Cultivation

‘I found quite quickly that nothing bored people so immediately and completely as botany.’ — Nan Fairbrother, An English Year

 

 

 

At the risk of being boring… botany and macro-photography of the plant world is something I enjoy. I am just a keen amateur, of course, but when the photography suggestion for the week was ‘Order‘… I immediately thought of seed pods. These are some recent pictures I took of my faded peony. The flowers were stunning–and I did get many pictures of those–but, to me, the seed pods are even more fascinating. (They suggest to me fuzzy slippers, strewn with the limp confetti of spent petals and popped balloon detritus, and a warm and cozy morning after a really good party the night before, which can now be endlessly discussed at leisure and over several cups of coffee while we ponder Who Came and What Was Said.)

But what, I wondered, was inside? So I sliced one in half to peek into the busy command central of future flower production.

Within these tiny packets is an irony. There are few things more DIS-orderly than an untended garden. Yet seed production in the world of plants is an example of order in the most breathtaking sense of the word.

Where the seeds go, and how they are tended is where the hand of man comes in.

‘Each family of flowers—rose, daisy, buttercup—is like a theme of music, and the different species are variations on it.’ — Nan Fairbrother

FairbrotherEnglishYearI am currently re-reading excerpts from Nan Fairbrother’s An English Year.  I return to this book often, actually, as it’s the sort of book not easily absorbed in just one sitting.

When it comes to plants, we connect quite sympathetically:

‘It was on these days that I came to know and love the country. I travelled for miles around, for an active child can go a long way on a bicycle in eight hours. I became so familiar with the trees and flowers that they were nearer and far dearer than any people. I saved up and bought Johns’s Flowers of the Field… I learnt to run down in a flora the flowers I did not know. I struggled with botany books on osmotic pressure and the history of flowering plants and the difference in structure between monocotyledons and dicotyledons.’

And perhaps, if she were alive today, she might also be slicing seed pods, arranging them in the best light, (perhaps while balancing them on her knees) and holding a little phone camera as steadily as possible to best capture an interior world and glimpses of a colorful future.

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Nan Fairbrother

Pink is Deep

garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

A selection of garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

Louise Beebe Wilder has a lot to say on the subject of pink. The writer (in this house, the beloved writer) of Color in My Garden and later, The Garden in Color, is something of an authority.

I read her words on the subject of pink with a mingling of modern amusement (thank our snarky age of disbelief) and respectful awe.

There is a chapter on ‘Rose Pink’, but her chapter entirely devoted to the strangely unloved ‘Magenta the Maligned‘ is not to be missed. If you’re a gardener, or even an artist who works from, and is inspired by, color, there are some eye opening opinions here.

Besides, perhaps, the mysterious ‘puce’, made famous by Georgette Heyer’s books, (oh, the intrigues of a ‘puce sarsinet’)….. I had never known a color to be so despised. Apparently it is the undertone of purple that causes the problem? The problem described by Wilder as:

‘the horror of great masses of magenta phlox and tiger lilies…’ planted in old ladies’ gardens…

At any rate, ‘rose pink’ is beyond reproach in the June garden, whereas ‘magenta’? Viewed with suspicion and distrust. There is not much that raises the ire of a pleasant writer such as Louise Beebe Wilder, but she certainly vents against those, as she terms it, ‘the sins of our nurserymen who try to pass off magenta as rose pink’.

As you can see, strong terms are used against this shade of pink.

The pictures I have chosen to accompany this post are ones I took just yesterday, from my own garden. Pink is very much the color of the season around here, and I would like to think we are all innocent fluffiness in our pink associations. Nothing ‘horrible’ or ‘tasteless’.  I would like to think that Wilder would have felt safe having tea in my garden, and highly approved of this color; it is closer to what she would call ‘rose pink’, than the virulent magenta.

But in case you’re curious about the magenta prejudice from other gardeners, here are a few quotes from Wilder’s book:

‘Nearly every writer upon garden topics pauses in his praise of other flower colors to give the despised one a rap in passing.’ [the ‘despised one’ i.e. magenta]

Mr. Bowles: ‘That awful form of floral original sin, magenta.’

Gertrude Jekyll: ‘Malignant magenta’.

Mrs. Alice Morse Earl: ‘usually so sympathetic and tender toward all flowers, says that, “even the word magenta”, seen often in the pages of her charming book, “makes the black and white look cheap.”‘ — From Color in My Garden

So there you have it. Who knew? Pink is deep.

One Frond, Unfurling

One frond, unfurling
Bright fern, quiet uncurling
Winter undoing

The world outside is nudging us awake. The nearby woods, the wetlands, the ferns…the daffodils….those sweetly voiced robins…they are getting on with business, and what a delightful business it is!

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I have a particular interest in the unfurling of ferns. There is, perhaps, nothing else that better speaks to an awakening after winter than this welcome sight in the woods.  The first glimpse of that lovely, buoyant green appearing above the tops of decay is a burst of fresh happiness.

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My own winter sleep went a bit longer than I’d planned, and was, dare we say…unscheduled. A well-stocked library is always a good place for hibernating, especially when one is immersed in the 12th century. Or Jane Austen’s footwear. Or the 18th dynasty of Somewhere Grand. Or pondering the mystery of one’s own great grandmother. Or toying with the idea of becoming conversant in glottal stops and fricatives just for fun, only to realize it’s not that fun.

Remember Frances Theodora Parsons? I’m enjoying her book a great deal for its quaint tone as much for its vigorous encomiums of the lowly fern, and before I know it I’m thoroughly immersed in her world of silvery spleen-worts, adder’s tongues, bulblet bladders and fruiting fronds. She was a champion, you could say, of this often overlooked species.

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She quotes a great deal from Thoreau–being terribly fond of him–and I enjoyed these words, as I always enjoy a bit of ‘thither-ness’ with my morning coffee:

‘It is no use to direct our steps to the woods if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in  spirit.’ — Thoreau

 

Be not alarmed–these pictures of ferns and ‘moss-worts’ are from my own backyard, where I was quite present in the moment. We are a little behind in the unfurling stage, it is true, but I hope to bring you more pictures in a few days of the ‘big, woolly croziers‘, as Frances Theodora Parsons calls them with such affection.

Stay tuned, as we awaken and unfurl. The young lady responsible for many of the meticulous drawings in Parson’s books––as well as the riveting “descriptions of the Woodwardias“––Marion Satterlee; is a fascinating young lady in her own right. I’ll be sharing a bit more of her writing and art in coming posts.

Welcome back.

Shimmer

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Old books
of subtle shimmer
and modest embossment
your quaint ideas
where light has glanced
sheen of sweetness
your homely wisdom
honeyed truth
such glowing gems
can put the shine
back on the
tawdry day

From this blog you might expect a photo of an old book…! More of Frances Theodora Parsons and her talented friend and artist Marian Satterlee coming soon…

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The Cinderella of Flowers

“Like fairy sausages.” — Through The Woods

At long last, I bring thee catkins.

I’ve been waiting for the catkin season to begin. My woodland walk the other day yielded, at last, a few sightings, glimmering from a hazel tree. I have been longing to see them in the wild since reading H.E. Bates’ nature book Through the Woods, and his lovely, evocative descriptions.

Well, perhaps his likening them to ‘fairy sausages‘ is not so lovely, but it is captivating. And strangely evocative. I’m not sure why, given the fact that fairies don’t exist. And if they did, as we imagine them in their wee, weightless, frolicsome days of dancing hidden in tall grasses, does it not seem even more fanciful that we would come across them devouring greasy, heavy sausages with a side of mustard?

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Unlikely…yet ‘like fairy sausages‘ seems so right a description of these lovely pendulous flowers.

‘No poet that I can call to mind has put himself into ecstasies over the ruby blossoms of the elm or into half the state of singing over the purple catkins of the alder that he keeps for the cherry and the rose. The catkin is a sort of Cinderella among flowers, not so much unwanted as unnoticed. The poet who lifts his eyes to the stars or lowers them for the flowers, the stars on earth, often misses as he does so the flowers that hang between earth and heaven, the delicate and unflashing constellations that light up the dark branches of wintery trees.’

I just love the splendid geometry of the design in their tightly budded state. I hope to go back and photograph them in their opening stages through the winter.

(And thank you and your nature books, H.E. Bates, for opening my eyes to this seasonal wonder.)


A side note, given my Curious Word tendencies…Catkins and pussywillows have more in common than inflorescence. A pussywillow is a catkin; a catkin not necessarily a pussywillow; it depends upon which tree or shrub it blooms from. But both names reflect the fact that children loved these manifestations of nature, and gave them names that reflected their endearing quality. Catkins means ‘kitten tails’, from a Dutch word, and pussywillows because they resemble the soft, strokable fur of a kitty.

Or a sausage, if you’re hungry.

As mentioned, my earlier post on H.E. Bates also featured the gorgeous woodcut illustrations by Agnes Miller Parker; one of which I show here.

 

A Mortal Big Notion

frances-theodora-parson

“I’ve only lived here a day, but I like it so well I’ve a mortal big notion to buy the place.” — from The Girl of the Limberlost

I love the idea of having a mortal big notion. Today we might use the expression, ‘I had a radical idea’. Perhaps one could also call the idea that we could learn something today from a prim Victorian lady botanist ‘radical’. Because I just had to laugh when I sat down to my blog this week and read over some of the prompts I’ve missed.

Zing. Edge. Superhero. Radical. Clearly, WP wants to jazz up our posts. Electrify our ideas. Infuse a bit of life into our prose.

Meanwhile, I have been immersed in the late Victorian world and ethos of Gene Stratton-Porter and Frances Theodora Parsons. Exciting, eh? But think about this: While these women may not resonate in history as superheroes, and what they wrote may not seem current–as to that I am not always convinced that being ‘current’ and ‘relevant’ are that exciting, unless you are watching bees pollinate–I was just reflecting yesterday on a recent study from Stanford University:

‘In the study, two groups of participants walked for 90 minutes, one in a grassland area scattered with oak trees and shrubs, the other along a traffic-heavy four-lane roadway. Before and after, the researchers measured heart and respiration rates, performed brain scans and had participants fill out questionnaires.

The researchers found little difference in physiological conditions, but marked changes in the brain. Neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.’

This makes total sense to me, and I’m glad to know the data can finally catch up with what the inimitable Mrs. Frances Theodora Parsons wrote back in 1901.

‘The ideal hobby, it seems to me, is one that keeps us in the open air among inspiring surroundings, with the knowledge of natural objects as the end in view.

The study of plants, of animals, of the earth itself, botany, zoology, or geology, any one of these will answer the varied requirements of an ideal hobby. Often they require not only perseverance and skill but courage and daring. They are a means of health, a relaxation to the mind from ordinary cares, and an absorbing interest.’ —From How to Know the Ferns by Frances Theodora Parsons

Frances Theodora Parsons

Frances Theodora Parsons

‘Courage and daring’, indeed! I love her books. (She also wrote as Mrs. William Starr Dana; more on her to come in a future post) accordingtoseasonbookcoverShe is authoritative, opinionated, and thoroughly readable. Parsons is a strong woman, and no fading violet, to borrow a Victorian era expression. She has not the nuanced charm and silky expressions in her nature writing, such as that employed by Louise Beebe Wilder, but this real-time eager woods explorer had a rugged approach matched with feminine spirit that might have been a bit like The Girl of the Limberlost when she was young.

‘She plunged fearlessly among bushes, over underbrush, and across dead logs. One minute she was crying wildly, that here was a big one, the next she was reaching for a limb above her head or on her knees overturning dead leaves under a hickory or oak tree, or working aside black muck with her bare hands as she searched for buried pupae cases.’  — The Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton-Porter

Written in 1909, this passage is from Gene Stratton Porter’s classic. She is not read so much today because people are squeamish. Not squeamish about rummaging around in dead, mucky leaf detritus for buried pupae cases, but because sentimental stories that highlight romantic ideals or values are out of favor. Stratton-Porter’s passion in writing was to chronicle the natural world, but it was her romances–nature with a generous side-helping of fiction–that secured her fame.

accordingtoseasonoldbookFrances Theodora Parsons had a simple remedy for stultified, closed minds:

‘I thanked my stars I had not fallen under the stultifying sway of cards. Much the same gratitude is aroused when I see men and women spending precious summer days indoors over the card-table when they might be breathing the fragrant, life-giving air, and rejoicing in the beauty and interest of the woods and fields.

All things considered, a hobby that takes us out of doors is best.’

To which Gene Stratton-Porter would add:

‘The world is full of happy people, but no one ever hears of them. You must fight and make a scandal to get into the papers. No one knows about all the happy people. I am happy myself, and look how perfectly inconspicuous I am.”

The Limberlost journey is a journey of happiness. To get lost in the swamp, is, in Porter’s world, ‘to find oneself’.

Read good books. Get outdoors. Enjoy the natural world. Take walks and then more walks. If you see someone approaching with a brain scanner and a questionnaire, run. Photograph mushrooms. Keep a journal. Sketch (rather badly). Think about writing more. And then write more. Watch bees pollinate. As radical as that sounds, it’s a time honored recipe for a lot of fun and a continuing supply of happiness. I should know. Look at how perfectly inconspicuous I am.

(writers take note: both of these late Victorian era ladies wrote books that are still in print, and have gone into multiple editions and reprints)