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Gardening and the Secret of Happiness

“It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness.”

Gardening and the Secret of Happiness

“This is happiness,” Willa Cather’s fictional narrator gasps as he sinks into his grandmother’s garden, “to be dissolved into something complete and great.” A generation later, in a real-life counterpart, Virginia Woolf arrived at the greatest epiphany of her life — and to this day perhaps the finest definition of what it takes to be an artist — while contemplating the completeness and greatness abloom in the garden.

Nearly a century later, botanist and nature writer Robin Wall Kimmerer, who has written beautifully about the art of attentiveness to life at all scales, examines the revelations of the garden in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (public library) — an unusual and richly rewarding book blending botany, Native American mythology, natural history, and philosophy.

In a particularly enchanting passage, Kimmerer, who fuses her scientific training with her Native American storytelling heritage, considers happiness as a sort of reciprocity between the Earth and the human spirit — a gladdening mutuality of affections and animacy:

It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness.

I was hunting among the spiraling vines that envelop my teepees of pole beans, lifting the dark-green leaves to find handfuls of pods, long and green, firm and furred with tender fuzz. I snapped them off where they hung in slender twosomes, bit into one, and tasted nothing but August, distilled into pure, crisp beaniness… By the time I finished searching through just one trellis, my basket was full. To go and empty it in the kitchen, I stepped between heavy squash vines and around tomato plants fallen under the weight of their fruit. They sprawled at the feet of the sunflowers, whose heads bowed with the weight of maturing seeds.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener

Mid-stride in the garden, Kimmerer notices the potato patch her daughters had left off harvesting that morning. She twines this communion with the land and the commitment of good parenthood in a beautiful meditation on what it means to care for, to be a steward of, to love — be it a child or Mother Earth:

They complain about garden chores, as kids are supposed to do, but once they start they get caught up in the softness of the dirt and the smell of the day and it is hours later when they come back into the house. Seeds for this basket of beans were poked into the ground by their fingers back in May. Seeing them plant and harvest makes me feel like a good mother, teaching them how to provide for themselves.

[…]

How do I show my girls I love them on a morning in June? I pick them wild strawberries. On a February afternoon we build snowmen and then sit by the fire. In March we make maple syrup. We pick violets in May and go swimming in July. On an August night we lay out blankets and watch meteor showers. In November, that great teacher the woodpile comes into our lives. That’s just the beginning. How do we show our children our love? Each in our own way by a shower of gifts and a heavy rain of lessons.

Maybe it was the smell of ripe tomatoes, or the oriole singing, or that certain slant of light on a yellow afternoon and the beans hanging thick around me. It just came to me in a wash of happiness that made me laugh out loud, startling the chickadees who were picking at the sunflowers, raining black and white hulls on the ground. I knew it with a certainty as warm and clear as the September sunshine. The land loves us back. She loves us with beans and tomatoes, with roasting ears and blackberries and birdsongs. By a shower of gifts and a heavy rain of lessons. She provides for us and teaches us to provide for ourselves. That’s what good mothers do.

I was reminded of this passage from the altogether bewitching Braiding Sweetgrass by a mention in Kimmerer’s terrific On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — listen and revel below:

[The] kind of deep attention that we pay as children is something that I cherish, that I think we all can cherish and reclaim — because attention is the doorway to gratitude, the doorway to wonder, the doorway to reciprocity. And it worries me greatly that today’s children can recognize 100 corporate logos and fewer than 10 plants. That means they’re not paying attention.

Complement with Mary Oliver — another patron saint of listening and of the Earth — on what it really means to pay attention, then revisit Kimmerer’s exquisite writings about the magic of moss and how naming confers dignity upon existence.

BP

Arthur Rackham’s Rare and Revolutionary 1917 Illustrations for the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

Amid the thickest darkness of World War I, a luminous beacon of the magical inside the macabre.

Arthur Rackham’s Rare and Revolutionary 1917 Illustrations for the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

“His face was wizened and wrinkled like a ripe walnut, and as he peered short sightedly at me out of his goggle spectacles I thought he was one of the goblins out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” This is how his nephew Walter remembers thirty-something Arthur Rackham (September 19, 1867–September 6, 1939) — one of the most creatively influential and commercially inventive illustrators of all time. The aesthetic accuracy of the then-teenager’s recollection may be suspect, but one thing is certain — Rackham was deeply animated by the Grimm spirit and was at the time consumed by the famed stories.

In 1900, seven years before he revolutionized the business of book art with Alice in Wonderland, Rackham set out to illustrate a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. He had just met the painter Edyth Starkie, young Walter’s aunt, over a garden fence. Edyth, whom he would soon marry, not only influenced Rackham’s aesthetic but bolstered his confidence, encouraging him to deviate from tradition and develop a style all his own. It was in those early Grimm illustrations that Rackham began honing the singular sensibility for which he is now remembered and which has since influenced generations of artists.

One of Rackham's early color plates for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
One of Rackham’s early color plates for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

By 1909, he had added 40 color plates to the line drawings from his first Grimm edition. In 1917, amid the thickest darkness of World War I, Rackham returned to the Grimms — those supreme patron saints of the magical inside the macabre. This time, he interpreted the centuries-old tales differently: Where his first edition had been unapologetically violent and grim, the new one radiated what the human spirit most needed amid the hopelessness, destruction, and desecration of the war — beauty, enchantment, charm, hope, even humor.

The result, of which I was fortunate enough to track down one of the few surviving copies, was Little Brother & Little Sister (public library) — a selection of the Grimms’ most beloved and hopeful tales, published in a lavish limited edition of 525 copies each signed by Rackham, who was already one of the most widely known and successful illustrators of his time.

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The True Sweetheart: "The third time, she wore the star-dress which sparkled at every step."
The True Sweetheart: “The third time, she wore the star-dress which sparkled at every step.”
The True Sweetheart
The True Sweetheart
The Old Woman in the Wood: "Suddenly the branches twined round her and turned into two arms."
The Old Woman in the Wood: “Suddenly the branches twined round her and turned into two arms.”
Wishing-Table, Gold-Ass, and Cudgel: "Gold pieces fell down on the cloth like a thunder shower."
Wishing-Table, Gold-Ass, and Cudgel: “Gold pieces fell down on the cloth like a thunder shower.”
Snow-white and Rose-red
Snow-white and Rose-red: “This end of his beard was caught in a crack in a tree.”
The Cunning Little Taylor: "When the bear heard the music he could not help beginning to dance."
The Cunning Little Taylor: “When the bear heard the music he could not help beginning to dance.”
The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
The Gnomes: “He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes.”
The Nose Tree: "They came at last to their poor old friend."
The Nose Tree: “They came at last to their poor old friend.”
The Little People's Presents: "What did she find there but real ripe strawberries."
The Little People’s Presents: “What did she find there but real ripe strawberries.”
The Three Army-Surgeons
The Three Army-Surgeons
Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle: "The waiting maid sprang down first and Maid Maleen followed."
Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle: “The waiting maid sprang down first and Maid Maleen followed.”
The Young Giant: "When her husband saw her, she shouted, 'Hi! Come to me here.'"
The Young Giant: “When her husband saw her, she shouted, ‘Hi! Come to me here.'”
Fitcher's Bird: "He hurried away with long strides."
Fitcher’s Bird: “He hurried away with long strides.”
Fitcher's Bird: "At last she met the bridegroom who was coming slowly back."
Fitcher’s Bird: “At last she met the bridegroom who was coming slowly back.”
How Six Men Got On in the World
How Six Men Got On in the World
The Hut in the Forest: "She begged quite prettily to be allowed to spend the night there."
The Hut in the Forest: “She begged quite prettily to be allowed to spend the night there.”
Frontispiece: "She took off her golden garter and put it round the roe-buck's neck."
Frontispiece: “She took off her golden garter and put it round the roe-buck’s neck.”

Beginning with his Alice in Wonderland edition, Rackham had invented a new business model — each of his books was published in a small run of lavish, beautifully bound, signed, expensive gift copies, and a large run of affordable mass-market ones. But, like many pioneers, he was unprepared for his own success — the limited editions became so prized and popular that people were clamoring to own them despite the premium price, all but neglecting the standard editions. Rackham himself remarked:

There is such a fashion for publishing only limited editions that my books are in a rather curious position. The ordinary editions do not sell so large a number as of old, & the limiteds are vastly over-applied for.

And yet Rackham’s lamentation speaks to the ideal intersection of art and commerce — making something so beautiful and so valuable to people that it’s impossible for the artist to keep up with the demand.

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My own copy came with this endearing inscription to a young Miss Evelyn Horton from her mother, bespeaking just how treasured Rackham’s books were and embodying his pioneering model of the gift book as an artifact and a loving gesture:

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Complement Little Brother & Little Sister with the best illustrations of the Brothers Grimm in the century since Rackham, then revisit his visionary take on Alice in Wonderland.

BP

The Science of Why February 29 Exists and Poet Jane Hirshfield’s Ode to the Leap Day

“…the made calendar stumbling over the real as a drunk trips over a threshold too low to see.”

The Science of Why February 29 Exists and Poet Jane Hirshfield’s Ode to the Leap Day

In his Calendar of Wisdom, under the entry for February 29, Tolstoy quoted Goethe: “Perfection is of God. To wish for perfection is of man.” It’s a befitting selection, for the day itself is a testament to humanity’s abiding but ultimately unattainable quest for perfection.

Most years divisible by four are graced by the calendaric oddity of the leap day, February 29. A corrective for a clerical imperfection in the mathematics of timekeeping, February 29 attests to the artificiality of time as a human construct and reminds us that the Gregorian calendar — which was introduced months before young Galileo made the legendary observation that gave rise to modern timekeeping — is humanity’s most successful meme.

February 29 exists because a solar year — the time it takes Earth to complete a full revolution around the Sun — takes 365 days and 6 hours (or 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 16 seconds, to be exact), but the standard year in the Gregorian calendar was rounded down to 365 days. Every four years, that spare time adds up to 24 hours, so an entire day must be added to the calendar in order for it to catch up to the Sun. Then another set of mathematical acrobatics is applied to make up for the 10 minutes and 44 seconds deficient from the rounding up to 6 hours — a deficiency that adds up to about 3 days every 400 years. To account for this, years divisible by 100 but not by 400 — so, for instance, the year 2200 but not the year 2000 — were demoted from leap status, giving back the extra minutes to the other leap years in the 400-year interval, which is the repetition cycle of the Gregorian calendar.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Michael Benson’s book Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

If the mathematics of it weren’t already disorienting enough, what happens when February 29 is granted special status of the most tragic, personal kind? That’s what beloved poet Jane Hirshfield explores in her poem “February 29,” found in her collection The Beauty (public library) and penned on the occasion of a friend’s death on February 29, 2012.

Hirshfield reflects: “I had, months before, brought her the present of a traditional bamboo-slat painted reproduction of a famous Chinese painting. She had commented, with her customary inhabitance of all things from the inside, how hard it is to paint a cow so well from the front. Her death was unexpected, and a letter from her I had not wanted to put away was still out on my kitchen table. My year’s extra day circled around it.”

FEBRUARY 29

An extra day —

Like the painting’s fifth cow,
who looks out directly,
straight toward you,
from inside her black and white spots.

An extra day —

Accidental, surely:
the made calendar stumbling over the real
as a drunk trips over a threshold
too low to see.

An extra day —

With a second cup of black coffee.
A friendly but businesslike phone call.
A mailed-back package.
Some extra work, but not too much —
just one day’s worth, exactly.

An extra day —

Not unlike the space
between a door and its frame
when one room is lit and another is not,
and one changes into the other
as a woman exchanges a scarf.

An extra day —

Extraordinarily like any other.
And still
there is some generosity to it,
like a letter re-readable after its writer has died.

Complement with Patti Smith on time, transformation, and how the radiance of love redeems the pain of loss, the psychology of why time slows down when you’re afraid and speeds up as you age and these nine books on the many dimensions of how we experience time. For a poetic counterpart, revisit T.S. Eliot’s exquisite ode to time.

Poem courtesy of Knopf / The Academy of American Poets

BP

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