Last year I was forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, loved ones, agencies of care. Today, long out of recovery from broken bones, I have heard that while suspended in ten weeks of non weight bearing life, I didn’t complain once. It’s true. Thanks to everyone, I had what I needed, and feeling sorry for myself would have only served to make a bad situation worse.
Plus, next to the bed, all my potted orchids were in bloom, an elegant line of different sizes, colors, and scents. Arriving both seasonally and spiritually in the dead of winter, their presence was like a band of goodwill ambassadors. Without fuss or worry, every day their confidence wordlessly spoke, ‘This is life and it really does go on.’
I once gave a very large Amaryllis bulb from Holland to a friend who placed it on the corner of her desk facing west and the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. With pedestrians close by, horns blasting from ships on the river, cars below hitting potholes on the Belt Parkway, and the Brooklyn Bridge vibrating above, it was not the quietest setting. But it was the brightest light in her apartment and the best view on her outside world.
The bulb quickly sprouted. On the third day, from morning until evening, not only did she measure six inches of stalk growth, she noticed a constant sound, like shshshshshsh. Home alone and familiar with the whir of her refrigerator, the heater, the noise from her upstairs neighbors, to no avail, she sluethed around from room to toom and faucet to faucet trying to identify the sound. This went on for hours, until she put her ear to the Amaryllis. The source of the mystery: a rapidly growing bulb.
Scientists recognize trees that communicate through chemicals released by roots. There is a relatively young study of auditory impressions from plants, but the researchers have not proven their findings in an acceptable scientific model. Farmers believe they hear their fields of corn growing, and there is folklore around plants responding to the vibrations of music, voices, even thoughts.
It’s just a matter of time before beliefs turn into respectable data, because there definitely exists a traceable phenomenon: the one that caused my friend to place her ear next to the shoot of the Amaryllis. Water hydraulically pumped through roots, stems and leaves is a dynamic that produces sounds according to rate, pressure, the design of a specimen, and the ability to hear. I believe I can see a difference from one day to the next in the size of a fast growing leaf. But to have the ability to detect the quiet choir of my very active apartment orchids would be an ultimate for a plant lover like me. Shshshshshsh
While consciously embracing modern ways, I live with an underlying lament: the loss of the natural world. Anyone who has been here long enough and is paying attention is witnessing these changes in our landscape. They are brought on not only by necessity, but by our unthinking drive for technological advancement over the well-being of humanity and the earth. Our salvation lies first in the recognition that as individuals seeking the latest, the best, we are only as healthy and happy as our communities, the planet, the whole.
Thinking about all this last week, I went up to Lake Huron in Canada to spend time with my dear friend, Sally Heflin. I was instantly transformed to the childhood feeling of running wild in nature. To that end, we spent an evening contemplating the intense number of stars, and the magnificence of the Milky Way across the night sky. In awe, our necks ached from the position required to take it all in.
Even without the many hours of joy and laughter we experienced, seeing so clearly the million or billion points of light, mostly invisible in my New York life, I was reminded that Mother Nature is still out there, and we are her children. She remains a constant, always in charge, and it behooves us to treat her well.
In the beginning, it was incomprehensible to me to use what little window-sill-real-estate I had on orchids, especially those without flowers. Not known for their foliage, the naked plants look like floppy green tongues. Now I covet every shape and size, like an ever-changing puzzle, and spend a few minutes each morning rotating pots to insure symmetry, charting the growth of a new leaf, and inspecting crevices for a new bloom stalk. Even a dreadful day of personal or global despair can be salvaged by these simple rituals of hope.
Researching history on orchids this morning, I learned a number of facts, including the Greek word for testicle: Orkhis. By some accounts, the name of the plant came from the reminiscent shape of the bulbous root. By others it’s from the myth of Orchis, the son of a nymph and a satyr. True to his namesake, the lad went to a celebratory feast for Bacchus, the God of Wine, and in his drunken state, attempted to rape a priestess. This sacrilege resulted in being torn apart by wild beasts. His next incarnation was as a plant, the orchid.
Due to the graphically erotic male and female parts that make up a single orchid blossom, the Victorian, John Ruskin, called them ‘prurient apparitions,’ almost as if they alone could lead men like Orchis astray. It’s true that orchids have been used in fertility treatments and aphrodisiacs, and they certainly have tricky methods for insuring pollination. But not one is known to have raped, pillaged, to have been violent, judgmental, poisonous, or even to have had any bad imaginings. All those activities are left up to the humans.
The number eighteen is smack in the center of Marissa’s series of an orchid’s blooms. Yet, instead of looking middle-aged, these sibling beauties are more like young teenagers going on their first dates. Each will witness the other’s effort and shocking velocity, the triumphs and tragedies. As humans going through their own version, the comfort is in seeking nature’s wisdom on cycles, embodying joy like a full tilt blossom, even in troubled times, and continuing to go out on the town of life.
The first orchids that ever floated into my consciousness were in the corsages of high school dances. I can still feel the belly sickness over a very real possibility of being overlooked, uninvited. And if someone did ask me, I worried, my date would not give me an orchid. Or it wouldn’t be as perfect as what the other girls received. Sad to say, when young, orchids equaled anxiety. Thankfully, I’ve outgrown most disquietudes, with the exception of the state of our world, and not having enough time to sit and think, to ponder, to write.
Orchids now fill a fair amount of my consciousness. Along with this series of writings for Marissa Bridge’s orchid paintings, visiting exhibits for a glimpse of the best specimens, a vital variety lines my window sills. Most miraculously flower in the deepest breath of winter, yet some bloom their heads off all year round.
Not a single young girl anticipating a broken heart was mentioned in reading about the symbols of orchids. There is plenty to be found on their beauty, their perfection, their portrayal of love, and because they originally grew only in remote and exotic places, their association with luxury. They also represent innocence and femininity, and full blown virility, the whole monty, the hermaphrodite. Most importantly, they serve as potent reminders, in spite of these anxious times, this is still a beautiful world.