Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter Nests & Flower Magic

As Texas springs into bloom, a DeWitt County family reunites and savors a custom from the Old Country.


An Easter nest made at the Ideus family’s gathering

April 2003

Photo: Bill Bishop

On the Saturday before Easter, the grown up children, their own children and grandkids, cousins from San Antonio and Austin, and a few welcome stragglers converge on the Ideus farm near Meyersville, Texas. Merton and Marjorie Ideus, who milked cattle for 46 years, don’t believe in leaving things to chance. The Easter bunny needs – and deserves—coaxing.  So if you’re expecting chocolates and pink eggs, it’s time to get busy and make an Easter nest.

Especially when Easter comes late, DeWitt County is lush this time of year. The land is a living kaleidoscope, sparkling with coreopsis, Indian paintbrush, poppies and bluebonnets.

“De Witt County is known for having the best wildflowers in the state,” says Bob Orr, Marjorie’s cousin. In fact he says that several times. And having been there in the spring of 2003, we wouldn’t contradict him. That year, Marjorie and Merton generously invited us to come on down from Austin and take part in their family Easter tradition, a human flower project reaching back many generations.


Picking wildflowers on the Ideus farm, Meyersville, TX

Photo: Bill Bishop

Along with about 20 Ideuses and Orr cousins, we loaded into the beds of a couple of pickups and bumped along through cool grassy pastures to the back of the farm. What a banner year for wildflowers! Piling out, we fanned apart and began to pick our fill, engrossed in the life beneath our feet. Airy purple Texas vervrain, winecups, and Indian blanket ... for once, to have an Easter-bunny’s-eye-view of the world.

With baskets, hats, pails, and coffee cans full of blooms, we rumbled back to the house, where Marjorie set out paper plates on picnic tables in the breezeway. The fresh wildflowers were strewn in the center, as young, old, and middling began fashioning the ultimate Easter bunny come-on. All kinds— geometric designs like gemstones, tufts of color, weaves, and heavenly pile-ons in the spirit of banana splits.

imageMarjorie and Merton play Easter bunny while unsuspecting relatives enjoy lunch inside

Photo: Bill Bishop

Marjorie and Merton explained that this was an old world custom their German ancestors had brought with them to Central Texas. Their Duderstadt, Diebel, Schewitz, and Egg—yes, truly!—forebears are buried in the cemetery of St. John Lutheran Church close by. Marjorie recalls that in her youth the Easter nests were laid on the ground, made of Spanish moss decorated with wildflowers. But in recent times moss hasn’t been so plentiful as it once was in DeWitt County. For several years she’s opted for paper plates and thus far the Easter bunny hasn’t turned up his nose.

With stalks and crushed flowers swept away, each finished nest was beautiful; all together they were magic, enough to lure distant cousins and the more elusive genie of spring, hopping or otherwise. (For a bunch more photos of the Ideauses’ Easter-nest-making, check out the slideshow on Daily Yonder.) Marjorie called us inside for a delicious supper, featuring sausage made with Merton’s time-honored recipe (“40 pounds of meat, 1 pound of salt, ½ pound of black pepper”). Scalloped potatoes, jello with oranges, pineapple and cottage cheese, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, lettuce and tomato salad, and a 7-up cake with coconut— as everyone, almost, settled in to this wonderful meal, who noticed that Marjorie and Merton had vanished from the scene?


Roy Harris, from Austin, proudly shows his first Easter nest

Photo: Bill Bishop

After dessert we trailed outside and found that, silently, the Easter bunny had arrived. On top of our nests of flowers there were colored eggs and homemade cookies, pinwheels, stuffed rabbits, and chocolates!

“We’re trying to build memories,” Marjorie said, as her great granddaughters, with wildflowers over both ears, spun their green and silver pinwheels.

Posted by Julie on 03/22 at 05:46 PM
Culture & SocietySecular CustomsPermalink

Thursday, March 20, 2008

East of Easter - Zoroastrian

One of the oldest New Year celebrations on earth takes place today—the Navrooz—marked with flowers and fire.

imageZoroastrian priests perform a Jashan/rite to induct a young new member into the faith

Photo: Tim Page

Today, March 20 (or yesterday, the 19th, depending on your continent) marks the Spring Equinox. For Zoroastrians around the globe, it is also the New Year, or Navrooz. We send special greetings to Ketty Wadia and the Zoroastrian community here in Austin, Texas, who back in 2003 kindly invited us to participate in their beautiful New Year’s celebration.

We were, of course, especially enthralled with the priest’s use of flowers in the Jashan/ceremony. As guests, young and old, all dressed in finery, sat around the edges of a North Austin livingroom, priest Khurshed Katki carried out the New Year’s ritual. It involved many set prayers, fire, and the gathering and placing of specific numbers of flowers in an array of bowls and dishes. This website offers some explicit directions for carrying out the “Parsi Version” of Jashan (the Parsis being those Zoroastrians who centuries ago fled Iran and settled in southwestern India).

The Norooz is celebrated today in Iran also - by Zoroastrians as well as other ethnic Persians. “Why has this festival survived? There have been major attempts by the Muslim rulers over the centuries to minimize it, ban it or get rid of it once and for all. The reasons for their failure should be sought in the spirit of this festival. Contrary to the Islamic traditions where death and martyrdom mark all the major rituals, No Ruz is a celebration of life.”

The presence of flowers confirms that.


Zoroastrian priest Khurshed Khatki performs the New Year’s Jashan

Austin, Texas, 2003

Photo: Human Flower Project

For those who would like to learn more of Zoroastrianism, called the world’s first “revealed religion,” there’s plenty to read. Having been around since 3000 B.C., this religious tradition—also strong on cosmology—has a rich history. Many religious historians contend that the Magi (“Three Wise Men”) who followed “the star” to discover the Christ Child were Zoroastrian astronomers.

Though the Zoroastrians comprise a tiny minority in India, they have made their mark, primarily in service to the poor. And they are making their beneficent mark here in Texas, too.

After the Jashan ceremony five years ago, we spun around asking questions about the types of flowers used, the meaning of fire, the reason for the priest’s white mask, the names of all the dishes about to be served… One dignified lady gently called us aside.

She said, gazing at us quite directly: “Paying attention to all of the things—how we use flowers, our food, our dress, our burial customs, you have failed to learn anything. Our religion is not in any of these things. We believe in good thought, good speech, good action. That’s it!”

So came a stiff spring wind, blowing off our little journalistic toupee. How embarrassing, and bracing. What a high standard to live by. 



Posted by Julie on 03/20 at 08:49 PM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsPermalink

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Vanitas: Mocafico & the Masters, Old and Young

Flowers, skulls, lemons, bubbles, photographer Guido Mocafino resurrects an old genre, eeriness intact.


Vanitas, by Philippe de Champaigne (c.1671)

Via: Wiki

There’s a skull in our garden. We splash it with water and it parches again. It sinks its teeth in a pot with violas, and when the violas die – it grins in the dirt. This is our backyard “Vanitas” – though the garden itself proves everything is passing.

We thank Ian McKay for passing along notice of Guido Mocafico, a dazzling French artist, and his latest exhibition: Nature Morte: In the Company of Old Masters. Mocafico’s new pieces are still life photographs in homage to the 17th Century French and Dutch painters – vanitas kings like Pieter Claesz and Jacques de Gheyn and Philippe de Champaigne.

Vanitas images are peculiar—maybe even perverse, as they relish and exploit the same sensuous pleasures they condemn. The Old Master works that Mocafico’s photographs imitate are eerie enough, but turning historical, painterly realism inside out—via contemporary photography—adds a shudder. Double your virtuosity, double your necrophilia.


Omnia Vanitas (2007)

chromogenic print by Guido Mocafico

Photo: Bernheimer

Mocafico reassembles familiar articles from the vanitas kit-bag – like skulls and flowers. (Illustrator Alton Kelly seized on this same combination for The Grateful Dead—an image Kelly lifted from 19th century illustrator Edmund Sullivan —thus spake a trillion decals, t-shirts, and tattoos). Mocafico chooses roses and bellflowers, with a peony (?) thrown in for exuberance; two beautiful heads of wheat also poke from between the bones. Symbols this potent can’t really be deciphered (as in “the skull with flowers refers to human vanity and the transience of all earthly things”); better to leave them be, like our little plaster head in the garden. Let time do its work, and meanings, doubts, revulsions, amusements go on rippling.

imageBouquet of Flowers in a Niche

chromogenic print by Guido Mocafico (2006)

Photo: Bernheimer

Mocafico’s photographs, including the knockouts above and at right, are on view now at Bernheimer gallery in Munich, through March 29. The exhibit then moves to Colnaghi in London, May 15 through June 18. (Find the full catalogue, in English and German, here.)

Here’s one more ripple: from Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos (LXXXI). For added frisson listen to il miglior fabbro himself read the whole canto.

The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man

Made courage, or made order, or made grace,

    Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

Learn of the green world what can be thy place

In scaled invention or true artistry…


Posted by Julie on 03/18 at 04:36 PM
Art & MediaGardening & LandscapePermalink

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Awakening

Cattle ranchers, church-goers, writers—those who look for signs will see them, especially in early spring. A yearning for fresh collards leads Jill Nokes to revelations in the fields of Granger and on the street in Houston. Thank you, Jill!


Testimony from the yard of Erma Lee, Houston, TX

Photo (detail): Jill Nokes

By Jill Nokes

At the end of February, I came across a recipe for minestrone soup that called for collard greens to be used in place of kale.  Collard or turnip greens are typically not part of my cooking repertoire, as my mother was from New England and we never had that kind of food.  But as I pondered over the selection of the large, coarse, bundled collard leaves in the grocery store, I held in my mind the many memories of driving past “truck” gardens in the country in late winter.  I recalled endless versions of the same dirt plots, bare of everything except a few new onion sets and these tattered clumps of greens, waiting for spring.  Old tin cans and wire cages would be hanging on the fence posts, ready for the tomatoes and purple-hull peas.

Spring in Texas is all about pure potential.  Our short winters have usually brought us enough cold blasts to make people eager for the warm, soft nights of late March and April, and for a while we enjoy being in denial about the inevitable brutal heat and drought that waits on the other side of Easter. 


Texas redbud (Cercis canadensis var. texensis)

March 15, 2008, Austin, TX

Photo: Human Flower Project

I always want to slow down the last days of winter and the earliest signs of spring. I don’t want my redbud to fade in eight days, and I don’t want the temperature to jump up to 85 degrees so soon after being in the comfortable upper 60’s.  But signs of “The Awakening” appear more vividly with each day, even in between the last cold fronts.

I first heard the term “the awakening” from my friend Betsy Ross, who, with her son J.R. Builta, operate a grass-fed organic beef operation in the blackland prairies near Granger, Texas.  After years of struggling to support their farm using conventional herbicide and fertilizer treatments for their land and feedlot finishing for their cattle, they discovered that only if they focussed on restoring the depleted soil biology in their pastures could their herds and planted forage crops thrive. To acquire the knowledge of just what their different pastures were missing, Betsy had to learn to be a keen observer of the signals Mother Nature was sending.  And one of the most important things to watch for were the mystical signs that spring was on its way.

“What I heard from the Oregon Tilth folks a couple of years ago was that the earth begins to awaken slowly and, then one day everything pops up at once,” Betsy explained to me. “It is that ‘awakening’ that appealed to me, as for several years I could pick up a slow rise of upward energy out in the pastures. One can almost feel it beginning throughout 2-3 week period. When one is grazing intensively as we do, ‘catching this wave’ means we can begin grazing aggressively - because we know old winter is about over with and wonderful spring is about to explode and every green plant jumps up out of the ground. We can feed out the last of the hay with confidence, and let the cattle graze the grass a little shorter.”

Betsy’s description revives all kinds of notions of the romantic pastoralists: farmers who get intoxicated by the smell of warm, moist, living earth, the sounds of animals lowing in the evening, and the satisfaction of collaborating with Mother Nature to make things grow.  The best thing about it is that they are actually succeeding in this holistic method of farming, and inspiring others to join them.


The Gathering Area, behind Erma Lee’s house in the Heights, Houston

Photo: Jill Nokes

Inspiration and awakening were also on my mind when I recently met Ms. Erma Lee, resident of Houston, in her amazing garden.  On the way to meet a friend of my daughter’s soon-to-be new mother-in-law, we stopped off in the Heights neighborhood to meet Erma.

Erma’s “Inspirational Art Garden” is completely preposterous. Facing a busy street, the whole thing is made up of glass jars and vases, balls and vessels of all kinds, filled with colored water.  Her special front bed is actually enclosed in store-front glass.  It is ridiculously generous and fragile.  Everything could be destroyed instantly by someone chunking a brick into the yard from a passing car. To Erma, this is not a concern, because God directed her efforts after she had “an awakening.”


Lee explains the biblical messages in “The Inspirational Art Garden” 

Photo: Jill Nokes

As a member of Joel Osteen’s huge Lakewood Church (the 16,000 seat “worship facility” is located in the former Houston Rockets sports area), Erma was taught to make herself ready at any moment for a personal epiphany.  So when it came about three years ago, she went into a whirlwind of activity, changing everything inside and out of her house, and began incorporating messages from biblical scripture into decorative arrangements on view for all to see.  In the rear “gathering area,” she has constructed colorful backdrops using a signature style of figures made from old patio furniture and decorative fans from the Dollar Store.  When giving tours of her place, she explains the meaning behind her decorations with the fervent zeal of a performance artist, and as someone who has been “awakened” to a higher purpose.  For us lucky visitors, whether we are there because we are attracted to all the shiny glass like magpies, or because we yearn to be changed by a holy touch, we all benefit from Erma’s ardent creation.

Posted by Julie on 03/15 at 11:02 AM
EcologyGardening & LandscapeReligious RitualsPermalink
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