Sunday, September 19, 2010

Flowers on My Mind

Flowers in the Mind

It’s July and contrary to popular belief, this is the season of flowers, not spring. They are everywhere, in our neighbor’s gardens, breaking through cracks in the sidewalks, decorating abandoned lots, and hanging from back porches.

Back Porch, Chicago

We speak of hallucinogenic drugs having a transformative affect on our mind but I would say that flowers are the most potent and universal. All one has to do is focus on them, no ingestion, preparation, no elaborate rituals or ceremonies and something physiological blooms in us.

But why do we find ourselves so transfixed and transformed by their presence? Emotionally, what happens when we fix our gaze and senses on them? Is there something in our evolutionary path that has married us to them in such deeply emotional and biological ways? Is it smell? Is it color? Is it the form? Is it that they are often symbols of the fruit to come? Are we really no different than our ancient relatives—insects and animals-- moving pollen and seeds about like drugged drones?

As a boy, I never quite understood the mystical effect flowers had over people (i.e. adults). What made them stand in the midst of a bed and stare? What made grown men kneel before beds of snapdragons as if before some alter? Or women meticulously care for a pot of geraniums as if they were secret children they’d as soon raise rather than you? What drug were they on? Much of what I knew of flowers was from forced labor in the back yard, weeding, transplanting, mowing around unruly rosebushes that out of frustration and adolescent rebellion, I gleefully trimmed, watching the plumes of pink exhaust spray across the lawn.

Both my grandmothers, having grown up on farms in Indiana, gardened as a matter of necessity and understated pleasure. And now my parents in their late 70’s seem to find their deepest joy among their flocks of flowers and rows of beans. Here, their hands and hearts are alive with growth and change unlike much of the world they watch and read about it.

My parents, in their own strange way, have separate gardens in a two-acre lot on the edge of Indianapolis. My father has a square plot of course that has grown exponentially since retirement, first, just a few vegetables, practical as always, but then I’ve noticed each year more flowers, four-o’clocks (seeded from his mother’s garden after her death) zinnias, marigolds, hollyhocks, what he calls “farmer’s flowers,” because of their use as borders in farmer’s gardens throughout the Midwest. My mother, however has the most interesting garden, an eclectic rambling of patches that organically blend with ground cover, and the existing trees, rocks and wild plants from when the lot was a woody lot on a farm. For over 35 years, she’s stuck in plants, here and there, creating a winding garden under a canopy of hardwoods. Now suffering from early stages of Alzheimer’s she can’t recall names or how certain plants got there, but she marvels at the blooms and color, bending and weeding wherever she is drawn.

Neuroscientists are beginning to provide some very interesting research on why humans are so hypnotized by the floral universe. Apparently, several things are going on in the brain when we are in the presence of flowers. In fact, even the image or idea of a flower that we call upon from the depth of our unconscious triggers a complex response across several sectors of the brain almost simultaneously. Color, contrast, shape, and movement all figure into to why flowers are such potent sensual subjects for perception. Flowers are ingeniously designed through millions of years of evolution to attract living, moving, eating creatures, like us. Indeed, they mesmerize us, because we’ve evolved with them. Color is a key factor in their success as well as smell and shape. Researchers have discovered that the attraction of flowers in the work of poets and artists is not due to romantic sentiment or nature worship. No, the artist intuitively understands that flowers attract and awaken the imagination and thus simulate in the mind the experience of seeing a real flower. Amazingly, the artist gives pleasure to us because she is inviting our brain to recall, re-see, re-imagine and thus feel the sensation of “flower” or the complex neural patterns of colors we connect with the image or idea of flowers. Poets don’t even use visual color, they substitute words, but still they can have the same effect. Flowers assist the writer depict a landscape or give a feeling of a scene and not by completely describing it but by suggesting it for a reader, who will with pleasure fill in the rest.

Is it a surprise then that the mandala, the complex patterns of color and symbols in the shape of a circle, has been used in sacred rituals and to decorate homes, shrines, and temples across the earth throughout human culture? Is it any wonder that we surround ourselves with flowers as we move through this world, sustaining, inspiring, and making the trip with us even when we depart?

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