annoying and anxious
Still perplexing, whenever I think of the word Columbine the mere word conjures a vision of death, perhaps unknown fate.
I have been thinking about the Columbine for a very long time. This spring I started taking photographs of the wild version of it as I hiked in the mountains near a home that we have up in far, far northern California. Lately, because there are so many floating thoughts of Columbine around in my head, I decided to compile the various thoughts and notes I have accumulated about Columbine into a commentary of sorts.
Only after those horrible events of the Columbine high school massacre in Colorado on Tuesday April 20, 1999, as well as the untimely demise of an art student of mine, did I ever really discover the uniqueness, divinity of design and the distinctively functional beauty of the Columbine itself. How is it that such a fragile natural object represents a pessimistic expression of youthful angst gone awry and/or poignant demise?
Columbine: folly; inconstancy; foolishness.
Columbine (purple): resolved to win.
Columbine (red): worried, trembling.
Yes, yes that would be Columbine, as in the flower. Also, as in the most contemporary of teen angst massacres. I see them a lot, Columbines, at least in the warmer months when I am in far, far northern California. At one time, all flowers held certain significance when presented as a gesture and so were known to convey a particular message. Despite its’ unique beauty, personally, the Columbine consistently means mortality for me. Always. Folklorically, Columbine carries with it the symbol of foolishness based upon its resemblance to a jester's cap and bells. Notably, it was considered bad luck to give this flower to a woman.
The flower commonly called Columbine is the genus Aquilegia, which are showy, flowering perennials belonging to the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. Columbines are valued for their dainty flowers of many colors, usually with the petals extending backward to form hollow tubes called spurs. The common European Columbine, A. vulgaris, the source of numerous horticultural varieties and wild plants, reaches about 60 cm (2 ft) in height and bears drooping blue, purple, pink, or white flowers.
Aquilegia comes from the Latin word aquil, meaning eagle, referring to the shape of the petals. Formosa means beautiful. Indeed, our native Columbine fits the descriptive epithet. The common name, Columbine, stems from the Latin word, columbina, meaning dove-like. "Don't pick the flowers," warned the Haida, indigenous people of British Columbia, to their children, "or it will rain." They called the Columbine the red rain-flower.
A few (pre massacre) years ago, an art student of mine originally presented me with the Columbine flower in its’ domestic form, by picking one from her garden and putting it her lovely daughter’s hair one Sunday afternoon for an art opening. I loved it so much, this odd flower, which had a curious, yet stunning natural form, that her daughter plucked the thing from her hair gave it to me. Conspicuously, and for the record, it was a lavender one.
Flowers are an obsession in the “art community” of the backwoods. As an artist and instructor of a much more contemporary bent and thus much to my dismay, flora seems to be a favorite subject matter for every painting and sketchbook entry. Nearly every art student seeks to reproduce them, particularly in watercolor. As a rule, that uncreative floral fixation has come to generally irritate me, however I must admit that as a positive by-product of this consistent annoyance, I have learned a great deal about flowers from my students’ constant and usually boring preoccupation with rendering them.
Scientifically, however, flowers are actually rather remarkable, I will confess. (As are bugs and snakes and even the habits of bears and bumblebees). And I had never seen a Columbine before meeting this particular art student. As for the decorative Columbine pinned in the lovely long hair of my student’s daughter, I manifestly recall how much I sincerely admired the flower; it was indeed an impressive blossom, much larger (and seemingly much more clunky, in hindsight) than the undomesticated ones I eventually discovered during hikes near our rural home in far, far northern California. The wild versions of Columbine are very tiny, more brightly colored and quite well designed for their users, the hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. A short-lived perennial, Aquilegia formosa is a good nectar source. Birds such as finches and sparrows eat the seeds.
Indigenous people found numerous uses for the Columbine plant. Medicinally, the plant was used as an analgesic and anti rheumatic by rubbing the leaves over aching joints. Some chewed the leaves for coughs and sore throats and made a decoction of roots for a cold remedy. They made perfumes by chewing the seeds and rubbing it on their bodies and clothing, and not from the flower, although we often think it is the source for fragrance.
Sadly, one summer, while I was working in San Francisco, I returned to our home up in the woods, to find the name of my art student posted quite visibly on the local high school marquee, along with an outdated notice for “services”. Anxiously, upon further investigation, I learned from people in the nearest town that she had died while on a family hike in one of the local mountain ranges. Her young daughter had been with her. Apparently, as the story goes, my student had an unknown congenital heart condition and the strenuous effects of the hike had been too stressful for her relatively young internal pump. She was a very pretty and fit looking woman whom I liked very much. Perhaps, though, she was luckier than one might presume; she was in a very beautiful situation (the mountains were her favorite, or so she had once told me) when she passed away. Better certainly to go in a peaceful place (in a tent, just after sunset) than a brutal or violent demise. Like, for instance, being the youthful and random victim of a violent shooting rampage in a high school massacre. There is, they say, a very fine line between love and hate / magnificence and repulsiveness: perhaps best conveyed, at least on a personal level, in the imagery of this matchless little fleur de mort?
In any case, it always makes me rather sad and resolute when I am hiking along and I come upon a stand of little red and yellow Columbine.