Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Pencils Down for Saraswati

Young learners (and old), wearing mustard yellow, bring the palash flower and open minds before Hinduism’s goddess of learning.


Palash flower (Butea frondosa) sacred to Saraswati,

Hinduism’s goddess of wisdom

Photo: Sandy Ao

“It’s almost like we keep the best for the last!” Sandy Ao writes. Thus our friend in Kolkata, India, describes the final ritual of the Hindu calendar year: Saraswati Puja. The celebration honors the goddess of wisdom (something we may hope to have gained a bit of over the past twelve months). Its purpose is mainly to nourish the seed of brilliance inside young minds, but it’s an inspiration for less young thinkers also—the only floral custom we know of that acknowledges, in Sandy’s words, “books and pencils are holy.” (We think so whenever in the presence of a well sharpened No. 2.)

imageOfferings to Saraswati, Feb. 11, 2008

include a chalkboard with flowers

Photo: Sandy Ao

Sandy attended several pujas around Kolkata, at her son’s apartment complex, in a private home, and on the outskirts of the city. She also passes along her neighbor Mr. Pradip Kr Pal Choudhuri’s Sanskrit greeting:


Mahavage  (highly revered)

Bidye  (educated)

Kamala Lochone  (lotus eyed)

Biswarupe  (reflecting Universe)

Bishalakshmi  (hugely good)

Bidyang Dehi  (bestowing education)

Namastute  (bowing down to you)

“As Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge and wisdom,” Sandy writes, “I guess we are free to chant the above mantra within our own understanding of her deep mystery.”

On the day of Saraswati’s puja, February 11th this year, students “visit the pandals (temporary shrines) and avoid touching books or pencils, ” except as part of ritual. A ceremony called Hathe Khori (literally “hand” and “twig quill”) is when many children first learn to write.  Sandy informs us, “The pandit will write the first three letters of the alphabet on the slate with the chalk, including the English ABC and 123 with the Bengali alphabet’s ABC and 123. English is an important language nowadays, so both languages are being taught on this day!

imageFirst alphabet with the pandit’s help

at Saraswati puja in Kasba, Kolkata

Photo: Sandy Ao

“There will be two ladies to help the pandits while this ritual takes place. First one lady will blow the sound from the shell, and then another one will sound the gong. I guess it’s to wake up the sense from the child… to become alert. After all these rituals, the priest will place some flowers on top of the written slate and show that to the goddess for the blessing.” Could composition classes world wide—journalism, too, for that matter—be improved with Saraswati’s favored palash flowers (Butea frondosa) sprinkled over binders, keyboards, reporters’ notebooks? Undoubtedly.

Many of the children come to the ritual wearing bright yellow garments, color of the mustard flower which is India’s harbinger of spring. “First the pandit will take the child on his lap and then arrange a brass spoon - in fish shape - filled with holy water from the Hoogly River, and place some marigold and bael leaf in it, and offer it to the goddess. While doing that he will tell the goddess the name of the child.”

Sometimes the tiny scholars resist. “This particular 5 year old girl needed 3 - 4 times of pushing and pulling to make her sit on the lap of the pandit to complete this ritual.” Sandy photographed the Saraswati puja in “the village,” actually Bosepokur Lane, Kasba, which is now part of sprawling Kolkata. She was pleased to see how gently all the adults urged the youngsters on. “Everyone around will help the child to learn the first word on this Saraswati puja day. How good it is to feel there is no ugly competition among the parents and children while prompting the children to learn wisdom/knowledge from the goddess.”

Sandy especially was grateful to be invited to a private ceremony in a Kolkata home. Twelve year old Dabu Mukharjee enjoyed his first Saraswati puja, organized in his honor by his older brother. “Maybe the elder brother did not have the opportunity to study himself,” Sandy explains, “so he paid all the expenses of the puja from his earnings and offered a puja for Dabu this year at their home.” The Mukharjee family rose and bathed before 5 am Feb. 11 to be ready for the pandit’s arrival. Hindu priests are, of course, enormously busy on these holy days. “There are thousands of puja to be taken care of within a few hours time. All the pujas have to be done before noon,” and, Sandy writes, the priests usually visit poorer families of the community earliest in the morning.


Saraswati puja at the Mukharjee home in Kolkata, with 12 year old Dabu, his

mother and older brother. Dabu wears a sandalwood tikka on his forehead to

symbolize the rite has taken place and “indicate a third eye, that’s wisdom.”

Photo: Sandy Ao

Sandy noted that the Mukharjee family’s statue of the goddess—as all others she saw—has only two arms (two limbs less than the four-armed statues of past generations) and learned that the change came about at least 70 years ago. But why? She was told, “We want the goddess more like us, human, and not some one from imagination.”

At Neelachal Housing Complex, more well-to-do children came wearing grown up attire, little girls in bright saris, the boys in Kurta and Dhoti. A lawyer friend told Sandy that the adult clothing symbolizes “though the children physically are still young, mentally they are matured like the grown-ups,” or soon will be, as they learn to write and gain the blessing of wisdom’s divinity. Here many children laid their books and pencils before the idol. “I overheard a few children exchange notes of which books they brought along to be kept with the goddess,” she writes. Most brought the textbooks in their weakest subject at school, to be blessed by Saraswati and returned to them as classes resumed the next day.


Saraswati holds the pens at the observance of her puja, Feb. 11

Photo: Sandy Ao

The Saraswati puja offers humility as mental refreshment. School’s out. Kolkata’s major newspaper, The Telegraph, serves a free meal to the city. Except for those tiny ones seated in the pandit’s lap and writing out their first letters, it’s time to put pencils down. “Before goddess Saraswati, we are forever ignorant,” writes Sandy “and we should go to her with an empty page (open mind).”

Posted by Julie on 02/29 at 01:49 PM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsPermalink

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Project Budburst ~ Late to Science

On the lookout for flowers? This is our kind of science project.


Pink Primrose (Oenothera speciosa) in Austin, TX

nearly ready to report on climate change, 2/26/08

Photo: Human Flower Project

We’re not much for joining. We were always mediocre at science. But as of today we’re all aboard Project Budburst.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research—a group of 70 universities—is trying to track climate change in the U.S. by engaging “citizen scientists” to report when plants leaf out, bud, and bloom. Has global warming changed the lives of lilacs, dandelions, or mayapples in our yards? Well, first we gotta look.

“Watch locally, discover globally” seems the motto of this effort. Compiling observations from people all across the nation, the scientists who dreamed this up can get a surer sense of how our planet is changing. “Plants can serve as quite sensitive climate sensors,” Dr. Kay Havens, a project leader and director of plant science and conservation at the Chicago Botanic Garden, told Steve Curwood.  “By looking at bloom time and leaf time that gives us a good indication of whether or not the temperature is changing in an area.”

imageProject Budburst makes reporting on local plants easy

Last year’s pilot study drew over 900 observations “and of those, nearly two thirds were done by children under 12,” Havens said. How often do you get to take part in a nationwide, multigenerational science project—no math skills required? They make it a cinch to register (either by name or anonymously), find your latitude and longitude, and then choose a tree, shrub, wildlflower or weed to keep an eye on. You can pick from their list or select a local plant that interests you.

We’ve selected Pink Primrose (Oenothera speciosa) as there’s a little patch of it right down by our curb (and Glenn Whitehead’s big pastel drawing of them on the wall inside; it blooms twelve months a year). As of today we see leaves but no buds in the yard. But three doors down, at Victor’s, it looks as if we may be able to report a bloom later today. (Any specimen within a half mile is in bounds.) This plant, we learn, blooms in the mornings in some parts of Texas, in the evenings elsewhere. so we’ll also discover whether the primroses hereabouts are larks or owls.

Project Budburst was launched two weeks ago, so we’re a bit late getting started. But there’s nobody handing out grades (or gold stars, for that matter). We hope that our U.S. readers will consider taking part in this far-sighted Human Flower Project and that readers in other parts of the world will let us know of more citizen-science efforts to study climate change.


Posted by Julie on 02/26 at 01:09 PM

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Wedding Flowers for Two Grooms

When the couple about to be married are both men, will there be bouquets? Maybe. But consider a cascade.


Andrew Solomon and John Habich at their wedding dinner

Northampton, England, June 30, 2007

Photo: Jonathan Player, for the New York Times

It was a June wedding. Last summer, writer Andrew Solomon and editor John Habich celebrated their civil union before about 300 guests. The two men were married in England (Solomon has dual US/UK citizenship) where, as of 2005, civil unions between same-sex couples have been legal.

The New York Times published a gorgeous set of photographs by Jonathan Player. What an event! The ceremony took place on a broad staircase at Althorp, the estate of the Spencer family, below portraits of the late Princess Diana and her ancestors. At the reception and party afterwards, the newlyweds radiated happiness. Guests sat down to dinner in a “marquee” on the Althorp grounds, decorated in black and white, with lots of mirrored tabletops and waves of pink roses.


Solomon and Habich exchange vows amid floral drifts and tapestries

Photo: Jonathan Player, for the New York Times

But what about flowers at the service? Do grooms carry bouquets? No reason they shouldn’t. But Solomon and Habich chose not to. Instead wide swaths of hydrangeas stepped all the way down the staircase. And roses (we think that’s what these blooms are) hung from the upstairs balustrade, like fluffy pink tapestries. (Habich also wore a small pink flower on his lapel.)

imageErin and Chloe

at their civil union in Vermont

September 2000

Photo: Erin and Chloe

From what we’ve seen and learned, lesbian weddings tend to double up with bouquets. Sometimes both brides wear floral head crowns as well. (Yet another reason to legalize same-sex marriage, we say!)

Several years back, we ran a piece about Flowers from the Heartland. This 2004 film documented a small movement of Midwesterners who sent flowers to the weddings of gay and lesbian couples in the U.S. as tokens of solidarity. Same-sex marriage is still controversial here. Twenty-six states (most of them in the Heartland) have passed laws against it. Only in Massachusetts is same-sex marriage legal; New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, and New Hampshire permit civil unions. Most recently, New Jersey’s governor has indicated he will sign a bill legalizing same sex marriage (after the November elections); California’s state Supreme Court will be taking up the matter next month.

What about the rest of the world? The map below, from wiki, offers about as vivid a picture of cultural differences as one could imagine. In the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada and South Africa (in dark green) same sex marriage is now legal. In Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritania homosexuality (not same-sex marriage, just being homosexual) is punishable by death.


Map of the World’s laws on homosexuality, via Wiki

Two bouquets? One world? We’ve got a long way to go.

Posted by Julie on 02/23 at 01:27 PM
Culture & SocietyFloristsPoliticsReligious RitualsPermalink

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lick an Ambassador: Floral Stamps

Can’t afford to send flowers? Give your postal carrier a thrill and leave your correspondents panting for more.

imageWe wandered into a philateletic Eden yesterday and now return with tongue hanging out – ready to lick and send flying hundreds of floral stamps from around the world. Who cares what’s in the envelope? This Congolese acanthus bloom could take the sting out of an eviction notice, don’t you think?

A Polish website for stamp collectors offers thousands of familiar and exotic blooms. Every nation on earth, it seems, has issued floral stamps of some type. And in every case, we see how flowers serve as ambassadors to humankind.

Most commonplace are stamp series that show off spectacular native flora. We found this set of Zimbabwe’s desert plants especially striking, but there are scores more. Look around!

There are some very elaborate presentations, like this example from Lesotho: a native orchid sits (with perforations around it)  below a waterfall. Just one stamp, but you feel as if you’re getting a whole landscape, a smart way to show a local plant in its habitat and, one would assume, boost sales.

For shaped stamps, Mongolia has gone to great lengths, scrunching flower images into triangles and leaning parallelograms. (To its credit, Mongolia is also the only nation we’ve seen that honors the dandelion with a stamp.) But Bulgaria’s set of flowers and honeybees is the most witty and elegantly shapely design, a cone dweller’s view with six sides.

imageLiechtenstein: Cornflower and Cattails

Flower stamps necessarily put local aesthetics on display. We were especially taken with two art nouveau sets of stamps from Liechtenstein, proof that good things come in small principalities. These are the most stylish of the many hundreds of flower stamps we surveyed. (And you may note that among all this website’s topical stamps, there are three times as many floral varieties as cats or sports or anything else.) From Scandinavia are many fine muted duotones. This Swedish set is especially lovely. And for some reason, this group from Finland, with their looming red crosses (signifying a tuberculosis charity) was delightfully eerie.


In stupendous contrast to the Nordic designs are candy-colored sets like these from Nicaragua. Other rainbow-robbing flower stamps have been issued by Zimbabwe, Surinam, and these beauties at right, from Cambodia. Planning to write a Dear John letter? Well, at least have the wherewithal to hunt down cheerful postage.

Some countries have not only living flowers but floral art to boast of in the mail. The most gorgeous examples we spotted were these from Germany, with details from illuminated manuscripts in Deutschland collections. Would somebody please mail us a letter with one of these affixed? Paraguay also has issued several floral stamp sets featuring international works of art.

imageMonaco: Concours International

de Bouquets (1974)

commemorative stamp

All you florists out there need to start lobbying your national postal services to keep up with the Joneses in Monaco, Malaysia and Romania. Each of these countries has issued special stamps featuring flower arranging. Monaco appears to have hosted the Concours International de Bouquets several years running, and on each occasion has issued a set of stamps showing a range of fine floral designs.

Our tongue’s getting dry…too much to mention. The photographic flower stamps of Cyprus (other examples from Turkey and Tanzania) don’t strike our fancy but may appeal to shutterbugs. Micronesia may have produced the most educational Human Flower Project stamp set – showing four native flowers and how each one is used in traditional leis and crowns.

imageNorth Korea:

Homage to Kimjongilia

But remembering that stamp designs are always chosen by someone in government – to reflect the administration’s interests, even in such a marginal matter as national floral imagery— we must end with a bow to blatantly political, gummed ambassadors. These flower stamps from Yemen are tiny collages of plants and national emblems, both overseen by someone important looking (We’re not sure, but would guess this to be longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh in his younger days).

Most stamps from the United Kingdom, even these without one letter of type, still include the silhouette of QE2. And North Korea, of course, offers Kimjongilia, the red begonia named for Kim Jong Il; the North Korean issue includes quite a lot of supporting material, including what appears to be a musical score, for those ardent types who sing about dictators and flowers as they mail.

The most wonderful political stamp set we’ve seen yet is this collection from Cuba (much in the news this week, with Fidel Castro’s announcement that he’ll be stepping down). In colors as vibrant as the Mexican loteria, each stamp shows a hero of Latin American history with a tropical blossom – as charming a human flower postal project as we’ve discovered on any envelope. (Make sure to see the entire set for full loteria effect.)


Cuba: Historia Latinoamericana

There are many hundreds more interesting examples on the site, ahem…so dear Cuban readers, and all others within licking distance of floral stamps, we aren’t too proud to beg. Please write.

Posted by Julie on 02/20 at 01:24 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyFloristsPoliticsPermalink
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