On-line Papers / Journal
‘Seed, Soil, Sapling: Reflections on the flowers of war and Peace'
College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia
In 1927 legendary airman Charles Lindbergh flew across the old front lines of the Western Front and dropped a bouquet of poppies over the Flanders Field American cemetery at Waregem, where 368 US soldiers lay buried beneath ranks of white crosses. As the flowers floated to the once-battered earth, a crowd of pilgrims and sightseers broke into spontaneous applause (Saunders 2014).
Flowers have a deep resonance in places of past trauma. The floating poppy, descending in a leisurely arc or lain in a wreath by a headstone symbolises both the fragility of life and thehope of rebirth. Flowers and the gardens that enframe themhave the potency, the quite unique ability to evoke (and provoke) memory, particularly the memory of young lives cut short by war.
The floral tribute is the first ripple in many waves of remembering. Perhaps its defining moment was the mass grieving after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. In little over one week some 60 million blooms, weighing an estimated 10,000 tons, were laid outside Buckingham Palace and Clarence House. They erupted like a floral aneurysm, a sudden tsunami of emotion, bursting out of St James Palace, spreading across the stately avenues of imperial London. Mourning was not just restricted to London: hundreds of thousands of ‘pilgrims’ created shrines to the dead princess adorned with flowers, teddy bears, balloons, and other votive offerings.
Yet there is actually little new about mass floral displays during times of national trauma. The Shrine Movement during and after the First World War saw vast piles of flowers and plants gathered in public spaces across the British Empire. They became the initial geological layer, the mulch from which the obelisks and the cenotaphs would grow. This habit persists. In cities across Australia and New Zealand, Remembrance Sunday or Anzac Day is marked not only by adopting the poppy as the personal emblem of remembering, but recreated in vast tracts of crochet and knitted flowers, lain like crimson carpets along major thoroughfares such as Federation Square in Melbourne. As symbolic temporal gardens they remind us that we value a fundamental truth about the link between flowers, mourning, remembrance and love.
This is what makes the installation Flowers of War at The Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne so powerful. First exhibited in Christchurch, New Zealand ,then at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol UK, it is now housed in the undercroft of the vast shrine in Australia. In a subterranean space the impact of the four metre high wreath is extraordinary. Lit from above with deep cast shadows, 400 enamel leaves, flowers and petals are woven into the steel matrix of a huge circular wreath. Upon close inspection many of the leaves, the poppies and cornflowers are strewn with words, telegrams and letters from distant wars. Here are the private testimonies of Diggers and Kiwis, Tommies and Poilus delicately inscribed on aluminium, tin and copper.
Flowers of War was conceived and created by three academic-practitioners. Enameller Kirsten Haydon and designer Neal Haslam who both work at RMIT University in Melbourne. Elizabeth Turrell, artist and curator works in Bristol, UK.
Working collaboratively over several years,their common interest in family memory, military conflict and commemoration has resulted in a series of enamelled floral emblems of remembrance, inspired by flowers, plants, seeds, found on battlefields and at home. As a collaboration between academics from New Zealand, UK, and Australia, it echoes the trans-global exchange of seeds, soil and plants that took place after the First World War, when veterans and relatives of the dead brought home seedlings and small plants so that a little corner of some foreign field grew both ‘here’ but also ‘over there’. The statuesque tree that marked Lone Pine in Gallipoli yielded cones and seeds that found their way to parks and reserves all over Australia. There they were carefully nurtured by gardeners and brought back to life, nourished into saplings and over time into young trees. Over the decades the arboreal offspring has found their way back to the original battlefields, back to the memory-scapes of war, in a vast temporal and spatial cycle of active remembering (Gough 1996).
Flowers, like trees, have many properties: they are a palliative for melancholy; they offer a congenial environment for solitary contemplation, even more so in funerary settings (Coffin 1994, 17). Gardens and flowers are emblematic of the course of human life. Like people, flowers and gardens grow, mature, age and die. Yet the gardener has the skill to nurture and keep plants alive. A well-tended garden can act as a symbolic safeguard against disorder and the randomness that death often brings (Francis, Neophytou, and Kellagar 1999, 122).
The designers of gardens recognize the connections between the individual, the community, and greater causes whether religious, aesthetic, or political. As a manner of theatrical or ‘dramaturgical’ space, the staged setting of the cemetery-garden can represent both physical vulnerability and transience, suggesting both decay and renewal (Dixon Hunt 2001, 20–22). Perhaps this cycle is at its most intense when related to the death of the young in warfare. Indeed, those who design and orchestrate the ‘memoryscapes’ surrounding military memorials pay especial attention to this cycle.
The parkland around Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance is a precise arrangement of trees and shrubs, each identified with military units, campaigns and individuals. It is not that nature frames the monuments, rather that the choreographed landscape is the monument, a living and changing memorial, which helps contextualise and caption the memorial building (Mosser and Nys 1994). These garden-memorials help draw poignant analogies between human existence, the fragility of nature and the consolation of cyclic regeneration (Miller 1993). A well-tended garden is a symbolic ‘bulwark’ against atrophy and decay. Indeed, a skilled gardener can appear to postpone, even eradicate, death by judicious and diligent plant management (Francis, Neophytou, and Kellagar 1999, 122). An unkempt lawn is an indication of slovenly habits, of indifference, a lack of care. A well maintained flowerbed, a finely manicured lawn, can soften the edges of loss and grief (Hallam and Hockey 2001, 133).
This explains the decision after the Great War to create the garden cemeteries that traverse the Western Front like the beads on a rosary. The Imperial War Graves Commission took over the task of remembering the dead across those theatres of war where British, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, South African and Empire soldiers died (Gough 2018).
The scale of the task facing the Commission was immense: its achievements equally so. By 1921 architects and gardeners had established over a thousand permanent cemetery sites in France and Belgium, with some 200 acres of lawn, seventy-five miles of flower border and over fifteen miles of hedge. On other theatres of war – the Dardanelles and Macedonia -the horticultural and architectural effort was no less heroic. In 1915 a scheme set out to plant home-grown maple seeds on Canadian graves; that same year the Australian wattle was planted on graves in Gallipoli. In 1929 on the Melbourne pilgrimage to Turkey 48 women and 38 men carried with them 1000s of sprigs of artificial wattle purchased and given by bereaved relatives unable to undertake the long voyage. The sprigs were laid on the graves enabling the absent mourners to participate vicariously through powerful floral emblems. Similarly, cuttings of Olearia and Veronica traversii were brought across from New Zealand.
Yet there's actually little new about mass floral displays during times of national trauma. Look at the Shrine Movement during and after the First World War. Vast piles of flowers and plants were created, maintained and rooted in corners all across the British Empire; they became the initial geological layer on which the obelisks and the cenotaphs would grow out of the greenery. And look again at how we mark Remembrance Sunday or Anzac Day here in Melbourne, not just by adopting the poppy as our personal emblem of remembering but look at the crochet and knitted flowers; look at those powerful tracts of crimson that are lain like red carpets along St Kilda Road and in Federation Square. They are symbolic temporary gardens created for a unique moment of commemoration. They remind us that we value a fundamental truth about the link between flowers, mourning, remembrance and love. Flowers die. Gardens reveal the actualities of death. Yet the gardener has the skill to nurture and keep plants alive. A well-tended garden can act as a symbolic safeguard against disorder and the randomness that death [by war in particular] introduces.
As with any landscape, the garden develops meaning through the complex interaction between the ‘here-and-now' and the ‘there-and-then'. Flowers are a palliative for melancholy. They are a congenial environment for solitary contemplation. Gardens and flowers are emblematic of the course of human life. Like people, flowers and gardens grow, mature, age and die. The designers of gardens recognize the connections between the individual, the community, and greater causes whether they be religious, aesthetic, or political. As a manner of theatrical or ‘dramaturgical' space, the staged setting of the garden can represent both physical vulnerability and transience, and is thus suggestive of both decay and renewal. Think of the garden space of the Domain around us; the careful arrangement of trees and shrubs, and the way they are identified with specific military units, campaigns and individuals. It's not so much that nature frames the monuments, rather that the choreographed landscape is the monument, a living and changing memorial.
Woven into Flowers of War we find the Camomile Daisy and Bird’s Eye Banksia, and references to plants that decorate the memory-scapes of the Great War. There are, of course, red poppies, the flower most associated with the trench war. And yet the poppy is a strangely ambiguous emblem of war; it is invariably associated with the evocation of memory, but is also an opiate which induces forgetfulness, amnesia, the sleep of reason.
Over in France, in Belgium, Macedonia and Gallipoli despite indifferent soils, challenging climates, and metal-saturated earth, the Commission prevailed. Gardeners aimed to grow plants associated with the dead from across the Empire. Whereas double white roses, Pinks, London Pride, mozzy Saxifrages,Cerastium and Thrift thrived in the northern climate, more exotic strands – such as bougainvillea, intended to dress the graves of soldiers from the West Indies – failed. There were also more wild and erratic plantings; flowers native to northern Scotland found their way to the Front inside consignments of turnips sent to feed the huge numbers of working horses.
Inevitably, the rose has come to be regarded as the exemplary floral symbol of Western martial remembering. Its symbolic and emotional authority can never be underestimated. In a typical year in the 1990s the War Graves Commission gardeners planted 57,000 roses in France, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom alone.
As flowering plants the two could not be more different. Whereas the rose has to be nurtured and cared for within a proper horticultural regime, the poppy grows erratically and without warning on broken ground. It thrived on the pulverised landscape of the battlefield. But despite its vital place in the mythology and visual culture of war, its unpredictable and short lifespan means it has no place in a formal planting system.
So, in a profound way, the rose and the poppy mark the two poles of floral symbolism: the one, formal, labour intensive and permanent; the other arbitrary, spontaneous and ephemeral.
And this idea – permanence versus the ephemeral, informal against formal – may be the heart of Flowers of War. It reinforces flower power, the primacy of nature over the habitual icons of commemoration, the monumentalia that punctuates the overfurnished cities of the developed world. There is, to paraphrase Lewis Mumford, nothing more invisible than a monument. Statues and cenotaphs are largely redundant as ways of provoking memory; they actually obscure the past, they induce forgetfulness, except for the one day each year when they bloom with induced colour.
By contrast, gardens need to be constantly tended; to be looked after; flowers and plants require care and vigilance. Whereas most monuments of stone and bronze speak a dull monologue, gardens and flowers create a dialogue, a rich conversation with the future rather than a past which enslaves us to repetition and requires us to be little more than an aggregate of well-managed spectators.
Monuments may indeed be great icons of architecture. Like the Shrine of Remembrance, indeed like Flowers of War, they may have a magnetic power that draws pilgrims, tourists and visitors, but gardens require us not only to act out the past, but to actively participate in growing the future, to remain constantly vigilant and caring. The exhibition ‘Flowers of War’ speaks to this ideal; curated by a few, but cocreated by many, it espouses ideals of caring and community, compassion and creativity. It complements the grandeur of its surroundings but reminds us that peace is an elusive thing, it has no end point, it must be nurtured and maintained, nourished and monitored, lest we fall into the traumatic and terrible temptations of conflict.
Coffin, D. R. 1994. The English Garden: Meditation and Memorial. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dixon Hunt, J. 2001. “‘Come into the Garden, Maud’ Garden Art as a Privileged Mode of Commemoration and Identity.” In Places of Commemoration: Search for Identity and Landscape Design, edited by J. Wolschke-Bulmahn, 9–24. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks.
Francis, D., G. Neophytou, and L. Kellagar. 1999. “Kensington Gardens: From Royal Park to Temporary Cemetery.” In The Mourning for Diana, edited by T. Walter. Oxford: Berg.
Gough, P. J. 1996. “Conifers and Commemoration; the Politics and Protocol of Planting in Military Cemeteries.” Landscape Research 21 (1): 73–87. doi:10.1080/01426399608706476.
Gough, P. J. 2018. “Dead Ground”: Memoryscapes of War. UK: BSP: Melbourne and Sansom.
Hallam, E., and J. Hockey. 2001. Death, Memory and Material Culture. Berg: Oxford.
Miller, M. 1993. The Garden as an Art. Albany: Suny Press.
Mosser, M., and P. Nys. 1994. Le Jardin: Art et Lieu de Memoire. Becanson: Editions de l’Imprimeur.
Saunders, N. 2014. The Poppy: A History of Conflict, Loss and Redemption. London: OneWorld Publications.