If you are like me, your heart jumps a little when a splash of color from a flower catches your eye. In the spring you feel renewed and quickened when the first daffodils and snowdrops break through cold ground. You take a sharp intake of breath when you pass the bold colors of tulip beds. You feel giddy with gladness when the outstretched branches of delicate dogwood flowers seem to reach out to you, personally. You are bewitched by flowers, and you like it.
I live in a city which marks time to a flower. I feel convinced there is some spirit moving people en masse, that originates in those delicate, pink cherry blossoms, when year after year, I see how crowded and excited Washington DC gets during the early spring flowering period . Yet, there’s little explicit acknowledgment of a ‘spiritual’ connection people have with the blossoms. I delve into this mysterious draw between people and flowers in this blog. I use personal observations, and touch on cultural history, natural history and evolution, ecology and eco-spirituality.
In the presence of flowers, we cannot deny the human faculties of wonder, beauty, and elation. Flowers resonate in us, and therefore represent a window as to how nature’s soul, and ours, are linked. Flowers quietly burst through the modern notion of nature as just an ‘inert platform’ on which we live.
In the beauty of flowers we feel softened, drawn out –even momentarily—from quotidian life. The delight we take in them is almost in spite of ourselves. Almost involuntarily, flowers elicit an inspired response from within.
Flower Power: The Cherry Blossom Craze
There’s no better evidence of flowers’ power to move people (and their money) than the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC. Millions watch and wait for the first cherry blossoms to emerge in late March. Through February’s blustery winter doldrums, we hold out hope that the advent of cherry blossoms will signify the renewal of seasons, and ourselves. The cherry blossom represents the start of the city’s tourist season, its activities, and of course, kick starts annual business revenues.
Cameras are set up to capture the first peduncles, the early unfurled buds. Day by day, we monitor the minute motion of blossoms unfurling. The National Park Service broadcasts a blossom watch via social media.
In the brief period when the blooms emerge into full blossom, the city seems to go mad with anticipation and delight. People crowd in from dawn to after dark, simply to sit and walk under cherry trees in blossom.
These mute, fluttering petals seem to dictate the entire city’s annual life cycle.
In the two weeks of the cherry blossom festival restaurants, vendors, performers, commerce, and business generate millions of dollars of revenue from millions of visitors. The festival is so financially successful that the U.S. Department of Agriculture invests research dollars into hybrid varieties of cherry trees with later blossom dates, to be able to stagger and extend the cherry blossom period.
Exhilaration and enchantment are clearly evident when you watch people picnic and frolic under the blossoms. There’s romance (plenty of professional portraiture of couples, often in wedding attire, can be seen), high-spiritedness, and conviviality. Among a snowfall of cherry blossom petals, under a bower of pale pink, people seem to feel happy and connected to something spiritually uplifting.
Flower Power: Tulip-mania
At over 2 million square feet, the Aalsmeer flower auction in the Netherlands is one of the world’s largest buildings, dedicated to a mature global economy of flowers. One in three flowers sold in the world passes through here. It’s not far from the Keukenhof Gardens, the largest tulip garden in the world, which in eight weeks in the spring draws nearly a million visitors every year, from 100 countries (about 75 percent of visitors are foreign). Their co-location is no accident; both are in the same country where, in the early 17th century, a flower caused a devastating financial crash and economic depression.
As documented by Mike Dash in Tulipomania, a speculative bubble skyrocketed the price of tulip bulbs. In 1637, a tulip bulb, which produced ‘broken’ tulip flowers where a second color flamed through the base, went for the price of a well-appointed mansion in the best canal-side neighborhoods of Amsterdam. The tulip bulb market value grew to six times the total Dutch guilders in circulation at the time. Then, the speculative bubble burst and with it, the fortunes of the country’s wealthy fell to ruin. Ironically, it turned out later, the ‘broken’ tulip patter was caused by a virus attacking the bulb.
Dutch plant geneticists and tulip breeders today, work hand in hand to develop new tulip seeds and play an active interventionist role in tulip genetic variation and health. They have a lot at stake in ensuring the future survival of the tulip species (much to the plant’s own advantage).
Flower Power: The Enchantment Dimension
Flowers inspire millions of people to respond in concrete ways–traveling to destinations, spending physical effort, money, and time. They inspire governments and businesses to dedicate millions in administration, and scientific research to support a flower economy. What more evidence of the power that flowers have to move us?
I pose that our response to flowers is only the tip of the iceberg of a deep and inherent connection the humans being have with nature. Human genetic adaptations, responses, and aesthetic senses have been fine-tuned to both nature’s stimuli and dangers over thousands of years of evolutionary iterations. We are symbiotically attuned to nature and deeply primed to respond to it.
Our common modern language usage–steeped in the mechanistic terms of science–sadly reduces the quality of our relationship to cell-level biological processes or pedantic descriptions of disembodied systems (such as response to stimuli). Human feelings of delight, healing, soothing, enchantment, and attraction to beauty speak to a multi-dimensional, rich relationship with flowers (and nature). Those qualities, which move us at a spirit level, defy capturing in a mechanistic system. It takes poets to speak to us of the enchantment we feel towards flowers. And it’s ironically poetic that neither a person nor entire societies would respond as they do with their physical and financial resources on the line, to a delicate, short-lived expression of nature that offers no direct benefit to our own survival, unless they are moved and enchanted, motivated in spirit.
Many indigenous cultures whose communities are close to nature speak directly of spiritual connections with nature. They see nature as an entity which must be treated with reverence, have its limits respected, and its moods given attention. The mystical and spiritual dimension of our relationship with nature is evoked by the 18th and 19th century English romantic poets who praised the beauty of nature and saw deeper meaning and symbols reflected from nature in the expressions of the human soul.
Several modern thinkers have also spoken about the convergence of nature and the human identity and soul. I describe some examples below.
The Evolutionary Vigor of Sex
In the Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan writes about the evolutionary leap that brought flowers into the world, over 100 million years ago, when the first angiosperm (the class of plants which produce flowers, fruit and seed) appeared. Before that, vegetation reproduced by cloning and spores, with identical genes. Evolution proceeded at a slow pace because of the lack of variation.
A flower literally represents the vigor afforded by sex between male genes and female genes. Pollen from the flowers’ male stamen fertilizes the female pistil and result in new seeds. These unique and infinite combinations of genetics set the stage for incredible variation, which in evolutionary terms leads to greater species durability and adaptability and…beauty itself.
Beauty is an ineffable, aesthetic expression has co-evolved with non-human creatures and humans alike. Speaking somewhat metaphorically, Michael Pollan in the Botany of Desire notes, “The things that bees regard as beautiful, we …also regard as beautiful. What are the odds?” There is a kernel of truth in the idea. Humans are attracted to symmetry, contrast in color, shapes, scent, just like the bees. The flowering impulse has evolved to attract bees as pollinators in sexual propagation, in much the same way as it has evolved to attract humans who, as shown above, go extraordinary lengths to further the evolutionary potential of flowers.
One response to beauty is delight. Flower’s delicate form, color, scent seem to instantly access the human spirit. Denise Mitten describes it as “the forms, sounds, and smells of nature provide…a window to understand the spirit.” (Mitten: The Healing Power of Nature: The Need for Nature in Human Health Development and Wellbeing, 2009). This spirit-moving connection remains somewhat ineffable and mysterious.
In his book A New Earth Eckhart Tolle writes in the opening paragraphs about the significance of flowers on human beings, as perhaps one of the first non-utilitarian things to engage humans.
Earth, 114 million years ago, one morning just after sunrise: The first flower ever to appear on the planet opens up to receive the rays of the sun.
Prior to this momentous event that heralds an evolutionary transformation in the life of plants, the planet had already been covered in vegetation for millions of years. The first flower probably did not survive for long, and flowers must have remained rare and isolated phenomena, since conditions were most likely not yet favourable for a widespread flowering to occur. One day, however, a critical threshold was reached, and suddenly there would have been an explosion of colour and scent all over the planet…
An awakening power
Much later, those delicate and fragrant beings we call flowers would come to play an essential part in the evolution of consciousness of another species. Humans would increasingly be drawn to and fascinated by them. As the consciousness of human beings developed, flowers were most likely the first thing they came to value which had no utilitarian purpose for them, that is to say, was not linked in some way to survival.
Fusing Us with Nature
“Flowers act like a catalyst between the physical world and the spiritual world, between outside and inside,” according to Denise Mitten. (Mitten: The Healing Power of Nature: The Need for Nature in Human Health Development and Wellbeing, 2009) Flower’s delicate form, color, scent, and expression helps humans instantly access a part of their consciousness and spirit. “Seeing beauty in flowers can awaken in humans their inner beauty…” she continues, “Being in nature can help people see the divine life form and recognize it as their own essence.” Recognizing beauty in nature is a way for us to acknowledge that we too, are rooted in and drawn from nature itself.
Nature (as the example of flowers shows) transforms human behavior and with it, conscious development. Nature is not just an inanimate platform ‘out there’, it is inside us. Nature is a part of our own consciousness. Eckhart Tolle’s words capture this concept with eloquence:
“Seeing beauty in a flower could awaken humans, however briefly, to the beauty that is an essential part of their own innermost being, their true nature. The first recognition of beauty was one of the most significant events in the evolution of human consciousness. The feelings of joy and love are intrinsically connected to that recognition. Without fully realizing it, flowers would become for us an expression in form of that which is most high, most sacred, and ultimately formless within ourselves. Flowers, more fleeting, more ethereal, and more delicate than the plants out of which they emerged, would become like messengers from another realm, like a bridge between the world of physical forms and the formless. They not only had a scent that was delicate and pleasing to humans, but also brought a fragrance from the realm of spirit. Using the word ‘enlightenment’ in a wider sense than the conventionally accepted one, we could look upon flowers as the enlightenment of plants.”
Flowers as Enlightenment
If flowers are ‘the enlightenment of plants’, could they point the way to human enlightenment? Could flowers be the key to recognizing our spiritual and reciprocal relationship with nature?
The planet is reeling under a century’s worth of relentless human economic activity that has disrupted and destabilized oceanic and atmospheric balance, and, by extension, global weather patterns that impact our health and food production. We have to confront our symbiotic compact with the earth system and with nature.
What is our Relationship With Nature?
As we have achieved technological domination over nature, we have simultaneously lost our spiritual compass to navigate this powerful entity from which we have emerged. As we have reshaped planetary geography, it seems we have forgotten our history—inherent in nature.
And what of our future? Political will to respond to the urgent necessity that we rapidly shift to renewable sources of energy remains wan.
Delicate, fleeting, vulnerable, flowers point the way to our own faculties. The encounter with flowers reminds us that what makes us human is also in nature. And if there is anything that we need more at this time, it is a shift in our consciousness about nature–that it is not a distant, voiceless, poor relative. It is, effectively, and mystically, an instance of our own soul, linked from the inside ‘out there’. We are mutually bound and the link is reciprocal.
As we destroy nature, dumping toxic wastes, extracting resources without limits, poisoning our water supply, our soil and our atmosphere, we also demean ourselves. We create toxicity and sickness both externally as well as within us. As we exalt and value nature with its due respect, we can only find our own spirit uplifted. To heal nature, we need to heal ourselves of our own dissociation.