This weekend the Finnish school year has come to an end. Many have experienced the joys, the tears, the hopes and the fears of a particular phase of life coming to an end. Normally these feelings are reserved more for graduating students, but this year the same applies to me as a teacher, since I have formally announced to my students that I will not be coming back in the autumn –– officially taking a year off to rebuild my strength and explore other possibilities. So more than usual, as these celebrations rituals have taken place, I too have received end-of-year gifts with which to remember the dear ones with whom I am now parting ways. And just like for the graduates, in Finnish culture that means I have been given a lot of flowers.
The lovely batch of roses, lilies and chrysanthemums on my kitchen table is a rather rare sight. My bachelor style includes very few floral elements generally. The last time I had any flowers in the house it was to somewhat humanize the place for a special female guest. Those were the tulips I took pictures of as they were dying, one of which has been the banner picture of my blog for the spring. Before that… God knows when I had flowers last.
I have actively bought flowers for others on such special occasions though –– for women in particular… or at least I’ve tried. The last time I was looking for a long-stemmed rose for a special occasion, in February, they were entirely sold out for the “elders’ dance” rituals that were happening around the region at the time. But this season there is no such excuse. Florists have stocked up for the graduation season quite thoroughly. Even the little corner grocery store had a special supply of “graduates’ roses” for sale. Some are fresher than others. Some are more chintzy with spray coloring and glued on glitter and the like. But there is no shortage of gift roses to be had this season.
I remember, however, what I think was the second graduation party I was invited to attend as a teacher. I went to look for the customary flowers and the closest suitable thing I found right away was a potted miniature rose bush. I thought, why not, bought it and I wrote a little card to go with it saying something to the effect of, “This little plant is appropriate coming from me in a few ways: Like my courses’ place in the school curriculum, it is relatively small. But also like the courses I’ve taught, it is intended to add a certain beauty to your life. And also like my courses, though this is primarily intended to meet the requirements of the moment, there is also hope that it could grow into something larger and more lasting.”
I would be excessively surprised if that little rose bush would still be alive today, but then I would also be surprised if those early philosophy lessons that I taught have left any lasting impression on that particular girl’s life… but one never knows.
With cut flowers you do know: They will provide a certain fragrance and color for a room for a week or two tops, and then they will be thrown away. So what’s the point? Are they really worth the trouble?
Well… probably. There’s a lot to be said for appreciating impermanent things, because life itself is extremely impermanent, and life is really all we’ve got to appreciate.
But should we really be pulling up and cutting flowers just to have them for that brief week or two of color and fragrance before they die? This was an issue I remember seeing addressed on Finnish television over Mother’s Day in my early years here. In the beginning of May, when the very first wild flowers are starting to bloom, there was a public service campaign to keep people from picking traditional bouquets for their mothers. For the long-term good of the forest eco-systems it was suggested that people not take the flowers out of their environment to die in their mothers’ kitchens, but rather, the suggestion was, people should simply take their mothers out into the forest…
But the same ecological logic doesn’t apply so much to commercial cut flowers. We’re not talking about something that, without human interference, could grow and thrive on its own in nature. We’re talking about things that, like paper coffee cups, are made specifically for very short-term human use, and which wouldn’t exist to begin with were it not for people finding them pleasant and useful. They actually bear limited resemblance to the sort of flowers that one might find in a well groomed local garden; and only the most distant relationship with the wild flowers adorning meadows and forest floors. By feeding a market for such products, I have no sense of guilt about potentially taking any beauty away from nature, because such beauty was never part of nature to begin with.
That in turn leads to another question though: How far should we go in supporting the production of unnatural beauty and abstract, idealized forms that have ceased to serve any purpose in terms of fitness for survival? Flowers were “intended” to attract pollinating insects with their color and fragrance, thereby enabling the plants to bear fruit and continue their reproductive cycle. Beyond that, roses in particular are designed to fend off grazing animals and little children with their sharp thorns. Commercially produced long-stemmed roses, however, will not attract bees particularly well, nor do they have any especially effective defense system in terms of thorns. Like certain breeds of toy dogs which are not capable of hunting for themselves, defending a reverie or even having intercourse with each other for reproductive purposes; long-stemmed roses have become so removed from their natural design, purely to satisfy some humans’ abstract aesthetic standards, that they really could not survive without human assistance.
In the case of the dogs in question, most would say that it becomes a moral issue only when the dogs begin to experience pain, suffering and excessive anxiety over their lack of capacity to function “naturally” and as dogs “normally” do. What constitutes a natural and normal life for dogs is subject to some question, but they should at least not have to suffer in the process. By that standard there is no good evidence to suggest that flowers have any experience of “suffering” because of the things we do to them.
But even so, that doesn’t address the questions of how we come to desire such unnatural things to begin with, and what moral implications that might have. This could also relate to tastes for the singing of castrato opera sopranos, or the pop images of Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga for instance. Why should such distortions and perversions of nature even be appealing to us? I’m not sure I have an answer to that, as to be honest with you I find it rather difficult to get excited about any of these unnatural forms of “beauty”. I imagine in each case it has to do some sort of hyper-stimulation of an instinctive attraction that once had a role in increasing survival possibilities, sort of like those which cause us to crave chocolate cake and cheeseburgers, even though we know they are likely to do more harm than good for our health. With the flowers and androgynous “cuteness”, however, since the stimuli themselves don’t have any profound effect on me, it’s hard to relate to exactly what the kick is for others. On the other side though, it’s hard for me to see any particular inherent harm caused by an attraction to such things (other than side-effects of cosmetic surgery to enhance “cuteness”, but that really is another issue entirely), so I can’t really moralize against them just because they aren’t “as God intended such things to be”. “Naturalness” as a moral principle is far too lost these days to use that as a basis for saying that plant hybrids of any sort are sinful.
The last moral argument against cut flowers would be the wasteful production practices they might represent. Growing and distributing such flowers involves a significant expenditure of agricultural resources and energy in the process of providing warmth, irrigation, artificial lighting, fertilizing; and then harvesting, packing and shipping of these sorts of organic ornamentation. For what? Some sort of aesthetic experience which men can’t necessarily even relate to? Is it really worth it?
In fairness though, of all the ways in which resources are wasted for purposes having little to do with enhancing our prospects of survival, cut flowers must be the least serious problem we face. In Brave New World Huxley gives the example of babies being behaviorally conditioned not to like flowers so that they would seek emotional satisfaction in ways which require greater industrial production, thus further stimulating the economy. Rather than flowers, this fantasy society wanted people to invest their time and money in travel, sports equipment, theatrical experiences and mood enhancing drugs. We’re sort of there. So if we want to back off from unsustainable consumerism, getting back to simpler industrial products like cut flowers might actually be a step in the right direction.
And lest my intent be lost here, I really don’t find the flowers on my table offensive or absurd; far from it. They sit next to a poster that has been glued together and marked up in a way that only children are capable of, with which a group of pupils are saying thank you to me for my role in their education. It’s not like I have any shortage of posters and pupils’ papers at home, but this one is precious. It shows that my work has been worth something; that I have succeeded in connecting with other human beings; than on some level I am loved. And the flowers next to this poster in their own way tell me the same thing.
Is that what the basic importance of flowers is all about; not as something valuable of themselves, but as a standardized symbol of various sorts of love, respect, regard and affection? In some ways that would make sense. That would also imply that buying flowers for oneself, ostensibly for home decorating purposes, is a form of emotional self-deception. If that were to be the case on one level it would be quite sad; on another level sort of harmlessly cute. But I actually don’t have any evidence that this would be the case, just a lack of any other theory to explain why flowers are so important to some people.
Whatever the case, I’m going to try to keep this batch of cut flowers fresh for as long as I can then. As little as they do to improve the look and smell of my apartment, they are precious to me. And even if the flowers themselves are not capable of growing any more, I can still hope that the respect and affection which they symbolize may continue to do so. Here’s hoping the same applies to as many of you as possible who, for whatever reasons, have given or received flowers this spring.