|by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's program note. To put yourself in the right mood for this article, go to any search engine and find one of Tennessee's four Official State Songs, "When It's Iris Time In Tennessee," words and music by Willa Mae Waid. It's a lovely, lilting tune, wistful as all songs are which are sung by those far away from home... remembering.
It is early June, and the irises are now to be found in profusion around the City of Cambridge in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I saw the first one the other day in front of my favorite Chinese restaurant Chang Sho. And though I was busy with one of the necessary errands which constitute too great a part of human life... I stopped. The beauty of this ecstasy in the mud insisted.
There before me was a dazzling thing dressed in cloth of gold, the exact shade of the cream soda I drank too often as a boy fifty summers ago on the humid prairies of Illinois; the cream soda you craved, you gulped, which gave you sticky fingers, but never quenched your thirst; (so clever were its makers).
In an instant omnipotent memory was present, the way unstoppable memory will do. This time it reminded me of something I had read in the memoirs of Sir Henry Channon, the man who had deserted his Chicago roots to find his proper perch in life in London as a Member of Parliament... and collector of royalties. He was a boulevardier, a word for which we have no good English equivalent... a thing which tells us much about the French who do.... and the English.... who don't.
Sir Henry, universally known as "Chips", was a boulevardier, man about town, about London town. As such he attended the first Garden Party at Buckingham Palace after World War II. He happened to be gossiping with one of Queen Mary's relations when this very symbol of "They'll always be an England" arrived, blinding in cloth of gold. "Cousin May," he said, "is rather overdressed", to Chips' scandalized amusement.
And so was the golden iris in front of me, as if some careless maharajah, rushing, had dropped this most expensive of materials in the mud, later to fulminate against the loss, blaming his chauffeur.
But just as Queen Mary had calculated her breathtaking appearance to touch drab lives with grandeur... so did the flower in front of me, largesse for a drab world, overburdened, as I was myself, with the littlest and most nagging things.
The flower's unexpected appearance was lavish, excessive, a sharp pronunciamento, "Good people," it boldly proclaimed. "I have come amongst you to cheer you, to uplift your spirits, to give you the gift of exuberance and excess... of profusion and prodigality. Seize them now... for they are yours for just a moment."
Here was the true work of the iris, the flower that takes its name from the Greek word for a rainbow... and not just any rainbow either... but the rainbow which at its end delivers the treasure you seek at such a place... a treasure of unceasing magnificence without end.
At rainbow's end, you find irises of every color... a gift of superabundance, without limits, where too much and even more is your birth right. This is the place you have sought your entire life... and which the open sesame of the iris delivers with only one command, "Find bliss here."
Facts about iris.
Iris is a genus of 260 species of flowering plants with showy flowers. As well as being the scientific name, iris is also very widely used as a common name for all Iris species.
The genus is widely distributed throughout the north temperate zone. Their habitats are considerably varied, ranging from cold and montane regions to the grassy slopes, meadowlands and riverbanks of Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa, Asia and across North America.
Irises are perennial herbs, growing from creeping rhizomes, or, in drier climates, from bulbs (bulbous irises). They have long, erect flowering stems, which may be simple or branched, solid or hollow, and flattened or have a circular cross-section. The rhizomatous species usually have 3-10 basal, sword-shaped leaves growing in dense clumps. The bulbous species have cylindrical, basal leaves.
Iris is for show.
Other flowering plants have many uses culinary, medical, as balms, salves, to clear the mind and the heart.
Not the iris.
Iris is designed for show... not merely to brighten space... but to change the entire orientation of a place, from mundane to brilliant. This is no trivial thing when you think of the unending multitudes striving to find both meaning and escape from their burdensome, colorless lives. For these people, and they are everywhere on earth, the iris is a plant of resolute optimism. Where there is a single iris, there is hope. And where any iris has once lived... there hope lingers, insistent that things can be better, beauty can be achieved and circumstances entirely altered for the better, one militant iris flower at a time. The revolutionary iris shouts, "Beauty here, beauty now, beauty forever!" It is insistent that you, if you but take the time to stop and perceive, shall derive full measure of this beauty, for a life without such beauty is no life at all.
Poets and iris
All poets have not understood the imperial function of the iris, with its life-changing mission... but poet Chris Lane does. In his poem "Purple Irises with hues of gold and fragility," he writes
"Oh, this beauty with for my eyes to see I cannot keep them for only me with friends true I shall share and next year bring to them the joy I find in a purple world with hues of gold and fragile love."
Lane knows that the iris turns him and every one perceiving it into a devoted zealot, one who must proselytize with so much beauty, earnest in spreading its unbounded joy to friends and total strangers, too. Iris has a mission and when it seizes your attention, you will have that mission, too.
The role of the adamant iris is clear: it beautifies now and finds dedicated adherents to beautify later. Iris exist in a realm of beauty, beauty today, more beauty tomorrow, cycle after cycle of beauty for all who see it, the task to enlighten those who suffer because they have not.
As such the iris reject literary renderings which turn them from their great mission into mere flowers.
They reject Georgia Gudykunst who writes "May your blooms be floriferous and in good form."
They reject Edith Buckner Edwards "Iris, most beautiful flower, Symbol of life, love and light."
They reject the celebrated D.H. Lawrence, in his poem "Scent of Irises."
"A faint, sickening scent of irises Persists all morning...."
These poems do not have and therefore cannot convey and assist the unending work of iris and its significance for improving the lot of people worldwide and enriching their lives. This needs constancy, consistently and profound belief. And it requires the unceasing ability to touch wounded lives and make them bold advocates of universal beauty.
There is a hint of this in Willa Mae Waid's heartfelt song "When It's Iris Time in Tennessee." For she senses the deep power of iris... its ability to revive us... and uplift our spirits. This is the magic of iris.... and it was all present, every bit of it, in the iris dressed in cloth of gold which had my full attention just the other day as it kept steady watch for people like me who required its succor and were the better for it.