Human Flower Project
Sunday, May 31, 2009
If Peonies Could Talk
The Pentecost Rose speaks loudly and widely across the Czech Republic.
Peonies in glass, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague
Photo: Bill Bishop
“These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!”
Not an iron-clad defense. But that’s what Peter told the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2) , after the Holy Spirit’s “mighty wind” had sent tongues of fire descending on the Apostles, enabling them to speak all languages and spread the Good News. We grew up in a mainline Protestant sect and had always thought “speaking in tongues” meant babbling—a kind of spiritual seizure, and not what Episcopalians do. Only now we learn it’s the opposite of babble: fluency and multilingualism.
Recently back from the Czech Republic, where our attempts at Czech were met with weak smiles and rapid shifts to English, we have a special appreciation for Pentecost’s miracle of speech. Heading east, we knew that Czech was especially tough for English-speakers to get a handle on, just not how tough. We hadn’t considered that faith might serve us better than Berlitz. In Znojmo, however, we met a young Mormon missionary who kindly volunteered translation help at the tourist office. It took several minutes before we realized he was an American – he was that proficient.
“I learned Czech in about six months,” he told us, “with prayer.”
Today, the Feast of Pentecost, we’re back in the U.S.A., bodily. Mind and spirit are still mostly back in the Old World. Traveling in Southern Moravia and Southern Bohemia, we drove through scores of small towns and saw gardening everywhere, in earnest. Streets were bordered with sidewalks, low walls and metal fences – open enough so that “front yard” plots were visible to passers by. Everywhere we went during these two weeks of mid-May, there were peonies in bloom, nearly all of them magenta red.
Art & Media • Gardening & Landscape • Politics • Religious Rituals • Permalink
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Konvalinka - It Took an Army
For the annals of unintended consequences: how the Red Army kept the bloom on Moravia’s May flower.
Convallaria majalis (lily of the valley), known in France as “muguets,” in the Czech Republic as “konvalinka”
Photo: Klaus Neukirch
Klaus and Nicole Neukirch of Quarante, France, emailed these lilies of the valley several weeks ago, observing—as well as digitization permits—the beautiful French custom of sharing and wearing muguets for good luck on May 1. Merci, mes tresors!
Imagine our surprise when a week later, we met this woman selling the tiny white bells and their green-leaf wrappers on the street in Brno, Czech Republic. It was Saturday, May 9, formerly recognized as Czech Liberation Day, but we don’t know as that occasion brought this woman from her home in Vyskov to the city. More likely, it was just that lilies of the valley were in bloom. When we asked a clerk at our hotel if this flower held any special meaning at this time of year, she replied: “It’s just something old people in the country do for money.”
Cut-Flower Trade • Ecology • Politics • Secular Customs • Permalink
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Power and Light: Mughal Gardens
By perfecting irrigation and making water integral to their design artistry too, the great Mughal gardens shine on with authority.
The great gardens of Mughal India grew from two opposing forces. From lands to the west came the spread of Islamic faith, bringing the teachings of the Koran, ideas about civilised living and a rich history of both gardening and the “grammar” of decoration. From the east came the equally relentless invasions of the Mongols, with despotic ideas about government and political control and highly advanced civil engineering skills. When both forces finally penetrated the Himalayas and met on the plains of Kashmir, they combined to bring about the rule of the Mughal emperors. In gardening terms, this new culture reached its zenith in the rules of Babur the Great (1508 – 1530) and his five direct descendants. Under Jahangir (1605 – 1627) and Jahan (1627 – 1658), the art of gardening was to reach a climax of stylistic interpretation and ingenuity of construction to rival that of the Italian Renaissance, then attaining its height of expression in distant Europe. Although separated by vast geographical distance, climate and religion, both these great gardening cultures expressed values and ideas through the same element – water.
Culture & Society • Gardening & Landscape • Religious Rituals • Permalink
Friday, May 22, 2009
In the Month of Květen
In the Czech Republic, May is the month of flowers—literally. Let a thousand ironies bloom.
Bergenia cordifolia blooms in the Jewish cemetery outside Třebíč, Czech Republic, May 2009
Photo: Human Flower Project
Vacations come in pairs: there’s the fantasy that gets you out the door, then the welter of realities—strange bedcovers, clouds, vegetables and diphthongs—where you land.
Expectation and outcome don’t need to match. If they did, then fantasy alone would do (e.g. the vacation-implants of “Total Recall”). But fantasy is required. Without it, you’re on a work trip or we’d all stay home, bitching and pecking our blackberries.
Our trip to the Czech Republic began with a new friend, journalist Tomáš Němeček. Since we met in Austin three years ago and he presented us with fantasy-spawning Bohemia, Jan Reich’s grand, moody book of photographs, Tomáš has gone on to shower us gently with postcards: he sends flower stamps, arch observations from his own holidays, and nuggets of surrealism: “According to ancient Czech tradition,” he wrote one Christmastime, “gifts are brought by the invisible baby Jesus. (For supermarket managers, it’s hard to use in marketing).”
Primed by all this, our vacation was clinched with one Czech word: Květen. It means “flower.” It also means the month of May. The trip scheduled itself.
While away, we took a break from writing or editing for HFP though not from documenting floral customs. There are many in this part of the world, especially during Květen. Over the weeks to come, we’ll be scattering stories from our visit but there’s too much to hold onto. So, several handfuls of petals now…
Culture & Society • Politics • Religious Rituals • Secular Customs • Travel • Permalink