Thursday, August 25, 2011
THE GLASS FLOWERS AT HARVARD
As a schoolchild in rural New Hampshire, one of the biggest deals of my relatively uneventful little life were the field trips we took to what I remember as the Peabody Museum but was apparently the Harvard Museum of Natural History. A trip to Cambridge was akin in my mind to a trip to Paris, or Istanbul, or the lost city of Atlantis. A trip to Harvard was a foray into unimaginable sophistication. A trip to the Museum of Natural History meant that we got to look at The Glass Flowers.
The flowers were created by the father and son team of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka "from 1887 through 1936 at their studio in Hosterwitz, Germany, near Dresden. They were commissioned by Professor George Lincoln Goodale, founder of Harvard's Botanical Museum, for the purpose of teaching botany, and financed by Goodale's former student, Mary Lee Ware and her mother, Elizabeth Ware. Over 3000 models, of 847 different plant species, were made." [courtesy widipedia]
But I didn't know any of that then, or wasn't much interested. What interested me were the creaking wood floors, the gleaming glass cases, the dire warnings that the slightest movement could shatter the flowers, or separate a head from a stem, or a petal from a bloom, and my instinctive understanding that that would have been a kind of sacrilege. What interested me was that there were grown-ups who lived in cities and spent their days among books and glass-blowing pipes instead of laying bricks as my father did, or doing dishes, laundry, and scrubbing as my mother did. What interested me was that the way the flowers were made was a secret.
My height at that age would have put me about eye-to-eye with the flowers. They were beautiful, they looked realer than real, I could have marveled over them for hours. Someone had spent a ton of time and effort making them. Someone had been really, really patient. I wondered what happened when the lights were turned off and everyone went home for the night. I wondered whether, cloaked with dust, slumbering amidst their carefully-lettered labels, the flowers slowly came to life...
Now I see that what struck me most about the glass flowers was that they had no apparent use. They were beautiful but they had no apparent use. And so in a way those glass flowers were preparing me for the life of a writer. For my belief that things happen in a realm we can't see. For my conversion--and what and Who I converted to--for as Karl Rahner observed, "The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all."
All these years later, I give thanks for another unseen father and son whose life's work continues to delight and inspire. All these years later, those field trips attain their true significance. When so much that was "useful" is long dead and forgotten, all these years later the glass flowers live on.