No Accounting for Symbolism – or, Library Pressed Flowers

Generally speaking, one prefers that unexpected things not fall out of library books onto one’s face.

Yet there I was a few weeks back, curled up in bed, engrossed in Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, when I turned a page and—well, the next thing I knew, my limbic system had kicked on and I was scrambling aside, swatting at my face and staring at the dark fluttering thing now landing on my sheets.

It was a leaf: a red, ferny-looking leaf three inches across and three inches tall, perfectly pressed and delicate as rice paper. My rudimentary field botany skills (read: my Googling skills), tell me it came from a lace-leaf variety of Japanese maple.

Having determined the item was neither dangerous nor disgusting, I let my overactive heart rate settle and gingerly lifted the leaf. My first feeling was regret—my own attempts to press flowers have all ended as spectacular disappointments, so my sense was that this beautiful artifact had been of great value to whomever had placed it between the pages of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. I regretted having no way of restoring this treasure to them.

Some of this feeling stemmed from a sense of community I shared with whomever had read the book before me. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory is a series of essays about death, dying, funerals, body disposal, culture, grief, and the uncertainties of life and living. In other words, it is an excellent book that attracts a specific tribe. Merely knowing this leaf had been pressed between these pages by a kindred spirit gave me a sense of doomed obligation.

But then I considered that this was a library book, which is to say that it was an inherently impermanent fixture in any home. Surely whomever had placed this leaf between these pages realized that by choosing this book, they were doubling down on ephemerality? Surely they would not have risked storing a treasure within the pages of such a book? Perhaps their intention, then, was not to preserve the leaf in the usual sense. So what was the intention? 

Was this a small, quiet piece of art, meant to be discovered by one lucky winner? 

An expression of solidarity, on the assumption that anyone reading such a book may be experiencing a profound loss?

Or was it a gift from one member of the community to the next? 

A soft hello?

Or maybe just a fit of whimsy meant to be a pleasant surprise?

I got up and moved the leaf to my writing desk, where it would be safe, my mind flickering from previous meditations on library book marginalia, to memories of my own pressed-flower disasters, to other times I’d discovered small beautiful lost treasures, before settling on the realization that I was, in all likelihood, overthinking the entire experience.

By the time I finished Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I’d discovered two more treasures within its pages: an inch-and-a-half-wide white flower with five round petals, and a comparably-sized chain of tiny rounded, pale green leaves. Each startled me as it tumbled from the book onto my face. Each ended up deposited carefully on my writing desk.

Pressed flowers call to my mind several references: Hamlet’s Ophelia, for one, who starts dispensing symbolic flowers and herbs in her madness. Dried flowers here are linked with grief, and lost love and trust. Shakespeare doesn’t say the flowers are pressed, but I’ve always pictured them that way.

There’s one in the symphonic metal song “Nemo” by Nightwish: “my flower withered between the pages two and three.” Nemo here is from the Latin, meaning “no man,” or “nobody.” I’ve always understood the flower in the song to refer to possibilities arrested and wasted in their prime, preserved too early, removed from the natural flow of time. A mournful half-existence.

Finally, a pressed wildflower appears in a religious movie I watched throughout my childhood. At a moment just preceding a separation, our hero gives our heroine a spray of wildflowers. She closes them in a book, not knowing if she will ever see him again. At the end of the movie, our heroine, now an elderly widow, reveals that she has kept the flowers in the book through all the ensuing years. They are frail and delicate, but still vibrant. Here, they represent enduring love—not love lost, but the promise that what is lost can be restored. The act of keeping them has given them potency.

Obviously there’s no accounting for symbolism, then. All these flowers’ meanings are completely dependent upon context clues.

But at the same time, these images all came readily to my mind. Something about pressed flowers carries meaning for me, enough that I’ve now cultivated a peculiar degree of vexation over the matter.

I wonder how much thought the other library patron put into imagining the recipient of their leaves? In placing the leaves, they must have considered the next borrower at least in passing, thinking, I wonder what they’ll do with these? I wonder if they’ll like them? I wonder what they’ll think? 

Libraries fascinate me in part because the web of connection tends to be somehow invisible. Here I am in Las Vegas, a metro area containing millions, and in borrowing a library book, I’m oblivious to other hands until someone else’s treasures flutter across my field of vision. Only then am I transported, wondering whether the plants came from someone’s private garden, or from a trip out of state; wondering why these plants, or whether there was a conscious why at all; wondering wondering wondering, until finally I have to wonder if the mystery borrower had any notion they were setting the stage for a compulsive wonderer to wonder herself silly trying to wonder herself into their mind?

I never would have thought to wonder about this stranger—and now I’m wondering to a truly absurd degree.

This is a meeting of minds, if only a small one. But then, any library book is—isn’t it? A progression of minds seeking the same images, though often for different reasons. The same artifact passing through many hands, under many gazes, meaning many things. Not a meeting, then, but a series of momentary convergences, like proverbial ships passing in the night. Perhaps even the sense of community I felt was false, an invention of my human meaning-making mind. Maybe the leaves were just leaves. Maybe a child stuck them there with no thought beyond the present. 

There’s no accounting for symbolism, after all.


Have you ever found an interesting artifact in a library book? A note? A ticket-stub bookmark? Share in the comments below!

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