«THE NATURAL FLÂNEUR»
A creative non-fiction essay by Cassandra S. Tully.
The activity of strolling and looking which is carried out by the flâneur, a recurring motif in literature, sociology and art of urban, and most especially of the metropolitan existence. The flâneur of the nineteenth-century receives his most famous eulogy through Baudelarie, in a specific time and place: Paris (Tester 6).
I am a flâneur, too, like Wilde or Baudelaire before me, but not in the city. I like to saunter, stroll, and promenade in nature, in the countryside, and in anarchic, overgrown gardens. But I like to do it with leisure, observing the plants, flowers and trees around me. Thus, I am a flâneur. I ramble and roam in woods and secret passageways under lush canopies with the sunlight streaming through the leaves. And while I breathe in nature, I collect it, too.
First it was only little flowers or colourful leaves, a bouquet for my mother and my grandma. However, men in the family didn’t want flowers. They want sturdy trees to chop down, land to plough and sow. Flowers are beautiful but not useful, unlike trees they have no utilitarian value and they are symbols of femininity, softness, weakness. But most importantly, they wither. Collige virgo rosas, this time literally. Take the roses, young girl, and keep them, because they are going to fade away and we will not remember how they looked like when they are finally gone.
It is perhaps in resistance to this fading that I decided to collect them for myself. For my journals, for my memories. I started collecting flowers and leaves from the different places I travelled to. Not only would I be a flâneur in the woods of Extremadura, but in Ireland and Yorkshire, as well. Flowers wither, so I tried first to dry them hanging them upside down in the darkest corner of my closet, but they would lose their colours and disintegrate eventually. Flowers don’t keep well in dark places and you forget they are there, so I decided to start forgetting them in notebooks, journals, Grandfather Michael’s bible, next to the family tree, dad’s Spanish Dictionary, grandma’s cooking book.
Flowers, like books, are proud creatures. Some do not like to be constricted in academic books, those serious words and topics scared them. They prefer to be kept in the more cosy words of diaries and notebooks. If they do not feel welcome in their new environment they quickly lose their colours, textures, forms, and become a wrinkly brown mess, that easily crumbles when you try and take them off the pages. Cherry blossoms are like that. They will shower you in spring with their petals and it’ll be magical but these same paper-thin petals become sad and withered and will disappear in the book’s crevasse.
Others are stubborn like thistles. Collecting thistles in Scotland is a quest and the thistle itself the Holy Grail. They refuse to flatten and they will prick your hands in the process. Some are sly, you think they will look great once they are pressed and they tempt you to have them, only to find disappointment. Daisies, zinnias, azahar, hydreangeas… They trick you with their colours; you’re like one more bee, attracted to them, longing to capture their essence. However, once in a book, they rot and stain your pages, the only trace that something was alive there is the residue of its death.
So, I learned which ones bloom amongst the pages, a second coming, the reincarnation of the petals. I learned how poppies keep their reds and yellows but especially oranges (like the Welsh Poppy). Bougainvilleas keep the same silky texture and so do hibiscus. Pansies will surprise you to lose their lighter colours but maintain their purples and blues, and daffodils – as difficult as it is to flatten them in a pretty way – will keep their yellow, too.
Eventually you learn to talk to flowers and understand their necessities. Roses picked in winter are easier to undress and shape in books than those picked in summer. Forget-me-nots prefer white pages than newspaper ones, but with cyclamen is the other way round. And you develop your own sense of classifying them, by colours or types. I do it by places I’ve been. A separate notebook for Scotland, the sports section in the newspaper for Italy, a synonym dictionary for Badajoz, my own bible for Ireland. And I dry them in books for two main reasons: drying them in the oven or the microwave seems too violent and stressful to put a flower through, and also, book pages are somehow part of trees that went through a similar process of transformation.
I am a flâneur, yes, and as such, I wander without drive. I do not roam nature with the sole purpose of finding pretty flowers to keep and collect in a selfish way. I select them carefully, minutely, imprinting into my mind the exact moment I take them from their environment, from their homes. I still feel guilty every time. I will do it if I need to remember a garden, a climb, a journey, a trip, the first day of school, the last. I reckon it is somewhat selfish, but they do not die and wither in my hands, they become part of a whole process of reanimation into art, poetry, memories. A creative afterlife.
And after months or maybe years of treasuring them, I might come across a poem I need to remember, maybe solely because of aesthetics, maybe to recall a moment, an idea, a person. I write it down and marry it to a flower which becomes my own poetic embellishment. Some flowers or leaves are just right to express themselves in books: shamrocks for Yeats’s The Lake Isle of Inisfree, daffodils for Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud. Others are more difficult to assert. Ginko biloba leaves collected from Xi’an for Kavafis’ Ithaka, to remind me to travel and enjoy the ride, a lone tulip petal from Gülhane Park to evoke my cheery sister’s tours in Istanbul.
My wishful thinking hopes those printed words will whisper encouraging words to my unrooted plants. They are still alive and thriving, not like the proud remains of Ozymandias’ statue willing the spectator for attention and despair. It’s something quieter, a murmur like Shakespeare’s summer song that will allow my art to become memory in time: “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” (Shakespeare and Burrow 415). They will not wither and they will belong to my pages, my poems, my skin.
Shakespeare, William, and Colin Burrow. The Complete Sonnets And Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Tester, Keith. The Flâneur. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.