Category Archives: Naturesque

Penpa Tang-ing with Neha

(November, 2005)

Neha is the recently-turned-eight-year-old across the street. Every encounter with her is an edifying experience. A few mornings ago she skipped over with her grandmother and our share of homemade Divali sweets. I was en route, basket in hand, to our back yard, to gather morning flowers. “Pavithrakka can I also come? I am loving flauv-ers very much,” says Neha, in her fun, formal, not always grammatically correct, but unfailing expressive English. “Of course,” I say, and we head towards the Coral Jasmine tree out back- a tall, slender trunked beauty that all year round rains fragrant white blossoms with bright coral stalks onto the grass each night. Gathering these flowers each morning is a ritual of enchantment. Magic is born in the presence of such unreasonable, unravished beauty.

I wish I could say that such a poetic start to the morning renders one invincible to all the daily demons of impatience, and indignation, of I-ness and My-ness and My-Soul-Is-A-Squashed-Tomato-ness. But apparently you can’t buy that kind of invincibility with a basketful of flowers. It takes a modicum more diligence, more vigilance than that. But what gathering a morning basketful of flowers can provide is- a sort of sacred space to set the tone of the day. There’s a Tibetan phrase for this that I learnt recently– penpa tang. And I have found that setting that sacred space does make a difference in how I live my day- or at least in my awareness of how I live my day. Or perhaps I’m just trying to dignify my self-proclaimed vocation, of, à la James Kavanugh, being born to–

(…)catch dragons in their dens
And pick flowers
To tell tales and laugh away the morning
To drift and dream like a lazy stream
And walk barefoot across sunshine days”

Either way, I am here now with Neha, under the Coral Jasmine tree. When it rains at night, this tree pours. And it is monsoon season now, so the ground beneath the tree is carpeted in white and orange. Drifts of blossoms, so deep they can be gathered by the careful-not-to-crush fistful. I reach over with both hands, and shake the trunk gently. Neha tilts her head and looks up, watching the white sudden swirl of blossoms, blossoms falling like stars, falling like snowflakes. Her expression one of perfectly mingled awe and delight (my day is made in that moment.) We both bend in unison to the sweetly-scented task at hand. I find myself wondering, with a faint twinge of apprehension and amusement, what Neha is going to say next. I am loathe to let the lyricism of this moment veer into the prosaic. As ridiculous as it sounds, I find myself wanting to shield the sacredness of the space from small talk. This is because I have momentarily forgotten that 8-year-olds do not do small talk.

“Do you like Mother Teresa?” Neha’s question asked in the micro-interval between one handful of blossoms and the next, is matter-of-fact and sans preamble.

“Y-yes,” I answer, somewhat startled, but also intrigued by, her choice of conversation starters.

“I also am liking her very much. She is helping all the people who are suffering from This and That. Nobody else to help them otherwise. All the people in the world say she is very kind. And then she died.”

The small heap of flowers in the basket is growing. Fresh, soft white flowers today. Dried brown brittle ones tomorrow.

“What did you say?” I have to know whether I heard the last part of this little impromptu speech correctly.

“She died,” says Neha, all of eight, “End of story.”

“End of story,” I echo.

“Pavithrakka look at this,” she is pointing to a fern under the tree, a fern that is now strewn with small white flowers, “It looks like the flowers grew there, no?” A thought I’ve so often had.

“Yes it does. Neha– what do you want to be when you grow up?” And in my head I have already framed her answer– she will want to help people suffering from This and That, like Mother Teresa.

Neha looks over at me for a brief moment, then–

“I think I will also be a Flower Collector,” she says.

A Broad Margin

To meander is a natural form of movement, uncontrived, unhurried. Rivers and roving butterflies are adept at meandering. And we were too, once upon a time– before we developed a preference for traveling in straight lines, perhaps because of Euclid, who told us a straight line is the shortest distance between two points (for the record he was not entirely right about this.) Regardless of length, a bend in the road will always be revelatory. A straight path seldom holds any surprises. In other words efficiency and epiphany do not typically travel together.  This is largely because efficiency deems as irrelevant, so much that is important. For instance, the most efficient way to travel from point A to point B will take into account toll booths, traffic patterns and the time of day. Whether or not the wayside California buckeye tree is currently in bloom will be deemed irrelevant. This is wildly ironic because stumbling upon a California buckeye tree in full bloom can transport you in an instant, but only if you aren’t trying to get somewhere. Efficiency is always trying to get somewhere. This is why it does not gallivant,  daydream, linger, or lounge. Unlike Walt Whitman, efficiency has never been known to ‘lean and loafe’ at its ease observing a spear of summer grass– or a California buckeye tree in bloom. No. Efficiency is ever-preoccupied in getting you from here to there. For it to work you must be firmly tethered to space-time, not lifting veils, traversing realms and hitchhiking with eternity (things liable to happen when meandering or being Whitmanesque.)

For most of our lives, whether we know it or not, we are shepherded along by unconscious habits of efficiency and selective attention. This is why passing a California buckeye tree in full bloom without noticing it is shockingly easy to do.  Like entirely missing the gorilla-suited personage in the Invisible Gorilla Experiment. While I am eminently okay with not catching sight of people in gorilla suits who wander into my field of vision, I very do not want to miss the sprawling California buckeye tree in late spring, waving its bright five-fingered leaves like so many small hands, covered in fanciful, fragrant wands– each an inflorescence up to eight inches long, studded with scores of tiny white flowers, that burst out of faint pink buds, freckled with delicate gold-tipped anthers, sweetly scented as white grape juice, intriguing from a distance, dazzling up close. Nor do I want to miss it in summer, when it preemptively drops its leaves in anticipation of thirst, a model of voluntary simplicity, or in fall when its large, leathery, pear-shaped pods hang from leafless branches,  splitting open to reveal a lacquered seed that bears a striking resemblance to the eye of a buck. And I certainly would be loath to miss it in winter, when its silvery bark is laid bare, and the impressive mind map of its branches rises into view, like a floating labyrinth, a lovely skeleton, a slumbering legend. 

Now I am finally undoing the unconscious conventions that control my attention, that push me towards chronic productivity. I am reclaiming my peripheral vision, my wandering soul, my capacity for wonder. I am realizing that what I thought were the footnotes of my life are actually where the fruitful stories are being told. The text in the middle of the page almost entirely misses the plot.

I am learning to love, like Thoreau, ‘a broad margin to my life.’ Priming myself for the buckeye, and all the beauty that lies just beside-the-point, just around the bend in the road. 

Pick a Pomegranate

Pick a pomegranate. One that cannot conceal its blush or merriment. One that is this close to bursting into ruby throated laughter. Let it sit in the nest of your palm like a flightless crimson bird heavy with gravity and hidden gifts. Call attention to that festive, sharp tipped calyx crown. Feel the shape of its ribs underneath the leathery red, roundness. A globe with subtle angles. Consider for a moment that these wonders grow on trees. On trees! Festooning them improbably as prima donna leaves pirouette into autumn mists. Great pouches filled with garnet gems. Yes — filled! 

Split open a pomegranate. See how its gleaming cargo spills. A jeweled honeycomb, dripping sweetness. Arils like tiny pendants, so many sun catchers clustered in a cavern. It is clear whoever packed these purses was unacquainted with the notion of scarcity. Whoever packed these purses was giving hand over fist from a mythic mother lode. Were we slightly less preoccupied by calendars and petty calculations we would be perpetually dumbstruck by the magnitude of this miracle. We would not rush past our unclaimed inheritance, but would stop instead and fill our pockets with lucky pennies. Dawn to dusk our footsteps would sing a coppery chorus.

But wait. You say I am mixing my metaphors. I have called this fruit a ship, a sack, a bird, a bequest, a cave, a mine, a honeyed hive, a carrier of crystal. To you I say, this fruit is the stuff of legends, and legends defy consistency. They traffic in transubstantiation. Straw will be spun into gold overnight, blood will birth flowers, at the wedding feast water will turn to wine. And so it is with the tumbling scarlet prosperity of the pomegranate. It will render you rich as an emperor if you let it. Quicker than a con-artist’s promise, and ever more lasting.

You will of course need a key. Something to spring the lock, something to cry out at the cave’s mouth that will conjure the boulders, roll them mightily out of your way. A sign that establishes your legitimacy and authenticates your claim. You do know what it is don’t you? Or maybe you don’t. In the stories the protagonist is always slow on the uptake. Always spends two-thirds of the tale wandering in desperation and self-doubt, before the kindness of strangers and tribulation-kindled insight reveal what was there all along. Then the wicked fairy’s one-hundred year spell collapses like a house of cards, the sword slips out of the stone, and the Earth greens with growing things again.

Is it still sitting in your palm? The pomegranate? A thing alive and almost electric with givenness? Look at it again. You can, but you don’t have to speak the words aloud. The feeling might perch in your eyes, gentle as mourning doves inhabited by a wondering, plaintive softness, even that is enough. Or maybe it rides into your chest and lifts the roof off your heart uncovering a canopy of stars and dizzying you for weeks. This works too. But if it must be sounded, then perhaps it vines into your throat and pulses forth a series of small buds amidst green tendrils. Bright flowers shaped like delicate trumpets. Then all you can say or sing amounts to the same thing:

A thousand times a thousand times — Thank You.


Alchemy by Hawk

There are encounters that leave you sloshing and unsettled– like a very full glass of pond water on a rickety table that has been jostled. A moment before you were self-contained, now your inner being is flustered and expressive — full of erratic movement you do not intend.

The jostler has long since vanished but you are still unquiet within. Across the stadium of your stomach a loosed stampede of bat wings, bull horns and hapless ballerinas. The sensation is not painful–nor is it pleasant. In such times it can be useful to recognize that you are a woman of independent means — financing this residual tempest with the hard cash of memory and the loose change of muddled emotion. There are better investments to be made. By far.

It is not easily arranged, but after such encounters if one can persuade a hawk to fly low overhead as one walks a narrow residential street, one might experience what feels akin to a comprehensive internal reset. A refreshment of being the equivalent of one thousand nights of dreamless sleep. Of that instant you are no longer a container of whirling sediment and liquid agitation, but a glass filled and stilled, quietly brimming with the crystal cold headwaters of a mountain spring. It will happen with a rapidity that defies explanation.

You remember the upward glance, and the preverbal register of a remarkable wingspan, a copper colored velocity, a grace that splits the sky like day time lightning. Electric and unbound. You do not recall the perturbation being poured out of you like stale tea from a teapot. The conversion is work that locates itself outside clock time. What has transpired is not so much substitution as it is alchemy– by hawk. The transformation of a base and volatile substance (your inner landscape) to one that is– at least temporarily– golden and inert.

It helps if the hawk calls out to you repeatedly while circling high overhead. Her voice commands the sky, corrals your wayward tendencies. Her wheeling, invisible calligraphy blots out any lingering reasons for dismay, any last recollections of dissatisfaction. And you are seized by an intimation of grandeur, a power vast and sweet and gloriously indifferent to our cramped labels of good and bad, a freedom so complete it does not require approval– or even understanding, and an awareness so piercing and acute, so borderless and far-reaching it leaves you with a paradoxical sense of how small you are—and how utterly seen.

If you are in a position to pull on cosmic strings and orchestrate this process further, it would serve you well to recruit between one hundred and one hundred and fifty additional hawks. Have them soar across your line of sight in ones and twos and threes and sometimes sevens over the next week. Have them perch unusually low and in view. Have them spur you to google “Unusual number of hawks in neighborhood this summer,” and accustom you to looking up frequently (because who wants to miss sighting a hawk?) Until their presence is undeniable, their message unmistakable.

Then let the hawks fly into your dreams, and with their alternating rhythms of muscular wing flap and spiraling suspension, begin to shape a shadowy sense of what it means to house an immense perspective, what it means to travel fearlessly between this terrestrial realm and the blue beyond, what it means to combine vigilance, with elegance and self-possession, what it means to expend effort, then effortlessly release, what it means to abandon petty stories, swoop down instead on what is essential, revolutionary– grasp it talon tight. And not let go.


I never notice agapanthus before she blooms. This lack of awareness allows for yearly ambush. A blue bombardment, like so many miniature firecracker displays in freeze frame, they seize the sidewalks, fully formed– their delicate globes fashioned from white or  lavender bluebell blossoms, balancing perfectly on very tall stems. Agapanthus rises above it all, as sublime beings do, transcending a close-to-the-ground commotion, a happy hubbub of green leaves. The perfect spheres of their heads seem poised to take leave of their lithe bodies, as if at any moment they might elegantly decapitate themselves, lift off lightly, a synchronized indigo flock of crystal balls. 

Ethereal guardians of summer gardens, parks and parking lots. Undiscriminating. I’ve even known them to stand gorgeously outside the dry cleaners, lending an air of nobility and charm to an otherwise nondescript neighborhood. Agapanthus from agape. The flower of love. 

The ancient Greeks knew there are at least as many kinds of love as there are directions on the Earth. There is eros for instance, love that flies on a trickster deity’s arrow tip, generating all manner of mischief and delight. And there is philia, love like a hearthfire that draws minds close around the warming glow of friendship. But agape is love that drops your jaw, makes you stand agaping. 

Agape is love without reservation. Monsoon love, juggernaut love, love that cannot be staunched like a wound or undone like a hairdo. Love that cannot be pulled like a plug, diverted like traffic, dammed like a river because its beginningless quality is suffused without end in everything. Agape is the Infinite’s love for the finite — and vice versa. 

Does the symmetry of that astound you? Then we are a pair. Our unsuspected birthright– to stand on this small ledge of life and love on equal footing with Eternity. Why were we not properly informed? And who will answer for the sins of omission?

But wait– Look! Summer’s chariot hurtles across the sky. Purple bobble headed flowers recite old poems with perfect enunciation in scriptless tongues. The seasons are a floral tradition, an oral tradition, perennial and precise. They whisper in our ears a thousand times a thousand times a day withholding nothing.

But am I paying attention? —

Are you?


Agapanthus, Botanical illustration by Mally Francis

Coin Toss

A full moon flips

Into night sky

Quickly now!

Heads or Tails?

What will you call? —

Earth in the balance.


Necessity knows no magic formulae-they are all left to chance. If a love is to be unforgettable, fortuities must immediately start fluttering down to it like birds to Francis of Assisi’s shoulders. — Milan Kundera

There are days when I look out the window without meaning to, as if my glance had been commanded by a consciousness beyond that typically called my own. And I catch, not the sight but, the sense of a bird. The briefest of blurs, a velocity of being, accompanied by a communication whose unmistakable imperative is simply: LOOK. 

I have an unaccountable conviction in these moments, unlikely as it seems to my rational mind, that I am being summoned to witness something. Someone. But I cannot will my way into such witnessing. I can only intend and then forget. So that the surface of my mind moves unselfconsciously, while the depths have been readied.

Sometimes it takes a couple of days. I feel a quiet, almost imperceptible surge, but my gaze is belated, catches its breath not on bird but on space freshly emptied of bird. Even these misses have their magic. And then comes the barefoot discovery– always barefoot– for there is never time for mind to pull on shoes, slip into slippers. 

The first time I–felt– more than saw, the somersaulting shadow of wings, and was pulled to the window by the gravitational field of an invisible presence. Three perhaps four times this happened, over one afternoon and into the next. Then there he was. A young hawk perched on the wire closest to our home and lowest. An unusual bird placed in unusually close range. Those colors, those curves and angles enclosed in and enclosing such wild grace. A sense of young majesty, a presence aware of being within the radius of another’s awareness. 

A little over a year earlier a turkey vulture had alighted, on the wire opposite our living room window. A hulking black-shouldered, red-headed bird gazing deliberately into the heart of our home, while my mother served hot dosas to a guest. No this had not happened before, and has never happened since. And yes there is a story, but for another time perhaps.

And then last week, while making breakfast (oatmeal), I turned (or was turned,) abruptly from hot stove toward kitchen window and caught a fluttering handkerchief. Small, black and flying, falling, dancing. I recognize, without knowing how, the movements of familiar birds. I do not dissect the invisible warp and weft of their intricate weaving. I could not describe it to you even if I care to, but am glad for the quiet backdrop of their daily and dynamic craft. This pattern even peripherally caught, was unfamiliar. Less subtle, more demanding of audience. Snared I walked to the window searching for the bird behind the show. At first nothing but empty driveway and branches and sky– and then he materialized. 

An immediately likable bird of an immediately likable size. Charcoal-smudged body with a roguish, tousled head and such an unafraid, arrested quickness in his being. A purposeful sense of pause. “You’ve been seen,” I told him silently. Perhaps he was unconvinced, or perhaps he was simply being sociable. Either way when I stepped outside several minutes later, he flew past me and perching on nearby branch proceeded to sing a single note. So sweetly, single-mindedly, so persistently that I could not help but think he was telling me something. I noted then, his white breast, how it peaked crisply between his dark lapel feathers. How oddly formal he appeared, how like a bird in a tuxedo. A dapper bird who had remembered to dress for the occasion–but had forgotten to comb his hair. And all the while he sang his tail pumped, keeping time. He watched and sang as I watered the plants. Unfazed by my size, my species, my lack of song. I watched him watching me and wondered where he had come from, where he was going. Wondered who and what he was.

A search for mettlesome black bird with white breast brought him up immediately on my screen. A flycatcher — a Black Phoebe. A songbird, I am informed, that does well around humans and is known to sit on low perches in backyards and keep up a running series of chirps while scanning the horizon for edible insects. The most wonderful thing I learned about this bird is that the male of the species will show his mate possible nest sites by hovering in front of them for approximately ten seconds awaiting her ay or nay. She will make the final decision on where they nest. An arrangement that strikes me as eminently sensible on all fronts.

All morning I cannot shake the sense of his presence. Finally I take out my brushes, a paint set and begin. In London and New York passersby can get their portraits painted in a matter of minutes by gifted street artists. In the backyard of our little home, certain feathered individuals, unconcerned with quality or self-image can get theirs painted by a rapturous amateur, for a song. 


It does not have a name, and I do not know nearly enough give it one. The birds are privy to it though. This impulse that leaps my gaze to the window, this force that draws being forth and tangles my fibers with the pulsating beauty of this world, destabilizing strictly human concerns, re-centering perception.


“Hope” is the thing with feathers, said Dickinson, and perched it in the soul—where it–

“sings the tune without the words–

And never stops–at all–”

If I had to wager a guess I’d say she was privy to it too.


I Think I Heard Her Sing

And if there’s no bread to be had tonight I will eat words she said

I’ll sprinkle them all with pepper and salt, and gobble them up in bed.


If light is a language and sunset a sermon

And dusk is a tribesman in deep purple turban

Then why speak in words that will ruin the night?

When nothing that’s said can ever be right.


Bright lights on the hillside no stars in the sky

My heart it is heavy and it won’t tell  me why

The frogs they do croak and the crickets they chafe

While alone at the window I stand like a waif

Though my life it be full of love and its singing

It harbors still shadows of pain and its stinging.


Who put the cluck in the chicken and

Sharpened each green blade of grass?

Who rouged the cheeks of the sunset and

Filled the blue rivers with bass?

I’ve scoured the world for the artist

Whose skill grazes everything

I haven’t glimpsed her yet, but once

I think I heard her sing.




Photo by kconnors at

That swimming, sloping, elusive something about the dark-bluish tint of the iris which seemed still to retain the shadows it had absorbed of ancient, fabulous forests where there were more birds than tigers and more fruit than thorns, and where, in some dappled depth, man’s mind had been born.–Vladimir Nabakov

In grocery stores budded irises are bundled together, like perfectly sharpened purple-pointed pencils, like slender indigo-edged spears, like a quiver of Spring arrows poised to unbend unhappy bents of mind. Take a sheaf home, place it in a glass vase and by morning, from poised purple-tipped silence, spill sepals and petals frothy with filaments and ruffles, loquacious little fountains self-released into sunshine, suddenly aware of the greater world.
An iris in a bud understandably assumes the bud is the world. An iris outside its bud is suddenly adrift. Its erstwhile home is gone, irretrievable, like misspent youth or last Wednesday’s sunset. Yet this turn of events does little to disturb an iris’s equanimity. Unlike many mortals, irises are not unsettled by dramatic changes in circumstance. Perhaps this is because they cradle memories of their ancestors, who fell asleep in autumnal earth as knobbly rhizomes or bulbous bulbs, only to dream and wake some seasons later, tall, slender, studded with purple possibilities,  and brandishing green leaves like pirate swords.

Who would deduce the dragonfly from the larva, the iris from the bud, the lawyer from the infant? …We are all shape-shifters and magical reinventors. Life is really a plural noun, a caravan of selves. –Diane Ackerman

In truth that which we call an iris is not a flower at all, but a fan-shaped inflorescence–a small tribe of flowers arranged on a common stem (hilariously called the peduncle). In other words the iris is a community, not an individual. Any iris who thinks otherwise labors prettily under a delusion. We must not hold this against them (people who live in glass houses etc). Hardy and international in spirit, irises thrive in a variety of terrains; semi-desert land, rocky mountain ridges, grassy slopes, meadows, bogs, and riverbanks. Traversing the yawn of centuries they have covered great distances leaving their petal prints on history, tradition, medicine, cosmetology, commerce and more.

Greek and Roman apothecaries prescribed iris seeds for ancients with indigestion, and unguents of iris were slathered onto battle wounds. Unguents. Please note how appropriately viscous that word is, how it sticks faithful like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth. Egyptians creatively extracted exotic perfume from dried iris rhizomes (called orris root), which are incidentally also used to flavor gin. Peeled orris root gives off the delicious scent of violets. It was crushed and commonly used in baby powder, wig powder and toothpaste because, scent of violets. In Croatia the iris is named after the head of the Slavic pantheon, Perun, God of Thunder. Perunika grows wherever his lightning bolts strike the Earth, a tender compensation.  In Kashmir the white iris kashmiriana is often planted on Muslim graves, a custom that stretches into Turkey and beyond. In medieval Florence  where white irises grew out of the city walls, the fleur-de-lis, a stylized version of the blossom, became an emblem of the city. In 12th century France Louis VII deployed it on his standard. In post-Katrina New Orleans people tattooed themselves with it, a symbol of unity, renewal, resilience.

The fleur-de-lis, just so you know, is modeled on the blooms of a bearded iris. For irises can be bearded, beardless, or crested. There are dwarf bearded irises and tall bearded irises. There are also redundantly-named miniature dwarf bearded irises and oxymoronically-named miniature tall bearded irises. There are approximately as many kinds of irises as there are days in the year, and their names are often as enticing and enigmatic as the names of perfumes and paint shades, racing horses and seaworthy vessels. Vesper, Florentina, Dusky Challenger,  Autumn Jester, Thornbird, Parting Glances, Ghost Writer, Gambling Man, Pagan Dance, Here Be Dragons, Petticoat Shuffle, Lady Friend, Early Light, Let Evening Come.

I do not know what place, if any, the state of New Jersey holds in your heart, but perhaps knowing that it is possessed of an iris garden that harbors 10,000 blooms might newly or further endear it to you. One night 157 of Presby Memorial’s historic rhizomes were vandalized by teenage boys. Intoxicated by a little more than giddy youth, they thought it would be jolly to practice their golf swings on the grounds of the iris museum. They were tracked down and apprehended a year later. One can only hope as part of their punishment they were sentenced to planting irises. And that in the process they found themselves grudgingly and then wonderingly waking up to the quiet glory of Nature’s creations, so easily unmade by man and boy, so very impossible to man-or-boy-make.


Photo by kconnors at

Well. Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out.​[…]​ a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently. — Margaret Atwood

But back to bearded irises. They bear three petals and three larger petal-ish structures called sepals. The three sepals curl towards the ground, like the peel of a half-peeled banana. Sometimes they are streaked, speckled or veined giving them the exotic appearance of dragon tongues. Or of tiny, frozen, silk waterfalls. Perhaps this is why they are referred to simply as the falls. The falls are the presenters of the petals, also known as the standards which rise skywards like a trio of Botticelli Venuses from a very small sea. The beards are fluffy caterpillar-like filaments at the top of the falls, they often provide a striking contrast to the standards, which often provide a striking contrast to the falls, the way pallus often provide a striking contrast to the body of a sari which often provides a striking contrast to its blouse. 
Such ​unconventional and ​unbridled beauty stumbled upon unexpectedly can strike you speechless. Such a playful, prolific, rule-breaking palette. Lemon yellow laced with bruised lavender, the color of an ashen sky mixed with the silver of the dove’s wing​ hijacked by jack-o-lantern orange., mulberry shadowed with mustard, raven’s eye ​teasing bridal white, periwinkle tickling tiger stripes, ​purple velvet drowned in midnight ink, ​monk’s saffron ​drizzled between tender peach and baby’s gums pink, dream mist violet crackling with electric rose, sigh soft cream dusted with tangerine. Delicate clouds blown into being like bubbles, powerful in their tissue paper fragility, ruffled and flounced, tucked and tumbled, billowing, silently bellowing, innocently ravishing, calculated naiveté, shades blended to sometimes soothe, sometimes startle and always delight. Beautiful as ballgowns, wedding cakes and castles with turrets, as enchanting and baffling as unicorns, as easy to lose yourself in as a library. Irises look like Rumi’s poetry sounds, like Mozart’s music liquefied and poured into iris-shaped molds.​ So stunning that one dare not stop to look at them too deeply because to do so would rearrange one’s calendar, derail one’s meticulously planned life, throw one’s purpose perilously into question.  

van gogh

Van Gogh’s Irises, Saint-Remy, c 1889

What in your life is calling you, When all the noise is silenced, The meetings adjourned… The lists laid aside, And the wild iris blooms by itself in the dark forest… What still pulls on your soul?​ –Rumi

In the Springtime of 1889, after multiple bouts of self-harm and hospitalization, Vincent Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself into an asylum. His first week there he began one of his most famous works of art. “Irises” depicts a corner of the asylum garden. Vivid, abrupt, intimate, unsettling. Van Gogh’s vision unveils the incessant, unappeasable, grandeur of movement that always and ever denies the possibility of truly Still Life. The colossal dance of the cosmos reflected in leaf and grain, star and sunflower alike. The lone white iris in this multi-million-dollar masterpiece quiet, ghostly, offset in a roiling sea of color, has led to much conjecture. It steals into the heart like a gentle hand staying you a moment from the careless cares of the day, giving you perhaps a comet-swift inkling of what it might be like to look on this world through Van Gogh’s eyes, to carry like a cross the burden of its beauty. And perhaps it is not accidental that the iris is known in many places as the Sword lily, or Mary’s Sword of Sorrow. Over the next year (the last of his life) Van Gogh created close to 130 paintings. When he died he took the secret of the white iris with him to his grave.
And then so many years, so many marvelous advancements and misadventures later there would come the irises of Georgia O’Keefe. Bewildering in their honesty, overwhelming in their revelations, she laid before us blaring like a blueprint of the universe, the sweeping, sense-muddling, ingenious architecture of the iris. Viewers tongue-tied tumbled into her paintings, mixing memory and desire. And O’Keefe shook her head wryly, drily, at how quickly dazed audiences are willing to jump to conclusions. How swiftly they sought to draw straight lines from the dizzying curves of her work, reducing sheerness to mereness. This means that we are wont to say. But no said O’Keefe. This is this, and that this is, is enough. I believe she had a point, this fierce painter, with her fierce paintings that leap insistently out of their frames to assault you tenderly with sudden knowledge of worlds of beauty you have failed to sufficiently behold. She turned up the volume, O’Keefe did, so that we could begin to begin to hear the silent shouting that surrounds us infinitely, serenades us magnificently in this and every moment.


Photo by Pellinni at

“Now Thaumas married a daughter of deep-running Okeanos (Oceanus), Elektra (Electra), and she bore him swift-footed Iris, the rainbow.” – Hesiod, Theogony (trans. Evelyn-White)

In Greek mythology Iris is a minor goddess. Yes, someone saw fit to pull rank on celestial beings this way–Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are another case in point. One might surmise that to be a minor goddess is to be an oxymoron. Akin to being a minor apocalypse. But no. Being a heavenly resident doesn’t automatically make you a big deal. Some heavenly deals are apparently bigger than others and if you are others then you are automatically a minor deal. That is how it goes more often than not in the cosmos, at least until we know better (which is hopefully soon). But back to Iris, deemed (for now at least) a minor goddess of the Greeks. Luminous daughter of a marine god, and a cloud nymph, begat by sea and sky, the joy of all who beheld her.

In statues, paintings, poems and dreams, Iris is shapely of form, sparkling of eye, pitchered of hand. The ancients believed she used this convenient container to replenish the rain clouds with water from the sea.  When not in use restocking clouds with their silvery wares, this pitcher was sometimes dispatched, and Iris with it, by Zeus (who among the Greek pantheon does by far, the lion’s share of dispatching), to collect water from the river Styx, solely for the purpose of testing a dubious god’s (or goddess’s) veracity. Divine being or not, speak falsely under oath of the water Styx and you will be rendered unconscious for a year, and then barred for nine years after from any and all godly feasts, festivities, boardrooms, conferences, and meet ups (a much dreaded punishment, for apparently even the gods require a thriving social network for healthy self-esteem.)

Perhaps, on a day when all the clouds were brimful and all deities were trustworthy, coastal Greeks saw Iris temporarily unemployed, a lovely young lady of leisure, reaching a hand out to each of her parents, and skipping between them on a rainbow arch, connecting this realm with another. A bridge between worlds, a radiant presence and a possibility. And so it was perhaps that she became Iris of the Rainbow, entrusted with tenderly chaperoning the departed from our world to the next. And you must admit, regardless of what you believe about the afterlife, that if one must eventually make the journey (and one must), from this spinning Earth with its dolphins, and doughnuts, its rickshaws and rhododendrons, its tightrope walkers, weather reports and wireless routers, to an undisclosed destination, then there is no better way to do it than on the gleaming curve of a rainbow, accompanied by a minor goddess who has never let a cloud go thirsty.

Because they are beautiful and shimmer with all the colors of the rainbow (save for true red), iris flowers are the goddess’s namesake. It became customary to plant iris flowers on the graves of young women who had died, as a way of inviting divinity’s presence on the journey to the hereafter. Because these flowers are perennials, they rise from the sleeping earth each year, floral resurrections. At a time when the language of irises seems all but forgotten, they pierce the soil with their proud, pointed leaves, their stems bearing angled buds, from which extraordinary flowers babble forth. When the world speaks in green tongues it is hard not to be baffled and beguiled. Irises remind the world that presence and absence are inseparable. That which arrives is always departing, and that which departs is always and also arriving.


Photo by lisaleo at

Under this fine rain I breathe in the innocence of the world. I feel coloured by the nuances of infinity. At this moment I am one with my picture. We are an iridescent chaos. – Paul Cezanne

If you have ever glimpsed a rainbow shimmering in an oil slick, a hummingbird’s throat, a butterfly wing, peacock feather or a soap bubble you have witnessed iridescence. This quality of being rainbow-like has its roots in the word iris.

Some words are ill-chosen, like pulchritude, which means beauty but sounds more like a type of stomachache, or an unpleasant taste in one’s mouth. Other words are perfectly chosen, fitting their meaning like a snail fits her shell, like extravaganza, discombobulation, and iridescence.

Iridescence is born when light encounters certain physical structures whose features cause its waves to stumble into one another. The way encountering certain kinds of beauty can cause us to fumble for words, forget how to properly use our feet, and fling ourselves headlong into sidewalk shrubbery. Science calls this phenomenon interference and it is of two types; destructive and constructive. Destructive interference occurs when the crests and troughs of the stumbling waves cancel each other out, dimming their reflected light. This is akin to the type of interference humans encounter in the form of meddling relatives and heavy-handed upper management. In constructive interference, the crests and the troughs of the stumbling waves line up together perfectly.  Light waves  superimposed in this way reinforce and vivify one another, heightening the vibrancy of their reflected color. That which was moderately red, for instance escalates into the very reddest of reds, the epitome of redness. The way soulmates meeting suffuse into the very them-est versions of themselves. Because these two types of interference happen simultaneously, like a dance floor filled with a random combination of incredibly uncoordinated dancers and phenomenally synchronized ones, as the viewer’s viewing angle shifts, the colors of the iridescent object seem to skitter and slide unpredictably towards muting or muchness depending on the varying degrees of destructive and constructive interference at play.


Photo by Suren Manvelyan

This unlikely story begins on a sea that was a blue dream, as colorful as blue-silk stockings, and beneath a sky as blue as the irises of children’s eyes. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Regardless of where you behold iridescence in the world, you behold it through your iris– the flat, ring-shaped membrane whose varied tints recall to mind the rainbow, hence its name. Composed of connective tissue and muscle the iris responds to the play of light by contracting or relaxing to narrow or broaden the window through which light voyages from our outer world and vanishes into our inner one, setting intricate spirals of synaptic dominoes tumbling, giving rise to a furiously rich and entangled set of notions and emotions exponentially faster than the fastest among us can spit out lickety-split.

Look closely into the eyes of your beloved, your cat, your postman or the traveler seated next to you on the bus, and you will fall into a mysterious, mapless universe, gorgeous in its strangeness and filled with unique landmarks bearing names more worthy of Tolkien than medical textbooks. The topography of the iris is as weird and wonderful as any undiscovered alien planet you can conjure in your imagination.

Fusch’s crypts are the areas that look like furrows, the places where seedlings would be planted if you were considering planting seedlings in your iris, they are places where collagen fibers are less dense. The white spots are Wolfflin nodules — which sound like something an irate wizard might inflict on you but are in reality simply hotspots of collagen fibers. The dark spots that look like tiny black holes in a small galaxy are Nevi and the product of a localized increase in pigment production. And no I am not making any of this up. Cross my heart, hope to fly.

A google search might tell you that iris recognition is “an automated method of biometric identification that uses mathematical pattern-recognition techniques on video images of one or both of the irises of an individual’s eyes, whose complex patterns are unique, stable and can be seen from some distance.” You may also learn that there are now several hundred million persons across several countries in our world who have been enrolled like schoolchildren in summer camp, in iris recognition systems for “convenience purposes” [I believe in the future–and hopefully for everyone’s sake, the none-too-distant one–there will be millions of people motivated to do brilliant things strictly for inconvenience purposes. Like being the Goddess of Twine and Doing Things Slowly.]

What a google search will not tell you is that you are inlaid with iris recognition systems that glint within you as gorgeously as rubies in a Mughal scabbard. Iris recognition systems will stop you on a Spring sidewalk to stare at and sip from a clutch of flowers despite the formidable length of your to-do-list, and the  considerable heft of your responsibilities. Iris recognition systems will lightly toss your heart like a beating golden ball into your throat when you catch sight of a rainbow arching like a runaway poem across a prosy sky. Iris recognition systems will make you count the jeweled flash of a hummingbird’s throat when you are tallying up your bounty of blessings, will drop you down a never-ending chute into the heart of the heart of your heart as you gaze into the supernatural landscape of another’s gaze, will fill you with pleasure so utter it brushes the border of pain, and teaches for once and all time the relatedness of every one and every thing.

Praying. It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak. –Mary Oliver

The Day the Deer Ate Our Rose Bush

Our friends brought us a rose bush –our first and only. They said they chose it because it spoke sweetly. And it did. (Not all roses do). We planted it in our fledgling garden. Dug a deep hole in a suitably sunlit corner, gently persuaded this beauty out of its pot, fragrant soil still clinging to its roots, placed it carefully in the ground. Then we proceeded to water it, with tender admiration and irrational optimism. Picture a rose bush, the size of a toddler, lush with emerald leaves, and studded with sunset blooms. Roses with rouged orange petals, brilliantly colored and just big enough to lose yourself in. Also fat buds swollen with gossip, teetering on the brink of gorgeous indiscretion. Some rose bushes are stand-offish, regal but removed. Ours was charming, unpretentious, easy to love.

It is relevant at this juncture, to remind you that we have deer in these hills. Herds that you will chance upon, poised prettily in driveways and front yards, sometimes even on sidewalks, like uncannily realistic garden statuary. They frequent our home with some regularity and are welcome here. I will look out the window and see them stepping delicately up the little path that leads to the tumbledown slope of our backyard. They arrive with a polite and expectant air, like customers walking into a restaurant where they’ve made a reservation.  “Party of five,” I will sometimes murmur to my husband. Almost I am tempted to greet them with a tray of water glasses, pass out menus for their perusal. But they do not need menus. Our backyard, with its towering cypress, it’s unkempt bottlebrush shrubs, it’s berry bushes, ivy covered fence and crumbling, uneven stone terraces, is their buffet. Sometimes they come when we are fast asleep in bed. A loud clattering will temporarily rouse us from our slumbers and then, “It’s just the deer,” one of us will say, and we will tumble back into dreamland, while our four-legged friends stroll across our wooden deck, towards the immovable feast of our aspiring garden.

Roses, we had been informed are a much sought-after delicacy in the Kingdom of Deer. To make your rose bush unassailable involves encasing it in fencing or netting. But there is something about these sensible approaches that is too cage-like for my liking. My taste in gardens runs towards the tangled and wild. I admire, but do not aspire to manicured lawns and neatly ordered grounds. I prefer gardens that are loosely choreographed, spontaneous. Gardens that lean towards the green edge of chaos. Looking for alternatives I turn to the wisdom of the internet. A quick search reveals that in this battle of wits between gardeners and deer, humans do not often emerge as victors. The preventative measures we have evolved, while wonderfully creative and occasionally even successful, are far from being reliably effective. But some have the saving grace of being entertaining. For instance, there is the Irish Spring technique which involves suspending bars of this cheerfully named soap from tree branches, and tying them onto stakes. There is also the Stinky Spray method which involves boiling a mixture of garlic cloves, cayenne pepper, dish soap, apple cider vinegar and spraying the resultant concoction over your garden plants (while being sure to stand up wind). Is it just me, or is it a trifle absurd, and also a little bit adorable, that as a species we have put a man on the moon, we have figured out how to break the sound barrier and are on the verge of popularizing self-driving cars, but when it comes to protecting flowers from deer raids, our most advanced response is stringing up bath soap, and mixing inconceivably horrid-smelling potions over the kitchen stove?

Not being drawn to the aesthetic of soap bars a-dangling in the backyard, I went the olfactory assault route. I boiled up an unthinkably awful smelling concoction, out of a series of individually benign ingredients. In combination they resulted in a far from aromatic brew that managed to waft its way into every nook and cranny of our small home, prompting us to hastily open all the windows and depart for a very long walk — but only after I had filled a spray bottle and liberally sprayed our ethereal rose bush with this anything-but-ethereal potpourri of Awfulness. As we propelled ourselves speedily away from the garden we wondered whether our strategy was going to prove over-effective, keeping not just deer at bay, but any and all creatures possessed of a nose. Ourselves included.

A day went by, then two, and three, and our ornamental garden shrub stretched new leaves into the sun, opened the tight flushed fists of its buds into ridiculously generous blooms. The deer were nowhere to be seen and I rejoiced at the sage wisdom of the internet that had so sagely been applied. Feeling self-congratulatory and complacent I neglected to respray the bush at the end of a week, figuring the deer would have no way of knowing if I were to delay by a day. I underestimated their vigilance. The next morning I gazed out our window and wondered why the rose bush looked so much smaller than it had the last evening. And why there were so many stubby little branches sticking out in all directions, devoid of any leaves, and why were there only two roses left when yesterday there had been almost a dozen. It took a full minute for me to comprehend the obvious. The deer had visited. But why I wondered had they left the two roses? Perhaps as a gesture of goodwill, an attempt at compromise. “We take the bush, you take these two perfect flowers.” All is fair in love and war and gardening. I sprayed the bush with less conviction than I had the previous week. My faith in its powers, like the rose bush itself, sadly diminished. That night a rustling sound from the garden roused me from slumber. I flicked on the garden light and peered through the slats of our blinds, straight into the delicate face of a young deer with her mouth full of roses.

As a child I would sometimes save up the last bite of chocolate, the last sweet in the jar. For later. I would say to myself. And through the course of the day I carried knowledge of the stored-treat, like a shiny pebble in my pocket. To be fingered surreptitiously at various intervals, releasing the thrill of anticipation. Every event in childhood is experienced more than once. There is the event itself and then the innumerable times it is lived prospectively. And so perhaps it is with other creatures as well. I imagine the young deer in our garden the previous night. I do not think it is unlikely that this train of thought played itself out in her sleek head:  ‘Today I will eat all but two of these delicious rose custards. Tomorrow I will come back when the moon is full and the birds fast asleep, and I will eat these last two delicacies with unhurried grace, and strong-jawed determination.

To have a rose bush in your garden is a sweetly scented gift. But it is also, and this fact may surprise you, a gift, to find in your garden, a deer, haloed by moonlight, gazing at you with soft, attentive eyes, as she thoughtfully partakes of the very last of the last of your roses. Velvet orange petals, lush green leaves, woody stems, crimson thorns all pulled into the fearless cavern of her mouth. An appetite for life that strikes you as remarkable, and unequivocally deserving of all your pretty roses. Yes every last one.

And perhaps we can all learn to be such unflinching connoisseurs. Perhaps we too will someday stand, in a sliver of moonlight, feasting on the jeweled and thorny gifts of our world.