The poppies that grew in my grandfather’s quarter-acre garden were bedraggled specimens. Each individual plant sat apart, marooned in its own patch of dull brown soil. Similarly the lemon trees dotted around the grassy lawn were like respectable neighbours who preferred to keep at arm’s length. The lemon trees had the attraction of glossy leaves and stood up straight as I was often admonished to do. The poppies drooped on hairy stems, with hairy leaves of a dull grey-green whose jagged edges could easily be mistaken for a weed. The over-large rounded seed head, which is actually hairless, seemed to bristle with coarse hairs too. But the flowers of mauve and yellow were pretty in a raffish sort of way with their fragile ragged-edged petals, and invited closer inspection.
The garden was Grandad’s domain. Along the entire length of the garage wall grew passionfruit vines, trained on wires, the large shiny leaves completely obscuring the weatherboards beneath. It responded to his assiduous mulching and regular watering, and the sunny Bay of Plenty days, by producing an abundance of the smooth, glossy fruit in mid summer. Without enough water the fruit would have wrinkled and shrivelled to resemble the lined and leathery face of a beach-lover like my mother. When the family paid a Sunday visit in spring, I’d see bees doing what bees know to do, visiting and pollinating the exotic flowers—flowers which reveal concentric circles of colour: dark red stigma, yellow anthers, dark red operculum, white nectaries, purple filaments, green-tipped sepals and white petals—so that the fruit develops and ripens from a lustrous green to a rich purple hue.
Come summer, Gran would provide an aluminium metal bowl and my eager hands would gather the dropped passionfruit from the ground, some for now, some to take home with us. Though they were plentiful, I savoured every sweet and sour mouthful as if it were sacred. Having cut through the tough outer skin with a serrated knife, I’d hold a half sphere in one hand, a teaspoon in the other, and dig in to detach and scoop out the yellow pulp with its cargo of black seeds from the thick white lining of the inner shell, all without staining my Sunday-best dress or spilling any on the Jacquard linen tablecloth. Unlike poppies, I loved everything about passionfruit.
Flower-arranging was one of Gran’s accomplishments, for she had the upbringing of a young Edwardian lady in the best suburbs our biggest cities could offer. Only a few sparse stems could be cut from the scattering of poppies in the garden. These she distributed in an olive-green ceramic vase. The handful of poppies stood, with heads sagging, in a dismal group like poor and undesired relatives at a family funeral. Gran placed the vase on the mantelpiece above the dreary floral Axminster wool carpet, a mess of over-blown fuzzy-edged blooms on a drab beige background.
I was no more enamoured by the top-heavy red fabric poppies that materialised at school each April around Anzac Day. I dutifully contributed to the classroom collection and struggled to pin the hard, wire stem in its thin camouflage of crepe paper to my cardigan without pricking inexpert fingers. The little white tag stuck out, like a label poking out the back of a top, or petticoat lace showing under a dress. I understood little of the poppies’ significance. Both my grandfathers had gone to war and both had come back. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but something in me balked at the piety and earnestness, and was suspicious of the need to portray an inward state by an outward show.
It is from WWI that we get red poppies as a symbol of remembrance. A Canadian physician had noticed that poppies grew prolifically around the graves of buried soldiers. After overseeing the funeral of a friend killed in the Second Battle of Ypres, he wrote the much quoted poem:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
In this extract, the contrast between the beauty of the natural world and the man-made brutality of the times is stark. But the poem ends with an exhortation to take up the quarrel and not break faith with the dead. Soldiers took encouragement from it. It was used, along with red poppies, in recruitment posters, and put to music in song. Madame Guérin from Vallon in Ardèche, ‘The Poppy Lady from France’, organised French widows and orphans to make poppies as emblems to remember the fallen and raise funds. The idea was widely adopted.
The area around Ypres where ‘In Flanders Fields’ was written was the site of many famous battles, among them the Battle of Passchendaele. My grandfather served there, labouring in the mud amid the shock of exploding shells, to lay wooden boards along which men, horses and machine guns could move. Not far from Ypres, at Tyne Cot and other Commonwealth cemeteries, Kiwis are buried. When I visited in 2013, it was the graves of the unknown soldiers that made the most impression with their simple inscription, “A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.” There was no sign of poppies in the well-tended flowerbeds. Back in the ancient city of Ypres, I wandered in the city square rebuilt in the original medieval style after the devastation of the war. There, in the museum shop, I found the solution to the problem of Anzac Day poppies: beautiful stylised ceramic poppy brooches, earrings, key rings and studs.
From 2014 to 2018, one could hardly miss the commemorations: 100 years since the First World War. In Wellington, a sloping lawn at the Botanic Gardens was filled with rows of white crosses to remember those who had died. In London, the moat at the Tower of London was filled with red ceramic poppies representing British war fatalities. 800,000 poppies. Poppies en masse. A stunning sight, like the vistas of poppies in Tuscan fields in travel books and tourism posters, images that drew me to Italy. It was the same draw that accounted for the set of Italian-inspired Robert Harris coffee cups in my cupboard—red poppies on a golden yellow backdrop— as well as the pottery jugs, platters and vases painted with waving poppies, and the framed picture on the log mantelshelf of my cottage fireplace: a Tuscan landscape with a cluster of poppies growing in the foreground.
That bright burst of colour seems to me a reminder and a promise that every now and then, the unending plain of everyday will give way to a flash of understanding, a moment of connection, or a sense of a pattern and purpose in nature.
It’s an aesthetic that finds it way into the way my home is decorated— neutral colours with bursts of colour in Persian rugs, Kandinsky paintings, and Morris and James tiles—and to a lesser extent into the way I dress, or least the way I would dress if I had more courage: understated elegance with a quirk, classic with a twist, I flatter myself. The bolder version of myself adds bright marigold boots, purple tights, or a pink coat to the typical Wellington black city outfit. Linked to this aesthetic is a preference for defined lines rather than fuzzy edges, evenings where the light sharpens the contrast between hills and sky, watercolours with pen and ink outlines rather than painterly oil landscapes with heavy brush strokes, muddy colours and blurred edges.
I can see that a mass of red poppies in a field and the contrast with the surroundings, has the elements of good design—contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity— that make for a pleasing arrangement of words and images in a poster, pictures on a wall, or plants in a garden. That much I recognise. But what and why is beauty? Why do we agree that the Taj Mahal is beautiful but differ in whether we see beauty in other things?
The ancient Greeks saw a connection between mathematics and beauty. From them, we get the golden ratio, commonly found in nature, and they used the symmetry and ‘divine proportion’ of the golden rectangle in their art and architecture. The Taj Mahal too was designed using the golden ratio with its rectangular outlines all in the golden proportion.
Keats declares, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. He may be talking about internal coherence or permanence, about the order or integrity of the whole. A character in Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, says that the sight of the beautiful implies peace, and declares that three things concur in creating beauty: integrity or perfection, proper proportion or consonance, and clarity and light.
Beauty lights up the brain. Semir Zeki, a professor of neuroaesthetics in London, found that when we find beauty in art or music, the common factor is activity in the frontal cortex of the brain that processes reward and pleasure. When we experience beauty, dopamine, which is also associated with love, happiness and sociability, is released.
If beauty is rewarding, does it mean we’re meant to seek it out? Does it help us make sense of the world? Do we love what is beautiful, or does loving something make it seem beautiful? Where’s the cause and where the effect? Is my sense of beauty innate and inherent, or largely formed by cultural and social influences?
Why is it that the time-worn rural countryside of England is more beautiful to me than the wilder and rawer landscapes of my own country. What is it about a spread of bluebells in a wood or an old oak tree standing alone in the centre of a field? Why is a single poppy seen close up growing in a garden disconcerting while a throng of poppies seen at a distance calls to me?
It’s not just the sight of poppies that has a powerful pull either. In my twenties, I travelled overland through Asia, a young married hippie in long loose dresses with long loose hair. I’d become aware as we travelled through to the hill tribe villages of northern Thailand and into Burma (as it was then) of the lucrative opium farming in the Golden Triangle, the remote area where Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet that is the the start of the foothills of the Himalayas.
Cut off by monsoon rains for three weeks at Lake Pokhara in Nepal, Doug and I accepted opium from a dishevelled Sadhu in a loincloth. Doug crumbled the sticky substance into tobacco and rolled it like a joint in the gloom of our small-windowed room, one of a handful which opened onto a large grassy compound on the edge of the village. We smoked it, then took a canoe across the lake to total stillness. I swam, lay looking into the blades of grass, lay watching birds rising, dipping and whirling in response to a purpose known only to them, lay looking back over the lake at the village with the high peaks of the Annapurna mountain range close behind.
When we smoked it, I didn’t make a connection with the poppies my grandfather grew, though his were probably not Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. The opium comes from the milky sap that seeps from cuts in its unripe seedpod. The Sumerians called the opium poppy, hul gil, the joy plant. It brought a Zen calm and happiness, smooth and warm like a rich mellow sherry. If laudanum was still readily available I’d be tempted. When I’m very old, I’ll be happy to leave this world in a haze of lawful opiates.
Opium was supreme pleasure, total reward; a one-time experience, otherwise inviting enslavement. Safer to delight in the sight of a mass of poppies in a Tuscan landscape, relish the promise of the passionfruit vine, and keep puzzling over the age-old mysteries of life.