The Corpse Flower!

Cultural relativism aside, it would be hard to stomach eggs that have been cooked in children’s urine. Yet that is the cornerstone of a spring festival in Dongyang, China, a name that begs to be ridiculed, given the cuisine. 

“Let no waste go to waste,” say the citizens of Dongyang, who take the urine-egg festival so seriously that they put out pots and collection bottles in elementary schools so that little boys can donate their golden excretions to the process. “Micturate before you matriculate,” is the popular phrase over there, and they mean it. School is challenging enough. Math, science and language have never been more competitive in the far east, and on top of all that a student must prove his “yang” by using his “dong.” The township is relying on it. The pee-pee eggs are supposed to bring wellness, vibrancy and good luck to those who consume them, and when a whole region of China, (Dongyang by the way), when a whole region of China is counting on a teeming flow through the collective urethra of the pre-teen male population, they better deliver, or great shame may fall upon them.

“Your father, grandfather, great-grandfather pee-pee like Niagara Falls! You pee-pee like constipated mosquito!”

Tough words for a kid to hear. His grades may slip. His esteem may plummet. His enthusiasm for the power of knowledge may dry up like his tiny bladder, and then it’s a life in the salt mines.

Come on, Dongyang. As if the smell of boiled eggs wasn’t bad enough by itself. That retching miasma of sulfur that can doom the appetite of anyone within ten feet of them now has the putrid aroma of bodily waste, for the added benefit of something that has been scientifically proven to contain no nutritional value whatsoever. That’s why people get rid of it in the first place. Good luck Dongyangers, may your showers of fortune be golden.

Uninterested in the political party conventions the other week, I decided instead to watch a live streaming video from the New York Botanical Gardens of the great carrion flower known as the “Titan Arum” or “Corpse Flower” standing perfectly still in the middle of a giant greenhouse. After about five minutes I grew restless. Watching the corpse flower was about as exciting as watching an actual corpse. Named for the horrendous odor it gives off, that of decaying flesh, it tricks flies and insects, the kind that usually descend on dead animals, into pollinating for it.  Not sure why someone would pay to go smell a flower that reeks like any alley in Manhattan on trash day. It is an impressive sight, though. Ten feet high and something like two hundred pounds. Now that is a flower. The New York Times magazine supplement even went down to do an exclusive interview with the big beanstalk. It was surprisingly humble and articulate for a Corpse Flower.

NYT: “So what are your plans while you are in New York?”

C.F.: “I love this city. Always have. I try to see the sights when I’m in town. I hear Chumley’s is opening back up. That is exciting. I’m just so busy right now. Plus I’m a stationary flower.”

NYT: “Are you trying to make a statement with your terrible smell of rotting flesh? Like it is a reflection of the current pop culture.”

C.F.: “I’m a giant flower trying to get by in a very busy world. I wouldn’t look too deep into it. Like Hemingway said, ‘The Old Man and the Sea is a story about a guy and a fish. Nothing more. Quit pissing on it. If you are going to piss on something piss in a cup and send it to Dongyang for their urine soaked egg festival.’ (Hemingway said that, by the way).”

NYT: “Who are you dating?”

C.F.: “Miley Cyrus. We have a lot in common. Of course there is the smell. But I’ll get used to it.”

Over the next few days I kept going back to the Titan Arum. I started to become mesmerized by the thing. It got me thinking that life, the non-reflexive resourcefulness of survival, is pretty darned amazing. A giant Indonesian flower actually figured out a way to trick insects into doing its labor. The regal horned lizard can shoot blood out of its eyes to freak the bejeezus out of predators. The tardigrade “water bear” can live in molten lava or an iceberg. Young sunflowers track the sun through the sky, turning their bloom toward the west as the sun travels, and reset themselves at night toward the east in anticipation for the next day to follow the great erumpent helios again on its daily journey.  I can’t ever not be amazed.

Compared to the mental lassitude of most people, the grizzly bear is Einstein. Compared to the complaining masses, the hawk is Charlemagne. Compared to the perfidy of humans, the corpse flower smells like a rose.

I will leave this week with a quote from the lodestar of American letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“The civilized man has built a coach but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine watch but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. An almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His notebooks impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue.”

That was written in the mid-nineteenth century. Emerson would chew his fingers off if he were alive today.

I’m going to find a corpse flower and plant it in the middle of my front lawn. I’ll get used to the smell and so will he.

More Alembics to come.

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