The virus traveling among us has revived an almost bygone tradition: sending postcards. And not only for birthdays and holidays, but also just like that. “Because I’m thinking of you,” said a friend’s homemade card that fell on the doormat the other day.
It was an image of a dried wild forest tulip. A small bulb from which two flowers branch. Glued on the yellowed paper in such a way that it seems as if the wind blows them aside.
These so tenderly captured flowers come from the 16th-century Italian book, the En Tibi herbarium, which today is kept in the treasure room of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands. At the front of this book, filled with 477 plants, most likely collected by the botanist Francesco Petrollini, is a Latin inscription: En tibi perpetuis ridentem floribus hortum — “Here a smiling garden of everlasting flowers.”
Thinking of Petrollini, who found the tulip in a field in Bologna half a millennium ago, I suddenly see myself in my native Holland wandering through the floodplains of the River Meuse, just half a century ago. Time then had a different meaning. Not the insistent rhythm that guides me through the days, as it does now, but an open invitation to explore the world.
One day I found a plant press in our attic. My grandfather had lovingly made it from a few thin wooden boards and some screws. My mother gave me her Flora, describing all the native plant species, in which she had penned her maiden name in her most beautiful italic in the front. What was more important that day than searching for plants and drying them between the shelves to turn them into an herbarium?
In the middle of the meadow I lay on my stomach looking at the buttercups with their golden yellow leaves. Then the proud dandelion, stiffly arching before me. And my favorite flower, the poppy, which appears so delicate but can easily withstand the gusts of wind and rain.
I put the flowers in my biscuit tin, which was promoted to be a botanizing drum. At home I spread my treasures on the table and placed them on kitchen paper between the shelves. The days after, I occasionally checked to see if the flowers were already dried, clinging to that bumpy paper. Carefully, because if something shifted you never got it exactly the way it was.
Much later, when I was an inch taller and had almost forgotten the flowers, I loosened the screws again. Curious, I pulled the paper away. The plants were no longer the same as the ones I had picked and pressed. The colors were fainter, the leaves transparent, the stems more fragile. But their essence had been preserved. They went into my scrapbook under which I wrote their names in decorative letters.
These days, as time no longer flows forward, but widens like a meandering river overflowing its banks, the past and present miraculously coincide. Francesco Petrollini’s tulip touched the child in me, stopping time and running 500 years ahead.
He caught the medieval wind that bent the delicate tulips aside on a meadow in long ago Bologna. Indeed, a smiling garden of everlasting flowers.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.