Today we celebrate a Harlem poet who loved children and flowers.
We'll also learn about a newspaperman who wrote a fantastic essay about a harbinger of spring: the skunk cabbage.
We’ll hear some thoughts on how to start a garden.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with an extraordinary book that takes us on a tour of brilliantly curated plant life.
And then we’ll wrap things up with a little obscure verse about the language of trees.
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February 1, 1902
Today is the birthday of the American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist Langston Hughes.
Langston was one of the leading voices of the 1920s. He was also part of the Harlem Renaissance Cultural Movement, and for the last twenty years of his life, Langston lived on the top floor of a Brownstone on 127th Street. And when Langston lived in Harlem, everyone knew which house was his - because it was the one covered in Boston Ivy. Langston loved the look of the Ivy, and it was planted at his request.
Langston was just 5 feet and 4 inches tall, and he reportedly saw the world through the wonder-filled eyes of a child. Langston's outlook no doubt helped him relate to kids, and he loved being around children.
One of the most charming details I learned about Langston was the little garden that he kept near the front steps of his home. Langston called the garden "Our Block's Children's Garden," and with the neighborhood kids there to help, he filled it with nasturtiums, asters, and marigolds. And all the neighbor kids were in charge of the watering and weeding.
And if you search for Langston’s garden online, you’ll find an adorable photo of Langston from 1955 - he’s surrounded by kids (one of them is holding a watering can), and they are kneeling behind a white picket fence. On the fence pickets is a round sign that says, “Our Block’s Children’s Garden,” along with the names of 26 children.
As for his writing, Langston always said that Harlem was his muse.
Langston’s poem, Poet to a Bigot, is still timely, and the last line will find purchase with gardeners.
I have done so little
And you have done so little
That we have good reason
Never to agree.
Have such meager
Clutching at a
While you control
But your hour is
My moment is
February 1, 1916
On this day, the American newspaper editor, essayist, short story writer, and poet, Ben Hur Lampman, moved to Portland and began working for The Oregonian.
On March 2, 1942, Ben wrote an article defending a harbinger of spring, the Skunkweed or Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), that appeared in the Medford, Oregon newspaper. In this magnificent piece, Ben compares the yellow bloom of the Skunk Cabbage to a candle.
“What a flower [the Skunk Cabbage] is, to be sure. When it lifts to burn coolly in the swampy wayside, there are few wayfarers who do not exclaim to see it.
There seems to be something votive about it, as perhaps there is.
The reason one is sure that people care about it... is simply because they must. There is no other choice; for the elder law is that people must always care about beauty. A Skunk Cabbage [is a] kind of calla lily, and though its odor is faintly mephitic, you don't have to sniff it.
It may be supposed that the farmer who tends the cattle thinks he has little use for a Skunk Cabbage if he meditates in the least on its utility - but if ever the year should come when the golden, cool candles were not kindled, the farmer would be first to remark this and worry about it. For a farmer can't plow, and a farmer can't plant until the Skunk Cabbage is up everywhere.”
As with most occupations, there are different ways to approach the garden.
The absolutely right way to start a garden, for instance, is to bulldoze your whole yard, then, according to a friend of mine, a brilliant (if obsessive gardener), spend some time in it naked in the middle of the night, wandering around looking for microclimates — those slightly warmer or slightly cooler pockets of air that hover over even a tiny tract of land. After that, you start measuring and marking with stakes and string the beds and borders, and enrich the soil with different things depending on what you’re going to plant where, after installing a complicated and expensive underground sprinkling system.
Meanwhile, months ago, you made careful lists of new and replacement plants you needed and ordered them all from the catalogs, early enough to make sure you got what you wanted. You’ve also been germinating and grafting plants for weeks in your greenhouse or electrically heated cold frames so that everything will be ready at the right moment, gauging by the last frost date plus a few extra days to be on the safe side, to plant outside in an orderly blooming sequence. You are armed and ready for spring.
Perhaps a less desirable but still reasonably effective, way to start a garden is to notice one day that the weather is sunny and fine and to think that it might be fun to plant a few things and see what happens.
— Cheryl Merser, American gardener and author, A Starter Garden, How to Start a Garden
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2017, and the subtitle is Welcome to the Museum.
Designed to teach students, this oversized coffee-table book offers the chance to walk through a curated guide to plant life - and the entire experience is stunning. Katie Scott of Animalium fame provides the extraordinary artwork, which you can see even on the cover of the book - which is why it has a standing spot on the coffee table in my botanical library.
The author, Kathy Willis, is the director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England. And so, Kathy had the perfect background to create Botanicum, which shares a worldwide collection of diverse plant life - from perennials to exotics. In addition to the artwork, Botanicum reviews botanical scientific knowledge, including cross-sections of how plants work.
As a virtual museum in book form, Botanicum features more than 160 captivating exhibits.
This book is 112 pages of botanical knowledge brought to life in a virtual museum - complete with cross-sections - called Botanicum.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
We’re in the grips of winter now, and the trees dominate the landscape. I thought I’d close today's show with a little poem about trees that I stumbled upon doing some tree research. We’re learning more and more about trees thanks to folks like the great German forester and author Peter Wollhenben and his book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World.
Anyway, this little obscure poem is from the Scottish poet Charles MacKay, and it seemed like an excellent way to end the show for this first day of February.
I heard the language of the trees,
In the noons of the early summer,
As the leaves were moved like rippling seas
By the wind - a constant comer.
It came and it went at its wanton will,
And evermore loved to dally
With branch and flower, from the cope of the hill
To the warm depths of the valley.
The sunlight glowed; the waters flowed;
The birds their music chanted,
And the words of the trees on my senses fell,
By a Spirit of Beauty haunted:
Said each to each, in mystic speech,
The skies our branches nourish;
The world is good — the world is fair,
Let us enjoy and flourish!
Again I heard the steadfast trees;
The wintry winds were blowing;
There seemed a roar as of stormy seas,
And of ships to the depths down-going.
And ever a moan through the woods was blown,
As the branches snapped asunder,
And the long boughs swung like the frantic arms
Of a crowd in affright and wonder.
Heavily rattled the driving hail;
And storm and flood combining,
Laid bare the roots of mighty oaks
Under the shingle twining.
Said tree to tree, “These tempests free
Our sap and strength shall nourish;
Though the world be hard, though the world be cold,
We can endure and flourish.”
— Charles MacKay, Scottish poet, The Language of the Trees
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