Posted by: gdevi | April 16, 2011

Sensitive Plants

Lock Haven Express, April 26, 2011

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once observed that in order for us to see one sunflower, many many things have to fall into place: the right sun, the right soil conditions, the right fertilizer, the right cold, the right heat. The sunflower is always there; it is these other things that have to align themselves harmoniously so the sunflowers can reveal themselves to your waiting eyes. The farmers who planted the seeds can see the flowers even before the blooms appear, for instance.  I have always found this a useful way to understand the seasons. On the one hand, we can understand seasons as some sort of inexorable change in time always moving forward, a matter of the clock or the calendar.  Or we can see them as a spatial pattern, a pattern of boxes perhaps; a few open at a certain time, while a few others close. Then the closed ones open, while the open ones close.   In “Causes and Cures,” the Christian mystic St. Hildegard of Bingen notes that all of the natural world is a big arrangement between the earth and the sun. In winter the earth is warm beneath the surface so that it would not be fragmented, and that the sun powerless above the earth in winter sends its heat and light below the surface of the earth to preserve the various seeds.  I am inclined to agree with these mystics and the poet Shelley who remarked in “The Sensitive Plant” that the beautiful presentations of nature are always there whether we see them or not; it is our perceptions that die, not their presence. Everything is always there.

For instance, it is lovely only since yesterday to see the Forsythia bushes in bloom everywhere.To me these Forsythia bushes with their generous bright bold yellow blossom spikes are the first sure sign of Spring, even with that old garden folklore that says that there will be three more snowfalls/ flurries after Forsythias bloom.  Oh, the daffodils are there to be sure, there are the birds chirping in the slowly budding trees, but these Forsythias announce the irreversible arrival of spring in our area.  Temperatures are getting warmer each day; days are getting longer.  Earth is getting warmer. More so than any other organic being, plants evidence the change of seasons most concretely. Yellow is the color of spring in central Pennsylvania, not green. Forsythias line every front yard, backyard and side-yard, every fence, every street curb; where we live, Forsythias pull you down each hook along the hillside.  Forsythia flowers appear before the leaves do. Effortlessly, as only nature can, row after row of these spiky yellow clusters put amazement in your eyes. They fill you up with anticipation for all the flowers that are yet to bloom. We see those other flowers when we see Forsythia.

Biologists speak of vernalization and other environmental and chemical cues that produce flowering, but to me, the patterning of such efflorescences is ultimately a solar-earth mystery. After this initial thrust of flowering, these Forsythias will soon turn into their seed mode and these golden bushes will become like all other big green leafy bushes for the rest of summer and into fall. In Kerala, India, where I grew up, we have a tree that behaves more or less like this but with this difference: instead of signaling the beginning of spring, it signals the end of spring. Each April, in the first half of the month, the Cassia Fistula, Indian Laburnum or “Goldenshower” as it is locally known bloom profusely all across the state. In tropical Kerala, with its California-like weather all year round because of its proximity to the Indian ocean, weather variations are less forcefully experienced by humans, but acutely expressed by plants. This splendorous efflorescence follows the shedding of the leaves by the tall graceful Cassia trees at the end of spring.  All across the state, in the yards of houses, in parks, sidewalks, near temples and open clearings we see tall 30-60 foot trees with naked hardy branches from which hang 12″ to 20″ long yellow thickly clustered chains of flowers swinging in the breeze, just for a couple of weeks in a year.  Like the highest peak or the widest river, it is probably their unique presentation–tree with no leaves only flowers–that has made the Goldenshower into Kerala’s state flower. Their efflorescence signals the sun’s transit into Aries on April 14th, an equinox important to Hindus. Not to be outdone by nature, we invest this seasonal transition with an expression of the celebration of the power of our own labor: April 14th marks the Hindu New Year, known as Vishu, the first Harvest festival in many parts of India which has two harvest seasons. Goldenshower flower clusters make up the centrepiece in the cultural observation of this ritual; the ritual arrangement called “vishu kani” is surrounded on all sides and in the center with clusters of the Cassia flower.

Like Goldenshower, Forsythia is an Asian plant as well brought into and hybridized in Europe and North America only in the 18th century.  In Korea, Forsythias are called Goldenbells and in folklore and cultural myths associated with fidelity and anticipation. A related Korean story tells of a poet who went away for a long time coming back to see his faithful wife waiting for him by the side of Forsythia bushes that had stopped flowering and had turned green, with apricot trees that had lost their fruits, and canaries that are late spring birds chirping overhead.  Three snowfalls or not, since these beautiful bushes herald the arrival of spring in Pennsylvania, I think we should observe the flowering of the faithful Forsythias with our own spring rituals. One could start with a walk or drive through central Pennsylvania just to see the Forsythia in bloom. There could be a Forsythia day in neighborhoods where we tie a sprig of this beautiful yellow blossoms on our front doors.  Perhaps the local library could have a Forsythia drawing contest for kids, or a Forsythia photography competition for those interested in that art form. Every year, we could plant a Forsythia in memory of someone we remember. Mountain Laurel is our state plant, but Forsythias are equally compelling with their intense blooms for a short focused flowering season. We must mark its presence amongst us as it signals our own anticipation of, and transition into a spring state of mind.

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