Upon entry to Pembroke College at Cambridge University, visitors are greeted by a rather unwelcoming picket sign that reads “Please keep off the grass.” The sign’s leg gingerly presses into the ground it silos, as if embarrassed. The warning is first issued in English and then repeated in three more languages. A bit excessive for the handful of brooch-wearing academics who pass it.
Behind it, a square of pretty green fans out. It’s postcard perfect, bathed in sunlight and surrounded by cobblestone paths and ivied brick buildings. The weather has blemished the grass with a few dry patches, where green has faded to a pearish yellow like worn out denim. It’s not Eden, but it’s eye candy. And entirely off-limits.
The “please” on the sign gave me pause. In my tidy memory, American signs aren’t so polite, or arguably passive aggressive. The “please,” I later confirmed, is pretense. As a few of us waited for the cafeteria to open, I squatted on the edge of the lawn, taking up maybe an inch of real estate.
Suddenly, a porter — something like a British cop — pounced. In her vested navy uniform, she reminded me of a cartoon constable, or Javert. I felt less bad about the caricature after she yelled: “Get your ass off the grass!”
Her accent lampooned the swear, and I’m pretty sure I laughed. She was smiling too, more of a snarl, gummy and glib. I slinked off the edge and sat on the ground, wondering if she chases away the birds too.
July gobbled us in a heat wave, and I started to resent the lawn. Every day the sun burned, wiped its brow and blazed even brighter. I walked by the lawn often, imagining the blades cooling my back while I watched clouds or read a book. Sometimes I’d make the grass something bigger — a metaphor for administrative tyranny, a token of Kierkegaard’s dilemma, a foot-stained landmark like Wordsworth’s Brooklyn Ferry.
Why not fence it off? I grumbled one night. My friends nodded like Roman senators beneath lozenges of yellow light. The ice in my Aperol Spritz did a somersault when one of the girls suggested we picnic on the lawn. I liked her more after that.
An hour earlier, we had watched “Twelfth Night” in the gardens at Downing College a few blocks over. A sparse, soft rain fell over unrolled blankets and unboxed wine. I left with a flash of fire in my heart and brimstone in my liver.
There are other green spots at Pembroke and many more in Cambridge, but the absurd restriction was etched in my head. I imagined the red rope they use at movie screenings. Cambridge touts tradition in tandem with prestige, so the campus sometimes calcifies into a museum. The buildings, assembled from brick and stone, are weathered and exquisite. Leafy green plants twist and curl around walls with the poise of a serpent. They represent — embody, radiate, consecrate — history’s beauty and its authority.
But it’s hard to stay out when heat rolls on. Air-conditioned spaces are sparse in Britain, and the Fitzwilliam Museum is one of the few respites. After winding through the portrait gallery and Medieval art, the museum opens into a honey-mustard room dedicated to flower paintings.
I like flowers and jewels more than I like pictures of them. There’s a moment in “Antony and Cleopatra” when Enobarbus exalts Cleopatra’s beauty and says, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/ Her infinite variety.” I squinted at the vases, trying to cull “infinite variety” from a carousel of naturalist still-life.
All flower paintings carry ideas of impermanence, the transience of life and riches. It’s dread-laden symbolism and inescapable. When I couldn’t find a favorite, I let my eyes glaze over an unassuming frame.
Jan Brueghel I’s “A Stoneware Vase of Flowers” spotlights a bouquet with fluffy white roses, daffodils, forget-me-nots. The tulips flush like runny egg yolk. Flowers crowd the vase, competing to be seen. Lithe stems perk, bulbs slump. Diamonds and pearls laze beside the vase, discarded, on the same plane as leggy insects and fallen sprigs.
The longer I stared at it, the deeper my brow creased. Brueghel’s imagination melted the impossible. To dazzle viewers, he married flowers from different provinces and flowers from different seasons — a fantasy of splendor sobered by subtext, the juxtaposition of material wealth to bloom’s evanescence.
I wish the symbol of ephemerality was something I liked less. These paintings weren’t washed in the luminous empathy of Emil Nolde’s peonies or caressed by Van Gogh’s weepy irises.
I read on a milky placard that this kind of art offers radical possibilities to suspend decay; that when Brueghel’s dragonfly perches on the lip of an iris, it animates life and freshness. Turning back to the painting, I caught the silliage of Neutrogena sunscreen. In this garden of oil on canvas, nothing was fresh. The room was wilting from tempus fugit.
I passed gold-rimmed clocks and rosewood cabinets, but the memory of the lawn pushed its way forward. From a distance, I can understand the aesthete, share their appetite to behold verdant carpet like waxy diorama. But the tug of awe is strong and reason begins to flicker.
The lawn at Pembroke eats sunlight and drinks water. The blades look supple and impossibly soft. It’s meant to be a site of license and loose-limbed abandon. A place to dream about dreams and lose track of time.
The grass’s alive, lush potential invites me to siphon a bit of courage and gut my doubt. A slap on the wrist isn’t going to sprain it. Instead of imagining somewhere else, the bladed bed can transform where I already am. To forget where I begin and where the earth ends, basking under the sun’s buttery light.