My generation does not know war. At least, not the way our grandparents did. The first and second World Wars are little more than black and white photographs and, if we are lucky, a few stories handed down to us. We learn a little in textbooks, too, I suppose, but that is often so carefully sanitized that we miss its complexity and humanity.
It is the very human side of war that I discovered at the WAR flowers exhibit last week. I visited the Toronto stop on a tour that began in Grand Metis, Quebec and ends in Montreal after several months in Vimy, France. It was a beautiful, fragrant, sorrowful, thoughtful morning.
George Stephen Cantlie was a father who left his family behind to go and fight for his country. And, like so many soldiers who left their families, he did his best to stay connected even though he was miles away. “Everyday, he would pick a flower, no matter what it was, put it in an envelope and send it to his baby daughter…”
Letter writing is a lost art. Picking flowers is, too. But in George’s day they were ordinary tasks. I can almost picture him stopping to pick up a sprig of heather or a white daisy as he tramped along the roadway in his muddy boots. I’ve done the same thing, tucking lavender into a map or folding up lupin seeds in a scrap of paper.
It amazes me that such an intimate family collection of letters and pressed flowers has survived and made its way into the Campbell House Museum. What’s more, the exhibit’s curator, Viveka Melki, let it inspire an exploration of what they were really about: devotion, healing, solitude, innocence, memory. A series of ten stations each display one kind of flower along with stories, photographs, sculpture, and mementos. The most captivating part, however, were the scents.
I had expected to find the simple scent of each flower, such as roses or heather. Instead there were complex fragrances blended from everyday wartime smells. Scraggly, weed-like stitchwort combined with camphor and antiseptic to evoke hospitals and healing. Lavender mixed with myrrh spoke of devotion. Lilies, roses, incense, vanilla–it was almost like adding colour to an old photograph. Each story took on a new intimacy and familiarity. I was inhaling a mysterious connection to people just like me who lived in an era that is nothing at all like mine.
I left thinking about ditches filled with wildflowers while tanks rolled by. I thought about how my eyes often notice blooms along the sidewalk, and about how sometimes P. stops to pick a dandelion because he knows I like them. I thought about how, if he’d been born in a different time, my husband might have been the one slipping daisies into his letters home to us.
When I learned about war, there was never any mention of something so mundane as flowers. Having been to this exhibit, I now like to think that they offered a little beauty, a little comfort, perhaps even a little hope in the midst of chaos and suffering.
You have until March 25th to visit and think about it for yourself.