Years ago, concerning the removal of people from District Six, I wrote as I looked at a broken-down trellised balcony:
You see the flowers in this vase, these three sunflowers, so nicely shaped?
Friend, theres nothing whole here anymore: so, Im not saying it with flowers, but with sadness draped in black!
These three little flowers (wipe the tears from my eyes) are just fancy art:
a balcony torn apart Why mention it then, friend?
Man, cant you see? Im taking it with me to the Flats out there:
For a memory
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, once one of the seven wonders of the world, might have been a far cry from these iron-trellis flowers of District Six. The overall context is the same.
The Babylon that thrived under Nebuchadnezzar, as all kingdoms and powers do, came to an end like Apartheid did.
The Tower of Babel reminds us of this: like most politicians, these ones, too, babbled overmuch.
The Judaeans at one time were so bitter about Babylon that the Jewish women would sit by the rivers of Babylon, wanting to kill the children of Babylon Their anger was draped in black, like our emotions about the death of old District Six.
But flowers also have many happy connotations.
The ordinary bouquet comes to mind. It is a symbol of welcome, and of friendly goodbye. At weddings, flowers come into their own, and at anniversaries of every kind: twenty-first birthday celebrations, and the like. The ordinary daily decoration of the home is important, like a bowl of flowers on the table. Then, there is the buttonhole, which belongs to occasions from the wedding day to the day of retirement. When students (those who study!) achieve their university degree, or when pupils pass their matric (it doesnt matter how), there are flowers of congratulation
What would Cape Town be without the flower-sellers on Adderley Street?
The poet Basho said that flowers should not be cut and picked, but left standing whole, for us to admire.
I go with this sentiment, but I also think: if this would be, what happens to Aunty Asa, who sells flowers on Adderley Street? Would she and her children have food on their table tonight?
In The Orange Earth I tell about my late mother as a very young woman (posing as if to dance) with flowers in her hair an image of her that has stayed with me. Without those flowers, what would have been my memory of, hence my relationship with her, over the years she has been dead?
Flowers have also helped us to cope with Apartheid!
Under the pressure of that wickedness, simply to know there were flowers, let alone to see them, brought relief a conviction that goodness and beauty exist despite evil and, ultimately, triumphs powerfully: the concept of power goes well with the reality of flowers
An image of mine, in my most recent play, is of Mary as the Mother of God, when Jesus had died and she leaves Calvary to go back home, deciding to plant vines in their small garden: one for each year He spent with her. She might also have planted flowers!
The Bible does not specifically mention flowers in the wake of Jesuss death but is it thinkable there would have been none?
Mostly, flowers are hardy. They grow on high mountains at the edges of snowfields and glaciers, and even in the shallow parts of oceans; they survive in the desert, even there bearing bright blossoms. The images of flowers before me are a multifarious colourfulness from over the world: the bird-of-paradise, a South African blossom; West Indian pompons; the mainly South American orchid; American-Canadian dandelions; the Indonesian rafflessia, the largest flower in the world; the cereus, a cactus climber, which blooms only at night; foxgloves (beautiful but also deadly, with their content of digitalis)
I was thinking: the beauty of the world is all around us, if only our eyes were keen enough to see it.
Interesting about flowers is their smell. There are those with alluring smells that attract the birds or insects that help fertilise them consider the delightful fragrance of the lily: Solomon wrote of his beloved as a lily of the valley!
But there are also ones with unpleasant odour, such as the pelican flower of South America which smells like rotting meat!
The white edelweiss of the Alps is a small flower of sheerest beauty (and romance):
Edelweiss, Edelweiss, every morning you greet me.
Small and white, clean and bright, you look happy to meet me! Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,
bloom and grow, forever
Flowers are associated with religion. They decorate churches and other places of worship. They also bring a cheerful note to sick rooms, and serve as a mark of last farewell when, at death, a coffin is bedecked with flowers; and, to lighten their feelings of loss, people cover the graves of loved ones with flowers.
The practical use of flowers is noteworthy.
The need we have of flowers is manifested by the fact that we greatly depend on flowers for food. Flowers are not only the beautifully petalled creations we see they also come in the form of common vegetables, fruits and grains: beetroots and carrots relate to flowers, and so does lettuce, the seeds of beans and peas, and apples and peaches, stems of asparagus, and artichokes, cauliflower and broccoli!
Loquats and gooseberries are family of flowers: loquats relate to roses, and gooseberries to saxifrages. More amazingly even, a spice like cloves are nothing but the pickled flower buds of the tropical clove tree, and the caper bushs flower buds are used as a relish. Dandelions and elderberry blooms are often made into wine, and cherry-blossom soup is a delicacy in Japan
The practical worth of flowers even emerges from the fact that the approximate time of day can be read from them! for instance, from flowers that open and close at certain hours, such as four-oclocks. Perfumery benefits from flowers: Oils extracted from roses, lilies, jasmines and hyacinths are among the oldest perfumes.
There are flowers bound to places (and, of course, to the seasons): woodland flowers, field flowers, mountain flowers, desert flowers, and ones that prefer wetland.
Indoor cultivation gives us the beautiful gloxinia; African violets; cyclamen; begonias; and fuchsias. (Although, in Lansdowne in Cape Town, I have known fuchsias to grow well enough outside in my sandy patch of grass! And what a beautiful smell)
Flower boxes are always admirable decorations for window sills and balconies. I have seen this on streets in Europe, especially narrow streets, where they stand out.
And I recall the tulips of Amsterdam, outdoors, at Keukenhof just as I recall the dahlias my father grew to effect for flowering in summer; and the beautifully rounded white chrysanthemums an uncle of mine used to grow in Wellington, in the Boland.
The chrysanthemum has a history of more than 2 000 years: at one stage it was chosen by the Mikado of Japan as his personal emblem. A famous cultivator of chrysanthemums, long ago, was Tao Yan Ming who, ultimately, was honoured by having his place of birth named Chsien, the City of Chrysanthemums. (My uncle had to forgo such bestowal, though his blooms were probably as beautiful as Mr Mings!)
In art, perhaps the most prominent flower is the lotus, the sacred flower of ancient Egypt, represented over and over again on the pillars supporting their buildings. Lotuses also derive from India (the large Hindu lotus), and America. The Bible mentions flowers copiously. Solomon, always generously accommodating like his father David, albeit at times under the surface, sings in his welcome of Spring:
For lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone,
the flowers appear on the earth
Lastly, I recall the red poppies growing on the Acropolis at Athens a cheerfully colourful lightening of mood in the (impressive) stark surrounds of the Parthenon with its great fluted Doric pillars and formidable history shrouded in mist and legend.
I remember sitting there one afternoon, my back against a column, gazing out over the ancient city: above me were the Caryatids of the famous Porch, six sculptured young women carrying the roof of the building on their heads.
Just below, there was the Agora, the marketplace where the people came to exchange talk and products, but most importantly to think together: Socrates at a time was one of these.
For the Greeks, a city was possible only if it had an Agora! This I gathered from my very first acquaintance with Philosophy.
What power of remembrance resides DIY in flowers!