POSTCARD: The Poppies of Picardy

BLERANCOURT, France—The countryside of Picardy is dotted with poppies. They grow on the edges of the wheat, sugar beet and potato fields, under the fences of cow pastures, and on the shoulders of the “autoroutes”. When I first arrived in Blérancourt, I was constantly reminded of the scene in “The Wizard of Oz,” in which Dorothy and company attempt to cross a field of the red flowers and, succumbing to their deadly influence, fall into a drug-induced sleep.

Of course, the flowers that I walk by on a daily basis don't have quite the same effect. When I told my French roommate of the association I had with the poppies, she laughed and told me that the wildflowers were so commonplace that she rarely took the time to think about them.

Poppies do, however, hold symbolic meaning for the people of the region. Here called “coquelicots,” they stand for the fallen soldiers of WWI. The flowers are hardly the only mark of the Great War on the landscape; graveyards of French, English, and American soldiers are almost as common as the wildflowers, and even the smallest village has some kind of monument dedicated “à nos morts.” In the nearby town of Coucy-le-Chateau-Auffrique, the abandoned remains of some kind of World War I German weaponry were until recently hidden in the undergrowth of a forest that has sprouted up over the last century.

Though I personally associate the flowers much more strongly with a scene from my favorite childhood movie, they are in fact a frequent feature of Veteran's Day in the United States and of other Remembrance Days around the world. WWI poet John McCrae famously wrote, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row.” Somewhat more recently the flowers appeared in a Captain Beefheart song: “It don't get me high / It can only make me cry / Your Veteran's Day poppy.”

It was not until I was living here, though, that I registered the darker associations of the brightly colored flowers. I have often heard people remark, after traveling in Europe, that there is a greater sense of history here, and that in the United States the marks of our country's comparatively short history are often too easily erased. But I have found these wild memorials of the fields of war to be much more powerful than any of the manually built ones. Here, the poppies blossom annually as reminders of the blood lost in these very same fields. But even as they stand in memory of the anonymous dead, they are also markers of the regenerative nature of the land. Though it was once devastated by war, the countryside is now lushly green, save for the occasional field of red coquelicots.

Rachel A. Burns ’11, a Crimson arts associate editor, is an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House.