A succulent serenade to the elegant geometry of spiny splendor.
By Maria Popova
Among the oddities of my childhood in communist Bulgaria was my mother’s collection of cacti. Against the chipped grey concrete of our apartment building, these improbable emissaries of another climate from another world stood as spiked sentinels of a fantastical optimism at the portal to another life.
Each winter, we brought the entire ensemble — dozens of them, all kinds of shapes and sizes and species — indoors; each summer, we carefully arranged them back on the tiny balcony overlooking the grey parking lot. My mother even tried her hand at grafting, without much success — but I vividly remember my astonishment at seeing the thick spiny skin open into the softest, most succulent flesh I had ever seen — softer than the inside of the cucumbers from my grandmother’s garden, moister than the vermillion interior of my thumb the time I pressed it into the knife’s blade accidentally flipped upside down.
I loved their geometric elegance, the splendid shock of their rare blossoms, their quiet resilience. I felt a deep affinity with these strange, otherworldly creatures — the child who also had to learn to thrive on being underwatered, the child longing for thick-skinned spiny armor to protect the inner succulence from the intemperate climate and violent dust-storms of its local environment. (Many years later, well into adulthood, I would discover and fall in love with a charming children’s book embracing this very metaphor.)
Imagine, then, my delight at chancing upon the forgotten 1841 gem Illustrations from a Descriptive Iconography of Cacti by the French botanist Charles Antoine Lemaire (November 1, 1800–June 22, 1871), who spent his entire personal and professional life under the enchantment of cacti, dying in poverty and without renown despite his voluminous publications and the number of genera he named, including the famed Christmas Cactus. (A plant, as it happens, about a hundred million years older than Christ.) His successor at the horticultural journal Lemaire edited for the last seventeen years of his life lamented that “posterity will esteem M. Lemaire more highly than did his contemporaries.” May we so do.
His 1841 classification of cacti features a dozen beautifully colored and detailed engravings of some of the most notable species, which I have restored, digitized, and made available as prints, with proceeds benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
“One of the hardest things to make a child understand is, that down underneath your feet, if you go far enough, you come to blue sky and stars again; that there really is no ‘down’ for the world, but only in every direction an ‘up.’”
That is what Anne Gilchrist (February 25, 1828–November 29, 1885) — a woman Walt Whitman cherished as “a sort of human miracle,” whose “vision went on and on” and who “belonged to the times yet to come” — returns to again and again, each time quarrying new strata of insight, in the forgotten treasure The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman (free ebook | public library). Radiating from the pages of her beautiful and heartbreaking love letters to Whitman is an uncommonly original and penetrating mind in dialogue perhaps even more richly with itself than with its half-attentive correspondent. (Whitman responded to a fraction of the letters; he could not, for the obvious reason, meet her romantic ardor — but he relished and responded to her exceptional mind.)
By the time Gilchrist encountered Whitman’s soul-salving poetry, which she helped popularize in England with her coruscating review, she had been widowed for more than a decade, raising her four children as a single mother and making a living by her pen in an era when very few women were published authors. On the second day of summer in 1869, in consonance with her contemporary and compatriot Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s insistence on happiness as a moral obligation, Gilchrist writes in a letter to William Michael Rossetti — Christina Rossetti’s brother and Whitman’s British publisher, who had boldly brought Leaves of Grass to England when it was scorned in America and who would eventually introduce Gilchrist and Whitman:
I used to think it was great to disregard happiness, to press on to a high goal, careless, disdainful of it. But now I see that there is nothing so great as to be capable of happiness; to pluck it out of “each moment and whatever happens”; to find that one can ride as gay and buoyant on the angry, menacing, tumultuous waves of life as on those that glide and glitter under a clear sky; that it is not defeat and wretchedness which come out of the storm of adversity, but strength and calmness.
Our greatest obstacle to happiness, Gilchrist intimates, are our illusions of finitude and fragmentation — a failure of imagination that becomes a self-imposed prison of smallness, from which we are liberated only when we learn to see the interconnected wholeness of the universe:
One of the hardest things to make a child understand is, that down underneath your feet, if you go far enough, you come to blue sky and stars again; that there really is no “down” for the world, but only in every direction an “up.” And that this is an all-embracing truth, including within its scope every created thing, and, with deepest significance, every part, faculty, attribute, healthful impulse, mind, and body of a man (each and all facing towards and related to the Infinite on every side), is what we grown children find it hardest to realize, too.
I feel deeply persuaded that a perfectly fearless, candid, ennobling treatment of the life of the body (so inextricably intertwined with, so potent in its influence on the life of the soul) will prove of inestimable value to all earnest and aspiring natures, impatient of the folly of the long-prevalent belief that it is because of the greatness of the spirit that it has learned to despise the body, and to ignore its influences; knowing well that it is, on the contrary, just because the spirit is not great enough, not healthy and vigorous enough, to transfuse itself into the life of the body, elevating that and making it holy by its own triumphant intensity; knowing, too, how the body avenges this by dragging the soul down to the level assigned itself. Whereas the spirit must lovingly embrace the body, as the roots of a tree embrace the ground, drawing thence rich nourishment, warmth, impulse. Or, rather, the body is itself the root of the soul — that whereby it grows and feeds. The great tide of healthful life that carries all before it must surge through the whole man, not beat to and fro in one corner of his brain.
Science knows that matter is not, as we fancied, certain stolid atoms which the forces of nature vibrate through and push and pull about; but that the forces and the atoms are one mysterious, imperishable identity, neither conceivable without the other. She knows, as well as the poet, that destructibility is not one of nature’s words; that it is only the relationship of things — tangibility, visibility — that are transitory. She knows that body and soul are one, and proclaims it undauntedly, regardless, and rightly regardless, of inferences.
How the ability to call your idea “by various names, borrowed from various languages,” empowers you to conceive that idea “in a way precise, clear and unconfused.”
By Maria Popova
Language is not the content of thought but the vessel that carries thought, the vessel into which we pour the ambivalences and contradictions of our thinking in order to anneal our understanding of the world. The more spacious the vessel, the more latitude we have to clarify our own thoughts, to reach farther horizons on the waves of the mind. “We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” In language we fathom ourselves and our own lives; in language we compose, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s lovely phrase, “the Constitution of the inner country.” And yet language is inherently moored to the territory of an outer country — to the lexicon, vocabulary, and folkloric tongue of a people and a place.
Nothing furthers the reach of thought in language more surely than proficiency in multiple lexicons, which confers upon the bilingual or multilingual mind a lush advantage of thought. That is what the radical philosopher William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836) explores in a passage from his altogether excellent 1797 book The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (public library) — the collection of essays he composed while his partner, the philosopher and feminism founding mother Mary Wollstonecraft, was pregnant with their daughter, who would one day write the visionary Frankenstein.
Nearly two centuries before Ursula K. Le Guin observed that the function of language is “to give people the words to know their own experience” and James Baldwin lamented the exclusionary nature of any single language, which may not reflect the experiences of the diverse people forced to speak it, Godwin makes an ardent case for how the knowledge of multiple languages liberates the mind and swells the power of the human spirit. (A crucial meta-sensitivity to language as an emissary of time and place is due in reading Godwin: His use of the masculine to address universal humanity is a reflection of his era’s lexical convention — he was writing two centuries before the unsexing of he as the universal pronoun — and not of his beliefs: Godwin was an ardent exponent of gender equality, who courageously bore the opprobrium such radical views earned him, who forged with Wollstonecraft a a trailblazing marriage of equals, and who, in an era when girls were entirely excluded from real education and the world of ideas, raised his daughters with uncompromising focus on the life of the mind.)
Advocating for teaching young people multiple languages, Godwin writes:
He that is acquainted with only one language, will probably always remain in some degree the slave of language. From the imperfectness of his knowledge, he will feel himself at one time seduced to say the thing he did not mean, and at another time will fall into errors of this sort without being aware of it. It is impossible he should understand the full force of words. He will sometimes produce ridicule, where he intended to produce passion. He will search in vain for the hidden treasures of his native tongue. He will never be able to employ it in the most advantageous manner. He cannot be well acquainted with its strength and its weakness. He is uninformed respecting its true genius and discriminating characteristics. But the man who is competent to and exercised in the comparison of languages, has attained to his proper elevation. Language is not his master, but he is the master of language. Things hold their just order in his mind, ideas first, and then words. Words therefore are used by him as the means of communicating or giving permanence to his sentiments; and the whole magazine of his native tongue is subjected at his feet.
Epochs before Susan Sontag insisted that words are a tool of personal agency, Godwin argues that our vocabulary furnishes the building blocks of our understanding, which in turn foments our capacity for effective action in the world:
Words are of the utmost importance to human understanding. Almost all the ideas employed by us in matters of reasoning have been acquired by words. In our most retired contemplations we think for the most part in words; and upon recollection can in most cases easily tell in what language we have been thinking. Without words, uttered, or thought upon, we could not probably carry on any long train of deduction. The science of thinking therefore is little else than the science of words. He that has not been accustomed to refine upon words, and discriminate their shades of meaning, will think and reason after a very inaccurate and slovenly manner. He that is not able to call his idea by various names, borrowed from various languages, will scarcely be able to conceive his idea in a way precise, clear and unconfused.
From the sensuous honeysuckle to the humble daisy, a lyrical journey to where nature meets human nature.
By Maria Popova
“In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens,” the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in contemplating the healing power of gardens.
More than two centuries earlier, gardening had taken on a new symphonic resonance with the psychological and physiological score of human nature when the philosopher Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, published The Botanic Garden — a book-length poem using scientifically accurate verse to enchant the popular imagination with the scandalous new science of sexual reproduction in plants. Botany was suddenly both sensual and poetic, seeding a new genre of literary botanica in the early nineteenth century. Crowning it is a book of especial loveliness — the 1833 gem The Moral of Flowers (public library | public domain) by the poet, painter, and self-taught naturalist Rebecca Hey.
Perched partway in time and sensibility between Elizabeth Blackwell’s illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants and Emily Dickinson’s wildflower herbarium, this illustrated encyclopedia presents a singular fusion of Hey’s original verse, poetic prose, and perfectly selected quotations from celebrated poets about each flower, coupled with beautiful engravings drawn from life by William Clark, former draughtsman and engraver of the London Horticultural Society.
The unexpected success of the book — all the rarer in an era when hardly any women were published authors — emboldened Hey to learn to paint and pursue an improbable dream that became, fifteen years later, the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of trees, featuring her own original art.
From fragrant favorites like the honeysuckle and jasmine, to humble beauties like the daisy and wild wallflower, to literary symbol-corsages like the violet, which Emily Dickinson cherished above all other flowers for its “unsuspected” splendor, and the almond blossom, on which Albert Camus predicated his timeless metaphor for strength through difficult times, Hey’s catalogue of blooming splendor traces the etymologies of flower names, describes their habitat, and invokes Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth to explore their cultural symbolism, aiming to “pursue such a train of reflection or draw such a moral from each flower that is introduced as its appearance, habits, or properties might be supposed to suggest.”
Flowers of the field, how meet ye seem,
Man’s frailty to pourtray,
Blooming so fair in morning’s beam,
Passing at eve away;
Teach this, and oh! though brief your reign,
Sweet flowers, ye shall not live in vain.
Just as poet Jane Hirshfield would draw, nearly two centuries later, a buoyant lesson in optimism from a tree, Hey draws on flowers to contemplate questions of mortality, grit, adaptability, how to find beauty in melancholy and cheerfulness in solitude, how to live “heedless of all obstacles.”
There is a flower, a little flower,
With silver crest and golden eye,
That welcomes every changing hour,
And weathers every sky.
It smiles upon the lap of May,
To sultry August spreads its charms,
Lights pale October on his way,
And twines December’s arms.
In vain I searched the garden through,
In vain the meadow gay,
For some sweet flower which might to you
A kindly thought convey.
One spake too much of hope and bloom
For those who know of man the doom ;
Another, queen of the parterre,
Thorns on her graceful stem did bear;
A third, alas ! seemed all too frail
For ruder breath than summer gale.
I turned me thence to where beneath
The hedgerow’s verdant shade,
The lowliest gems of Florals wreath
Their modest charms displayed.
Lured by its name, one simple flower
From its meek sisterhood I bore,
And bade it hasten to impart
The breathings of a faithful heart,
And plead — “Whatever your future lot,
In weal or woe — Forget-me-not.”