Monday, April 30, 2012


Iris tectorum, "wild flag"

"Flags," Grandma Skatzes always called them. The rest of the known world of my childhood called the purple spring flowers "irises," but they were "flags" to Grandma.

"Are the flags in bloom yet?"

"The flags are late this year. It's almost Decoration Day!"

"Don't the flags smell sweet?"

As a little child, I could not initially make the connection between Grandma's "flags" and the irises that bloomed in front of the house each spring. I took the word at its literal meaning. I thought Grandma was talking about the heavy flag (with 48 stars as she never got around to buying one with 50) she hung outside every national holiday. When I was a little older and understood she was talking about the flowers, I would print out IRISES in heavy black marker on a sheet of paper. I would pass the paper to Grandma, she would hold it close to her very poor eyes, read the word out loud, then chuckle and say, "Yes, flags. That's what I said." Finally I came to accept "flags" as a quaint phrase from Grandma's past.

That was a long time ago. 45, 50 years ago. I haven't heard anyone else call irises "flags" since, not even my mom or Aunt Ginger, Grandma's last two surviving children.

Grandma and her flags are on my mind because the irises are in bloom right now in Delaware. They are usually a mid to late May flower, but the warm spring brought them out early this year. I walked past a patch in full bloom this morning. "Flags," I thought automatically.

E. B. White, of the same era as my grandmother, called them flags too. In 1946, he published a little book, The Wild Flag, a collection of his New Yorker editorials from 1943-1946 championing a world government. (Andy White was an early proponent and champion of the United Nations, although he felt it fell far short of the ideal goal.)

In The Wild Flag, White proposes, through the vehicle of "a dream" which he had, that the wild flag, Iris tectorum, would be the ideal flag, both literally and figuratively, for a unified government instead of a conventional cloth flag. In the post-apocalyptic world of his dream, there are only a few humans left alive, and each shred of a country has sent a delegate to a convention to discuss the new world order. Each delegate is charged with bringing a cloth flag so that the survivors may choose an appropriate symbol. It is the Chinese delegate who proposes the wild flag: is a convenient and universal device and very beautiful and grows everywhere in the moist places of the earth for all to observe and wonder at. I propose all countries adopt it, so that it would be impossible for us to insult each other's flags...I should remind you that [it] is the oldest flag in the world, the original one, you might say.  December 25, 1943

Andy White was a dreamer and an idealist when it came to world government. He believed the hope of humanity was in coming together without boundaries. He feared the use of nuclear weapons and saw rampant nationalism, in any country, as a threat to peace and progress.

My grandmother, had she ever heard of White, would have agreed. She sent all four of her adult sons and many of her grandsons to war: World War II, Korea, Viet Nam. She had lived through all of those wars and the one before it, World War I, as an adult. All of her sons came home, alive but at least two of them were permanently scarred and forever haunted by what they had seen and done. While she believed in the necessity of war to stop evil, such as Hitler, she abhorred that it had to occur at all. She too believed in the United Nations.

I don't know what either of them would have to say about these modern times, about our post 9/11 world, about the body bags still coming home from the Middle East, about suicide bombers both foreign and homegrown. I have a strong feeling each would be appalled and shocked and fearful of the world in which all of us now live.

But I do know what Andy White would likely say about the flags I saw today, which are not Iris tectorum, but the cultivated type. He would possibly say, "I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority."

And I know what Grandma would say.

"The flags are blooming! Don't they smell sweet?"


Anonymous said...

I have never heard iris called flags...but this post evoked my childhood memory of the scent of them: grape koolaid.

I like the idea suggested in White's book about a world that transcends boundaries. Alas, I despair that I will ever see it.

see you there! said...

Flags! Oh yes, in my childhood everyone called them that. They were planted in a variety of colors too, not just the purple I think of as "Iris". They happen to be my favorite flower. As usual I learned something from your post - this time a little history.