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  Features 04/24/02

Pink flamingoes in the front yard

By Maria Moncur

Nature writer Jennifer Price, gestured from the podium Friday morning, capturing her audience's attention as she read, The Pink Flamingo: A Natural History, the second chapter in her popular book entitled Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America, at the O.C. Tanner Symposium.

Price unfolded the mystery of the plastic pink flamingo, its origin, history, and birth in hopes of helping her audience make the connection between something that has become a symbol in society, and man's search for what nature really is.

"I have come to believe, and would like to persuade you, that the blow-molding department in the basement, where they still melt polyethylene crystals with pink dye and extrude the hot pink plastic into flamingo-shaped molds, can be just as useful a place to search for the deepest meanings of nature as the most remote wilds of the Rockies, where I have also looked," said Price.

Price said she began her search by listening carefully to the stories people told her about their uses of the pink flamingo. She said the birds have been stolen off lawns during drunken, late-night outings, taken hiking in the Sierras, and been ice-fishing in the Arctic. Price said everyone had a flamingo story to tell.

Price said the idea of the plastic bird which, when first sold went for $2.76 a pair at Sears and Roebuck, began long before 1957 when it was invented by Don Featherstone in Leominster, Massachusetts. For centuries designers and landscapers attempted to create "nature" in homes and gardens throughout England, and eventually brought the idea to America through Andrew Jackson Downing, a 19th century nurseryman, who went as far as to mow his lawn at night to keep his grounds "untouched" by humans.

"Many believe the idea of nature is out there, not in our everyday lives," Price said, "it is the place where cities are not."

By the 1950s, Price said, society was conditioned for the introduction of unique lawn ornaments. The pink flamingo stood for two things, wealth and pizzazz, along with striking boldness. She said regulation lawns in the sprawling suburbs were littered with the pink pairs.

"Many Americans defined whatever seemed enduring, unique, and absolute as real. Un-Reality, by contrast, was human artifice run amok. What more logical authority to appeal to than nature?" Price said.

She comically said the climax of this growing phenomenon came by 1972.

"When John Waters's movie, 'Pink Flamingos', opened with a shot of the eponymous birds outside the trailer of a three-hundred-pound woman played by the transvestite actor Divine--who vies successfully for the national title of "filthiest person alive" by eating dog feces and murdering her competitors in front of tabloid and TV reporters--it clearly had happened," Price said.

Price went on to elaborate about the procession of the plastic pink flamingo throughout the '80s and '90s. She said sales jumped when the birds were shown on Miami Vice during the '80s and in the '90s when Princeton University students planted a pair in front of their make-shift doublewide classroom. Still she said the questions must be asked; What is good? What is normal? What is nature? What borders have we created?

"These borders--and so many others--are recognizable. All except one lone boundary: Nature and Artifice. In three decades, the baby boomers have broken down borders of every kind. But as we've done so, we've consistently made the wall between nature and not-nature more visible and powerful, and we've left it standing. And this is the last secret, so far, of the pink flamingo. In an age of ever more fluid and negotiable boundaries, an effective boundary marker itself has to mark a boundary that is defined as rigid and absolute. The pink flamingo still works so beautifully because it stakes the UR-boundary that we have used to mark and challenge all others," Price concluded.



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