“Poppies. Poppies will put them to sleep.” We couldn’t help ourselves. Wandering through Monet’s lovely gardens, my sister and I simply had to do our very best Witch of the West cackles. Tour groups scattered in all directions. It was a great way to clear the area of selfie sticks to better enjoy Giverny’s waterlilies.
It had been years since I pictured a doped-up Dorothy falling asleep in a field, but the minute I saw the flowers, I remembered the Wizard of Oz Technicolor as clearly as if I were watching it on television. Poppies are associated with sleep because the narcotic, opium, is extracted from one variety.
But they are also symbols of death. I kept encountering the flower during my recent swing through France, Belgium and the Netherlands. European countries are commemorating the centennial of World War I (1914-1918) and poppies appear in many of the ads and grace the war memorials. It’s considered the flower of remembrance for fallen soldiers, having figured prominently in the poem “In Flanders Field“, written after the battle at Ypres.
Poppies are statement flowers – their delicate, blood-red saucers quiver on thin, hairy stems. They scream “Look at me!” which is why they’re powerful symbols. In Bayeux I was rushing from train to tour and caught a glimpse of a poster near a water wheel. I drew closer and found my breath slowed to match the gentle rotation of the spokes. Later in the week, I snagged one of my favorite blouses on barbed concertina wire (What was I doing near barbed wire? Different story for another day.) I was ready to get fully pissed, but instead bent down to pluck a lone bloom growing wild next to a road sign. The monuments in Normandy reminded me of the terror of war, but I was moved more by the simply fashioned wreaths that lay at their feet.
I prefer to remain in a news bubble when traveling, but I couldn’t escape the reports about the Charleston massacre and the accompanying pleas to remove the Confederate flag. It’s a symbol too. A reminder of war. And death. And hate. A young man – instead of dancing, driving fast cars and falling hard in love – grew dark and foul inside. How did it happen? I don’t have the answer. What I do know is that impossibly beautiful wildflowers can grow in the rockiest of soils. Please take down the flag – from the capitol and the gas stations and the pickup trucks. How about flying some poppy banners instead? It’s time to sow the seeds of peace.