Notes on Blocks
On Karen Blixen’s Flowers
This is the third in a new series of pieces that take a look at a channel and its broader threads, themes, and ideas through a few of its blocks. The first was Clemens Jahn "On Tables," and the second William Pan on his channel “Orchid Pavilion Preface.” All of these will appear in essay form in our forthcoming Are.na Annual (December 2020).
A couple of years ago, my friend Jessi and I went on a trip to Copenhagen, where we stayed in our friends’ allotment garden, a community garden plot just outside the city center. The little blue cabin on the plot didn’t have electricity or running water, so each morning we would get up, slide on our shoes, and weave our way through the gridded gardens to the shipping container that acted as the community canteen. We’d charge our phones and make our coffee, and while waiting for the water to boil, browse the bookshelf opposite the kitchen, where books would be left or taken or exchanged. 
We got into the habit of reading aloud to each other from a book about Nordic women authors. We liked the tone of the book, which was honest almost to the point of offense. We’d both been reading Dorthe Nors’ Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, but knew little else about the topic. We’d often return to the section on Karen Blixen. Karen Blixen was the one name we already knew.
After breakfast we’d walk back through the gardens until we got to our own, passing hawkweed and goosegrass, trellises of roses and clusters of marsh orchids. The tulips and irises were already gone, but there were blankets of white goutwort, purple shocks of bellflower, and pockets of pink, star-shaped lilies. We’d pick the berries off the bushes that pushed through the neighboring fences, and then we’d leave our miniature garden city and head into the real one, walking along a four lane road and through a shopping mall to get there.
One day, while we were browsing through one of the city’s used bookstores, Jessi came over to me with a book. On the mustard yellow cover was a photo of white lilies in a crystal urn-shaped vase, standing before what looked like a 17th century Dutch portrait.The photo itself looked like a Dutch still life, brilliant, somber, and baroque. The book was titled Karen Blixen’s Flowers. We bought two copies and we took them back to our garden colony.
Karen Blixen was a baroness and a Danish author best known for her books Seven Gothic Tales, Out of Africa, and Babette’s Feast. She wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen, wore ornamental hats and giant fur coats, and was one of the 20th century’s most essential authors, per Margaret Atwood. She was also, apparently, a gardener, as well as a talented, intuitive, somewhat unhinged arranger of flowers.
Karen Blixen liked to mix high and low, equally drawn to weeds as extravagant blooms. She would combine peonies with leeks, gladioli with cabbage leaves; she’d fill a white tureen with zinnia, dahlias, hollyhocks, hydrangea, delphinium, snapdragon, and hound's tongue.
Karen Blixen would, on one hand, do a virginal bouquet of plump tulips and lipped arum lilies...
... and on the other, a macabre assemblage of pill yellow Japanese peonies, drying ground elder, bowed deutzia, and wilting false Jasmine.
It really depended on who was coming over. She only ever created her arrangements with a specific guest in mind.
"When I am dead, you should make a book about my flower arrangements," Karen Blixen told her friend Steen Eiler Rasmussen, co-author of Karen Blixen’s Flowers. In the book, Steen Eiler Rasmussen compares her to Babette in preparation for her eponymous feast, and calls the flower arrangements art. He also implies that you can see something of the hostess’s interior tumult—she “was not always safecouched peace of mind”—in the magnificent and moody arrangements.
But for Karen Blixen, bouquets were meant to reflect the recipient, not the florist. She would choose each flower from her garden precisely, arrange them so that each bouquet was idiosyncratic. She’d put them in her tureen or white milk vase or an Amethyst-colored goblet. If there was something that she lacked—a particular yellow color, a tuft of lamb’s ears—she’d bike over to her neighbor’s garden with a pair of shears.
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