Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Wild onions along Bull Creek

with 42 comments

The last post brought you a picture of a long-jawed orbweaver spider on the stalk of a wild onion, Allium canadense var. canadense, along Bull Creek on April 26th. It occurred to me that I should show you one of the flowering wild onion plants in its own right. How about that looping greenery?

Wild onion leaves are even more elongated than long-jawed orbweaver spiders: hardly wider than a quarter of an inch (7mm) yet as long as 18 inches (46 cm). Below is an abstract take on one of those linear leaves that had yellowed and browned. I don’t remember, may never have known, what created the faint orb below the leaf’s tip. Whatever it was, we can see it as a planet floating in the deep blue and black of cosmic night.


And now Pascal, the thinker, the mathematician, comes to mind: “Le silence éternel des ces espaces infinis m’effraie.” “The eternal silence of those infinite spaces frightens me.” That famous line is at the end of this passage from his Pensées, his Thoughts:


“Quand je considère la petite durée de la vie, absorbée dans l’éternité précédente et suivante, le petit espace que je remplis, et même que je vois, abîmé dans l’infinie immensité des espaces que j’ignore et qui m’ignorent, je m’effraie et m’étonne de me voir ici plutôt que là, pourquoi à présent plutôt que lors. Qui m’y a mis? Par l’ordre et la conduite de qui ce lieu et ce temps a-t-il été destiné à moi? Memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis.

“Pourquoi ma connaissance est-elle bornée? Ma taille? Ma durée à cent ans plutôt qu’à mille ? Quelle raison a eue la nature de me la donner telle, et de choisir ce nombre plutôt qu’un autre, dans l’infinité desquels il n’y a pas plus de raison de choisir l’un que l’autre, rien ne tentant plus que l’autre?

“Combien de royaumes nous ignorent!

“Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie.”


“When I consider the shortness of a lifetime, absorbed as it is into the eternity that comes before it and the one that comes after it, the tiny space I take up, and yet that I can see, lost in the infinite immensity of those spaces I know nothing about and that know nothing about me, then I get frightened and bewildered at finding myself here rather than there, and I wonder why now and not some other time. Who put me here? By whose order and whose actions was this place and time destined for me? Memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis. (Pascal is quoting from The Book of Wisdom: “The remembrance of a guest of a single day that passes away.”)

“Why is my consciousness limited? My size? The length of my life a hundred years rather than a thousand? What was nature’s reason for making my life like this, and for choosing this number instead of another one, in the infinity of numbers for which there’s no reason to pick one over another, given that none has any more appeal than any other?

“How many realms know nothing about us!”

“The eternal silence of those infinite spaces frightens me.”


© 2019 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 25, 2019 at 4:40 AM

42 Responses

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  1. Excellent.


    May 25, 2019 at 5:32 AM

  2. Perfect.


    May 25, 2019 at 5:40 AM

  3. You thought of Pascal. I looked at that elongated leaf and remembered the wonderful old bluegrass song: “I Ain’t Broke, But I’m Badly Bent.” It’s a bit philosophical, in its own way.


    May 25, 2019 at 7:53 AM

    • You prompted me to search for “bluegrass philosophy” (without quotes) and I got close to two million hits. Almost all of the those that I looked at aren’t what you had in mind, but here’s one that is:


      Steve Schwartzman

      May 25, 2019 at 3:50 PM

      • I really enjoyed that article. And, once again, everything leads back to mathematics. Looking at the photos another time, I had to grin: there’s the ellipse in the first photo, and the (implicit) triangle in the second. It brought to mind something I recently read, from the writings of Galileo:

        ““Philosophy is written in that great book which ever is before our eyes — I mean the universe — but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. The book is written in mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.”


        May 26, 2019 at 7:39 PM

        • When I taught math of course I covered the requisite material but always managed to squeeze in biographical information about great mathematicians and quotations from them. What you quoted from Galileo is a good example of something that should be on a poster in a math classroom. As for photography, as you pointed out, geometry reigns in that realm.

          Steve Schwartzman

          May 26, 2019 at 8:06 PM

  4. That’s a pretty convoluted flower head! I think we have had the conversation before about our wild onions. Mine are three-cornered-leeks (Allium triquetrum) and their heads hang down rather like an English bluebell. They are pretty invasive down here in the damp county 🙂


    May 25, 2019 at 12:58 PM

    • This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this species do a loop-de-loop. I don’t know why it happens or if it serves and purpose. I looked at the Wikipedia article on Allium triquestrum so I could remind myself of the downward-hanging flowers you mentioned:


      I also see that the species is invasive not just in your damp country but in Australia and New Zealand as well.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 25, 2019 at 3:55 PM

  5. The first image is a natural bouquet, quite lovely.


    May 25, 2019 at 5:40 PM

  6. All that wonderful loopiness of the wild onion is quite cool.

    Steve Gingold

    May 25, 2019 at 6:16 PM

  7. I opened the post to see the pics and got a bonus from the French and Latin passages. Thanks!

    Jenny Meadows

    May 25, 2019 at 6:48 PM

  8. It’s all relative? Food for thought, Steve. Beauty and mathematics – so closely intertwined . . .


    May 25, 2019 at 8:14 PM

  9. What a fascinating and thought-provoking posting, Steve. I majored in French as an undergraduate a long time and I remember reading Pascal’s Les Pensées. I am glad that you included the original text. It is my experience that you lose something in a translation, even if it is good. I noted for example that the translation for “Par l’ordre et la conduite de qui ce lieu et ce temps a-t-il été destiné à moi?” left out any sense of the word “lieu” when it was translated as “By whose order and whose actions was this time destined for me?” Yes, I am a geek. “L’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature; mais c’est un roseau pensant.” 🙂

    Mike Powell

    May 25, 2019 at 9:24 PM

    • Quelle coïncidence, n’est-ce pas? Could be the lead-in to a joke: Two former French majors walk into a blog….

      The missing translation for lieu was my mistake. You might say I was a weak reed with respect to it. Thanks for pointing out the omission. I’ve added the word back in.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 26, 2019 at 7:31 AM

      • I was not looking to show you up, Steve and hope it did not come across that way. It is remarkable that we were both French majors. Early on, several of my friends noticed that my personality changed when I spoke French–I was more outgoing, more sensitive, and more artistic. Over the course of my adult life I have endeavored to make my English-language personality more like my French-language one. I took my last French class in 1976, but my French is still amazingly intact–you never forget your first love.

        Mike Powell

        May 26, 2019 at 7:43 AM

        • No, I didn’t take it amiss at all. Nerds of a feather, and all that: I often notice mistakes and point them out to people. It’s rare that I go to a museum without finding an error in the explanatory plaques that accompany the works on display. In one recent example, the death year given for a painter was before the painter’s birth year.

          My French is pretty rusty, especially because I never lived in a French-speaking country the way I lived in a Spanish-speaking country (two years in Honduras). Nevertheless, a lot of French words and constructions remain inside me. I still remember the forms for almost all the irregular verbs.

          Steve Schwartzman

          May 26, 2019 at 8:22 AM

  10. I dug wild onions twice last week. I have savored every bite of them too! It was easy to dig them this year with all of the rain, and I’ll probably have a bit longer to enjoy harvest. Ours have not flowered yet, so I’ll enjoy your images for now. Nice philosophical thoughts, Steve. I’m often humbled out in nature, when I think about how big all of this is.


    May 26, 2019 at 12:43 PM

    • I don’t often get so philosophical here. Pascal will do that to you.

      Good for you for harvesting your wild onions. The heavy rains may have their downside, as you commented elsewhere, but they made it easier for wild onions to go from the ground to your mouth. Happy wild onion flowers when you get them.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 26, 2019 at 2:04 PM

  11. Nice post! It deserves a closer inspection, one that awaits an hour’s drive from where I presently sit! Will enjoy it at home!

  12. For wild onions, those are rather pretty. Ours have only a few pendulous flowers, and look rather weedy. They really are aggressive and difficult to get rid of. I should try to pickle some of them. I have not observed them well enough to know when they are in season.


    May 27, 2019 at 7:04 PM

  13. The Pascal quotes are very interesting….I’ve had the opposite feeling many times, being comforted when faced with how incredibly small and insignificant I am.It just feels like thigs are set back in order to me when I’m confronted with overwhelming space. But I think Pacal’s experience wasn’t so much in nature, but more in his mind, so I can see how frightening it would feel. Interesting! And your photos – wonderful! I love the all-tied-up knots of the wild onion, as well as that beautiful leaf – so poignant.


    May 30, 2019 at 7:39 PM

    • So we’ve both waxed philosophical in posts this week. I think you’re right that Pascal’s experiences were more in his head—he was a mathematician, after all. In addition, Pascal was sickly and unfortunately lived to be only 39. How interesting that your reaction to the vastness of the universe is the opposite of the one he expressed in the quoted passage.

      You’ve reminded me that as I was heading back to my car from the wild onions an unknown guy who was walking faster caught up with me and we ended up getting in a philosophical discussion. The things that wild onions can lead to….

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 30, 2019 at 8:19 PM

  14. […] of the creek. Mixed in were a few remnants of the wild onions (Allium canadense var. canadense) you saw here in May of that year. New giant ragweed plants (Ambrosia trifida) were coming up in some of the […]

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