Yesterday I stood in line with two books, waiting for a poet I love to sign them. While I waited, the photographer who had been roving the event paused about five feet away and began taking my picture. Confused, I looked up at him. Was I supposed to look? Not look?
Look back down at the book, he directed. Be flipping through the pages.
Awkwardly, I flipped through the pages in my springtime dress. Was he done? He was not done. Smile, he said.
I smiled and flipped. Smile, like the words are making you happy.
Poet Linda Bierds writes, “In the Doctrine of Signatures, each plant / cures the body it mimics.” She writes, “If I were real, I would help him.”
The Doctrine of Signatures dates back to the Middle Ages. Herbalists during this time believed that the shape of fruits, flowers, herbs, and other growing things signified which parts of the body they were intended to heal. These shapes were considered to be secret codes from God. Thus, because eyebright flowers looked like blue eyes, they were used to treat eye diseases, as the London Science Museum describes.
During the 1600s, the German mystic Jakob Boehme, Swiss physician Paracelsus, and English botanist William Cole each wrote persuasively about the natural world’s ability to communicate medicinal properties through form. The UCLA Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden website describes that Paracelsus was so convinced of this standpoint, he publicly burned classic medical texts at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Pliny the Elder? Enthusiastic advocate from the Roman era.
Some modern healers still adhere to this belief system. A sliced carrot, they say, looks just like an eye. And carrots are good for eyesight. A tomato has four chambers, just like the heart, and is red like the heart. It is also good for the heart. A walnut looks like a tiny brain and is good for the brain. Celery looks like a bone and makes bones strong. Grapefruits look like breasts. They are good for breast health.
Things look like things. Things are good for things. You know this.
In 2014, Matt Simon of Wired.com reported that the Doctrine of Signatures is “fantastically wrong,” pointing out its wobbly theological roots and dubious human-centric lens in the larger scheme of things. Plus, science.
When researcher Bradley C. Bennett randomly tested 80 of 2,584 heart-shaped plants in 2007, he found that just 21 were used for any purpose whatsoever in medicine, and that 3 were used in cardiac medicine. It is dangerous, Simon insists, to tell people who are clinically depressed to eat walnuts because walnuts look like brains.
“If I were real, I would offer him a flower,” Linda Bierds writes.
The last two times I placed a bouquet of flowers in a vase, they were not mine but they became mine. A friend of a friend brought purple dendrobrium orchids wrapped in a brown paper cone to my house. I can’t take these home, she said. What would my boyfriend say?
The orchids lived in an oversize hurricane vase for weeks. I watered them. I wrote poems with them. As they died I dropped them stalk by wilted stalk into the kitchen trashcan. By the time they had all died, the friend of a friend was living with the man who gave them to her.
When my roommate went out of town last weekend, she absentmindedly left a loose bouquet of white tulips on the kitchen table. I rested the tulips in the hurricane vase, and within two days they had uplifted. I could see their pale yellow hearts. Over the week, the petals turned down, soft and translucent, tenderly ragged. The yellow darkened.
Tulips cure nothing, though in the 1600s—during the height of popular acceptance for the Doctrine of Signatures—they were traded for ridiculous amounts of money, sometimes exceeding $2,000 for a single rare bulb. “Tulpenwoede,” or “tulip madness,” according to a 2013 Economist article, could perhaps be blamed on the then-emerging distinction, in Holland, at least, between a futures contract and an options contract. A futures contract means that someone is contractually obligated to purchase or sell something, for example, a tulip, on a specified date and for a specified price. An options contract means that someone has the right, but is not obligated, to do so.
It’s a classic lesson in financial speculation, this guessing at the beauty of buried tulips.
I tell the borrowed white tulips they are happy, and maybe they are.
Today is the ninth anniversary of my uncle’s death. He died in early springtime, on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Polson, Montana. He was one of four sons, as his own father had been. Parts of his life were very hard, and then he killed himself with a borrowed gun.
I have read elsewhere that under circumstances like these, and by this I mean tragic circumstances, it is better to focus on a person’s life than how he died. But this seems to me willful naïveté, false optimism, a pretending that plants look like human body parts because God loves us. My uncle’s death is part of his story; an important part of his story, it seems to me. How could it not be?
When we got the call about my uncle’s death, my sister and I were shopping for springtime dresses. She grabbed my hand and said, We need to leave. Uncle Rick died. We left the store and headed out to the sidewalk while she continued the phone conversation. We leaned against a cement riser planted with pink geraniums that felt nothing and meant nothing.
I do not pretend to understand the deaths of anyone, regardless of how they died. I did not know my uncle very well.
When I was in college, he and his wife bought my rickety 1984 Chrysler LeBaron convertible, chocolate brown. In those first few weeks, they put the top down and drove up the coast highway to Santa Barbara from my hometown, and the town where my uncle lived for many years. Maybe it was springtime, and the foothills wore a yellow ruff of wild alyssum. Maybe the Pacific Ocean was a brilliant blue that day, with the Channel Islands lying like vague whale dreams in the middle distance. Maybe my uncle held hands with his wife, and they sang along with the radio. I’ll never know, and neither will you. This cures nothing.
But if I were real, I would help him.
If I were real, I would offer him a flower.
The poet I love takes the two books from my hands. She remembers me.
“I thought you were, ‘Been there, done that,’” she says, inscribing one of the books to a man I love, at my request.
“I thought I’d give it another try,” I say.
“Well, good,” she says. “And you’re happy?”
“I’m happy,” I say. She does not tell me to smile, but I am. Things are good for things. A tomato has four chambers, just like the heart. My breast is a grapefruit. My uncle is a springtime tulip underground, and with neither options nor futures I can only guess how beautiful he has become. Though his death cured nothing, it wasn’t supposed to.
It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends, Joan Didion writes in her essay, “Goodbye to All That.” I met my uncle somewhere between the beginning and the end of his life. Isn’t that where we meet most people? Isn’t that where I met myself?
Emily Vizzo is a writer and educator whose work appears in FIELD, The Los Angeles Times, Prairie Schooner, and other publications. She previously covered Congress for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, DC, and has written about topics including the biotech industry, social justice, surf, the arts, education, business, and health.