the U.S., too) seem to us to be descendents of 17th century science and baroque art. As early botanists were collecting and classifying plant discoveries from the colonies, European floral designers delighted in lush varieties of color and shape; “Let’s make a bouquet of every flower known to humankind,” appears to be the guiding principle. And the results are lavish. In contrast, Japanese floral design is the child not of science but philosophy. It balances a few asymmetrical elements, bringing into focus not abundance or color but line.

imageAfghan boys with floral decorations

made to sell for the Eid

Photo: Rabia via BBC

But from the little we’ve seen, the flowers of Afghanistan have another aesthetic all their own. These designs seem to have been borrowed from the region’s textile heritage, silk, cotton, and wool stitching on fabric. The overriding effect is neither line nor color, but pattern. It’s electric, like these splendid dress panels vibrating with embroidery. In Afghanistan, embellishments adorn men’s and women’s clothing—fancy table linens, too.  And check out this bicycle seat!

We’ve found a few photographs of Afghan flower designers (many of them boys) piecing together these marvelous ornaments of blossoms. Many of the arrangements actually seem to be handled as wall decorations, just as a beautiful embroidered textile would be.

imageTurban-like bouquets, for sale in Kabul, 1972

Photo: Ard Hesselink

The most stunning images we’ve seen are pictures that Ard Hesselink of Alkmaar, the Netherlands, took in Kabul in 1972 when, as he writes, “there was still a king in Afghanistan.” These arrangements, with their concentric designs of purples and golds, certainly seem fit for royalty—though their shapes are reminiscent of turbans.

We have only scratched the surface on this subject and hope to learn lots more from those living in Afghanistan or visiting. Please tell us the names of those gorgeous wall pieces. Do women and older men work with flowers, too, or is the florist trade for some reason considered young men’s work? Do the names of floral designs and decorations bear out a relationship to regional embroidery traditions, as we’ve surmised?

And with all that’s happened in the past three decades, do flowers in Afghanistan today look anything like Ard’s picture from the early 1970s? Can an aesthetic this original and strong survive thirty years of war?




Posted by Julie on 12/02 at 10:06 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyFloristsPermalink
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