Iowa cornfields in late August are a thing to behold. Sure, I’m biased. I love the long formations of parading stalks, their dark green leaves turned dry and hard by the approaching autumn, their tops swaying and rolling in unison with the warm winds, and, of course, their whispering, as hundreds of leaves touch hundreds of leaves, sharing secrets with each other, and, I imagine, making a few slanderous remarks. The promise of a good harvest comes with the smell of dry dirt and the retreating sounds of the Iowa State Fair. A cornfield in late August is a delight.
Ah, but a tulip field in early spring . . . .
Two weeks of cold and rain slowed the tulip blooms in Holland. Every day I bike for groceries with rain jacket pulled tight, stocking cap low to the eyes, gloves soaked to the skin, jeans sponging up the rain, and tennis shoes smelling more and more like wet basement. The Dutch don’t seem to care. Hats and gloves are for people of southern climates. Hundreds of bikes on the streets in the sun and warmth. Hundreds of bikes on the streets in the rain and cold. Children, face forward in the front child seat, round cheeks bright red, water dripping off their chins, make not a complaint. They are bred to endure.
But even the Dutch are looking to the sky for a glimmer of sun this wet and cold spring.
Today, the clouds have vanished, the temperatures have climbed into the high 50’s, and the tulip blooms stretch high and wide. The bike trail my wife and I ride edges the fields in the countryside around Lisse in the Netherlands. The heart of tulip country.
Everywhere the blooms feel the change in weather. Keukenhof, the famous gardens near Lisse, are lined with buses and cars and bikes come to visit and glimpse the momentary beauty of the seven-million spring bulbs planted within. We also cannot resist their pull and spend a few hours walking the gardens with mouths agape.
But the countryside beckons us back to the farms. The narrow canals divide the fields, and the blossoms meld together into giant swaths of color. The last of the aging but still fragrant hyacinths with their muted purple flower and fading green stem are snubbed by the golds and reds and pinks of the vibrant youthful tulips.
We bike along field after field until there are no tourists left. A small cafe sits at the end of the road. No one is inside. The locals sit outside, faces turned to the sun, eyes closed, a glass of wine or beer or a cup of cappuccino on the table, the level marking their spot of last awareness. Two large cats sit on the periphery. Hoping for a mistake.
“Together with my husband we own this. He is standing here for 26 years, and I for 14 years.”
Jol, stylish with spiked hair and dark glasses, flashes smiles with comfortable ease as she takes our order. Her husband, Dick, works the grill and turns out loempias, kippenpootjes, bitterballen, and vlammetjes, among other things. With a deep laugh, he makes fun of the notion of me taking their picture, but then suggests their statute of a Native American as just the right spot for an American photograph.
After they get done laughing at the silliness of it all, Jol tells me that April and May are particularly busy.
“Flowers everywhere. It is very nice that the people are enjoying it very much. Last week was the flower parade. One million people in this area.”
One million people????
Perhaps that makes it less complicated to understand tulip mania. Tulip mania describes the time in Holland during 1636-1637, when the price for a tulip bulb went through the roof. Apparently, folks started buying and selling contracts for future bulbs, that is bulbs still in the ground, and those sales just went higher and higher. Stories are told that the price for one unusual species was equivalent to the cost of a house in Amsterdam or the salary of a skilled laborer for a year. People went nuts based purely on unavailability and desire. Then, in February 1637, the market in tulip bulbs crashed, and that was the end of tulip mania — except for economists and historians writing about its meaning for present day futures markets, option contracts, and the truth or falsity of the tulip mania stories themselves.
Back at the cafe, more customers arrive as the afternoon sun moves to the west. Jol, smiling of course, goes to greet the new arrivals, and Dick, watching her leave with a smile, soon returns to his kitchen.
So here we are, 380 years after tulip mania, sitting in a small cafe in Holland, surrounded by field after field of tulips. We drink our wine, smell the perfumed air, and admire the beauty. But now I can’t help but think, what IS a tulip worth? Or, for that matter, what IS the real value of an ear of corn?
Enough of that. We close our eyes, tilt back our heads, and follow the sun.