Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Thursday, January 10, 2008

To Those Who Value Spirit of Place

John Levett abandons a museum trip to explore Amersham, rose-tinted, despite a winter rain. Thank you, John.


In Amersham, out the Metropolitan line

Photo: John Levett

By John Levett

London still gives me a buzz.

I wasn’t born there but I was supposed to be. Mum was travelling from Brighton to South London sometime during the night of 4th August 1944 when a nearby explosion of a V1 somewhere in the countryside around Tunbridge Wells brought on labour and I was delivered the following day. A few hours later and I’d have been a Deptford boy. At least, that was always the family myth; like most creation stories, shot through with inconsistencies but when the myth becomes convenient, stick with the myth. We spent a few years moving from one flat to another, one member of the extended family to another until we settled in Luton, the post-war Detroit of the British motor industry but without the Great Lakes. It was around the Summer of 1949 that mum took me on a first-ever trip out of Luton back to London.

One thing I’ve kept from birth is a wide-eyed astonishment at the existence of everything, and it was the Maternal Grand Plan that I was supposed to. Bringing up a child as a single parent at the end of a war, without a home, looking for a job and coping with insecurity is tough, but I was given wonder out of an orange and a piece of string. It was popping into the newly-regenerated St. Pancras terminus a month ago that recalled the first trip and its wonder.

I can now do a day trip to Paris but Luton to London 1949 still compares. The hugest station ever (Wanna be a train driver). The walk up Euston Road (Wanna be a taxi driver). The stuffed bear outside the entrance to Heals in Tottenham Court Road (Wanna be a trapper). The pier at Charing Cross and the first bottle of Pepsi since the war (Wanna be a Melican). There were lots of ‘Wanna be…’ that day. We took a trip up the Thames estuary on the steamer Royal Sovereign to Southend, walked the mile-long pier to the promenade, ate fat and sugar off sticks & out of paper bags, sailed home into a sunset.

I never got bought stuff as a kid. We did trips and got history. Later, books. Nothing’s changed. I’m grateful. Last December I skipped (and I do mean ‘skipped’, so flush was I with amazement and memory) out of St. Pancras into Starbucks opposite the British Library. (Starbucks! Is it just me or has anyone else noticed the inverse correlation between Starbucks and the numbers of free public lavatories that work? Do they have shares in the firms that make these HAL-operated lock-in Pay-to-Pee obelisks?) I sat and scoffed and remembered commissioning for a present a watercolour of St. Pancras in the early ‘70s, around the time it was within weeks of being demolished. I still admire Kings Cross as better architecture but it doesn’t have 1949.

Having polished off a cinnamon swirl and double espresso and sworn a voodoo curse for having contributed another three quid to global cultural levelling, I hoofed it up the road in the direction of Marylebone for reasons I’ve forgotten but which were no doubt worthy.

imageJohn Betjeman’s encomium to England’s railways and stations

Image: Amazon UK

Once I’d got as far as Marylebone Station I remembered a number of things. First was, is this the age when I ought to start writing lists of what I should do when I get there? Secondly, I was going to the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at Tate Modern. Thirdly, I’ve never travelled anywhere from Marylebone and where do trains go to from here? Finally, they go to Metroland and that’s where John Betjeman went to when television was still in black and white (at least in our house) in whenever it was, and didn’t Julian Barnes write a novel about it, and wasn’t it made into a film in whenever it was? So I was there in the Underground wondering if this is Part 1 of dementia, looking to change at Baker Street for the Jubilee Line and thence to Southwark for the Tate and seeing Amersham lit up and thinking I’ve never been there and getting a buzz of wanting to.

Now come a couple of digressions. Digression one: the tyranny of the list. This comes from childhood too—always finish what you start. So if it’s on the list then it’s gotta get finished or I go to hell—the Jesuitical equivalent of Getting Things Done. Bourgeois was on the list so get thee hence to Southwark. So to Baker Street for the Jubilee Line I went and having arrived there Amersham was available again via the estimable Metropolitan Line. Falling off the cliff-edge of the list and towards the infernal regions I’m now at… Digression two: I’m drawn towards bits of England I missed and Amersham at the end of the Metropolitan Line in a small depression of the Chiltern Hills has an iconic value to those who value spirit of place. Louise got dumped.

Through Amersham to Aylesbury and the Vale,

In those wet fields the railway didn’t pay.

The Metro stops at Amersham today.

When Betjeman made his 1972 documentary it was still (just) possible in the counties surrounding London (Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire, Bucks) to walk a day in the country and meet no-one; to stand on a hill like the ‘pilgrims’ in Michael Powell’s 1944 ‘A Canterbury Tale’ & see the cathedral of Canterbury with little to distract you in between; to picnic near a pond without the bother of other people’s kids (“Precious to you madam but a pain in the arse to the rest of the nation”); to sit without a background drone; to pitch a tent in a field without need of armed guard.


Amersham illuminated, December 2007

Photo: John Levett

I exaggerate no doubt but from this distance it feels like it was that way. (I’m writing this listening to Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony which can befuddle the memory.) But it was an idyll of sorts that fuelled the growth of Metroland. In the post-Great War decades arterial roads and the new industries grew westwards out of London; people and houses followed. Villages knowing little change since Victoria’s reign save for lost youth now lost certainty and permanence; the newcomers (£5 deposit and an uninterrupted lifetime to pay off) got a piece of rural England and a peace of some sort. If I’d been an Amersham villager I’d have been mightily pissed off.

I took the Underground, becoming overground past Finchley Road. I once owned the original shooting script by Edward Mirzoeff for Betjeman’s film and vaguely remembered the stops; the poet in the centre of the old stadium at Wembley (replaced by the beached whale of corporate pomp and bloated hubris that is now English football’s home); Harrow-on-the-Hill; Pinner and its Mediaeval Fair; Chorleywood and the Voysey house. And Amersham at the line’s end. Home to Cromwell’s wife; loyal to Parliament’s forces; solid for the first bourgeois revolution.


In Amersham, one monument to the first bourgeois revolution

Photo: John Levett

It was a grey day with almost-drizzle that hangs. I walked around the collection of shops; hardly a town, a charity shop on each corner, surprised by a still-working Woolworth’s, dispirited by the Tesco Express new-build. A sign pointed down the hill to old Amersham. Worth a soaking.

This was the direction the newcomers built their way out of Amersham-on-the-Hill towards ever-less faux rurality and touching a bit of real essence. Those with a bit more cash, more to buy more space, the bank manager not the salaried clerk. Then a gem.


High and Over in the mist, Dec. 2007

Photo: John Levett

I came to High and Over which sounds like no great shakes but is. Depending on your view of what constitutes Modernism, its history, its span, the dates that bookend it, High and Over was the first Modernist building in England. At least, one that le Corbusier would have been happy with. (Betjeman rubbished it.) It was completed around 1931 (a bit late for Modernist houses but England never took to ‘foreign’; much better off with clap-board Tudor) and there have been changes since but it’s still iconic. What the burgers of Amersham thought of it I’ve no idea but it’s brought trade to the town; if I’d connected town and house I’d have trekked here sooner.

Bucked by this find I skipped (for the second time that day) down the hill, past another Tesco, into the old town and out the other end. Old Amersham is standard fare for what’s left of villages these days; bijou boutiques; antiques and antiquities; huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ clobber; travel agents; chiropractors. I always look for the antiquarian bookshop in places like this but too often they’ve been reduced to the pile-’em-high-sell-’em-short second-hand paperback trade but not even that here. The end of the village took me to the main road towards Aylesbury, stopping off at Great Missenden, Little Hampden, Wendover if I had a mind to, the days to and the boots to.


Public housing in Amersham, built c. 1920

Photo: John Levett

It was drizzling more heavily by now and was closing in on the surrounding hills. I walked a different route around the back of the village, through the public housing which I judged to be mid-1920s. ‘Homes for Heroes,’ provision of social housing as a civic responsibility, communal plots for vegetable growing, the village hall—a society which could identify itself and aspire to something. When Betjeman was in his pomp, England was, too—rotten to the core with class, racism, hypocrisy, poverty and exploitation but with its pockets of tradition made in spite of all that; a labouring class keeping itself intact, subverting the master’s ideology, making sense out of having little and expecting less. For no reason other than it comes to me most often when I catch this ‘How-we-used-to-be’ mood, I remembered the final scene of Humphry Jennings’ end-of-the-war documentary ‘A Diary for Timothy’; a small gang of kids running through a bomb site towards a distance which was all our futures. I could see High and Over from where I stood; two ideas of a future. I could see Tesco, too.

imageStill from ‘A Canterbury Tale’

Michael Powell’s film (1944)

Image: Screen Online

Addendum: The mind sometimes doesn’t serve history well. After writing this piece I realized I had confused myself slightly. Betjeman didn’t take the Underground on the Metropolitan Line, he took the railway which, in its days of majesty, went beyond Amersham to Aylesbury and almost as far as Buckingham which is stretching the adjective ‘metropolitan’ a tad. Both Underground and train use the same station at Amersham which also accommodates a fine staff who patiently service the confusion of seekers after rose-tinted England.

Posted by Julie on 01/10 at 11:13 AM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyGardening & LandscapeTravelPermalink

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Swedes Do It Differently

An exhibit of floral photographs shows the ranging sexuality Linnaeus saw, recorded, loved.

imageTragopogon pratensis

from Herbarium Amoris

by Edvard Koinberg

Could it be that a culture’s sex life is revealed in its floral art?

An exhibit of photographs by Edvard Koinberg called Herbarium Amoris suggests that may be.  Koinberg shots and assembled 38 flower images to celebrate botany’s first librarian, Carl Linnaeus of Sweden (his 300th birthday was last May). Koinberg points to Linnaeus’s candid and loving study of plant sexuality as the inspiration for his own art.

“Flowers are nothing other than the breeding organs of plants,” Linnaeus wrote, “yet with that difference from those of animals, which we regard as so foul that witnessing them awakens shame, so that, in animals, nature has in most cases found a way to cover them up. On the other hand, in the plant kingdom these parts are not hidden but instead firmly exhibited for all to see, Oh, yes!”

Koinberg writes that with Systema Naturae‘s publication in 1735,  it took only two months for Linnaeus to become famous. “His ideas concerning the sexuality of plants caused some alarm, but people were also titillated by them. He was accused of leading young people astray with his accounts of the plants ‘love life.’ This, however, simply added to his reputation.”

There’s nothing new about titillation leading to celebrity. But a couple of things make this exhibit enormously interesting. First, the Swedish Institute, a state agency “established to disseminate knowledge abroad about Sweden´s social and cultural life” has sponsored Koinberg’s show and made possible a three-year global tour. Now, certainly MGM and Warner Brothers are only too glad to disseminate (sorry)  U.S.A.-style sexuality abroad, but the U.S. government?? Not in 300 or even a million years.

Secondly, Koinberg’s interpretation—the depiction of sexuality in his flower photographs—is quite astonishing, especially for those of us accustomed to the sleek, quasi-pornographic breast and phallus imagery of Americans like Robert Mapplethorpe. What a shudder, that we’re invited to see the amorousness in an image like this:


Paeonia lactiflora

Or how about this?


Dryopteris flix-mas

It’s not too late for New Year’s resolutions!!

Readers who investigate the Swedish Institute’s site can explore Koinberg’s work in the same spirit as Garbo-watching: without one bit of “shame.” Another delight is to see the variety of ways that Herbarium Amoris has been installed across the world. Perhaps there are clues to sexual behaviors here as well; keep it elevated, oh yes, and tell us what you find.


The Orangery Garden in Österbybruk, Uppland, Sweden (2005)

Photo: Herbarium Amoris

The exhibit continues its tour this year; here’s a rough schedule:

8 Jan. - 16 Mar. 2008: House of Sweden, Washington D.C. USA

15 - 27 January, 2008: Angebo Folkets Hus, Sweden

13 Mar - May, 2008: National Museum of History, Minsk, Belorussia

Sept - Oct. 2008: Museum of Nature History, Belgrade, Serbia






Posted by Julie on 01/08 at 12:06 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietySciencePermalink

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Myrrh: Wisely Given for Epiphany

The Gospel of Matthew records that the kings who came to Bethlehem to honor the birth the Jesus brought myrrh. What made the resin of an East African shrub a good baby gift?


Adoration of the Magi (detail)

by Pieter Bruegel (1564)

National Gallery of London

According to Christian tradition, a group of powerful and scholarly men arrived in Bethlehem January 6th to pay their respects to the tiny Messiah. They brought presents. In lieu of flowers—roses wouldn’t have fared well on the long trip—they offered gold and two aromatic plant products, frankincence and myrrh.

Myrrh (excellent SCRABBLE word for the vowelless) is actually resin from Commiphora myrrha, a plant native to Somalia (though the secretions of other varieties of Commiphora apparently go under this name, too). Ducts and cavities in the plant’s bark become filed with “a granular secretion which is freely discharged” either from natural fissures or “when the bark is wounded…. It flows as a pale yellow liquid, but hardens to a reddish-brown mass.” Unsavory as all this sounds, the gummy result is myrrh, a substance prized since 2000 B.C.. Being exotic, it made a fitting gift for a god, but not for its rarity alone….


Commiphora myrrha

Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen

Image: Caliban

It is hard for most of us to imagine how stinky ancient times were. Personal hygiene was rudimentary; as for Christ’s nursery, there were no mobiles or changing tables—Mary and Joseph were camping out in a barn. Anything that could overpower stench would have been precious. And myrrh can do that. Its fragrance is strong, and as the Christmas carol says, “bitter.” The ancient Egyptians used the resin in embalming; Jewish communities used it to anoint corpses.

Because of its association with death, myrrh was also a symbolic gift, an intimation of the Christ child’s destiny at the cross. Likewise, the plant’s thorns and slashes made in Commiphora’s bark to extract myrrh point to the Passion story. Myrrh granules are even referred to as “tears.” This may be the saddest present ever opened at a baby shower.

In addition to its honorific and symbolic character, myrrh also possessed practical value. It has long been used medicinally—to treat wounds, aid digestion, cure infections of syphilis and leprosy, and even promote menstruation. Hmm, maybe myrrh wasn’t for Jesus after all, but Mary.

Though the market for Baby Savior gifts is small today (also, the number of Magi consumers), Ethiopia exports over 70 tons of myrrh annually. “Tears” of Commiphora myrrh are used in perfumes, food flavorings, mouthwash, and adhesives. And its flowers? Here’s a lovely photo, not taken in January we’d presume, of Commiphora abyssinica as it blossoms.



Posted by Julie on 01/06 at 01:13 PM
Cut-Flower TradeMedicineReligious RitualsPermalink

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Human Hair in the Potting Shed

A U.S. company is importing human hair from China and India as a gardening aid, reviving an old idea. But can it overcome racial history?

imageA new herbicide?

Photo: Rapunzel’s Delight

A scalp-tingling gardening idea called SmartGrow is garnering endorsements across the Southeast U.S. The product is a thin mat made entirely of human hair and marketed as a deer repellent, organic fertilizer, and herbicide.

‘‘In the beginning, we were saying, `Human hair? What is this?’‘’ asked Luis Naranjo, owner of Octavio Taylor Nurseries in Dade County, Florida. According to Tere Figueras Negrete’s report in the Miami Herald, Naranjo “now expects 80 percent of his nearly 1 million plants, like ground orchids,… will be cozily blanketed with the mats by this spring.” He says that the hair mats “saved him $45,000 in pesticides last year, and $200,000 in labor.”

Plant pathologists at the University of Florida also like the results they see, as does a major heirloom tomato grower in Georgia.

Old timey gardeners have long known about the benefits of gardening with human hair, folk knowledge that’s trickled down (up?) through institutions like agricultural extension programs. The State of Missouri’s extension office website, for example, advises gardeners:

Human hair is a repellent that costs very little but has not consistently repelled deer. Place two handfuls of hair in fine-meshed bags (onion bags, nylon stockings). When damage is severe, hang hair bags on the outer branches of trees with no more than 3 feet between bags. For larger areas, hang several bags, 3 feet apart, from fence or cord around the perimeter of the area to be protected. Attach the bags early in spring and replace them monthly through the growing season.”

To keep deer away, the Illinois Walnut Council also recommends human hair, as well as “sulphur/egg mixtures, large cat feces from a zoo, and even human urine.” (Hair cuttings begin to look like the easy way out.)

imageThe SmartGrow mat, of human hair

Photo: SmartGrow

The idea for SmartGrow originated in a Huntsville, Alabama, hair salon, when stylist Phil McCory saw images of Alaskan otters covered with oil after the Exxon Valdez spill and began to experiment with human hair as oil-absorbent material. Blair Blacker bought the patent from McCory and tried selling his discovery to the petroleum industry (not interested); then learning of the folk gardening customs, he shifted his focus to plants.

Where did the 30,000 pounds of tresses in Blacker’s Florida warehouse come from?

“SmartGrow relies on two hair brokers—in China and India—to procure the hair, which is boiled in 120-degree water, dried, loaded onto 40-foot boats and shipped via waterway to a port city in China.” At a factory in Zhaoyuan, the hair is piled onto “an old-style needle-punch machine, formerly used to make carpets. A hopper blows air through the hair to loosen it, and the strands are then woven into a loose felt-like mat of mostly dark and shiny follicles, with the occasional gray strand peeping through.”

imageShorn hair dries in the sun in India

Photo: India Hair Weave Technique

Negrete’s article notes that gardening with human hair involves “an admitted yuck factor,”  something SmartGrow fans try to dismiss fast, by changing the subject to manure. But for us, the aversion goes deeper.

The thought of applying human body parts to utilitarian ends brings a shudder, even for those who advocate embryonic stem cell research and organ transplants. And the use of human hair in particular revives grisly images from the end of World War II. When Soviet forces liberated the death camp at Auschwitz, in January 1945, they found seven tons of human hair. Shorn from those imprisoned and killed in the Holocaust, these body parts purportedly were to be shipped back to Germany and woven into cloth.

Blair Blacker says that the raw material for SmartGrow mats comes from India and China, because it’s hair less likely to have been dyed or otherwise chemically damaged. Surely that’s so. (There’s also an interesting photo essay by Adriene Jaeckle showing tonsure—ritual hair cutting—at a temple in India.)  But it seems obvious, too, that the trade in human hair is primarily a transaction between people who want fatter vegetables and people so desperate for money they’ll sell off parts of themselves.

Maybe that’s no more degrading than working in a call center or weaving rugs, but maybe it is. The images from 1945 give us a long pause.

Posted by Julie on 01/03 at 12:53 PM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePoliticsPermalink
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