Today we celebrate a man who changed his personal beliefs and life philosophy after studying nature.
We'll also learn about a woman who writes about her lifelong relationship with the garden.
We hear an excerpt about the spring garden with a bit of empathy for what it is like to be a weed.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a fabulous reference for plant identification.
And then we’ll wrap things up with the son of a gardener who grew to love plants and nature and became one of America’s best-loved poets.
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May 25, 1803
Today is the birthday of the American transcendentalist, essayist, philosopher, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a son of Boston.
By the time he finished his schooling at Harvard, he had decided to go by his middle name, Waldo. He was his class poet, and he wrote an original poem for his graduation. Six years later, on Christmas Day, he would meet his first wife, Ellen. Two years later, he lost her to tuberculosis. Her death eventually made him a wealthy man — although he had to sue his inlaws to acquire the inheritance.
Deeply grieved after losing Ellen, Waldo eventually traveled to Europe, where he visited the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. The experience was a revelation to him. At the Paris Garden, Waldo sees plants organized according to Jussieu's system of classification. Suddenly he can see connections between different species. The American historian and biographer. Robert D. Richardson wrote,
"Emerson's moment of insight into the interconnectedness of things in the Jardin des Plantes was a moment of almost visionary intensity that pointed him away from theology and toward science".
Upon his return to the states, Waldo befriended other forward thinkers and writers of his time: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle.
In 1835, Waldo married his second wife, Lydia Jackson. Waldo changed her name from Lydia to Lidian, and he calls her by other names like Queenie and Asia. She always calls him “Mr. Emerson.”
Around this time, Waldo began to think differently about the world and his perspective on life. Waldo was also the son of a minister, which makes his move away from religion and societal beliefs all the more impressive. By 1836, Waldo published his philosophy of transcendentalism in an essay he titled "Nature." He wrote:
"Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word; but it is not a language taken to pieces and dead in the dictionary, but the language put together into a most significant and universal sense. I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue."
The next year, Waldo gave a speech called "The American Scholar." It so moved Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. that he called Waldo’s oration text America's "intellectual Declaration of Independence."
After his Nature essay, Waldo befriended Henry David Thoreau.
In late September of 1838, the Salem Massachusetts Unitarian minister and American botanist John Lewis Russell visited Waldo, and they spent some time botanizing together. Waldo wrote about the visit in his journal:
"A good woodland day or two with John Lewis Russell who came here, & showed me mushrooms, lichens, & mosses. A man in whose mind things stand in the order of cause & effect & not in the order of a shop or even of a cabinet."
In 1855, when Walt Whitman published his Leaves of Grass, he sent a copy to Emerson. Waldo sent Whitman a five-page letter of praise. With Emerson’s support, Whitman issues a second edition that, unbeknownst to Waldo, quoted a passage from his letter that was printed in gold leaf on the cover, "I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career." Waldo was displeased by this; he had wanted the letter to remain private.
In the twilight of his life, the man who once advised, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience,” Ralph Waldo Emerson was invited to join a group of nine intellectuals on a camping trip in the Adirondacks. The goal was simple: to connect with nature. The experience included Harvard’s naturalist Louis Agassiz, the great botanist James Russell Lowell, and the American naturalist Jeffries Wyman.
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote,
"The landscape belongs to the person who looks at it."
"Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year."
“The Earth laughs in flowers.”
Finally, here’s a little prayer Waldo wrote - giving thanks for the gifts of nature.
“For flowers that bloom about our feet;
For tender grass, so fresh, so sweet;
For song of bird, and hum of bee;
For all things fair we hear or see,
Father in heaven, we thank Thee!”
May 25, 1949
Today is the birthday of the Antiguan-American novelist, essayist, and short-story writer Jamaica Kincaid born Elaine Potter Richardson.
Jamaica Kincaid is a gardener and popular garden writer. Her book Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya offers many wonderful excerpts.
And here, she discusses the dreams of gardeners - and how they form from our desire and curiosity. She writes,
“Something that never escapes me as I putter about the garden, physically and mentally: desire and curiosity inform the inevitable boundaries of the garden, and boundaries, especially when they are an outgrowth of something as profound as the garden with all its holy restrictions and admonitions, must be violated.”
Jamaica’s book My Garden offers an intimate look at her relationship with her garden.
"I shall never have the garden I have in my mind, but that for me is the joy of it; certain things can never be realized and so all the more reason to attempt them."
Here she talks about time and the destruction of a garden:
“In a way, a garden is the most useless of creations, the most slippery of creations: it is not like a painting or a piece of sculpture—it won’t accrue value as time goes on. Time is its enemy’ time passing is merely the countdown for the parting between garden and gardener.”
"The garden has taught me to live, to appreciate the times when things are fallow and when they're not."
She also wrote,
“I love planting. I love digging holes, putting plants in, tapping them in. And I love weeding, but I don’t like tidying up the garden afterwards.”
During the pandemic in August of 2020, Jamaica wrote an essay for the New Yorker called, The Disturbances of the Garden.
She wrote about learning to garden from her mother:
“My mother was a gardener, and in her garden it was as if Vertumnus and Pomona had become one: she would find something growing in the wilds of her native island (Dominica) or the island on which she lived and gave birth to me (Antigua), and if it pleased her, or if it was in fruit and the taste of the fruit delighted her, she took a cutting of it (really she just broke off a shoot with her bare hands) or the seed (separating it from its pulpy substance and collecting it in her beautiful pink mouth) and brought it into her own garden and tended to it in a careless, everyday way, as if it were in the wild forest, or in the garden of a regal palace. The woods: The garden. For her, the wild and the cultivated were equal and yet separate, together and apart.”
Later she writes about her own relationship with the garden.
“But where is the garden and where am I in it? This memory of growing things, anything, outside not inside, remained in my memory…
in New York City in particular, I planted: marigolds, portulaca, herbs for cooking, petunias, and other things that were familiar to me, all reminding me of my mother, the place I came from. Those first plants were in pots and lived on the roof of a diner that served only breakfast and lunch, in a dilapidated building at 284 Hudson Street, whose ownership was uncertain, which is the fate of us all. Ownership of ourselves and of the ground on which we walk, ...and ownership of the vegetable kingdom are all uncertain, too. Nevertheless, in the garden, we perform the act of possessing. To name is to possess…”
“I began to refer to plants by their Latin names, and this so irritated my editor at this magazine (Veronica Geng) that she made me promise that I would never learn the Latin name of another plant. I loved her very much, and so I promised that I would never do such a thing, but I did continue to learn the Latin names of plants and never told her. Betrayal, another feature of any garden.”
After Nicholas hung up the phone, he watched his mother carry buckets and garden tools across the couch grass toward a bed that would, come spring, be brightly ablaze as tropical coral with colorful arctotis, impatiens, and petunias. Katherine dug with hard chopping strokes, pulling out wandering jew and oxalis, tossing the uprooted weeds into a black pot beside her.
The garden will be beautiful, he thought. But how do the weeds feel about it? Sacrifices must be made.
― Stephen M. Irwin, Australian screenwriter, producer, and novelist, The Dead Path
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2001, and the subtitle is An Illustrated Glossary.
Well, to me, this book is an oldie, but goodie; I first bought my copy of this book back in 2013.
This book aims to help you understand the terms used in plant identification, keys, and descriptions - and it also provides definitions for almost 3,000 words.
Now, if you're looking to improve your grasp of plant identification terminology, this book will be an invaluable reference.
And just as a heads up. there are around 30 used copies that are reasonably priced on Amazon. But of course, they're not going to last forever, so if you're interested in this book, don't wait to get a copy. (After those used copies are gone, then the next lowest price is around $200.)
This book is 216 pages of exactly what it says it is: plant identification, terminology - and I should mention that there are also helpful illustrations.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
May 25, 1908
Today is the birthday of the Michigan-born poet, gardener, and the 1954 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, Theodore Roethke (“RETH-key”).
Ted wrote about nature and the American Northwest. He enjoyed focusing on “the little things in life.”
His father was a gardener, a greenhouse grower, a rose-lover, and a drinker. As a result, many of Ted’s pieces are about new life springing from rot and decay. His best poem is often considered to be “The Rose.” The poem reminded him of his father, and he could barely speak the poem without crying.
Today, garden signs and social media posts quote Ted’s verse,
“Deep in their roots all flowers keep the light.”
Ted battled bipolar depression most of his life, and his darkness can be seen in his poem called The Geranium.
When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,
She looked so limp and bedraggled,
So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,
Or a wizened aster in late September,
I brought her back in again
For a new routine -
Vitamins, water, and whatever
Sustenance seemed sensible
At the time: she'd lived
So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer,
Her shriveled petals falling
On the faded carpet, the stale
Steak grease stuck to her fuzzy leaves.
(Dried-out, she creaked like a tulip.)
The things she endured!-
The dumb dames shrieking half the night
Or the two of us, alone, both seedy,
Me breathing booze at her,
She leaning out of her pot toward the window.
Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me-
And that was scary-
So when that snuffling cretin of a maid
Threw her, pot and all, into the trash-can,I said nothing.
But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week,
I was that lonely.
A sunnier and more tender poem was called Transplanting. Ted wrote the poem from the perspective of "a very small child: all interior drama; no comment; no interpretation.”
Watching hands transplanting,
Turning and tamping,
Lifting the young plants with two fingers,
Sifting in a palm-full of fresh loam,--
One swift movement,--
Then plumping in the bunched roots,
A single twist of the thumbs, a tamping, and turning,
All in one, Quick on the wooden bench,
A shaking down, while the stem stays straight,
Once, twice, and a faint third thump,--
Into the flat-box, it goes,
Ready for the long days under the sloped glass:
The sun warming the fine loam,
The young horns winding and unwinding,
Creaking their thin spines,
The underleaves, the smallest buds
Breaking into nakedness,
The blossoms extending
Out into the sweet air,
The whole flower extending outward,
Stretching and reaching.
Theodore Roethke died in 1963.
He was visiting friends on Bainbridge Island. One afternoon he was fixing mint juleps by the pool. The friends went to the main house to get something. When they returned, three perfect mint juleps sat on a table by the edge of the pool, and Ted was floating face down in the water. He’d suffered a brain aneurysm.
After his death, the family honored their friend by filling in the pool. They installed a beautiful zen garden in the pool's footprint that is framed by conifers and features raked sand and a handful of moss-covered stones. There is no plaque.
Today, we’ll end the podcast with Theodore’s ode to spring - called Vernal Sentiment.
Though the crocuses poke up their heads in the usual places,
The frog scum appear on the pond with the same froth of green,
And boys moon at girls with last year's fatuous faces,
I never am bored, however familiar the scene.
When from under the barn the cat brings a similar litter,—
Two yellow and black, and one that looks in between,—
Though it all happened before, I cannot grow bitter:
I rejoice in the spring, as though no spring ever had been.
Thanks for listening to The Daily Gardener.
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