Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On Stemware

or How Are You Holding Up?

I have always adored stemware—its sensual elegance; the feel of the bowls nestling so perfectly in your hand; the interplay of curves and lines; the way the liquid, whether ruby wine or clear water, floats transcendently above the mere food at table level.

But do you know, I don't recall ever being impressed by the actual stems.   They exist to hold the flower of the glass, as it were, aloft, but unless their proportions are either extremely nice or extremely poor, they tend not to draw my attention.   (Lately the trend in spiffy shops is toward "stemless wineglasses," which in my youth we just called "glasses."   A stemless wineglass completely misses the point of the stem, which is to allow you to warm the wine or not, depending on the variety.  When the stem is taken away, not only do we lose form, but we also lose function, and then we have the privilege of paying more for this less useful, less attractive object that took fewer materials and less skill to make.   We are supposed to do this because it's trendy.  As far as I'm concerned, the stemless wineglass is yet another symbol of Commercialism Gone Wrong.)   (Don't worry—this rant wasn't entirely pointless.)

Last week I made a vague promise to discuss plant stems in an upcoming blog.   Having prowled my entire garden daily since then (thus occupying a good minute of my time every day), what I have discovered is that, for the most part, stems are not very interesting.

"Coronation Gold" yarrow, drumstick allium, and Mexican hats (with bonus seed heads for Dramatic Effect)

On the other hand, the stems that are interesting could stop a clock:

"Blackie" sweet potato vine, golden purslane, burgundy amaranth, Malabar spinach, He-shi-ko bunching onion (a stem I love, because if it didn't have a flower on top, it would be a leaf), and rainbow chard

Despite their contrasts, both sets of stems bring me back to the idea of usefulness and the ways useful objects can symbolize values in general (which is a place I never expected this post would lead).  In an odd way, the stems make me think of furniture.   Whereas the first collage suggests a Shaker aesthetic, with its austerity of line, sturdy functionality, and undeniable natural warmth, the pictures in the second collage bring the Arts and Crafts movement to mind:   they have all the simplicity and usefulness of Shaker wares but none of the austerity, glorying in shape and material as well as in purpose. 

Purpose and beauty.   Yes.   Something that intrigues me about these pictures is that the best stems in my garden belong to the edible plants.   I'm not claiming a cause and effect relationship here, just that the combination is a happy one when it occurs.   I enjoy knowing that the most beautiful stems are the ones that will soon grace my table, that they will both nourish and delight me. 

Purpose and beauty—at the risk of becoming a little too grandiose, let's hold that combination aloft here, to float transcendently above the mere words on the screen.   Purpose and beauty are the water and wine of our daily lives, quenching our thirst and inspiring us.   Even the dullest stems are reminders of the deep satisfaction to be had when form and function meet.  They stand opposed to the stemless wineglass, the commercial Product that has neither art nor use, that exists only to be sold, and that is destined to disappoint.

Ladies and gentlemen, I call a toast:   To stems, wherever you may find them!


  1. 'How are you holding up?' Good, I enjoyed this post, in a different direction, just as much as the last one. Love posts that weave threads together and take you on an unexpected journey. I have a glass, on a stem, which fits my hand perfectly and makes my eye and heart sing! From the same Swiss Hergiswil factory that made my glass Advent wreath.

  2. Thanks, EE. I looked up Hergiswil--such beautiful workmanship! I can imagine your favorite glass being one to sing about.

  3. Lovely. I love to stop and consider the details of plants and your photos are beautiful.