Saturday, April 7, 2012

Tulips & Pyramids

Tulips & Pyramid by deanv41
Tulips & Pyramid, a photo by deanv41 on Flickr.

Is there a more commanding flower than the tulip? When its season comes around each Spring, I can almost understand the impulse that drove the Dutch Tulip Mania of the 17th Century when a speculative bubble pushed the price of prized bulbs up to a factor of ten times a craftsman's yearly wage. Everyone across Dutch society from the most humble laborer to the aristocracy began to dabble in tulips. This mass absurdity was clearly unsustainable, but manias are only crackpot in retrospect.
Imagine the shock of Europeans encountering this exotic flower for the first time as no such petal in their own domains came close to the intensity of color and form of the luxurious tulip.

The bulb first arrived in Europe from Turkey (the name 'tulip,' from the Turkish, 'turban') in 1554 via the renowned Flemish herbalist & diplomat, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He is also said to have popularized the lily in the courts of Europe. Ferdinand I of Austria sent Busbecq to Constantinople in order to negotiate a treaty with the Sultan over the disputed territory of Transylvania. While there, his botanical curiosity led him to the tulip, which he subsequently sent to his friend, the famed horticulturalist, Charles de l"Escluse also known as Carolus Clusius, who acclimated it to the climate of the Netherlands, thus establishing the Dutch tulip bulb industry. The frenzied popularity of the tulip and unbridled market speculation would eventually peak in early 1637, the height of the fabled Tulip Mania, modern finance's first great bubble, and then burst spectacularly.

I mention all of this only to draw a connection between the flowers in above photo to the structure in the background: The Pyramid Center in San Francisco's Financial District, a mighty symbol of Modern Finance and the most recognizable feature of the city's skyline.
The past four years have been marked by the aftershocks of another great bubble, a massive Credit Crunch and subsequent market crash that has yet to stabilize. In its aftermath a wildly lopsided 'recovery' has left the economy more polarized than ever. A real estate mania precipitated the crash and for a majority the flowers of that romance have been replaced with the withering weeds of austerity. A precious few though, those at the top of the pyramid as it were, seem to have emerged from the crisis in full rapacious bloom.

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