Reviews | The enduring beauty of flowers

I am in the kitchen preparing my graduation seminar on the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas when I come across a line from his essay “Totality and infinity”, in which he criticizes beauty as “indifference, la cold splendor and silence “. I look out the window and see a patch of dahlias that I planted last spring. They’re wild and leggy now, sprawling on top of each other in a riot of pale orange blossoms.

Well, Levinas is clearly wrong, I think, and it’s just a shame he hasn’t had more flowers.

It’s only the second year that I’ve been planting dahlias at home. Last year I grew a dark purplish – almost black – variety in the middle of a bed of red, orange, yellow and fuchsia zinnias from packets of seeds given to my daughter as a gift for her eighth birthday. After the last frost, we carefully dug the flower seeds into the ground and, following the advice of wise witch Strega Nona from my daughter’s storybook, watered them and sang a song to them under the full moon. Dahlias were an afterthought. I dug two nubby tubers in the ground with my bare hands and wished them luck. At the end of summer, they bloomed among the zinnias like ink stones in a fire.

This year I’ve been a bit more thoughtful, ordering eight dahlia bulbs and spacing them out enough to survive, knowing more about their expansive nature. Everything was fine until a friend’s puppy dug up half of it in July, leaving the soggy and mangled tubers on the patio. But the other four continued, and at the end of August they started their annual show. This year we only have a handful of zinnias, the result of a chaotic distribution of seeds too early in the season (without singing or ceremony), but the dahlias make up for it with a seemingly endless parade of bright orange flowers, some as big as a dessert plate.

The flowers don’t speak, but despite what Levinas wrote, they are anything but silent. I consider them to be a choir in the middle of song, a loud, jubilant and rowdy team. I never liked the delicate flowers that sit obediently in their beds. Dahlias and Echinacea are my favorite – flowers with large buds that look slightly prickly or stubborn, a bit wild. They appear in late summer and continue their heckling until fall, the weight of their flowers knocking them down in the fields. Big bumblebees nest drunk in their petals like patrons in a bar long after the last call. Even when the temperatures change, the leaves fall, and we start to feel the cold, dahlias defiantly stay lit.


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