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Orchid See, Orchid Do: On the Allegorical Sight of Orchids

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Meg Rivers is a host of the Evolver Network Spore active in Columbia, Missouri.  This is a subject of interest that she has given talks on in both the Columbia and St. Louis Evolver Spores, and is indicative of one of the directions in which her Spore’s focus may be headed:  biology, plant consciousness, plant medicine, and the art of natural healing.

Early into writing the Theory of Megamind, I did not know what it would be.  It started out as an exercise in evolution, a stretching of the mind.  I had not known how far I could push mine.

Each piece of the puzzle unfolded to me on accident, with no special decision making required on my part. I went about my daily business, too lost in space to do otherwise, and the story told itself. Each stage was like the layer of an onion peeling off, until there formed an idea clearly in my mind.

In 2006, before the Theory, I took a trip to the Mayan Riviera and became obsessed with photographing orchids for the purpose of later elaborating their illusions into art. I turned pink ones into jungle cats, made snot-nosed brats out of several specimens, sketched Roman-Catholic priests draped in purple petal robes. The more research I did, the more I delighted in each flower’s multiple disguise. Every visible angle of an orchid seemed a different camouflage, a show perfectly staged for more than one audience.

Three years later on Valentine’s day of 2009, my friend picked me up to help buy her husband a Valentine. We drove to the grocery store and I stared out the window, unaware that I was on the edge of a personal and evolutionary conclusion; it had taken over my thought processes.

Surprisingly, over the sensory door strip of the market as we entered there passed by a profound and enlightening moment. A beautiful child stood in the flower department ahead of us; she looked so happy that the world slowed down for me to watch her. She picked out a fuchsia phalaenopsis orchid at the elaborately jungled Valentine stand, and grinned a sweet smile as she lifted its pot. She walked towards me in slow motion, and I felt strangely drawn to inspect the blooms.

She walked by laughing, and I turned my head to ogle the flowers. The girl did not notice me but the orchid blossoms and I locked “eyes” as it passed. In that moment I smiled sincerely at its human-like beauty – and I saw my own reflection. Nine me’s bobbing on their stems as the girl walked out of the market.

Of course it was not really me. I am not trying to say that this orchid flown in from who-knows-where was grown all its life with the specific purpose of looking like me so we could have this special moment (though I’m not entirely certain that couldn’t be true). What I am saying is that the features in this particular orchid’s “face” were of a structure and shape that mimicked mine closely, mocked a sincere smile on a Native American girl, and that this moment sparked the possibility for me that some blossoms could be artistically depicting a visual subject.

It was clear to me that plants use color and light to their advantage. Does this sense capture (and process) an image akin to optical sight? Is there an ocular mechanism on the plant, utilizing the absorption of light like the pinhole eye of nautilus? And if a multi-cellular being itself truly cannot “see” without an optical system, does there exist a sense of sight at the cellular level of which we are unaware?

There appeared in my ears a phrase, a piece of ancient wisdom that had never been useful to me until now. It was the last piece of my puzzle.

***

The Universe is a mirror.

Every religion on Earth holds this tenet, albeit through conflicting views and dramas.  In that moment I realized that the Universe is a quite literal mirror, and that things, plants, animals, and events were growing up with their own intention to catch our attention. They had been screaming for me to notice at every turn, waving unseen hands of gradation in my face.

When I got home, I sat down on my kitchen floor, fighting the idea taking hold in my mind. An image came to me of the previous summer, of a stinkhorn I had picked from the yard at work and sliced up to examine at my desk.

Oddly I remembered that the stinkhorn showed up around the time that the neighbor started letting its dog hang around in our office’s yard. That dog’s business was on display.

ICK! What a nasty thought. I struggled with this logic.

Then I found this article on the Elegant Stinkhorn, Mutinus elegansthe Devil’s Dipstick: http://www.sierrapotomac.org/W_Needham/ElegantStinkhorn_060619.htm, the author of which wrote a fantastic description of the fungus, complete with a German myth that a variation of the phallic fungi only came up when the deer rutted.

I remembered the orchids in Mexico three summers ago, how varied the illusions they portrayed. I sat down at my computer and asked some questions:

If an orchid (or fungus) could “see”, what would it see? Aren’t orchids one of the most populous and species-rich flowers on the planet?  I surmised that orchids would be more widely photographed than would fungi, and that there should be a variety of species for use in the examination of this query, along with a global cache of internet images at my disposal. I made a list of potential suspects, of animals and sights that I suspected to be common in a still forest of trees.

I also proposed a few hypotheses to test this new logic, using my knowledge of angles in art:

A. If an orchid’s sight is comparable to ours and its blossoms form a mirror image [interpretation] of what it is “seeing”, it will depict its subject:

  1. from the ground gazing up
  2. from overhead looking down
  3. or eye-to-eye

depending on its native location, and what animal or insect is being mimicked. Perspective would be key. It was my job to interpret multiple illusions.

B. Still subjects may be mimicked more often, because they can be “seen” in more detail over time. If a subject is normally in motion (like an animal), it would have to be depicted in a moment of stillness. Though movement in subject is also portrayed, it is more likely mimicked in cases where the subject is seen frequently in a state of motion (like flying insects).

 

C. If an orchid can see, other species of plants may have a similar sense of sight. If true, there should be at least one group of flowers older than the orchids, blooms that mimic sun. Sun was the first thing in the sky, before the animals crawled out of the sea. There would have been little else for inspiration until mobile bodies appeared on the landscape.

I sat down at the computer and began what has unexpectedly become part of my life’s work. I was moved, amazed, irreparably changed by what I observed.

What does our Family Orchidaceae see?  Please accompany me on a photographic journey through philosophical thought, and decide for yourself.*

Would there be a monkey?

 

 
 
We have a monkey.  Would more than one potential monkey species be depicted?
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

Would more than one angle be represented?   Here a monkey sits on a branch, crouched over.

 
 
 
 
I was not certain I could definitively call this one a monkey though, until I saw potential evidence of monkeydom on the inside:
 
 

 

Sometimes it seemed just the monkey’s business was portrayed:

 

 
I was able to find multiple species and angles of the monkey, “viewed” from an orchid perspective.  There was one thing all the monkey orchids seemed to agree on:
 
 
 
 
Monkeys are beautiful.
 
Look here if you need more flores monos: http://www5f.biglobe.ne.jp/~peacewood/Dracula/index.htm.  Clearly simians are well-represented by our orchid artists.
 
Now that this hypothesis had been slightly substantiated, I remembered seeing a bee orchid years ago.  How many different kinds of insects could I find, and with what diversity?  Bees…
 

 

Would there be a wasp?

 

 

A spider?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An ant?

 

 

Moths or butterflies?

 

 

 

 

A centipede or millipede?

 

 

Would there be an orchid to mimic every animal I could think of?  What about a snail or slug?

 

 

What about pets?  Phalaenopsis blooms often looks like cats to me; this was one of the images I used in 2006 to create a work of art turning them into fierce felines, jaws agape.

 

  

 

This one reminded me of a bulldog.  Can you see its underbite?

 

 

The insects/slug could all be potential pollinators, and maybe even the dog and the cat.  I remembered that sometimes reptiles pollinate plants.  Would there be a lizard?

 

 

 

Perchance a frog?

 

 

Fancy a turtle?

 

 

What about a snake?

 

 

So far nary an animal on my list had yet to produce an orchid doppleganger.  However, all of these could be potential pollinators, which some might argue drove natural selection to choose appearance.  What about animals that were unlikely pollinators?  How about a fish near San Juan Capistrano in California?

 

 

An octopus or squid?

 

 

Are these flowers overlooking water, I asked myself?   Sometimes they are!  Onward I endeavored.

What was next?  Birds!  Birds are huge pollinators and great in number.  There must be thousands of species of orchid birds… I hypothesized that the birds would be depicted flying overhead or landing.

 

 
Can you see its tiny bird feet tucked under?

 

 
 
 
 Coming in for the landing?
 
 

And one more, so beautiful – wings outstretched, flying overhead:

 
 

Following the research of birds was a blur of insomnia mixed with buzzing in my ears (and eyes) from spending every night, all night browsing thousands of images of orchids.  I found examples I imagined I would not. Would there be fruit?

 

 

The photographer said it actually smells like bananas.

How about body parts?   Nostrils seemed an easy find, with humans always sticking their noses into flowers.

 

 

A tongue?

 

 

Organs?  Flamingos?  What the hell are these?  I’m not sure.

 

 

One thing I know for certain is that orchids love the ladies, and that nature seems to have a keen sense of humor.  Orchidaceae seem to typically mock a similar muse across genus, to some exception.  For example, I have found the genus Dracula to exclusively depict monkeys, but more research must be done towards this assertion.  Bulbophyllum is frequently mimicking a person, often a woman (though sometimes rather a snake or a shoe/babe), and usually sexually explicit.  Meet Bulbophyllum putidum, or the Putrid Mastigion, aka Nasty Flower, which smells insultingly of rotting meat.  Take note of her frilly fingers:

 

 

Among species, certain flowers do a better job of mimicking their muse than do others.  Some orchids are clearly more practiced artists than their peers.  The variation from plant to plant, and even from one stalk to the next, can render the subject unintelligible in one bloom, beautiful to behold in another. Here are two different species, on the left is Bulbophyllum putidum and on the right is Bulbophyllum fascinator.  One certainly seems more demure than the other.

 

 

This bloom chose a very specific view.

 

 
 
This one I’ve named “Ready for Love”.
 
 

 

It is interesting to note that often depicted at different angles to the nude female figure is a very well-defined mouth of snake with fangs, evoking archetypes of Eve and the Serpent.  However do not be dismayed; women aren’t always portrayed with such vulgarity.  We wear beautiful gowns and headdresses…

 

 

and we dance…

 

 

We take care of sweet babes swaddled in blankets (which may or may not resemble human tongues):

 

 

Don’t feel left out, men.  Male (or at least phallic) power is represented all over the place, not to mention in cave and rock formations covering the globe.  I wish I could have a closer look from another angle here.

 

 
 
I liked this spotted one too.
 
 
 
 
 
 
And this one, well it’s…impressive.
 
 
 

 

It would seem that orchids love people just as much as we love them.  For a few more examples of how they see us, here’s a snot-nosed brat I mentioned earlier:

 

 

Pomp-and-circumstance?

 

 

I’d like to point out here that the stripe is a universal art technique to create the illusion of hair.  Note how it is demonstrated both above/below in “hair on head”, and previously in this article by some of the Dracula or monkey orchid species, as well as by children who are learning how to draw.   This species below always looks to me like hippies at a rock concert.

 

 

These made me think of old men.   They kind of look like my grandpa Frank, actually.

 

 

I’ll leave you with a few final questions to ponder.  Do they try to smile back at us?

 

 

Do they warn of what’s to come?

 

 
 

 
I present the final orchid and one of the most haunting flowers I have seen, the Catasetum Integerrimum, which seems to depict hooded figures in prayer:
 
 
 
 
Nature sees sickness and health, war and death, beauty and cruelty.  We are a mirror of nature itself, eternally reflecting back at us; there are more stories being told by Orchidaceae than I could fairly describe in a lifetime.  My next article, “Orchid Bee, Orchid Do” will elaborate on how the orchid family appears to interpret global stories of battle and warfare, though it will take a long trip for the photos and quite some time to complete.
 
In the end, what pleased me most was discovering that the only flower group larger than the orchids is the family Asteraceae, including chrysanthemum, daisy, echinacea, and sunflower.  The family’s name is derived from the type genus Aster, which has a Greek origin meaning “Star”.  Each day we behold the flowers that mimicked our sun, before there was much else to see.
 
 
 
 
Is a silent dimension watching at the cellular level, which we feel speaking though it has no words?  Do flowers emulate not only that which pollinates them, but what inspires them as well?  No matter what orchids see or orchids do, remember that nature has an eye on you.
 
Will you love what you see in its reflection?
 
A big thank you to all the photographers whose images made this article possible!  Photo Credits, in order of their appearance:
* Orchid taxonomy is difficult and species are frequently misidentified, which is why I didn’t identify them; orchid lovers know what they’re looking at.  If you are an orchid expert and have a comment to make or a better photo to illustrate the point, please contact me at [email protected] so I can replace or re-identify the image.  Also please contact me if someone who has given permission to use the image did not have the right to do so; if they or I have infringed on your copyright in any way I will address the issue immediately.
Thank you, Meg Rivers

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