Photos courtesy of Mary Hilldore Photography
I bought fresh tulips ($7.99) at the grocery store the other day. They weren’t bad, but they are nothing like the 300,000 that will bloom in a few days here—20,000 in my neighborhood alone—courtesy of the City of Holland, Michigan. They’ll line my Historic District walking route, braving gale-force winds, withering heat, or snow, and sometimes all three in their short lives.
Together, the tulips create a riot of color. Individually, each is a floral temptress dressed to kill and experienced in the art of the come-on. “Pick me. No one will see,” whispers the Ollioules. “There are so very many of us! A few won’t be missed,” wheedles the Double Orange Emperor. “Go ahead and pick one,” coaxes the Black Parrot. “You know you want to.”
I do want to. I picture them in vases, gracing rooms throughout my house: on my back porch, on my nightstand and, most decadent of all, in my bathroom. But day after day I resist.
And so does everyone else.
In my town, with temptation at every turn, no one picks the city’s tulips—not the descendants of the Dutch who settled here, and not anyone who is a member of one of several ethnic groups that make up almost 30% of the population today.
You might think it’s because of the “per stem” fine imposed by the city, which, when I first moved here 20 years ago, I heard was $50/stem and recently heard was $150/stem. Except that the “per stem” fine is Holland’s own little urban legend, apparently. I checked the city ordinances and I didn’t see one that was tulip-specific. (The city can fine a tulip picker for violating Sec. 22-5: Mutilating, etc., public property; molesting etc., birds, animals, fish, etc.; all those etceteras offer quite a range of applicability.)
“It’s not that they are worried about the fine, anyway,” says my friend Debra, who lives near downtown. “It’s that they worry about what the neighbors will think.” It’s true. My walking partner and I sometimes see a tulip that’s been downed by natural causes. Neither of us dares carry it home (although it must be a crime of a different sort to abandon beauty where it’s sure to be trampled). For better or for worse, the community’s norms are strong.
“A person would have to be a real low-life to pick someone else’s tulips,” says my neighbor David Myers, author of a bajillion psychology books, including the one you probably had to read in college. “And, although there are such low-lifes,” he adds, “they are usually not the ones doing flower-arranging in their homes. My additional conjecture is that flower-lovers are at low risk for misdemeanor criminality.”
Residents who don’t love flowers have to at least tolerate them. In Holland, tulips literally come with the territory. If you live on any of several designated “Tulip Lane”s, curb-side tulips are not optional. The city plants them as a matter of course.
Figuratively speaking, respect for them also comes with the territory. “When you grow up in Holland, you just know that you don’t pick the tulips,” says my teenage son. “You’re socialized that way.”
The annual Tulip Time Festival plays a key role in that, and the festival’s Kinder Parade—a seemingly endless stream of costumed elementary students from the area schools—is a good example. Students are expected to march with their schools in the parade, regardless of ethnicity (or enthusiasm, for that matter). Schools typically make sure the children have costumes and provide busing to the staging area where the parade begins. The students smile and wave through the first mile, but visibly start to wilt during the second, especially when it’s hot.
The students’ extended families, who get up at 5:30 a.m. to get a prime spot on the parade route (but dutifully wait until 6:00 a.m., at the request of the city, to actually spread out their blankets and set up their chairs) watch them with adoring eyes. But the children must feel eyes of the broader community are upon them, too, sending the message “This is an important part of who we—and you—are.”
Finally, most people understand the tulips’ importance to the local economy. Tulip Time brings about $10 million in business to the area every year and without tulips, there is no Tulip Time. “The fact that there’s considerable public funding going into the tulip planting and maintaining means that there are many folks who watch out for the well-being of the tulips,” says Don Luidens, professor of sociology at Hope College in Holland.
I spoke to the city’s former police captain, in case I was just not hearing about crimes against tulips. He easily recalled the times the tulips had been truly vandalized—all three of them. In 20 years. “There’s no story here,” he told me. “There’s nothing here to write about.”
It’s hard to find examples of integrity these days. Daily we read about CEOs and elected officials lying with abandon and athletes cheating on and off the field. It happens here, too, occasionally. But when it comes to tulips, we stay on the straight and narrow. The Dutch Calvinist settlers here believed in total depravity, which includes the idea that, because of original sin, “all are inclined by nature to serve their own will and desires.” But I think we also have an innate longing for beauty and connection to nature, and to do the right thing. Maybe the real reason we don’t pick the tulips is that, for three weeks every spring, they satisfying those longings.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that we don’t, and that’s remarkable to me. It doesn’t, however, seem to occur to residents that it could be any different. Or maybe it occurs to them but, like the police captain, they think there’s no story here. And that may be the most remarkable thing of all. –Christine MacLean