Updated: Nov 12, 2021
This week I sat outside Hendon Town Hall, awaiting the start of my much-delayed, socially-distanced and bemasked, no-guests-allowed, Ceremony of British Citizenship. I was a little worried- were my documents really in order? Did I have the right day and time? Did I really even want to be a British Citizen at all?! But I was soon distracted by the magnificent display of very British Victorian-style bedding plants -snapdragons, Sky-blue lobelia, red and yellow begonias and delicious wafts of honey scent from the edging of white alyssum. I felt soothed and ....happy! , and suddenly it was time to join 18 other nationalities in a ritual in which we repeated our oaths and then were welcomed to the fold. At the end we were exhorted to vote! And handed our certificates. And told we were free to leave, or if we wished, to take a photo with our certificates and the picture of her Majesty the Queen -everyone smiled, and stayed, and took turns taking each other’s photo, and kindly making sure it was just right!
Apart from the calming distraction flowers can afford, I feel like I have always been fascinated by the sheer variety of forms and functions I see in the natural world, none more so than flowers. Flowers are eye-catching in colours and shapes, and often have head-turning scents, seemingly by design! Science and reason tell us that their message is aimed at birds, bees and butterflies, saying “over here! pollinate me!” and their success ensures the next generation of seedlings.
I recognise that not everyone shares my interest in flowers but I still can’t seem to desist from suddenly in mid-conversation pointing out a species on a casual walk which, while it may not be new to science, might be new to me! In reality, I now realise far from being inborn, this habit has been learnt. Some was picked up from my British Grandma who did the same, getting very excited about some micro novelty sprouting in Dunstable Downs, while dismissing my clumsy bouquets of what I had thought were unusual white buddleia as “common or garden invasive, darling”! She helped me make a scrapbook of all the flowers mentioned by Shakespeare, illustrated with magazine clippings and scraps cut from her own watercolour paintings. All I can remember is
'Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip's bell I lie;'
Ariel, the Tempest.
10-year-old me found this hilarious.
Meanwhile, in the United States where I grew up, my midwestern Nana cultivated amazing varieties of orchids and even bright tropical bougainvillea indoors, in sheer defiance of the frozen lifeless snowscape forming the backdrop out the window behind the blooms. She travelled to Exotic places like Hawaii, and the bogs of Ireland, to meet plants and people in their home habitats. I continue to benefit from my ancestors’ legacies, learning ever more, and chatting about plant-based hobbies on a daily basis.
I have lately spent some months in the United States, and a spent a little bit of time helping in my local Unitarian Universalist Church’s “Giving Garden”, in which volunteers grow fresh produce for a downtown restaurant called “Cafe on Vine” which caters for people in a neighbourhood with low income and homelessness. Even there I planted flowers- but they were cauliflowers! I hope they have thrived and made a meal or two. I then had the privilege of attending the very first face to-face Sunday service since the start of the pandemic. There was none of their normal Religious Education programme for the children due to limited numbers, but the kids were so pleased to see their friends again, it was quite a job to get their attention to come up to the front for their story. But they soon settled in to hear about some animal friends. Just as in our own chapel, the stories aimed at children are as likely to find their mark in more mature hearts!
One of the great attractions initially to this chapel for me were the provisions made for the next generation of children. As parents we were keen to set seeds early on, to fill our youngsters’ minds with ideas like self-worth, fairness, justice and loving kindness. To question standard ideas such as man’s dominion over the natural world as a license to use it up. Instead we hope to raise stewards to preserve the legacies we were given, and try to pass them on in better condition! We felt we had found the welcoming space we needed to grow at Rosslyn Hill.
Dr Alison Bybee is the Chair of the Chapel's Board. This reflection was shared during the Flower Communion service in July.