Harvesting the Rare Narcissus

Ad copy appearing in a U.S. fashion magazine, for a perfume:

They start out early in the morning, the grandfather and the young girl. Walking up the high goat paths, through the alpine valleys, they continue to climb. The way becomes difficult, but the grandfather helps the girl. Finally, the steepness of the path, requires that they use ropes, and here it is the old man’s skill as much as the young girl’s energy, that gets them through. At last, perched high up on the rock face, between the crevices—if they are lucky—they will find the rare narcissus plant. The grandfather, reaching up, plucks it from amongst the boulders, and gives it to the girl, who places it carefully and delicately in her bag. Together they work their way back along the dangerous path and return—finally—to their village, where they are greeted by the townspeople. The little girl shows her treasure, amid general acclaim.  

This is the rare narcissus plant, and now we bring it to you, in this bottle of fragrance which…

Cover note from Connie Voorhees, in a letter to friends:

“The following was written by Jacques to his Texas grandparents, regarding his experience last week when his 7th grade class took on the job of picking narcissus plants as part of a school function. We thought others might enjoy his story. I’ll insert here that the narcissus growing wild on the slopes of the mountains in French Switzerland are a glorious sight. Pickers swarm over the hillsides on sunny days and ship the unopened blossoms all over the world. It has become a business for many and a delight for residents and tourist.”

On that cold, wet, rainy morning we started off towards the school yard—all of us with high hopes the narcissus picking would be called off due to the weather. But when we arrived at the tiny mountain village of Blonay, the school was anything but deserted, in spite of the downpour of rain. Gerald, my Swiss friend and classmate, explained things as follows:

We were going to walk up the steep path into the mountains to an elevation where the narcissuses would not yet be in bloom. It would take about 45 minutes to make the ascent and we would stay up there, between earth and sky, until 4:00 p.m. We would have lunch consisting of cheese, sausage, rhubarb and water.

We started forth. We passed chalets and huts and flocks of sheep. We passed one flock in which Gerald pointed out three of his own sheep. They all looked alike to me, but I didn’t say anything.

There were four groups of children, ten minutes apart. Gerald and I were in the last group. Gerald decided we should be first. So, half running and half walking, we arrived third. The hillside meadow was covered with narcissus, so we had no trouble finding them. We were given instruction in what to do although it was not difficult. Grabbing a narcissus plant, you give a good, strong yank and up it comes. After a few minutes you’d have a considerable bundle of these things building up at your feet. Every once in awhile a person would come along and take your bundle away. I was content to do this for the first hour, but eventually the rain began to get the best of me, and I had only a wool sweater for warmth.

At the base of the meadow I saw a mountain hut with several refugees under the eaves. As I approached, it became clear that they were not refugees, but workers. A huge pile of narcissus had been placed by a long bench. Behind the bench were four seats. The children on the seats were taking bundles of about fifty narcissus and cutting the stems to the same length and putting them aside. I tried to make myself helpful by taking the bundles of narcissus to the stem cutters.

This was an easy job compared to picking narcissuses in wet grass with rain pouring down. But it got to be less easy as more and more bundles were brought down from the wet hillside and were dropped into the pile of ten million narcissus building up at my feet and which I had to quickly transfer to the cutters. As the skill of the cutters improved, so did their requirements. No longer content merely with narcissus placed before them, now they required that the narcissus all be aligned in the same direction, that is to say with the bulbs all at one end. And then they began to care deeply about the precise number of narcissus in each pile. Apparently their chopping knives could only accommodate so many narcissus at a time. And the worst sin of all was to allow even an instant to occur in which a cutter had no narcissus to cut. The cutters hated to wait.

And the pickers on the hillside, and those responsible for delivering the narcissuses down from the hillside, also became adept as the day wore on.   The quantity of narcissus being deposited per minute under the eaves of the hut was increasing at an alarming rate.

I did my best to keep up, but every ten seconds now, several thousand more narcissus bulbs would be dropped at my feet. I would desperately try to sort these out, divide them up into piles of the proper size, and hand them off efficiently to the cutters.   The cutters would expertly take each pile, swipe downwards with a chopping knife, and then hand the tidy bundle to the next laborers in line, who would place them delicately in little cardboard boxes, where they would be offered for sale to tourists and the like, who would then mail them off to their friends in other countries, or to people in German Switzerland, where apparently narcissus do not like to grow.

So, every ten seconds, five million more narcissus would come down from the hill and be plopped into the pile. The pile of ninety billion narcissus was turning every which way—upside down and sideways. No longer able to spend the necessary time to sort them out, I would simply grab whole bundles and virtually throw them at the cutters. The cutters themselves were falling behind now, and as they did so their own sense of style evaporated. They’d hack off whichever end of the narcissus bundle contained the fewest number of bulbs, and then in their turn toss the end result to the packagers. Soon dozens and then hundreds and then thousands of amputated narcissus bulbs began growing at their feet, and I knew that the boxes were containing an increasing percentage of mere stems, with nothing on their ends. But no one seemed to care. Even the packagers, by this time, had lost their sense of perfection and were content to grab a handful of narcissus weeds (as we were increasingly thinking of them) and jam and smash them into the narcissus boxes. Telltale overhangs of squished bulbs and flattened stems were increasingly visible from the boxes, but the quantity of narcissus being harvested from this hillside was nothing short of remarkable.

By 3:00 p.m. the meadow had been swept clean and all of us were utterly drenched and exhausted. As we followed each other single file back down the mountain path, it occurred to me that it would be a long time before I would ever need to see another narcissus.

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