The times, they are a-changing. Doubt that, and even the briefest foray into your local grocery store will convince you otherwise. Today’s retro shoppers, armed with a list and a cart, find themselves blocked at every turn by store employees pushing multi-level wire racks through the aisles as they gather canned tomatoes and lettuce for harried or lazy consumers who’ve adopted the practice of online ordering.
Some customers pick up their order at the store; others have it delivered to their home or place of business. In either case, technology has freed them from an onerous set of tasks: the need to visit a store, physically pull items from the shelves, and stand in line to pay for them.
Obviously, there are advantages to the new systems. Parents waiting to claim children from school can place a grocery order and pick it up on the way home; the savings in time can be substantial. For the home-bound elderly or others with limited mobility, delivered groceries can be life-enhancing, if not life-saving.
Still, there are limits to what such services can offer. The delivery of milk, soup, or cereal is one thing, but when it comes to bananas, broccoli, or salad greens, I can’t imagine allowing a stranger to make those choices for me — and most of my friends agree.
Raised by mothers who considered fruit and vegetable selection an art, we’re incapable of pulling an orange from a display without considering the uniformity of its color; its weight and firmness; the nubbiness of its skin; or the quality of the scent surrounding it. If we’re buying an orange, we want it to be perfect, and we’re not convinced every employee could recognize a perfect orange, let alone take the time to select it.
Shopping habits aside, this desire for perfection can burrow into other, hidden corners of life, as I discovered when I took up photography. After months spent rejecting multitudes of flowers with missing or tattered petals, bent stems, or broken seed pods in my hunt for perfect specimens to photograph, I was forced to acknowledge an irrefutable truth: in the natural world, perfection is hard to come by.
The tattered and torn, the bent and the broken, the desiccated and dying are everywhere: not only among the flowers, but also among the creatures that share the fields with them. Increasingly aware of one-legged birds, broken-winged butterflies, or scarred and limping lizards, I began to appreciate the wisdom expressed by a variety of naturalists: in nature, the emphasis always is on what is, rather than on what ought to be.
Two artists who spent their lifetimes focusing on ‘what is’ were Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, creators of Harvard University’s famous Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants. A remarkable joining of science and art popularly known as the Glass Flowers, the models were commissioned in 1886 by Professor George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum. Financed by Boston residents Elizabeth and Mary Lee Ware, they were meant to be used as teaching tools, and as the basis of a botanical exhibit designed to attract and educate the public.
At the time, materials most often used for plant replicas — wax or papier mâché — resulted in crude models lacking both detail and longevity. Even the best herbarium sheets provided only a two-dimensional view of the plant, and they faded over time. Professor Goodale wanted more: a way of exhibiting plants that would convey their beauty and vitality. According to an entry on the Corning Museum of Glass website:
Goodale was impressed by the idea of using glass after he saw the zoological models in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, which housed detailed glass models made by Leopold Blaschka and his son, Rudolf.
Goodale realized that fragile zoological creatures were much like fresh fruits and flowers that quickly decay and could never hold up as an exhibition. He also knew that dried, pressed herbarium specimens and color plates from botanical texts had a limited appeal.
Goodale’s decision to engage the Blaschkas was well rewarded. Between 1887 and 1936, they created approximately 4,300 individual glass models for Harvard, replicating both entire plants and the smallest details of plant anatomy. In the end, the collection included 847 life-size models representing 780 species and varieties of plants in 164 families, as well as over 3,000 detailed models of plant parts.
Northern blue flag (Iris versicolor)
The accuracy of their models is remarkable, but the plants weren’t idealized. This Blaschka northern blue flag, created with buds, leaves, and spent flowers as well as with its spectacular blooms, could have been plucked from a roadside ditch. As Harvard professor of botany Donald H. Pfister points out:
[The Blaschkas] didn’t sanitize the models. So you see bud, you see full flower, and you see spent flowers. That’s how you see it when you go outside and look at the plant. You don’t see perfect flowers all in the same stage of development.
After Leopold’s death, Rudolf moved even more deeply into the world of natural imperfection, replicating the over-ripe, bruised, and fungus-ridden fruits that so offended my mother.
Many illustrate brown rot, produced by the fungus Monilinia fructigena. Because brown rot manifests in a variety of ways, Blaschka created a corresponding set of apples to show the fungus in all its forms.
Another fungus, Mycosphaerella pomi, produces the condition known as Brooks fruit spot, also called Phoma fruit spot. Susceptible apple varieties include Rome Beauty, Stayman, Jonathan, and Grimes Golden. The spots may be inconspicuous at harvest, but if infected fruit isn’t placed in cold storage immediately, the spots will grow larger and become more obvious.
Several of the glass fruits suffer from apple scab, a serious fungal infection (Venturia inaequalis) that affects both leaves and fruit.
According to Professor Pfister, the value of the glass apples to growers was especially noteworthy. Even in Rudolf Blaschka’s day, familiarity with the diseases and pests that might limit crop production was important. Without DNA analysis, color photography, and other modern tools of analysis, the glass models could help answer the question, “What’s that blotchy thing?”
Blaschka lavished the same care on his diseased specimens as he did on the beautiful flowers he and his father created, but eventually his work, too, came to an end. A 1937 article in the Harvard Crimson feels especially poignant:
Illness and impaired vision have compelled Rudolph Blaschka, 80 year old glass-worker of Hosterwitz, Germany and creator of the whole of Harvard’s collection of glass flowers, to cease active work. This means that the collection has probably reached its final form, the annual report of Oakes Ames ’98, Director of the Botanical Museum, disclosed Saturday.
Since the death of the elder Blaschka in 1895, Rudolph alone has completed the collection of some 720 models of flowering plants, and over 3,000 sections and magnified details. The last shipment, consisting of 15 fruit models, arrived in September, 1936. Since he employed no assistants, and has kept secret the process by which he and his father spun the delicately colored models, there is no successor to Rudolph Blaschka in sight.
Pondering the paucity of perfection in nature, the remarkably perfect representations of imperfection created by the Blaschkas, and our own existence as imperfect parts of the natural world, I can’t help thinking of Annie Dillard, whose realistic, sometimes harsh, but always insightful views of such things is a useful corrective to unrealistic expectations of every sort. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she writes:
I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating, too.
I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering about awed on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air; whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions; and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections, but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down.