January 14 was my mother’s birthday. If she hadn’t died too young, at age 74, she would have been 105. (Somewhere there’s a scumbag who made it that far, I’m sure. That guy with the hood and scythe can be so unfair.)
So I’m thinking of her. I’m thinking of the family vacations we took in the car, us three kids in the back, my dad always driving, my mom in the passenger seat up front, looking out the window. Every once in a while she’d draw an audible breath.
“Oh, Rog, could you stop for just a few minutes?”
Usually, but not always, he’d pull over, and she’d get out. We knew she’d seen some color by the side of the road, purple or yellow or orange. Flowers. Whether she recognized them or wanted to investigate what might be a flower she’d never seen before, we didn’t know. But we knew she’d be just a few minutes and then get back in the car—one hand grasping the stems of her loot—so as not to make us wait. As we drove off, she’d find a book (we actually read stuff on our trips) and stick the flowers or leaves between the back pages. The back leaves. She’d put the book under her feet to weigh it down or maybe a use a heavy rock she picked up for that purpose.
Some days or weeks after we got back from our trip, we could expect a session on the kitchen table, where our mother spread out the tools and components of her project: twice-folded paper, envelopes to fit, white glue, a pair of scissors, a soft paintbrush, a bowl of water, a box of tissues, and the book that had the flowers in it. You never knew what they would look like when she pulled them out. That was the fun of it, really—at least for me, looking over her shoulder. They might have changed color. Or not. The trumpet-shaped ones might offer a view from the side or a view from the front—more or less a circle. Always, they’d be perfectly thin and flat, caught for good in a kind of painting that the book, as artist, had made. They looked ironed. Like the dollar bills our grandmother used to wash and press before slipping into our birthday cards.
Next—this must have been the fun part—she played with different groupings on each card. Sometimes she’d end up with a bouquet arrangement, with the stems coming out of one of the corners. At other times she’d start with a striking circle-based flower and have smaller ones burst out from that center, along with the leaves. These had the most energy, reminding me of fireworks. When the layouts were finished, she’d put dots of glue on the backs of each piece and set them in place. Of course the pieces were fragile, but if one broke you could just glue the bits close together and the paper would reunite them.
I thought the notecards were stunning at this stage. What fantastic shapes and colors came from the dirt, even the untended strips of land along roadsides! Unfortunately, my mother felt one last step was necessary. It’s true that, even glued down, the dried pieces were fragile. An inadvertent flick of a fingernail or careless contact with an envelope edge could dislodge a leaf or petal—more than one over time. So she applied a protective layer, probably using some recipe from one of her women’s magazines. It involved wetting a tissue (one ply) with dilute glue and pressing it over the flowers. You could still see them through the thin coating, and it gave the surface an interesting texture, but it seemed to me to be too much interference. Later she stuck clear Contact paper over the cards instead. It bubbled along the edges of the glued parts, which were slightly raised, but I liked it better.
My mother used those cards. She had to keep making them, because she wrote so many letters, notes, birthday wishes, thank-yous, and cards for every other occasion. They were one of her biggest claims to fame. If she’d bought them all new, they might not have been able to afford to have me, their first born.
That’s a joke, or course, but she did save money. And she had fun. The entertainment was free. (Well, I don’t know where she got her paper and envelopes—probably wherever she could.) I think most importantly, though, her craft required a connection to the natural world. It required close observation with inevitable hands-on study of living things. It was necessarily an ongoing relationship, one that evolved over time, and provided consistent rewards.
Growing up on a farm, my mother developed a love for plants and animals early on; the flower pressing was just one of many ways she interacted with outdoor life. (See “How I Got This Way,” Post 7.) Today, increasingly, kids grow up mostly indoors, and we have what some have called a “nature gap.” Studies have been conducted, books and articles written, warnings circulated—because a population alienated from the earthy context they sprang from will fail to love and keep it. But I don’t need to rant or explain this situation to anyone. I think we mostly get it. Ianto Evans, who wrote The Hand-Sculpted House, believes that the straight lines and precise corners of our houses and rooms might be driving us slowly, unconsciously, mad—they’re that far from anything in nature. He can’t be completely right. Bees have geometrical cells; crystals grow in perfect, flat planes. But manmade things—skyscrapers, shoes, items of molded plastic—don’t feed the soul, and so the soul can die.
Picking flowers prevents their reproduction. On a large scale, this kind of assault is what’s killing us. The snipping and grabbing of parts. But humans can live on a small scale—delicately, to match the fragility of dried petals pressed in books. With awareness and gratitude.
When I go out hiking these days, I see stuff and get the urge to pick it. When I get home I’ll put it in one of my thick dictionaries—English, German, Spanish—and I’ll put other books on top of those big ones. The books are in my way, on the floor, for a few days, until I move them to my “Pressed Flowers” notebook with its pocketed pages. If I’m lucky I’ll forget to transfer the flattened plants to the notebook, leaving them in the dictionary until one day I look up aufenthaltserlaubnis or entonces, and they fall out onto my desk with color and memories of the desert wash or hillside where they grew.
Now and then a project will call for a flowered “painting,” and I’ll get out the notebook. I’ll play with layouts like my mother did. She never had specimens from tropical Mexico, Puerto Rico, Texas, or the Chiricahua Mountains, so these have become precious to me—especially since I’ve cut way back on travel. I wonder if I’ll ever have the guts to put glue on them.
But there are other wonderful obsessions besides flower pressing: photography, birdwatching, live watercolors, sound recordings, butterfly tabulations, cloud sketches, insect imitations, leaf rubbings, natural clay discoveries, crazy-striped rocks, pigments to grind, seeds to try sprouting . . . Anything can inspire a love of what’s out there. Respect has to come along on the hike. That will normally grow with contact.
Not everyone can choose to wander the wild world. Low-income families and people of color, as usual, are more likely to be shut out. Nobody should be confined, hour after hour, to the built environment. No development should reduce access to the primeval sources of any human.
Nobody has to press flowers, but everyone needs a passionate connection to nature and a way to get out there: kids, parents, the elderly—everyone who likes living on this planet and can’t think of anywhere else they’d rather be.