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How Untamed Branches Are an Apt Symbol for Our Turbulent Times

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THE QUINCE ARE half-naked, half in flower. The blooms stand out bright white, points of focus in the broad dark, but the branches are the story: the anatomy of spiky boughs, and the angles and cantilevers they contorted themselves into during their life outdoors, reaching for the sun. Some of them are five feet high and set in their ways, resistant to the touch. “You’re wrestling a tiger,” says the New York-based floral designer Emily Thompson, who orchestrated this massing of flora — a vast organic architecture supported only by itself, without steel frames, and only a few zip ties to bind the joints — for the runway of the designer Jason Wu’s fall 2020 fashion show in Manhattan last February, just before the virus took hold of the city.

Cut flowers, born to live only briefly, plunged in a vase, are a reminder of nature. But branches are nature, defiant however we attempt to tame and arrange them. They take shape following the whims of the wind, fulfilling their own private destiny. They have the patina and energy of age, coming from trees that, undisturbed in their home habitat, could easily outlive us, and they carry these origins with them, a part of the tree standing in for the whole. Taking years to cultivate instead of the mere months a stemmed flower needs, branches as decoration are used almost exclusively for theatrical installations meant to bring height and drama to events, the cavernous dining rooms of elegant restaurants or grand hotel lobbies — a demand that has become even smaller as of late. But at a time when so many of us feel battered by things beyond our control, it’s harder to find comfort in the cool refinement of a simple bloom. The very rawness of branches, their imperfection, speaks to our haunted moment. Indeed, more than ever, Thompson sees their tortured forms as a declaration of life. “This was something that had the weather beating upon it,” she says; “something that had a reaction against and for, and survived.”

Bare, then cloaked in blossom, then bare again, branches continue the trajectory of their life in the wild, even after they’ve been cut. For a dinner last winter in London celebrating a collaboration between the fashion designer Giles Deacon and the linen maker Peter Reed, the florist Kitten Grayson turned magnolia branches into small-scale trees, arching upward from mounds of soil planted on tables covered by white tablecloths. As the evening progressed, the magnolia buds miraculously opened, forming a canopy overhead, with diners, Grayson says, “watching life unfold.” 

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