I am in the kitchen preparing my graduate seminar on the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas when I come upon a line in his essay “Totality and Infinity,” in which he critiques beauty as “indifference, cold splendor and silence.” I glance out the window and see a patch of dahlias I planted last spring. They are wild and leggy now, toppling over one another in a riot of pale orange blooms.
Well, Levinas is clearly wrong, I think, and it’s just a shame that he didn’t have more flowers.
This is only the second year I have planted dahlias at home. Last year I grew a dark purplish variety — nearly black — amid a bed of red, orange, yellow and fuchsia zinnias from seed packets given as a gift to my daughter on her eighth birthday. After the last frost, we carefully pressed the flower seeds into the soil and, following the advice of the wise witch Strega Nona from my daughter’s storybook, watered them and sang them a song under the full moon. The dahlias were an afterthought. I dug two nubby tubers into the ground with my bare hands and wished them luck. In late summer they bloomed among the zinnias like inky stones in a fire.
This year, I was a bit more deliberate, ordering eight dahlia bulbs and spacing them far apart enough to survive, knowing more about their expansive nature. It was going well until a friend’s puppy dug up half of them in July, leaving the soggy and mangled tubers on the patio. But the remaining four pushed on, and in late August they began their annual show. This year we have only a handful of zinnias, the result of chaotic seed distribution too early in the season (without song or ceremony), but the dahlias make up for it with a seemingly endless parade of bright orange blooms, some as large as a dessert plate.
Flowers don’t speak, but despite what Levinas wrote, they are anything but silent. I think of them as a choir in full song, a loud, jubilant and rowdy crew. I’ve never liked delicate flowers that sit back obediently in their beds. Dahlias and Echinacea are my favorites — flowers with big heads that seem slightly prickly or tenacious, a bit wild. They appear toward the end of the summer and carry on their ruckus into the fall, the weight of their blooms toppling them over in the fields. Fat bumblebees nest drunkenly in their petals like patrons at a bar long after last call. Even as the temperatures shift, leaves fall and we start to feel the cold, the dahlias remain defiantly aglow.