Choose five people and ask them, What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when hearing or reading the word tulip?
When I did it, the unanimous result was… Holland.
Because that’s what the Netherlands are to us: windmills and tulip fields.
Some may even be familiar with Tulipomania, possibly the most (in)famous economic bubble in history. For a few decades at the turn of the 17th century, Dutch society’s common sense apparently went out of the window, and a market for tulip bulbs valued at exorbitantly stupid prices grew and grew until it burst… or so the story goes.
Although there’s more to tulipomania than these facile interpretations, I won’t be talking about European tulip stories today.
Because these elegant flowers are tightly woven into another country’s history —one we don’t hear much about, despite owing them both this flower’s arrival into our gardens, as well as its name in many Indo-European languages.
Close your eyes for a moment, and think about the most memorable gift you’ve ever been given.
The one you hold dearest, the one that’s making you smile right now as you picture it in your mind.
If you’re anything like me, it’s probably not the most expensive gift you’ve ever received—perhaps not the most beautiful one by objective standards either. In my case, it’s something you might even be inclined to throw away were you to see it: a bunch of dry wild carrot umbels, bursting with prickly seeds.
It happened in a quiet corner of an Italian orto botanico, close to the medicinal garden patch.
Love at first sight. You know the feeling?
Not the “overwhelming rush of wild passion” kind, though. A slow, smouldering fascination of the mind. A quiet yearning to meet again…
My first encounter with a lotus pond wrought an unexpected change inside me, one that no plant had ever achieved.
I wouldn’t precisely call it an obsession; I am not seized by sudden bouts of lotus-centric rambling at the dinner table, nor have I sold all my belongings to travel east in search of lotuses; I don’t even consider them my favourite flower.
However, there’s a seed buried in the muddy bottoms of my mind, one that whispers, One day you’ll grow them yourself. You shall get a seed, or a rhizome, and a small cosmic miracle will unfold in your terrace.
It is in no particular hurry to sprout, this seed; it knows how to wait.
Yet, just by virtue of it being present, it turned me into a lotus hunter.
“We are tree-herds, we old Ents. (…) Some of my kin look just like trees now, and need something great to rouse them; and they speak only in whispers. But some of my trees are limb-lithe and many can talk to me. Elves began it, of course, waking trees up and teaching them to speak and learning their tree-talk. They always wished to talk to everything, the old Elves did.”
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
To the best of my knowledge, there are no ents in New Zealand. There is, however, a tree steeped in Maori myth called Tāne Mahuta. The actual tree is a kauri(Agathis australis); the mythic Tāne Mahuta was a son of the gods of earth and sky, and the only one who managed to break his parents’ stifling embrace by pushing them apart, so the world could exist between them. Considered the Lord of the Forest and creator of humankind, he is commonly pictured as a tall man bridging —and indeed sustaining— the gap between the sky vault and the earth, legs firmly planted on the ground (or rooted in the sky).
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about trees. Paradoxically enough, it all began because of a book I have not read(yet): Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling title The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, how they communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World.
A science-oriented book by a German forest ranger might strike you as entirely unrelated to ents, talking trees or primeval Maori forest deities, and two weeks ago I would’ve agreed with you. Then I read this review on the NYT, and I changed my mind…
Apart from talking about the book itself (which sounds intriguing and worth reading), the article mentioned that some biologists are concerned about the language Wohlleben uses, because he blatantly humanises trees— and does so on purpose, using a “very human language” (in contrast to an emotion-less, scientific language) so as to let the reader imagine what a tree might feel.
From those two paragraphs in the review I glimpsed two opposing world-views, that one might jokingly describe as: the stuffy scientists with their jargon and insistence on linguistic hair-splitting and accuracy, versus the dirt-under-my-fingernails forest ranger that believes in telling people that trees inwardly yelp Ouch when their bark tears, or that they talk among them, because such concepts are easier for readers to grasp.
The clash between these two perspectives goes well beyond Wohlleben’s book, and may be condensed into a single question:
Metamorphosis are cooked on a slow heat, ideas flare like flames in the darkness, love smoulders like embers. The gods quietly hover above the flame.
As a rule, plants rarely engage in prolonged affairs with fire. Whereas the inhabitants of the ancient mineral kingdom can usually survive its touch, plants —like any living being— cannot resist the fiery onslaught for too long: it’s too extreme, too violent. Life succumbs to the flames’ embrace in a smoky sigh.
Yet sometimes a strange alchemy occurs. In some cases, destruction may become liberation, and the soul pulsing inside vegetable matter is set free. Fire becomes the threshold through which the substance being burnt is transmuted — from matter, to spirit. Everything becomes smoke, and the essence revealed therein emerges imbued with mysterious powers that are both divine, and perfumed. Continue reading →
Many landscape gardeners might agree with the sentiment, portraying themselves as artists whose paint tubes are full of seeds, shrubs and trees, eager to enrich the blank canvas of soil with texture and colour. Others, however, will frown upon such a comparison, finding fault with it for being too limiting, or perhaps too generous.
The relationship between art and gardens is a rather thorny issue. To some, gardening is an art form; to others, the two things aren’t remotely alike. I personally harbour no doubts on the subject: a garden can be a work of art. Perhaps not every garden is one, just as not every sketchy drawing may deserve to be called “a masterpiece”. But some gardens are doubtlessly works of art.
In retrospect, the movement that helped the most to enthrone gardens as artistic subjects worthy of admiration and respect might have been Impressionism, with Claude Monet’s famous statement referring to Giverny as his “most beautiful work of art”.
The fascination that gardens exerted on many of the Impressionists was strong.
The stories about these relationships have been explored in countless ways, whether in books, exhibitions, or even films; indeed, the names of some of its characters are rather famous, even among people who aren’t particularly well-versed in the history of painting. Such is the case with Monet himself, the “prince” of the Impressionist team, the main character —albeit rather by accident, not by his own design— in the whole show.
Before we go on, I’d like to make something clear: I love reading, seeing, researching about Monet.In the BBC show The Impressionists, Claude was my favourite. We all love Monet, we are entranced by his Nymphéas, his wisterias, the agapanthus, the poppy fields, the rose-covered cottages, and all the rest.I even like the flowers he didn’t paint, of all things.
However, I’m even more attracted to the stories that posterity, with her mysterious laws, has deemed less worthy of interest, and thus forgets to dust and polish as often —or at all. Just as I enjoy talking about the flowers nobody talks about, I feel drawn to shine a light on those gardens to which time has paid little attention. I am lured in by the very dimness they live in, by the promise that I shall find some delightful surprise that’s still a secret known by just a few of us. The intellectual equivalent of discovering something off the beaten track. Continue reading →
Seven months before the Lumière brothers publicly demonstrate how movement can be captured onto still film, a man works in his garden a few kilometres north of Paris.
Twelve years have passed since he chose to set roots in that corner of the world and began puttering around in his garden, transforming what had once been a provincial patch of nondescript greenery into a little piece of plant paradise. Yet he’s no common gardener: the whole world admires his canvases, his brush-strokes’ exquisite ability to capture the fleeting impression of a moment. He has painted stations, oceans, fields and cathedrals. However, and unbeknownst even to himself, a new chapter in his artistic life is about to begin.
’Tis 1985, and while elsewhere wars are kindled, scientific discoveries made, writers convicted for ‘gross indecency’… in a small French village, a love story between a man and a plant has begun. For no less than twenty-five years, the artist’s brushes shall return to his green muse with the devotion of a loving spouse. And, in his tireless tracing of her oval leaves and stellar bursts of blushing petals, he shall consecrate her status as an iconic flower in the history of painting.
Yes, you do know who I am talking about. The painter is Claude Oscar Monet (1840-1926).