Flowers. What are they for?

7th August 2012
Once, when I lived in a street with narrow gardens close to several others, all flanked with tall hedges and fences, I heard a boy asking a question from along the road. His parents, who lived a few houses away, had a back garden that consisted of a barren stretch of dirt and rough grass upon which a ball could be kicked up and down. In essence, little more than a 'back yard.' Next door, in contrast, I knew there to be a neighbour's garden full of glorious flowers and fruit trees. It was tended by an elderly couple dedicated to the joy of growing beautiful things.

'What are you doing?' the boy asked, observing the lady at work on her flower beds one spring day.
'I'm growing flowers,' she replied.
'What are they for?' he inquired.
There was a awkward silence, but eventually the answer came. 'We like them.'

Of course, she could have answered that flowers do have a purpose. They provide pollen and honey for the bees. They encourage insects and birds. And some of them even have edible bits attached that feed animals and people. But the flowers in her garden were really for none of these purposes. They were just for making people feel happy. She liked them. I would have gone further and said that within every flower there is enclosed a little piece of magic, a piece of divinity - though that is the kind of sentiment best reserved for the poets.
Which brings me to the writer and mystic philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, born in 1861. He passed away on this day, 7th August, in 1941.
photo of indian gentleman, the poet Rabindranath Tagore, as young man
Rabindranath Tagore in 1890.

The poet

Tagore was Bengali, but partly educated in England. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 and among his associates and friends were the poet W.B.Yates and the philosopher and statesman Mahatma Gandhi. His poetry is remarkably simple in style but rich in imagery and allegory. Fortunately for us, he translated much of it into English himself. Here, is an extract from his anthology 'The Gardener.' The title, I would say, is a metaphor for devotion and humility, particularly in the context of Eastern mysticism. It was a tradition in which Tagore himself was deeply immersed.
'One morning in the flower garden a blind girl came to offer me a flower chain in the cover of a lotus leaf.
I put it round my neck, and tears came to my eyes.
I kissed her and said, 'You are blind even as the flowers are.
'You yourself know not how beautiful is your gift.'
photo of Tagore with Einstein, as if in conversation, seated
Tagore with fellow Nobel Laureate Albert Einstein.
I think each one of us is given our little plot of earth when we are born, and it's up to us what we make of it. We can try to make it a little piece of heaven, or we can very quickly make it a very large chunk of hell for ourselves and others. In that sense we are all called upon to be gardeners, whether we realise it or not. Flowers remind us of that. And therein lies the answer if anyone ever asks you 'what are they for?'
Meanwhile, here are some photos of flowers that I have had a little bit to do with lately. I shall dedicate these today to the memory of a wonderful poet.
triple image of various flowers

More Tagore

'Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.
Open your doors and look abroad.
From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.
In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years.'

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