Flower power

Passion vine from my backyard, tweeted to the Flower Report in June. ©Joyce Millman                        

 

2016 has often seemed like a march of brutal, hate-fueled events — terrorist attacks, gun violence, bigotry at home and around the world. What do you do when you’re overwhelmed by sadness, sickened by the worst humanity has to offer? How do you hold on to your last shred of optimism that the good in this world can outlast the bad and the ugly? It’s a small gesture, but an enriching one: You stop and tweet the roses.

Every Sunday since March 13, Alyssa Harad has been hosting the weekly Flower Report (#FlowerReport) on Twitter. Followers are invited to tweet photos of blossoms from their corner of the world using the FlowerReport hashtag, and Harad signal-boosts each photo with a retweet. Harad, the Austin-based author of the memoir “Coming to My Senses,” is cultivating a global community of Flower Report fans.  When your Twitter feed is filled with  pictures of blooms posted from Portland and Paris, Brooklyn and Melbourne, Hawaii and Barcelona, not to leave out England, Italy, California, Alaska, Saskatchewan, Japan, Kansas, Montana, Germany, Idaho, Massachusetts, Scotland and South Africa, you start to feel your pessimism drain away. For a while at least, the world is smaller, friendlier and filled with loveliness.

Some Flower Report contributors send photos taken at famous botanical gardens; others tweet pictures of their own backyards, or of urban sidewalk planters, or wildflowers by the side of the highway. Some tweeters are knowledgeable about the names of flowers, while others ask for help in identifying a juicy specimen snapped on a walk around the block. The variety of flowers on display is head-spinning: Hydrangeas, peonies, sunflowers, thistle, delphiniums, poppies, fuchsias, lilies, milkweed, daisies, lupines, sweet peas, hibiscus, bougainvillea and a riot of roses.

The Sunday Flower Report is a weekly reminder that there is beauty in this world. But, by coincidence, many of the awful events of 2016 have taken place on Sundays — on March 27, it was the terrorist attack in Lahore, Pakistan;  June 12, the mass shooting at Orlando’s gay dance club, The Pulse; July 3, the terrorist attack in Baghdad; July 17, the killing of three police officers in Baton Rouge.

Harad says that the Flower Report wasn’t meant to be a response to these terrible events, but it evolved into “a meeting point as we live through them. I try hard not to tweet or RT anything but the Flower Report on Sunday, even when there is breaking news. I try to hold that space open. But I do usually tweet something to connect the Flower Report to ongoing events, because I find it weird and upsetting not to acknowledge world events and collective pain. Connection is always better than suppression.”

Harad first made this connection when news of the Easter Sunday suicide bombing in Lahore broke during the Flower Report. “The attack took place in a park — a park! [Gulshan-e-Iqbal] So horrifying. And I thought, well, there must be photographs of this park. A park is a place where, among other things, people go to look at flowers. And I was right. There were many heartbreaking photos taken by people who had gone to this beautiful, popular park to look at the scenery. So I tweeted a few of them. It was a small thing, but sometimes small things help. It felt very important to me to see and know that park as something besides a site of terror.”

More Sunday horrors followed, and on those days, the Flower Report became a space of remembrance and peace. The following two tweets are from July 3, the day of the Baghdad suicide bombing that killed more than 300 people in the city center and a busy shopping mall.

On July 10, after a bruising week that included the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the sniper attack on police officers in Dallas and the arrest of more than 100 protestors at a demonstration against police brutality in Baton Rouge, Harad tweeted, “Friends, I am here for your flower report filings throughout the evening. We need extended blossom time this week.”

Judging from Twitter profiles, the majority of Harad’s contributors have been women. Which makes sense — Twitter can be a hostile environment, especially for women, but the Flower Report is an oasis of civility amid the never-ending fractiousness.

The alluring blooms, and the conversations that spring up about them, are also difficult to scroll past with just a cursory glance. These posts defy the lightning pace of Twitter, coaxing you to slow down and really look at the flowers. This Georgia O’Keeffe-like effect of the Flower Report lingers between Sundays. All week, you’re more alert to the flora around you, ditching selfies to focus on a velvety red rose glistening with raindrops, or a field of lavender bending in the breeze — little visual gifts to share with your fellow Flower Reporters. Says Harad, “I love the singular vision of individual tweets. Everyone has a different way of looking at flowers.”

Harad says it’s impossible to choose favorite posts, but “we definitely have some VIP correspondents who provide beautiful photos every week and really let us in to the floral life of their regions. I have a correspondent in Hawaii who always sends me something shocking that I’ve never seen before, and one in England who seems to be some kind of herbalist and sends flowers with glorious, hilarious names. I also get very excited when someone reports from a place we haven’t seen before.”

Harad is such an enthusiastic and committed caretaker of the Flower Report that it’s surprising to learn she did not plant this virtual garden. That honor belongs to writer Teju Cole. “Teju did many interesting Twitter projects,” says Harad. “In fact, he was so good at Twitter that he had to quit . . . Because I’m such a Teju Cole fan and have a much smaller Twitter presence than he did, I was nervous about trying to take on the report, but I did a search of the hashtag and turned up a bunch of tweets from people saying they missed it, including one from myself in 2015 wondering if I should restart it. So I figured, well, why not try it? Someone who knows Teju personally told him about the revival and he wrote me a very sweet note after the first round, which gave me a wonderful sense of official permission.”

And what happens when the frost comes? Harad says, “That is open for discussion. I originally intended it as a spring project, but people were very vocal about their need for it to continue [through the summer], so here we are. I would love it if we got more tweets from the Southern Hemisphere as their spring and summer arrive.” For now, Harad says, she plans to keep the Flower Report going at least through the fall.

I’ll add my voice to the call for Flower Report to stay with us year-round. We desperately need this little place of refuge to revive our battered spirits in a world that often seems determined to crush them. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

(To contribute to the Sunday Flower Report, use the hashtag #FlowerReport or tweet your flower photos to @alyssaharad.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016