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Glass Flowers

The acceptance letter doesn’t mention it, and they don’t tell you at freshman orientation, but one of the unwritten rules of Harvard life is that you are expected to give casual tours of campus to friends and acquaintances who pass through the Boston area. These friends have an almost eerie ability to roll through Cambridge just as deadlines are approaching. Many have never seen the campus before. And whether they say so or not, they expect to be entertained.  

On a campus this rich in history and tradition, that’s not as hard as it sounds. It’s always fun to wave your hand casually at Weld—“Oh, yeah, Mark Zuckerberg lived there”—(he didn’t)—or tell the story of your passing acquaintance with John Harvard’s left foot. You might even get a chuckle by making fun of the Science Center, which is, indeed, ugly.

Ugliness has its place, but beauty is the best form of entertainment. The next time Aunt Ida from Peoria is in town, take her to see the glass flowers.

Between 1887 and 1936, two German glass artists, the father and son team Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, collaborated on a collection of over 3,000 realistic glass models of plants—everything from morning glories to cashew cross-sections to rare North American ferns. The glass flowers are world famous, and rightly so. Each specimen is a mind-boggling technical feat. You would not believe that anyone could make anything like it by hand, let alone with glass and wire.

The collection lives in wooden display cases in a musty room on the top floor of the Harvard Museum of Natural History. In the low light, many of the flowers look real. Not a single twig is out of place. The edge of the smallest leaf is perfectly jagged.

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Walk through the swinging doors into the flower gallery and stand before the Blaschkas' humble workbench. Laid out on the pockmarked surface are a few tools—an awl, pliers of different sizes, small bottles of dye, and a simple burner to heat the glass. The table alone is enough to pull you back into the glassmakers’ world. Did time move slower then? How did it feel to hunch over that desk? Were the Blaschkas proud of their work? Or were they constantly dissatisfied, always striving for the perfect leaf?

It’s understandable that Harvard students don’t like to give tours. Places in themselves don’t matter so much as the memories they’re attached to. To anyone who has forlornly watched the sun rise from Lamont Café, the library will never be just another building. It’s easy to show someone around and feel at the end that the school you’ve just showed off isn’t the one you attend.

I don’t care where Zuckerberg lived. Someday—and I hope it’s soon—they’ll knock down the Science Center and build another one with a little more natural light. That’ll last another fifty years. Everything forgettable will be forgotten.

The flowers are wonderful because they’re the physical trace of two lifetimes of work dedicated to one beautiful, lasting, outrageous dream. To me, that dream manifests as the beauty of perfection and quiet dedication. The flowers are a tribute to tedium.

In the end, though, the exhibit is not about the flowers; it’s about the glassmakers.

The achievement is magnificent, but the beauty is in the obsession, the patience of the execution, the carrying-on of the legacy, and the image of the man with his tools at the desk. In their own subtle way, the Blaschkas teach me how to think about the paradoxes of this school, where everyone has too many passions and there is never enough time.

Every time I take a guest to see the flowers, we always walk out slowly, in a trance, blinking in the brightness of the day. And then, before one of us checks his phone, and oh-look-at-the-time-where-should-we-eat-lunch, we stand together for a minute, in awe of the madness of art.

Eyck A. Freymann ’17 is a Crimson editorial writer in Quincy House.

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