I've been a practitioner of Ikebana (生け花, "living flowers") for several years now. It's a Japanese art form of contemplative floral arrangement that I have become quite taken with. It is also known as Kadō (華道, "way of flowers") and is considered one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement.
The form has been practiced for more than 600 years. It has evolved during this long period from what were originally Buddhist offerings that were placed on the altar of temples into a developed art form free of its religious origins that are displayed in the home. Practitioners use flowers, branches, and leaves to create living pieces of art. There are many schools of Ikebana, but I have been taught in the Sogetsu School and have studied under artists who venture into the unknown territory of free form arranging.
Ikebana is an art form that is deeply meditative. Creating an arrangement is typically done in silence to allow the artist to observe and meditate on the beauty of nature so that insight into the infinite and fundamentally sound nature of existence can arise. Seasoned designers realize not only the importance of silence, but also the importance of space, which is not always meant to be filled, but created and preserved through the arrangements. This ties into other principles of Ikebana including minimalism, shape and line, form, humanity, aesthetics, and balance.
To become a masterful artist in this form (something I have not yet done) requires a great deal of patience and discipline. The discipline cultivated when arranging flowers in this way creates a situation wherein the artist may experience a deep level of connectivity to the seasons. This art form opens up the possibility of a more nuanced understanding of context of the surrounding ecology and forces the artist to engage with an intense degree of focus and presence. The physicality of arranging forces the artist to open up to the fundamental concepts of space, harmony, and asymmetry.
There are generally 3 fundamental elements involved in the kinds of arrangements that I typically work on in the Moribana and Nageire style. These elements represent metaphysical concepts that take on a new artistic life embodied by the living flowers and branches being used to create the arrangement. There is the Tai, which represents an earthen quality and is the shortest length element. Soe represents a human quality and is the middle length. And Shin, being the tallest element, represents a universal or heavenly quality.
While I don't want to get too deep into the particulars of Ikebana technique or a discursive on style, I thought it would be helpful to provide at least some context through which you might better understand the rest of this story. Here are a few examples of my own work for context:
My youngest sister, Jordan, got hitched back in May. They had a beautiful ceremony, held on her acreage just outside of Canyon, TX. It's a beautiful tract of land and when they bought it, she immediately knew she wanted to build a home there and tie the knot in the very meadow that would stand below the house, near a passing creek. The nuptial affair would mark one of the first memories the two would share together on their new homestead.
Shortly after her engagement, when she began planning for the wedding, she and I were chatting on the phone and got to discussing my Ikebana practice. She paused and she asked me if I’d like to arrange flowers at her wedding. It was a simple request and one that I enthusiastically accepted. Quickly after accepting, though, the reality (of just how tall the order was) began to set in on me and I realized how difficult the task would be given the size of the wedding she had in mind. I had arranged plenty before, even for events, but never for such a large scale project in a place so far away from the bountiful flower markets of Austin and never before for a wedding. Let's just say the Texas Panhandle is not known for its abundant supply of exotic flowers.
There would be less room for error on many fronts. This was to be my baby sister's wedding, after all. I wanted these flowers to spark joy for her guests in the midst of such a memorable experience. The flowers needed to express not only a welcoming presence, but also the refinement and contextual realism of a Texas Panhandle wedding. My work was cut out for me.
Add to this pie-filling my tendencies toward intense social anxiety at events like weddings (much less the stress that would no doubt ensue at my own sister's wedding) and you can be sure I was feeling bit overwhelmed by the task assigned. But I'm not usually one to give up on a reasonable idea so I persisted in my planning and began working out the details with my sister. After all, Ikebana is a meditative art. This would be an opportunity for practice - a chance to see the world aright and hopefully make something beautiful for the wedding goers to enjoy.
As we began our discussions of how I might go about arranging for those conditions, we eventually arrived at the notion of using what the land could provide. Our hearty ancestors of the Texas High Plains had been using the land for far more practical purposes (like not dying) - I think we'd be safe in assuming it could also provide for the aesthetic aspirations of a wedding. After all, it was here long before us and will likely be here long after we're all dead.
The Texas Panhandle is rich with gorgeous, understated flora that, for the majority of my pre-adult life, I spent taking for granted or tuning out. To miss out on such splendor in the name of escapism still breaks my heart a bit. I was a foolish kid. But the land doesn’t care one way or another how you feel about it. Time continues, mourning doves whisper, grasses sway in the wind, and coyotes keep howling.
When I began thinking on what kinds of native materials I could incorporate into the design, a whole new appreciation for the ecosystems arose in me. During the past 100 years more than half of the native prairies in Texas have been lost to urban development or converted to cropland. This loss of habitat has caused concern about some of the prairie-dependent species like the swift fox and mountain plover, both integral species that fell victim to my own youthful oversight. The more I pondered, the more questions began forming - how could I fold in the spirit of the native prairie land around Jordan's house into the arrangements themselves? How could I honor the ecology that literally sustained my family for generations in a single event? Is that even possible? The answers weren't clear at the time, but the principle began to take hold.
My research led me to explore all manner of native grasses and trees that could be interesting to work with. My uncle, Clay Robinson, a reputable agronomist and soil scientist, has a romantic connection to the land from the Texas Panhandle to West Texas where he was raised. He offered this brilliant description of the landscape’s richness:
Jordan and Jace’s land marked exactly such a descent into canyon land.
From photographs alone you start to work out a palate for native materials that could make for beautiful arrangements, but I had with me a deep sense and memory to fill in the nuance, to the point that I could almost recall the exact scents the soil and of the native grasses just before a thunderstorm. My family has deep roots in this wind blown land and they’re but a blip on the geological timescale. Even though I’ve moved to the Texas Hill Country long since, I still see so much of my old home in the new. The cacti and buffalo grass that mark the landscape here are nostalgic and when I contemplate them in passing, they help quiet the mind. As the spring season settled into Austin early this year, I was continually struck by that quality of nostalgic quietude by a brilliance that’s been missing from Austin the last few years - yucca blooms. Everywhere.
Both the century plants and yucca were exploding upward and bright all over town. You couldn't miss them if you were trying. Knowing that century plants weren't really going to be the material of choice (honestly, if you've ever had to dig those things up you'll know why), yucca became a focus of my research. And the more I explored them as possibilities for the arrangements, the more I grew to like the idea of a yucca centered approach. These were plants that could bring beautiful nuance to the work. They really are fascinating plants and have such a beautiful and stark profile in their habitats.
Yuccas have a very specialized, mutualistic pollination system, being pollinated by yucca moths. The insect purposefully transfers the pollen from the stamens of one plant to the stigma of another, and at the same time lays an egg in the flower (those blooms I was so obsessed with were literally home to future moths). The moth larva then feeds on some of the developing seeds, always leaving enough seed to perpetuate the species.
The plants store water in their thick roots and in their thick, fleshy leaves. Some of the desert-specific yucca plants have an oily coating on their leaves or pads that traps moisture to reduce water loss. Some species go so far as to drop their leaves during drought to prevent the loss of water through transpiration. Even the dead leaves of yucca collecting against the trunk of the trees help protect it from the sun. The channeled leaves of a yucca direct dew and rainfall water to their roots. Yuccas are said to be one of the most fire adapted plants around - that is, they grow and spread vigorously after wildfires.
This was a hearty, resilient plant that reflected so well the values of the land I wanted to bring to light in the arrangements. It was as though I saw yucca for the first time as this brilliant, fantastic plant that I'd only ever associated with stabbing myself with walking through ranch land as a boy. And there were plenty of yucca from Austin all the way to the Panhandle too. Plenty to pick and not make a dent in any given micro-ecosystem. This could work. This was the exact flicker of inspiration I needed to see a more full potentiality of a material that could make these arrangements spectacular.
Of course, there were still a few modern stylized flowers that my sister wanted, but that weren't readily available in the Amarillo area so we came up with a plan. She'd fly to Austin just before the wedding, we'd go find all the non native flowers she wanted from markets here, and we'd drive up the state together, picking whatever we liked on the road sides along the way. I knew I couldn't do it all alone either so I enlisted the promised help of my partner, Sierra. It was a good plan.
One of the challenges in transporting flowers is their fragility. The commercial trucks that carry flowers across the country are equipped for such work, fully refrigerated with shock absorbers to keep the goods safe. We only had a Honda Fit. Our task was to fit 3 human beings, all our wedding apparel, my guitar, and several buckets full of flowers into a Honda Fit and drive it 8 hours from Austin to Canyon, TX - all while blasting the air conditioner at full capacity to keep the flowers from wilting in the spring heat. I was genuinely concerned whether the flowers would make it or not given that the cross-state temperatures were predicted to be just south of 100°F. But we pressed on with cold chattering teeth, smiling at the fun we were having.
At one point in the drive I got too caught up in an episode of whatever podcast we were listening to and managed to miss one of the turns I needed to make. I’d made that drive countless times so I was annoyed at first, and even moreso when the error took us through an intense thunderstorm. Though it was a bit of white knuckle driving, it actually worked out to be a boon to the flower-longevity-challenge; silver lining, I guess. Cloud cover kept the outdoor temps cool. The rain also gave us the chance to find blooming yucca all along the roadsides just as the hill country gave way to the ascent up the Llano Estacado (生け花, "living flowers").
A foragers delight.
Of course, I've always done some degree of foraging for the materials with which I arrange, but this trip was something different. My eyes were more open to the landscape which I'd spent my youth trying to escape from. The connection I felt to the land was deeper - not quite nostalgic, but certainly sentimental. The yucca blooms marked a sort of spring pilgrimage and homecoming. Even the ruinous gas stations along the way added their own voice to the arrangements to come. There was a quality to the experience of traveling with my loved ones and the work of foraging that felt present and satisfying.
After all, was this not the very same work human beings were doing long before agriculture? Was this not the work that created human civilization in what we call the Texas Panhandle before the Europeans decimated this landscape and people there? Was this not the very work of human heritage, that my sister's own marriage would seek to continue?
The artistic vision for what these arrangements could be continued to change shape and color (華道, "way of flowers").
And after the long journey - after I thought the majority of the foraging was completed - we arrived to my sister's house and my eye caught the silhouette of the dried pod shells of the very yucca blooms we had been hunting all day, juxtaposed against one of Amarillo's famous sunsets. Our work was not done. There were more forms to explore from this landscape. I knew we'd have to pick up our gathering work the next day before we could begin the work of Ikebana.
We began early in the morning on wedding day after stopping for donuts at The Donut Stop (if you didn't know, you're welcome). There was so much to do that the work became all consuming. I was very engrossed in the work so I genuinely can't remember if we ate lunch that day or not so these little sugary fried dough angels may have been the only nutritional fuel we had. If only they hadn't been out of maple crunch...
Sierra was my absolute rock throughout the process of assembling the arrangements. Not only did she help me navigate the complications of appeasing family for a big event like this, but she also helped me organize my thoughts about the logistics of arranging and helped me expand my mind to what principles of Ikebana could be applied to arrangements that would not traditionally be considered an Ikebana piece.
For example, the bouquet my sister was to walk down the aisle with would not have been considered a traditional Ikebana piece, but there were absolutely Ikebana principles that could be applied to arranging. But even beyond all the emotional support, she helped me complete the arrangements themselves and took on the task of making simple, but elegant boutonnieres for the wedding party. This is one of a thousand stories I could tell about her spontaneously stepping in to offer her mind/heart/skills. I really am a lucky son of a bitch to have her in my life.
Jordan did not necessarily want the sparse look of many contemporary Ikebana pieces (and frankly I think she was absolutely right not to go for a minimalist Japanese look at a Texas Panhandle wedding), so I decided to look at the history of Ikebana in Japan to see if there were some parallel I could draw from to better fit the context.
I read through the historical chapters in the book, Ikebana: The Art Of Arranging Flowers, by Shōzō Satō, for some guidance. Therein he explains the earliest recorded examples of Ikebana practice in pre-Buddhist Japan being a rather ornate expression of Shinto belief and the cultural influence of the Imperial court there. This is an obvious oversimplification of the history and if you have any inclination to read it, I recommend it. You'll find brilliant sketches of ornate arrangements from those early days of the art form that take up entire rooms. They are absolutely wild and gave me the perfect contextual backdrop against which I could explore new artistic territory, beyond what I knew from my Sogetsu and contemporary training.
There were a number of pieces that needed to be made to create the ambience my sister was going for: boutonnieres, the bridal bouquet, altar pieces, table pieces, and aisle pieces. For the table pieces, I used the purchased flowers directly to bring color to the foraged materials we found, quickly discovering that yucca blades themselves, although painful to work with for the obvious and sharp reasons, expressed upward movement. This style of Ikebana is called Nageire Style (which means "thrown-in") and it allows the artist to work with the notion of trusting the natural way our hands intuit placement. The elements are fundamentally the same as Moribana, just the technique and vase different.
For the altar pieces, I used the fundamental elements of Moribana Style, but obviously embellished the aesthetic. I wanted to create a microcosm of the immense and flat landscape surrounding us and our joyous celebration of my sister's love. To accomplish this, I used materials that reflected the rugged qualities of the land that was sustaining us and brilliant and elegant floral materials to reflect the occasion itself. I incorporated willow to reflect the native Peachleaf Willows that grow in the canyons and breaks along streams in the Texas Panhandle (just like the stream running through my sister’s place), along with thistle, Spanish moss, and Jordan's favorite - baby's breath. These elements would bring in the rugged and elegant character of the high plains to the wedding celebration. I also used various Mason jar vases at my sister’s request, and to express a prairie pioneer connection, and even a log used as the base for the large altar arrangement.
Yucca quickly confirmed itself to be a central material to the arrangements, as we'd expected. It was a precise example of the interplay between artist and the living quality of plant material. The cohesion became even more apparent as the pieces were placed for the ceremony across the altar and in the barn where the reception was to be held. Where exactly a piece is placed is just as important as the materials used to create the arrangement and even the arrangement itself. Context matters in Ikebana. You can even see my ugly mug just to the left of the small altar piece in the image below, although Jordan's the real star of the show in this one.
As proud as I am of the Ikebana pieces, the pièce de résistance, so to speak, was absolutely the bridal bouquet. I had no idea what I was doing when I started on it, but I knew it would end up somewhere. I could either facilitate the outcome or fight it and struggle. This is where the Ikebana and meditation training were really brought to bear. There is a meditative quality of "staying with what's happening" instead of tuning out. Even though I felt stress from the situation going on around me, the flowers and materials offered the opportunity to lean into the experience with open eyes to where I was and what I was doing. I think Jordan loved the results. Probably because I didn’t put any yucca in that piece to stab her as she walked down the aisle.
The wedding was beautiful, the reception tons of fun, all a memory I will cherish lifelong. I am grateful to my sister for asking me to do this. While I offered it as a gift to she and her husband, I absolutely see it as a gift that she gave me. It was a profound experience and one from which I learned much. My own artistic understanding of Ikebana (or rather the acceptance that I could dedicate several lifetimes to this and never master it) deepened. The act of arranging flowers in the middle of a huge family event brought an awareness to the kinds of silly expectations I put on myself time and again when I go home. There’s no need to be anyone other than who you are. The process of foraging for contextual materials brought my awareness to the land across the state of Texas and reminded me of our small existence on it just now. The word took on a nuanced meaning - Kadō (華道, "way of flowers").
I take with me now the spirit of the yucca wherever I go - a reminder that resiliency is a part of my heritage and that sometimes the things we overlook early in life are the things that will carry us into a new sense of meaning if we open up enough to see.
P.S. We were so exhausted after the whole ordeal that we decided a night of camping in Palo Duro Canyon was necessary to unwind. We saw lots of wildlife there, which you can read about here.