When an Iris is a Butterfly (Flower)

From “Natural and Informal Backgrounds” in Irises: Their Culture and Cultivation by Gwendolyn Anley:

“Given the ideal setting, no more lovely picture can be achieved than when what I might describe as a limitless background is utilised. I recall, and will not easily forget, such a picture. A low hedge, no more than 18 inches high, denoted, but did not emphasise, the confines of the garden. Beyond lay the open country, gently rolling pasture land intersected by hedges, the straight lines of which were interrupted here and there by the soft billowing masses of elm trees. In the far distance blue hills melted into a soft haze….

“In the foreground the irises set the colour scheme for the deep blue and purple shadows cast by the trees and the misty blues and greys of the hills beyond…. It is obvious that in a setting such as this there could not fail to be a certain dramatic beauty brought about by the clever utilisation of the stereoscopic effect of the irises silhouetted against the scenic ‘backcloth.’ Moreover, whichever way one turned, in the absence of a solid back ground the irises could be seen with light shining through and around them and this seemed to add an ethereal beauty to even the deep-toned flowers.”

The tiny irises in the galleries below are a variety called iris japonica — also known as the butterfly flower. This was the first time I’d seen them at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens — possibly because there were scattered throughout shaded areas of the garden, nearly hidden among large swatches of English Ivy, and so small in size that they were easy to overlook. The third image below seems to demonstrate how they got their “butterfly flower” nickname, with the two pair of petals on each side suggestive of the shape of a butterfly’s wings.

Here are before-and-after versions of the photos showing how I transformed them in Lightroom. You can see from the before images how much the irises are embedded in the ivy, their flowers and buds snaking just above the ivy leaves and the iris leaves nearly flat on the ground.

For these photos, I enhanced detail and color, then reduced shadows and highlights to eliminate the filtered — but very bright — sunlight that made its way through the trees, a flower having appeared near every spot where the sun came through. I then used radial filters — as I often do — to leave only a tasteful amount of the messy background and emphasize the flowers themselves. While I often blacken the entire background surrounding a subject during post-processing, I used this approach instead to preserve the fine detail in the flowers’ filaments and keep the scalloped edges of the petals fully intact.

Select any image if you would like to compare the before and after versions in a slideshow.

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The Whites of March (2 of 2)

From Sacheverell Sitwell’s “Forward” to Irises: Their Culture and Cultivation by Gwendolyn Anley:

And now, having created the light and stillness that are needed, we will walk further and look for the first signs of the irises….

From Irises: Their Culture and Cultivation by Gwendolyn Anley:

There is no beauty in the world Today but had its birth in Yesterday, its cradle in the lap of Time. The modern iris with its amazing range of colour and its perfection of form is but a development of the primitive flower which graced the earth when the world was young.

There is a touch of romance in the fleeting glimpses we catch of the iris as it makes its occasional appearances in history, art and medicine down the ages. The modern botanist tells us that when we are bidden to ‘consider the lilies’ we should, in point of fact, consider the irises…. If we accept the botanist’s statement — and there is no reason why we should not do so — it is evident that two thousand years ago the iris was recognised as a type of perfection and even considered to transcend in beauty the resplendent trappings of a king….

This is the second of two posts featuring white blossoms from one of my photo-shoots at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. The first post is The Whites of March (1 of 2).

There are quite a few iris varieties on the property, and while I would have expected to see plenty of unopened iris buds in March, these large whites in full-sized full bloom were a surprise. PlantNet identified this as Iris albicans — also known as a white cemetery iris, so it certainly belonged where I found it!

The dominance of so many white-bloomed flowers this March — pears, spirea, quinces, snowdrops, snowflakes, and early daffodils — prompted me to wonder whether or not white (or yellow) flowers typically bloomed earlier than others, and if so, why. Among my gardening and nature books, the question wasn’t addressed specifically, but I found this article about the phenomenon…

Why are the First Flowers of Spring Often White or Yellow?

… that explains that early seasonal pollinators are mostly flies, flies don’t detect color but do detect brightness and contrast, so many of the first spring flowers get their attention by being … bright white and bright yellow. Or, to adopt an early-bird-catching-worms metaphor: the early (white and yellow) bloom catches the flies!

As I often like to do — and this works especially well with irises because of their large blooms and petals — I used Lightroom’s brushes to remove backgrounds from a few photos of the same flowers.

Select any image to see larger versions in a slideshow (then select View Full Size if you would like to see more detail — definitely worth a look).

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A Profusion of Irises: June, an Ending

From The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim:

“[As] I sat there watching, and intensely happy as I imagined, suddenly the certainty of grief, and suffering, and death dropped like a black curtain between me and the beauty of the morning, and then that other thought, to face which needs all our courage — the realisation of the awful solitariness in which each of us lives and dies. Often I could cry for pity of our forlornness, and of the pathos of our endeavours to comfort ourselves. With what an agony of patience we build up the theories of consolation that are to protect, in times of trouble, our quivering and naked souls! And how fatally often the elaborate machinery refuses to work at the moment the blow is struck….

I got up and turned my face away from the unbearable, indifferent brightness. Myriads of small suns danced before my eyes as I went along the edge of the stream to the seat round the oak in my spring garden, where I sat a little, looking at the morning from there, drinking it in in long breaths, and determining to think of nothing but just be happy….

What a mass of glowing, yet delicate colour [there] is! How prettily, the moment you open the door, it seems to send its fragrance to meet you! And how you hang over it, and bury your face in it, and love it, and cannot get away from it. I really am sorry for all the people in the world who miss such keen pleasure. It is one that each person who opens his eyes and his heart may have; and indeed, most of the things that are really worth having are within everybody’s reach. Any one who chooses to take a country walk, or even the small amount of trouble necessary to get him on to his doorstep and make him open his eyes, may have them, and there are thousands of them thrust upon us by nature, who is for ever giving and blessing, at every turn as we walk…. 

“[It] is so perfect, because it is so divinely sweet, because of all the kisses in the world there is none other so exquisite — who that has felt the joy of these things would exchange them, even if in return he were to gain the whole world, with all its chimney-pots, and bricks, and dust, and dreariness? And we know that the gain of a world never yet made up for the loss of a soul.”

Since today is the last day of June, it seemed like a good day to wrap up the iris photos so I can move on to some new photo-subjects. Below are four galleries containing the last 32 images from my trips to Oakland Cemetery’s gardens earlier this year. Coming soon will be a variety of images from both Oakland and my own garden, featuring hydrangeas, rhododendrons, lots of lilies, spiderwort, wisteria, a few gardenias, and any other plant-delights that caught my eye. I’m in various stages of organizing and post-processing those (several hundred) images, while also trying some experiments with Lightroom’s brushes and graduated filters to see if I can come up with some new looks.

Somewhere along the line, I got in the habit of featuring quotations at the top of each new post, a habit that started with a few “Quotes from My Library” bits I had done shortly after re-launching this blog. You may (or may not) be interested in how that quotationing process works, so (or but) here it is.

While I have about 3,000 real-life books on six tall bookcases in my home office (plus a few other fine bookstands deco-strategically placed in my living room and bedroom), finding quotes I might want to use in physical books is quite a challenge, so I don’t do that. I also don’t usually search for quotations on the internet: they’re often inaccurate, without context, or misattributed; and the sheer volume of search results I get by some unknown googly algorithm never seems to meet my needs. I started buying e-books shortly after they became available — my first Kindle book purchase was in early 2009 — and the timing was good because my bookshelves were shelf-bendingly full. Over about a decade I’ve accumulated around 1,300 e-books, sometimes supplementing a physical book with the e-book version (especially if was cheap!), a tactic that served me well when I was taking classes and reading several books a week to keep up with my studies. I suppose that’s not unusual any more since e-books are more regularly used for academic studies now than they were ten years ago; but for me, taking classes when I did, it was great to transition from physical books to their electronic versions whenever possible — especially when using them as sources for research papers.

Kindle devices don’t really enable effective research, though; while technically you can search books on a Kindle, it’s a little awkward and slow to use, especially when popping in and out of different books. So instead I use the Kindle app on a computer, pick a few e-books that I think might have a relevant quote, find one I like, copy the quote to a text editor to clean it up, then copy it into my blog post. What’s most fun about that, though, is I often end out traveling down some unexpected and pleasant rabbit-hole where writing becomes something more than writing: it becomes research; and in becoming research, it becomes learning something new.

That’s what happened this morning. I went quote-hunting with a few topics in mind — “June,” “irises,” “summer,” and “solitude” specifically — and came across a quote in The Writer in the Garden (a book I’ve used here before) by Elizabeth von Arnim, from her book The Solitary Summer published in 1899. I didn’t know who Elizabeth von Arnim was, but was intrigued by a title that all by itself seemed like a metaphor for this season in the year 2020, so I did a little digging.

Von Arnim wrote The Solitary Summer to describe her thoughts, feelings, and experiences during her own summer of intentional self-isolation over 120 years ago, as a reflection on the nature’s soothing distinctions from her own social world. The two quotes above (one from her writings on the month of June and one from July) seemed to encompass this sensation I have frequently now that I think I can call “The Jolt” — a temporary sense of normalcy that comes when I get happily distracted by some activity like working in the garden or, especially, photography or writing … that then gets snatched away by some snippet of news, or an alert on my phone, or a flood of return-to-the-moment awareness that’s hard to push away. It’s followed by this rumbling, low level anxiety that feels like the sounds of static from a untuned radio — whose volume I can only turn down, but not turn off. I know I’m not the only one experiencing this; I can tell from social media and conversations with others that the pandemic has a psychological cost that we can’t resolve yet because we’re still in the middle of it, with as much as another year of this new abnormal facing us all. We get sort of used to it, I guess; but no, not really, we don’t.

Still … for the rest of the summer — as suggested by von Arnim’s experiences and the two quotes above — I think I’ll take a crack at creating more “carveouts” for myself by intentionally increasing the times when I submerge in new activities, or variations of things I do now, even if The Jolt will yank me back at the end. With my brief journey into von Arnim’s writings, today turned out to be a good start, a nice day of research and writing. We’ll have to see how it goes…. 🙂

While researching Elizabeth von Arnim this morning, I found a site devoted to scholarship on her life and work: The Elizabeth von Arnim Society. Take a look if you’d like to learn more, and notice how — like me — the site’s authors see a relationship between von Arnim’s thoughts on nature and our pandemic moment, as they describe in these two great articles:

Escape to the Country: Elizabeth von Arnim in the time of Covid-19

Reading the Solitary Summer in times of COVID19

The previous posts in this series are:

A Profusion of Irises: Friday Fleur-de-lis

A Profusion of Irises: Lost Spring Edition

A Profusion of Irises: Backlit Blooms

A Profusion of Irises: Sun-Kissed Shades of Orange

A Profusion of Irises: White Blooms on Black Backgrounds

A Profusion of Irises: Black (Iris) Friday!

A Profusion of Irises: Iris No. 1

Thanks for reading and taking a look!