When did man first discover beauty?
Next time you go to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, make sure you wander through the Native Flora Garden. The golden rod and wild bergamot and asters that fill this garden remind me that I am looking at a landscape that would have been viewed by the First Peoples who inhabited the eastern New York seaboard– an identical landscape which greeted an arriviste progression of English, French and Dutch immigrants who came to our area in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Ekhart Tolle, author of the bestselling book, THE POWER OF NOW writes, “…flowers were most likely the first things humans came to value, that had no utilitarian purpose…”
This made me realize that at some point, millions upon millions of years ago, there were NO flowers on earth. For a long time there were plenty of gingko trees and ferns but nary a single flower. Yet, what did it matter? There was no one around to look at them, to breathe them in, to be astounded by them.
Millions of years later, some inchoate pre-homo sapiens —perhaps while taking a break between dodging a low flying carnivore and clubbing a slow moving mastodon marked ‘lunch’—glanced off right and caught sight of something magical: a splash of red (or blue or white or yellow) in a largely otherwise green and brown landscape. He sighed. Or gasped. Or just plain swooned. And in that ethereal moment, maybe he (or she) got gobbled up by a lucky predator. And perhaps that slope headed predecessor of ours deemed it worth the trade for that one revelatory glance at what was to later evolve into New York ironweed or maybe a tulip.
Today I wander the BBG, unmolested by any strafing pterdactyls and enjoy a cup of lentil soup as there doesn’t appear to be a fallen mastodon anywhere in sight. Still, the ‘oohhhs’ and ‘ahhhs’ and all other signs characteristic of humanoid ‘swooning’ emit from me as I roam the 50 acres of grounds.
‘…Seeing beauty in a flower,” Tolle continues, “could awaken humans, however briefly, to the beauty that is an essential part of their innermost being, their true nature.”
I speak with one of the groundskeepers. “There are about 13,000 tulips bulbs laid in new every spring,” he explains to me. Tulips make me think of Holland. And Holland reminds me of the importance of beauty to the dour and dark 16th century Dutch. Though the richest nation on earth then, their religion called for a day-to-day expression of austerity. The tulip gave them a God-approved outlet to their hunger for beauty. They made this flower– which was a 16th century arrival from Islamic Turkey—their most colorful art. In some Dutch gardens, a single cultivar with its signature deeply colored veins– vibrant and sensual– were set on pedestals in gardens with three-sided mirrors to magnify the flower’s beauty.
Seeking beauty and art in nature is as old as the appearance of man on earth. Modern man can, somewhat more safely and hopefully without fear of Divine wrath, seek that beauty out at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.
Tolle writes, “The first recognition of beauty was one of the most significant events in the evolution of human consciousness.”