Sunday, May 19, 2013

Meditations on White

A long, long time ago, in a city far, far away, my photographs were never in color.  It wasn't only that black and white film was a lot less complicated to develop and print; I just didn't much care for color. (I also spent a lot of time going to Ingmar Bergman films by myself, if that helps). And I had very little interest in gardens, although I lived in a climate of four-season flowers.

Now I live where growing time is limited and color is precious. So white flowers don't really do that much for me. Yes, they light up dark areas in a garden and do a good job of attracting pollinators in forests. But there's something too cold, even forbidding about them.

White in western culture brings to mind purity, innocence, even a clean-slate. Brides, babies, and new beginnings. But most East and South-Asian cultures wear white to funerals.  And in "The Whiteness of the Whale" chapter from Moby Dick, Herman Melville writes of the fear induced by the paleness of the dead, the white shroud, the ghost that arises. Then there's the horror experienced when confronted by the abyss that is no color and all colors.  When staring up at the star-filled night sky, Ishmael wonders if the indefiniteness of whiteness "shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?"

carrot flowers
(Daucus carota subsp. sativus)
 And there's just something sort of creepy about white flowers.  The flowers on the left that bloomed from carrots I never dug up have that "bride of death," horror film feel to them.

 The sweet-smelling yet highly toxic Lily of the Valley below is often used for bridal bouquets.  Seems like an odd or at least an ironic choice.
Convallaria majalis


Maybe my aversion is more about the idea of purity and innocence.  
Actual innocence is a kind of blankness, a lack of experience.  Do we exalt that state because it is valuable or because we mourn our spotted lives, our lives cluttered with good and bad, right and wrong. We long for a chance to begin again, to try for perfection by consciously returning to a state of perfection. But it doesn't work that way.

Life is messy. We all do terrible things. And we must live with that. What could be more poignant, what could be more human? This is not to say we should celebrate our mistakes. We celebrate that we live with them. And every experience, every spot and every tear, adds to that life. And, for me, a touch of color adds to, even redeems, the whiteness of a flower.

Starflower (Trientalis borealis)


  1. I like white flowers, these shots are beautiful.

  2. It takes a wonderful mind and eye -- yours, to be precise -- to bring together Moby Dick and carrot flowers. That juxtaposition will stay with me!

    1. Well it makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Thanks for writing, Katie! Lovely to hear from you.

  3. Your post has opened my eyes to a new I wonder if I will ever be able to see the lily of the valley like I did before, it's good to see it a different way.

    It was in my Mom's bridal bouquet, and mine it has fond memories for me.


    1. Oh Jen, please don't even consider changing your view of something as personal as your own memories! These are just my own thoughts, my own feelings. I knew I'd have some very different reactions to this post (some of which are on my FB page from former colleagues). Different parts of my life are now beginning to seep into my blog.

  4. There is so much noise and bustle in the world that I love a white flower garden. A white flower garden is soothing, calming and peaceful eapecislly on a hot humid day.