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The Book of Flowers

Photos by Bobby Wiggins. All photos courtesy the artist

I often consider the New Orleans socialite who had her body embalmed so that she could attend her own wake. In life, they say, she would drive her Rolls around town with a trunk secreted with iced champagne, traveling from house to house to gather friends. At the funeral party, her body propped on a wrought iron garden bench, a fuchsia feather boa snaking across her shoulders, one set of waxen fingers clutched a cigarette holder and the other a flute of Veuve Clicquot. To her breast she had affixed a brooch with the phrase #1 BITCH rendered in diamonds. Sprawling sword fern, purple clematis, and a wall of white orchids enveloped her.

The floral designer I’m freelancing for one weekend can’t stop talking about the grapes. They are dark purple, almost black, and there’s a reddish pink variety and another in-between shade. She wires them to the stems of headless flowers and places them in the chicken wire netting inside polished brass compote dishes. She is all about the grapes. She is giddy about the grapes. 

A few weeks prior, on August 29 of 2021, sixteen years to the day that Katrina did, Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana.

For the most part the city had not flooded, though a leak had sprung in the storage facility’s roof directly over my particular unit, destroying items I had driven down with me after the end of a relationship in a different, drier corner of the South. There are photos from that time of my storage unit—the waterlogged copies of my novel; the edge of a woven basket purple and white with mold; a copy of Solnit and Snedeker’s Unfathomable City, a book that describes New Orleans as “dynamic, fluid, soft, warm, humid, tempestuous,” a city whose creation is “essentially the story of overlaying orderly orthogonality on unruly curvaceousness,” with water pooling on its cover. After the storm, upon moving back into my house, the sculpture of the little girl in ballet flats that sat at the facade of my neighbor’s place, The Degas House, was still duct-taped in a black garbage bag, her fourth position feet jutting out from the bottom of the plastic. A friend’s Instagram story depicted a man nailing up a homemade sign that read THE ISLE OF JEAN CHARLES IS NOT DEAD CLIMATE CHANGE SUCKS. There are photos of a pile of mattresses on the curb, part of a headboard, a piano keyboard. 

I was not born in Louisiana, but it’s where I cut my teeth. When I was twenty-two, I packed up my life in Brooklyn and got down to New Orleans Halloween weekend, not knowing anyone or about much of anything—one of the first bars I drank at, I ordered an Old Fashioned, not realizing that it was a dive bar and bitters weren’t offered in such a place. I completed graduate school in Southwest Louisiana; chased a chicken in Mamou for the Courir de Mardi Gras; saw Katey Red do a set at the Red House; fell in love with a hairdresser from Gonzales, a writer from New York, a boy from Baton Rouge; wrote a book.

My novel got picked up, and not having any job prospects after art school, I left Louisiana. I got a job working at a Lowe’s garden center in the rural Virginia town that my mother had made her home, pushing towering metal carts filled with Boston ferns and pansies around a concrete lot, layered in thermal underwear and fleece for early March temperatures. I was waiting for my Real Life to start, which I’d defined as a career teaching creative writing and literature, but I needed work in the interim. Soon after that I started apprenticing at a flower shop. 

I’m not sure why I took to working with flowers, whether it was because, at the time, I was dating a guy who was also living on his mother’s property, which she wanted to turn into a flower farm, or because of my own new intimacy with large swaths of green and solitude and how being mostly alone all the time in a natural setting in a world that is not so quietly burning and choking to death makes you appreciate the beauty that nature gives us—a spray of crisp white blooms on an apple tree, for instance—but that’s what happened, and through my first full-time job teaching literature and writing at a university, the one I took with me back down to Louisiana, I took the flower work with me, too.

In September of Ida’s year, I work for the grape-loving designer and her partner on a few bigger-budget weddings throughout New Orleans. One Saturday, I help build an arch for a wedding celebration at a hotel in the CBD, or Central Business District. These floral designers are known for their wild, naturalistic aesthetic, their embrace of texture, color, play, a proclivity for more innovative table stylings—amaryllis bulbs affixed to pincushion frogs, cantaloupes broken open next to a spray of dried grasses standing erect in a leggy brass compote, tables sumptuous in the spirit of a De Heem still life. 

One half of their business, a five-foot-two flower farmer and adept executor of larger-scale floral installations, instructs me to build the right arm of the floating arch. The left side of the arch she assigns to a more experienced designer, whose work sculpting limes into pyramids and threading hyacinth florets onto wire, allowing the abstracted flower to twist and turn in the loops of a roller coaster, I have admired from digital remove for some time. I sneak looks at her work, trying to look as confident and assured in my own designs. I assemble a combination of locally and internationally sourced flowers—yellow marigolds, creamy-pink sunflowers, blush garden roses and peach carnations—in blocks of color, tucking stems into balls of chicken wire zipped to metal poles, which have been tightened vertically, sturdily, into reliable iron umbrella stands.

When you do weddings for another floral designer, you often don’t know many details—the names of the individuals getting married, how many people will be attending the wedding, etc. You are to fixate on whatever the designer tells you is your task. You flower the railing of a staircase. You drop premade arrangements on tables. You wire smilax to the metal beams of a white tent. You do not worry about the bigger picture. You throw your body, yourself, into the duties required of you. You are on a timeline. You have three, four, maybe six or seven hours, if you are lucky, to flower a wedding. You haul buckets and you slosh and you sweat on top of an eighteen-foot ladder. The facts of your life—that you are no longer sure you can stay in this place you love, the place you fled back to, that you are no longer sure that writing can satisfy or sooth in an era of vast and exponential loss—are not a part of your mind.

When we are done filling our vertical mechanics with flowers, we push potted plants from the hotel lobby to the bases of the arch, buoying the bottom level of the design with more greenery, lushness. Why not? the petite designer says of incorporating the hotel’s plants into her arch. This work is so often about improvisation, adaptability. As florists, we must be cognizant of the space in which we are designing. We must always ensure our designs live in harmony with the space. We must not fight our environment.

Once the wedding party has finished their last flute of champagne, we will come back, take our clippers, cut zip ties and throw flowers into trash bags that will go into compost heaps. We cannot pretend permanence. Unlike the realm of literary writing wherein many of us, to varying degrees, aspire to legacy, hoping for our work to be remembered and read by later generations of earnest readers and writers, when you do flowers, you accept that your work will not last. In a time of pandemic, climate change, economic upheaval, this work makes sense to me.

After the arch, we construct an installation of smilax and olive branches and dried palm on a staircase that goes nowhere, the top rung hitting a walled-off second floor. I light candles to celebrate a couple I have never spoken to, never will.

The levees had held, though Ida, who alongside Laura and the Last Island hurricane, is considered the most forceful storm to hit Louisiana, caused catastrophic wind and storm surge; surge that, according to a National Weather Service report, caused A TOTAL OVERWASH OF PORTIONS OF GRAND ISLE. EVERY STRUCTURE ON THE ISLAND SUFFERED DAMAGE, AND 40 TO 50% OF THE STRUCTURES ON THE ISLAND WERE COMPLETELY DESTROYED. The storm had toppled the four-hundred-foot tower powering most of Orleans Parish, a tower that had withstood Katrina. With heat cresting ninety Fahrenheit and ninety percent humidity, a lack of power is not just an inconvenience. Certain flowering plants thrive in Louisiana’s intense climate—hibiscus, marigold, amaranth, gomphrena, impatiens. A person, though, isn’t as hardy as those flowers. The heat can kill, and it did.

From a friend’s small cabin on the outskirts of an Alabama football town, I watched the storm intensify from a category three to a category four. I watched a guy on a rooftop videotaping an emptied city, his windbreaker ballooning around his arms and torso and garbage cans tangoing down the street. I watched as LaPlace got flooded and Grand Isle drowned. 

The air conditioning wetted a heavy fog on the window panes. The grass outside was dewed, soggy. I yearned to lie on a beach and let the sun roast the outer layer of my skin, to burn off the last two years of my life and peel away the hope I had for a future life with certain people and certain places, a kind of christening. 

During the E-time, my friend would walk across the stretch of grass that separated the cabin from the property’s main house to talk.

He is so loud, she said of one of her visitors, one half of a couple of E-words from New Orleans staying in the guest room of the main house, two E-words who are now Dear Friends. He talks and talks. He is always there in our space. I can’t stand it.

I tried to press patience, to convey what it means to await the seemingly imminent loss of your home and be able to do nothing about it.

Is it so difficult for people who have built their lives on solid ground to understand those who have chosen to live at the behest of water? There are reasons people live in unfathomable places, choose to stay.

On September 13, when the power had come back in my house, I packed up my dogs and my bag, got back on 65 and headed back to New Orleans. On October 9, I photographed myself reflected back in an antique gilded mirror, standing in overalls and a utility belt, a mask on my face. (Remember, it was still the time of masking and fear and COVID, then, too.). My hair is still dyed blonde and top-knotted on my head. I am wearing blue LEE overalls, and I am thin, bonier than I am now in my more settled life on firmer ground. I’ve been tasked with adorning a lacy wrought iron railing that winds up the stairs to a St. Charles mansion turned wedding venue. From black plastic buckets I pull yellow butterfly ranunculus; chunky red amaranthus whose heavy tendrils fall easily over the railing; white, ever-fragrant oriental lilies with blushes of pink at their hearts, flowers I use in my own design work these days. I zip-tie balls of chicken wire stuffed with stems and leaves to the railing and begin placing the flowers. 

I’ve adopted the mantra, I will not forget. Mid-October weather in New Orleans is the kind that lulls you back into the swing of life. The heat dissipates—the festivities of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the fervor of Carnival can blind you to the blue tarps still draped over roofs across the city, parish, southeastern portion of the state.

Solnit and Snedeker, the authors of Unfathomable City, describe New Orleans as a “sprawling metropolis spread-eagled across sinking soils amid eroding coasts and rising seas, ever more unfathomable, ever less sustainable.” It, like the love I had with the man in the foothills of the Carolina mountains, would always be tenuous, a walk on water.

My Dear Friend Marie, who was born across the industrial canal and has lived in New Orleans most of her life, who was an E-word more than once, including during Katrina, has just accepted a good job here.

Money is a life raft, she says of her reason for staying. I have to take the money

This is one of the reasons why people will stay here, until the water is at their ankles. But also, where else do adults spend months hand-sewing sequins onto fabric, where else do men saddle horses under an interstate highway and float rubber duckies down a bayou, where else do women have their bodies embalmed amidst a sea of orchids?

Only funerals, Marie texts, one of our mantras. 

Then, I hadn’t done any funeral work. I worked mostly for floral designers with a more contemporary aesthetic, though I also worked part time at a traditional mom and pop flower shop, the kind that sells teddy bears and white and red carnations on Valentine’s day. Those shops remain the primary benefactors of funeral work, but I was too green to be trusted with that kind of thing, which is often left to the veteran florists, who’ve been making funeral sprays for decades.

I don’t know why funeral flowers are still so stuck in the past, I told my mother over the phone, who lives on fifty acres of dry land where no floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes trouble her.

This is because the family is the one choosing the flowers, my mother said. No one’s really trying to make a statement.

Well, they should. I would. Some would

The New Orleans socialite, Mickey Easterling was her name, did. Flowers to her, to this city, matter.

When you do flowers, you accept that your work will not last. In a time of pandemic, climate change, economic upheaval, this work makes sense to me.

“It’s interesting because you consider in relationship to something else,” my now-partner says. To consider being the beginning of a line of thought. To ask someone to consider, you are leading them somewhere else, e.g. consider so that you can better understand…

I consider the men selling stuffed bears and boxes of chocolate and cellophane wrapped red roses on the corner of N. Claiborne and Elysian Fields on Valentine’s Day.

I consider when the jasmine blooms all at once, and a walk to the grocery store becomes a fantasy, an aromatic experience you could’ve never dreamed of while growing up in the exceedingly less redolent, less floral in all ways, northern-South.

I consider the plastic purple and pink and Yellow-Number-Five-yellow flowers from the Dollar General wired to bicycle baskets, just because.

I consider the tomb in Saint Louis Cemetery #3 with the crusty block of foam at its feet, the flowers long dead, blown away, gone, just a few sprigs of desiccated palm and eucalyptus sticking out from the ends of the block.

I consider the nest of delphinium and queen anne’s lace assembled on the edge of the bayou for the soon to be betrothed, which I then repurposed to sit at the bottom of an orange and white road barricade in front of my house, which I then posted and @-ed to Lookatthisfuckinstreet, a New Orleans institution, at this point, an Instagram account that catalogs the city’s infamous potholes and various infrastructure foibles. 

Consider— 

Always, for any reason, there were flowers.

I’ve left the city but its flowers remain in my heart.

For more stories that celebrate art, order a copy of the Oxford American’s Southern Art Issue.





Lee Matalone

Lee Matalone is a writer and floral designer based in Richmond, Virginia. She is the author of the novel Home Making (Harper Perennial, 2020) and founder of the flower shop and design studio, FIELD.