But What Do Flamingos Mean?
Why can’t I shut up about this?
In 1999, a woman named Jennifer Price published a fascinating — if since largely forgotten — book called Flight Maps. Flight Maps was a collection of essays about the interactions between culture and nature in the U.S., and the most memorable part of the book, the section that inspired the cover art, was the essay “A Brief Natural History of the Pink Flamingo.” This was not about the American Flamingo, or the Greater Flamingos I saw in Sardinia, or Lesser Flamingos, or even the mountain-dwelling, extinction-evading James’s Flamingo. It was about the plastic Lawn Flamingo, and what changes in its range and population said about the state of its habitat – the American lawn, and the American psyche.
When I was a child, my reaction to the pair of Lawn Flamingos my parents received as a gag gift was to paint them blue and declare them lawn herons. But Price’s essay stuck with me ever since I first read it, and I find myself returning to it again and again since my trip. It’s not just that the flamingos are the bird that other people react to — because they react to it, it’s the bird I want to talk about. The Blackcap in our garden was more up close and personal, the Cirl Bunting was in a more beautiful landscape. But just try explaining a Cirl Bunting to nonbirders. Chuk had already forgotten it by the time we got home. That doesn’t happen with flamingos of any sort.
Much of what Price has to say is about lawn art in general, and the oscillations in fashion from the obviously artificial (the regimented gardens of Versailles) to the falsely “natural” (Brown through Olmstead) and how both, when in vogue, express the control of natural resources that great wealth can bring. The Lawn Flamingo was an expression of that control’s expansion to the mass market with the new accessibility of both lawns and plastics to the working class after World War II.
The Lawn Flamingo as we now know it speciated in 1957, produced by Union Products. It was outsold by their other major plastic lawn ornament, a duck. The duck was based on live models, but the flamingo had to be drawn from photographs, since Union Products was based in Massachusetts. Everybody knew ducks, but flamingos represented travel — especially, in those days, to Florida, where the trend of naming things after the species you extirpated to put those things there was already taking strong hold. Flamingos represented tropical beaches — even though the various species have habitats ranging from alkaline lakes to Andean plateaus. Flamingos represented Vegas and Miami and pre-Castro Cuba. They were dyed a vivid hue that annoyed Tom Wolfe. They were a little piece of nature that looked unnatural to the eyes of temperate-clime dwellers, that seemed extravagant, that fit with the mood of a country that no longer needed to concentrate on the necessities of sheer survival, that could splash out a little. Or a lot.
And that, I’ve realized, is what I’m telling people, too, when I return to Missoula and talk about seeing flamingos.
But of course, this is the U.S. interpretation. As I’ve noted before, our whole idea of “the tropics” centers around what was novel to northern Europeans when they set out on their colonizing projects. In a different world with a different cultural history, perhaps, we could be excited about lawn penguins or lawn Ivory Gulls. Or maybe my blue lawn herons.
Photo by Aaron Amendolia