At The Gentle Mercy of Plants, by Hildegarde Flanner

At The Gentle Mercy of Plants, by Hildegarde Flanner

Postby admin » Tue Mar 01, 2016 5:46 am

by Hildegarde Flanner
© 1986 by Hildegarde Flanner




"I was born in 1899 and I'm still living. I enjoy a rural life and live in the country. I'm devoted to plants and have given a great deal of my life to them but I'm not a botanist. I am at the mercy of plants."
-- H.F., A Vanishing Land

Table of Contents:

Publisher's Note
• Wildfire: Berkeley, 1923
• Roots and Hedges
• Poems
• Gentle Aliens: A Strolling Conversation
• Bamboo: An Honest Love Affair

Mojave Spring

Over the flower-striped desert
Walk when it is spring,
See the mountains great with snow,
Hear the round lark sing.
Go lightly in a million flowers,
Pollen will reveal
Every greedy runner
By his golden heel.
These are enchanted acres, go
Lightly. You have found
A place where rainbows fall to earth
And grow more vivid on the ground.

-- At the Gentle Mercy of Plants, Essays and Poems by Hildegarde Flanner
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Re: At The Gentle Mercy of Plants, by Hildegarde Flanner

Postby admin » Tue Mar 01, 2016 5:48 am


READERS MAY WONDER how we came to include "Wildfire: Berkeley, 1923" in a book whose theme is Hildegarde Flanner's honorary citizenship in the Plant Kingdom. The fact is we've been waiting for years for this opportunity to present our favorite essay in book form, and would have found a way to fit it into almost any theme.

There is a special reason, though, why the Berkeley fire essay belongs in this collection, alongside "Roots and Hedges." Together they tell of the last years of Hildegarde Flanner's mother and the first years of her marriage to Frederick Monhoff. Had there been no fire in Berkeley, there would have been no garden in Altadena.

Such is often the case in nature. When fire burns the California chaparral to the ground, its heat provides the space and releases the seeds for the next year's growth, the next chapter in the life of a plant.


"THE PEOPLE OF California are a possessive lot," writes Miss Flanner. "There are elements of our landscape which we believe to be unique and we celebrate them. They may be local and particular and very seasonal, like a patch of poppies or a field of lupine. Actually, these are very usual flowers, and that is why they create a landscape. In other words, they are indigenous. Ordinary as they are, they are a joy. We live among them proudly. We announce their advent, and we never forget them.

"There is another element in the western landscape which follows on the time of the spring flowers and it also is indigenous as they are. It is in the earth. It is in the air. It is rooted in the chaparral. It lies ready to leap up from the yellow grass of summer. During all the rainless months it is a dread, a menace, and we never forget it. It is fire. We fear it and we hate it, but we settle our lives and our homes in its territory because that is where the excitement of beauty is naturally established -- the richest views, the loveliest valleys. Thus we learn to live with it, not knowing at first but learning in the end that like the innocence and frailty of the flowers the catastrophe of fire is native to this earth and to its meaning.

"At the mercy of -- four ancient words. To how many things they apply."


HILDEGARDE FLANNER was born in 1899 and has lived most of her life in California. Her books have been published by Macmillan, Porter Garnett, Grabhorn Press, New Directions, Ahsahta Press, Ikuta Press (Kobe, Japan), and No Dead Lines.

Her articles and poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Westways, New West, Botteghe Oscure, Poetry, The New Republic, The Nation, and a host of literary quarterlies. Her forte is essays and poetry of western provenience, with particular devotion to plants. According to Diana Ketcham of the Oakland Tribune, "Hers is the generation that knew how to write. The unpretentious grace of Flanner's prose should make us regret she hasn't published more."
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Re: At The Gentle Mercy of Plants, by Hildegarde Flanner

Postby admin » Tue Mar 01, 2016 5:48 am

Wildfire: Berkeley, 1923

I HAVE OFTEN wondered why there seem to be so few people who remember the historic Berkeley fire of fifty-one years ago, in which in two hours' time sixty entire city blocks rose to the sky in smoke. The explanation is simple. People have not forgotten; they have merely grown old and died. I myself, by no means young, am yet young enough to have been in Berkeley on that ugly day and still be alive to recall vividly the hot wind, the fear, and the hell of the occasion. My mother and I had recently come from the well-moistened Middle West and knew nothing about the tinderlike character of our new environment. The fire of that seventeenth of September was the first conflagration of a landscape we had ever seen, and its speed and proportions, as well as the possibility of its occurrence at all, were as unexpected to us as a tidal wave would have been in the front yard. Those catastrophic hours came to an end just as the firefighters were about to blow up buildings along Hearst Avenue, at the north edge of the campus. The wind reversed and drove the flames back over the ashes, where nothing remained to burn, and the firemen laid down their dynamite.

Because of certain bizarre and poignant circumstances, the fire held for my mother and me an anguish beyond the scope of public tragedy, and, as the anniversary of the day approaches, I feel stirred to set down my memories. Indeed, for all these fifty-one years I have thought them worth setting down. My account is obviously not the one to be found in newspapers of that date, yet it is a true report. For it to be complete, however, it must begin long before the fire itself, with a suggestion of what kind of people we were and why we were in Berkeley in the first place. It must include the memories of material things having no relation to the fire except their endurance of its destruction but retaining for me a visible shape that still escapes from under the black weight of shock and loss that fell on two frantic women that blazing day.

In the summer of 1915, my mother had come West to the famous Panama-Pacific International Exposition of San Francisco. She brought me with her, the youngest of three daughters, my curls, because of her loving belief in my ever-extant childhood, worn long, though I was sixteen. We stayed in Berkeley. The exhilaration of the Bay region, the presence of the university, which, it was immediately surmised, I should someday attend, and, most important, the thrilling white-stone lure of the Greek Theatre on the campus combined to bring us back seven years later. The Greek Theatre is built of concrete, not stone, and the effect is gray, not white, but I am sure that a white stone amphitheatre among odorous eucalyptus trees where celebrated men and women of the stage were as thick as blue jays was the image that meant California to my mother and drew her to the Coast.

In her childhood, Mary Ellen Hockett, at the top of a tall shaking ladder, had nervously but rapturously played the part of Little Eva entering Heaven just under the rafters of a smalltown school. That first glorious view into the fascination of the actor's world was the beginning of much that followed in her life, and in mine as well. She was born Quaker, a birthright that would be no hindrance today to involvement with the stage but in her time meant a variety of rich and worthy sorts of guilt to afflict her -- at least, now and then. Fortunately, because she was talented and lovely to look at, her vanity often saved her from the influence of her conscience. The luminous tragedians, the delightful fantasy-makers of the theatre were her idols, and in our home the impressive names of Mrs. Siddons, Irving, Maude Adams, Alla Nazimova were more familiar than the names of patriots or dull characters from the Bible. The excitements of hope, the hard continuity of work, the momentary flash of success, and the darkness of failure -- these are the facts of life in the amateur as well as the professional theatre, and they were the first facts of life I learned as a child, not from my own life but from my mother's. She was eventually one of the founders of the Little Theatre movement, one of its proudest slaves. As an actress, she gave, among other roles, touching and poetic performances of Deirdre and Kathleen ni Houlihan.

She was a good director, and behind the scenes she could with a pin and two lengths of tulle, save the world for a quivering Titania who had forgotten her wings in a taxicab. She was a religious woman whose true vocation was the theatre. It was Heaven to her, and she gave it pure and serious veneration to her last days, when she sat dying and crocheting and working on one-act plays never to be produced. In the year 1922, it could have surprised no one -- least of all my mother -- that, my father being dead and my sisters gone to careers of music and writing in New York and Paris, she had fallen easily and contentedly to the temptation of selling her home, seeing her goods into a freight train, and, in a spirit that might be described as adventurous caution, crossing the continent to return to the city that held the renowned Greek Theatre.


COMING BACK TO California to stay, my mother purchased a small two-story, house in the northern, hilly part of Berkeley. Like so many dwellings there, it was covered with redwood shingles. It was well designed, spacious and useful for its size, and very good for two people intimately concerned with each other. To my mother I was, and was to become more so, the main consolation in her widowhood, while to me her subtle, silent, and self-effacing need for compliance and amiability was a claim never to be denied. A half century ago, this was a common enough mother-daughter relationship. An engaging, well-composed little house was just the place to enclose our daily life of manners and devouring affection. The house sat up from the street on Euclid Avenue, with a stone retaining wall and a row of pepper trees in front. It was nicely served by a small streetcar that bounded past not too often. My mother had the trim on her house painted the color of jade. It was a conspicuous and rather lighthearted decoration, but perhaps the new owner needed to provide evidence to herself of confidence, apt as she was to be caught between an impulse of freedom and startled amazement at what she had done. At the corner near our house was one designed by the architect Bernard Maybeck, who had created the Palace of Fine Arts at the Exposition -- a memorable example of romance and exalted unreality fit to uplift visiting spirits free for a while from mundane lives, and even meant to inspire the mind of the West, fascinated more and more by its own domain and destiny. Beyond us in the other direction and adjoining our place was a vacant lot, perhaps a hundred feet wide, containing only weeds and grass and of no interest, though later to become of tremendous importance to us.

We were to live in this house and Berkeley of the university and the Greek Theatre for one year. That one year was rich in the drama for my mother -- Ibsen, Moliere, Shaw, Dunsany, Browning, Shakespeare, Materlinck, Yeats, Sophocles, Euripides; Margaret Anglin declaiming the sorrowful, flashing words of Phaedra to the stars and the hard seats of concrete. My mother's flight to the West was justified. During our brief occupancy, her old American cherry and mahogany furniture sat becomingly in the new home, with various oil paintings of midwestern meadows and the usual soft, dreaming cows, of sunsets through bare purple trees, a copy of Anton Mauve's tired walk home after the day's work, and, above the fireplace, a fierce and moody seascape. A dirty, melancholy rain always seemed just about to pour from it, and some practical critic had once suggested putting a bucket under it. Also in the Berkeley living room and giving it the true feeling of being our home was a carved rosewood parlor set of sofa and chairs bought in New Orleans when our family spent the winter there. It was upholstered in green brocaded horsehair, and from my youngest days I was obsessively attached to it, haunted by an eerie faith in green horses. A choice pedestal table that had a secret drawer, an inlaid settee, a tall secretary, and Oriental rugs gave to my mother's living room the appearance typical of many American homes in those days, when taste and very little money could acquire what used to be quite ordinary treasures and are today costly antiques. Because we were so fond of them, they seemed to offer our own courtesy to anyone who entered the house.

Like most families who make a move, we brought with us things that could more sensibly have been left behind or more luckily lost en route. The masterpiece of foul weather was one of them. Also two barrels of despised hand-painted china, which made the trip without a crack or chip. "If they should ever come to visit us," my mother, while packing, had said in one of the resonant whispers often heard in our home, "how could I explain if I left it all behind?" (She had perfected for theatrical use the best and loudest stage whisper in the U.A.A. As a young person, I was frequently mortified by it in public at weddings, funerals, and graduations, cowering at her accomplishment.) We were alone, but the future possibilities of a visit from china-painting relatives could not be overlooked. The whisper was resonant with conscience. The aunt and cousin, two compulsive craftswomen from whose fingers a thousand wild roses, Parma violets, pure lilies, and many a twining species much evolved through hybridizing with gold scallops flowed and flowed upon Limoges, were thus placated, and their dreadful dainty works went West to a dark shelf.

In Berkeley there were few preparations against the cold, and none in our house except a fireplace. My mother installed a newly invented and nearly unvented gas wall heater, which, reliable exterminator though it should have been, failed to asphyxiate us. As it made a vile odor and gave a miserly and clammy warmth, we depended mainly on coal-oil stoves for heat. These were unique substitutes for household warmth, promising much but requiring faith as well as fuel. They operated like old-fashioned lamps, the oil being contained in a large can with a wick, while the flue, instead of being glass, was metal and radiated a feeble heat. About three feet high, they could be warily transported by means of a bail. They rested on ornate bases. These heaters we used upstairs, and the supply of coal oil was kept in a ten-gallon can in a storeroom under the eaves. My mother regarded the entire arrangement as very dangerous. It may well have been. In any case, we frequently spent our days blue with cold and left the stoves unlighted. Even unlighted, they stirred my mother's suspicions, and the ten-gallon can with its inflammable contents caused her real anxiety, especially in warm weather when the sun beat on the roof close above.


THE SEVENTEENTH OF September was a hot, dry day. At midmorning, the wind blew heavily from inland, the air was too clear, in exaggerated visibility, for the eye's comfort, while the big tea-colored hills of Berkeley appeared about to rise and float. My mother was busy pouring boiling water down an ant hole in the front yard. We thought the ants were disturbed by the weather. Perhaps it was premonition that had sent them streaming up. I think I was upset by my mother's good-housekeeping deed. Still, the ants were too large -- they were enormous -- and once inside the house and in the white sugar they would be even blacker, larger.

It was between noon and one o'clock that we became aware of the scent of smoke coming from the eucalyptus groves on the hills above us. Burning eucalyptus makes itself known long before it is seen. We went into the house, leaving the ants to their scrambling and rushing, but soon came out to try the air again. The odor was stronger now and the smoke was visible. Then more and more visible. At first, we watched it as something that could have nothing to do with us. Next, we became curious. There was a fire station not far away around the corner on Buena Vista Way -- a fire station to which my mother had referred lightly, even facetiously, when purchasing her home, as warrant against danger should there ever be a fire. Almost out of protective superstition, as if to say that loss should not be challenged, she carried a very low insurance. As the smoke increased, we decided to make inquiries. I walked around the corner to the Buena Vista station. It was empty, both of men and of equipment. The smoke was now thick, the odor also. Yet even in our growing surprise, such was our lack of sense that we were not impressed by the threat of danger. We were living in a city. In a city we must be safe from the violence of nature. "If anything is wrong," said my mother, with a typical respect for official procedure, "we would certainly be informed." She continued to apply water from the kitchen teakettle down the ant hole. Whatever warning might have been sent out later, our own neighborhood received no notice other than the sight of smoke and the hot smell of burning eucalyptus that a major brushfire was descending on us with vicious speed.

I cannot remember why I was at home instead of attending some of my classes, as I cannot, after so many years, remember how long it was before we seriously took alarm and gave in to the nervousness that had begun to overwhelm us. Less than an hour. "Mother," I said, "why don't we stop pouring water down the ant hole and pour a little on the house?" At this naive suggestion, my mother ran to the garden hose and turned it on. A weak trickle came from the nozzle. Was everyone else wringing water from his hose? Was everyone else hit by the same fright that had just hit us? Toward the hilltop we could see the smoke darkening. "But really it's a long way off," I said, and wondered how, if that were true, it could look so near. And now the old established patterns of mind began to work in my mother under the pressure that had seized her. Her origins took over. Her years of worldliness had weakened but not broken the link in her Quaker inheritance. Conscience was what my mother had been upheld by or held together by or afflicted by. In my childhood, I was aware of tension, a sprain, a sore spot in her being -- a spiritual location in which this noble and bothersome element in her life made itself too large for ease and could not be reduced or soothed. As the fire gathered above us, my mother's Quaker conscience became sharp and authoritative. She seized the water hose once again, but no water at all came from it. "Of course nothing will happen," she said in a shaking voice. "But if anything should happen I don't want my house to endanger the houses around us." Just then a fire engine thundered past our house. Its bright color and its sound were terrifying. She dropped the hose. "That can of coal oil!" she cried.

My mother's nerves exploded into disorder that had only one purpose -- to get the ten gallons of coal oil out of the house and into the middle of the large vacant lot, where it would not be a menace to our next-door neighbor. By now we were convinced that although we would not say, "The fire is coming," we must act as though it was almost there. The man who sold coal oil had always carried the can upstairs, and it was awkward and unwieldy. Stumbling in fear and haste, together Mother and I thumped and urged it down the stairs, then down the porch steps, and dragged it between us into the middle of the vacant lot. For fifty years, how bitterly I have wished that we had used the precious time in saving a few objects that were dear to us. But the act of saving personal treasures was beyond us. It was as if they were already destroyed, rising in particles on the wind. The struggle between certainty and disbelief in the possibility of disaster was so intense that our minds were suddenly empty of meaning or judgment -- hysterically empty. We did not believe in what we were doing but did it fanatically. At the same time we had no feeling that we were real. We had no dimensions -- only articulated fear that lifted us up the stairs once more. We dressed with quick, chilly hands to leave the house. I had a pair of new red slippers and a new dress just back from the dressmaker, a silk crepe with faggoted seams. These lay on the bed, and I got into them in frantic haste. Then I shoved a black straw hat on my head. For a desperate, magnified moment I looked around my bedroom. "Don't burn!" I begged the old spool bed and the pretty little sewing table. For a few endless seconds I filled my eyes with things I loved. "Don't burn!" I cried. "Don't burn!"


As WE LEFT the house, the wind blew my hat away and carried it out of sight. This was the fire's own wind, hated and feared by firefighters. It had taken my hat like a large cocoon. We waited in frenzy for the little streetcar and became convinced that it was not running. My mother hailed two boys in an automobile heading downhill, who took us to the bank on Shattuck Avenue -- a trip of not more than ten minutes -- and from there she called the next-door neighbor and asked for news.

"Your house is on fire!" the woman screamed. "Let me go! Let me get my silver! Goodbye! Goodbye!" I have always wondered what did she do with the telephone receiver at that moment. Replace it, drop it, throw it? Did she save her silver? Was hers as nice as my mother's?

We both sank down on a bench and tried to realize what was happening to us. Then we walked to the door of the bank and looked up at the increasing smoke. Only smoke. No flames could as yet be seen. Up there, hidden in turmoil and destruction, our home was burning. Up there, deep in smoke and terrible heat, our home was being consumed, and only just now we had walked out the front door and in no time at all the house was burning and all our possessions were burning and the smoke rose thickly in huge malign puffs.

The bank doorman stood with us, looking up. "I guess the whole town will go," he said.

The insane speed of our departure, and the insane speed of the developing fire, and the insane unreality of being witness to the holocaust made the few words sound lucid, even sensible, in the midst of delirium.

"I guess it surely will," he repeated.

We stood at the door, looking and looking, somberly, quietly. "What caused it?" we finally asked.

"A power line blew down and started a grass fire. Back in Wildcat Canyon."

"That doesn't sound like much," my mother said ignorantly.

"Not much to begin with," he answered, watching the rolling smoke steadily, "but by now it's what you can see -- only a lot more than you can see."

My mother had snatched up some kind of document before we left the house, perhaps her nearly useless insurance policy, and methodically she went to the safe-deposit vault and put it away. Next she cashed a check. "I think we will go to San Francisco," she said, and we walked somehow to the nearby electric train, which took us to the ferry to cross the bay. We were silent and composed. Rather, we were stupefied, without any plan or ability to think, and the words of the doorman sounded like advice and we took it. We left the burning town.

Then, on the ferry, the enormity of what was happening really became visible. We sat on the deck and saw the city of Berkeley literally going up in hot, black clouds, wildfire covering the hills with a writhing mass of flame. How could we believe what we were seeing? No sight of excess in nature can be more terrible, even at a distance, than the rolling and wallowing and climbing and pitching of fire in the wind. We sat hypnotized as the ferry churned ahead.

Suddenly my mother stiffened. Her hands clenched in her lap. Her face turned quite gray. "That's not just a grass fire!" she cried. "That's not just a forest fire!" Then she moaned. "The can of coal oil! A spark ... A stray flame ...The oil exploded.... It spread the fire!" I thought she was going to faint. "I did it!" she managed to say. "I have destroyed the city of Berkeley! I shall be called to justice! People are dying up there! How many people are dying!" Like the hills, her conscience was enflamed, and the outpouring of her suffering went on and on. This was not theatrical grief, not the extremities of the classics before the falling walls of Euripides; she was watching her own fire and the extinction of an American city. No Siddons, no Duse ever spoke the awful truth from such horrors of an agonized heart. As I listened to her repeated self-accusation, it gradually and painfully became clear to me that she was right. Fire of such immensity, rage, and velocity could not possibly be descending on the city and destroying it without having been fed by a cache of fuel, an explosion in dry grass, and hot wind. That can of coal oil!


My POOR MOTHER -- my poor beautiful, pitiful mother. Not only to have lost her home and all her possessions but to be the cause of such loss and tragedy to others. Here she was, in this excruciating predicament, alone with me, my father dead, my sisters gone to their own lives and careers, and how could I save her? The depth of her desperation flowed up and into me. What happened to me personally and psychologically there on the deck of the ferry as Berkeley burned in front of us has never ceased to astonish me. What I did I could not normally have done of myself. In my family I was never an initiator, a rebel; I only followed and sat with decorum where I was set down, lamentably biddable, and a sweet, true comfort to my mother. Now in the moment of her desolate need I turned against her. I did not turn against her: some anxious oracle used me for a short angry span of words, a cry of freedom. In a rush of foreknowledge, I knew that for the rest of her life my presence and devotion would be necessary, that I would be left unaided with her, a torn partaker of regret and remorse. As my mother continued to accuse herself, I shouted, "Stop it! Stop it! It's unbearable! Be quiet! If you can't be quiet, I'll jump over the railing into the bay!" And I stood up.

Her stricken silence and the look of reproach and loneliness she gave me were dreadful. I could not make myself touch her to console her. I could not apologize. Now I sat in misery -- in a brimming vat of it, awash in it, sick in it -- until at last we came to the dock.

Lying awake that night in some modest hotel in San Francisco, trying to hear whether my mother was asleep or stretched out in torment of mind, I thought with sharp longing of the possessions we had lost, the amiable furnishings of home -- the chairs whose arms had held our own, the mirrors whose faces were ours, the rugs whose Turkish and Persian patterns our feet knew as well as our eyes did. I thought of my small bedroom, with its old spool bed and the woven coverlet dated 1863 among the flowers of the border, the cherrywood dresser made by a Quaker great-uncle. I laid my hand on the lamp table and the quaint sewing box that was like a little fort, with brass-rimmed holes for the thread to come out from the spools. I wandered about the house, from this dear thing to that, and in my mother's room I leaned, as I so often had done, against the tall post of her New Orleans bed. From room to room I went in love and loss, touching, looking, feeling with sad, bitter attention the objects that had been common to our daily lives. Suddenly I remembered the gold thimble I had left on the windowsill near some embrodiery. It had been the gift of Aunty Goodall. I ran, and there it was, just where I left it. Then with a pang I remembered the apricot silk-taffeta dress I wore in the wedding of my friend Eleanor. I stumbled up the stairs and found it hanging safe in the closet. Then I burst into sobs.

"Oh, I left you all in the house alone, alone as the fire came. I turned my back and left you to perish. Goodbye, goodbye," I mourned into my wet pillow, and finally fell asleep.

THE NEXT MORNING, we returned to Berkeley and found the hill under state military guard. As residents, we obtained permits and began the climb through snowy ashes up to what had been our home, up to find the evidence of my mother's guilt. Of this we had not spoken since the trip on the ferry, although it lay tightly, heavily fixed in our two minds. We had bought no newspaper, asked no questions. We knew enough -- too much -- and were afraid to learn more. As we started up the hill, ash dominated the landscape. The fury of the fire had consumed the homes of sixty city blocks right down to the foundations, leaving only an occasional fireplace with its gnawed chimney standing, or a scattering of twisted pipes. Trees and shrubs showed wretchedly as black fragments. It was a scene of littered woe, of the destruction of human satisfactions and roots, and it suggested abominably the sweat, the labor, the heartbreak of restoration.

There was no wind now, and the whiteness on the ground lay still. As we climbed, we met a few people who were wandering up like ourselves. The atmosphere was quiet, haggard, and in a way dreamlike. Yesterday was as unreal as the ashes I stopped at intervals to shake from my red slippers. If I looked about me long enough, hard enough, would I not summon out of the ashes that brown house with its huge bush of blue hydrangeas in front, each cyme of flowers an enormous display of congested chemical color? And on farther, a half block, a vague species of Queen Anne architecture with an unpainted porch that resembled a skull. I stopped again for a long look. "Are you tired?" my mother asked. "Come along." Poor Mother -- was she eager to face the proof of guilt?

We met a boy I knew at the university. Yesterday, the students had been dismissed to work as firefighters or to save the contents of homes, many the homes of professors -- dwellings stored with fine libraries and manuscripts of importance. We were wading through ashes of scholarship and literature. The boy carried a large album. "I picked up an old lady yesterday," he said. "She was all by herself and in a daze, and she was hanging on to this photo album like a bulldog. She let me carry it, though, and I got her down La Loma Steps, and suddenly someone ran down behind us and yelled, 'Thank God, here's Grandmother!' But when I tried to give her back the album, she wouldn't take it. 'It's your family,' I kept saying. 'No indeed, not mine,' she said. 'I never saw them before.' And her grandson went off with her." My friend opened the album and held it out as if he hoped I might relieve him of it. I turned a few pages of whiskers and pop-eyed brides and yellowing babies.

"Not mine, either," I said. "I never saw them before."

"Oh. Did you lose everything?"


He squeezed his eyes shut and gave a whistle of sympathy. "One horrible day," he said. Then he propped the album against a pile of tumbled bricks. "I'm getting tired of these old folks myself," he remarked, and sauntered on.

Next, we met a neighbor who had kept a large aviary. He inquired wistfully whether we had seen any canaries. When he realized that the fire was coming, he told us, he had gone into the cage and, as was their custom, the birds all came to him and perched on him -- his shoulders, arms, and head. And he had walked out with them -- how pretty, how pitiful it must have been -- and then run, going as far as he could get from the fire and the wind. At last, they had flown. "Please listen," he said sadly, and disappeared on the bleak, untwittering hill rather as though he himself had flown.

"Did you see that man?" I asked my mother.

"Come," my mother said. "We must hurry."

But then we were overtaken by a fireman in his uniform. He told us the fire was the fastest on record, destroying the sixty city blocks, with six hundred homes, fraternity houses, and one fire station, in two hours, between two o'clock and four o'clock. He was still greatly excited. "Houses simply burst," he said. "I saw one across the street simply burst into flames because it was so dry."

My mother was trying to ask a question. "Was anyone ... How many... ?"

"My mother wants to ask how many people were burned to death." Feeling crude, I asked it for her quickly.

"Not one," the fireman answered -- or, rather, he boomed it out over the empty hill. "Not one soul. Even me. One way or another, I didn't die from heart failure. But if it had been at night ... Oh, God!" and he continued toward the ashes of the station, where yesterday I had looked for him in vain.

My mother drew a deep, noisy breath, a sick-sounding groan of gratitude, and I realized that I had not been aware of her breathing as we climbed the hill. Now I felt that I weighed less, and it was easier to lift my feet. "Broad daylight," I said. "We should have thought about that." No response; only deep, grateful breathing.

As we continued on our way, we came upon the grinning keyboard of a grand piano; it lay there in the ashes, an obscene fragment. Had the agitated owner got it as far as the sidewalk before all the music in it ignited in a final lurid crescendo? Not much farther and I picked up a charred patch of Paisley wool. The design of black and brown and turquoise looked familiar. My mother took it, turned it about, and held it possessively. "Yes, that was my mother's -- all that's left of her big shawl -- and it blew downhill this far. How strange that you found it." She turned it over and over. (I still have the bag she made after she had washed it free of the smell of burned wool and combined it with duvetyn and a tortoise shell handle. It was meant to look elegant, and in an elegiac way it does -- a kind of ladylike pouch.)

Another block and we were at the corner of Buena Vista. We stopped a moment to rest, as we had been stopping all the way along, though not really to rest -- rather, in the midst of saying "Hurry," a means of delaying for a few minutes more the sight of that final thing whose dread magnetism had drawn us all night and all morning. Of the episode on the ferry there had been no mention. I still could not bring myself to say that I was sorry, and my mother's suffering discouraged any communication.


A FEW HUNDRED feet more and we had come home. Now the ashes were real. The pepper trees had been reduced to stubs. The concrete steps, heaped with ashes, led us up to more ashes, into which the chimney had collapsed. We stood and faced in silence the flat nihilism of total loss. The satanic energy of the fire had swept the premises of human meaning, and how could one feel any relationship to a void of ashes? Identical emptiness of ash lay at our neighbor's property and in every direction. A crazy place; it would be easy to go crazy standing there.

Gradually we became aware of details -- the few there were. Twisted pipes where the kitchen had been, and nearby the garbage container that had stood outside the back door. It was in fair condition, its garbage thoroughly cooked by the heat of the burning house. We picked our way through the ashes and, attracted by a spot of color, I gathered up a shard of china. I was looking into the steady, perennial eye of one of my aunt's handpainted violets. With an instinctive reaction of irony, I dropped it and stepped on it. "Just you!" I said angrily. "Two barrels and two thousand miles, and you are all we have left of anything. Anything at all." Under my foot I felt them moving, squirming, trying to reassemble -- six dozen tiny salt cups, a large vase painted with well-clothed Congregational nymphs, and that uncanny thing a Pompeian lemonade pitcher. "Stay where you are," I commanded them dizzily, and at that moment I heard my mother's voice ringing out: "I found it, I found my silver!" I ran to see. To see what? The mahogany buffet with the long drawer full of neatly arranged spoons, forks, knives, and serving pieces? She was standing beside a bright lump of shapeless metal: her melted silver. I gazed at it fixedly and felt myself growing more and more stupefied. Perhaps the large, crumpled spider I stepped into brought back a little sense, for I had to concentrate on it. "And what do you suppose this is?" We answered together, "The typewriter."

We could identify nothing else, and now it was no longer possible to avoid going toward what we had come to see. Side by side, we started across the one-hundred-foot stretch of what had been the vacant lot next door, silent and glancing up at the hills instead of straight ahead. But what use to evade? If we had the strength to walk, we must walk it. Suddenly, as though it had risen from the earth, the coal-oil can, half obliterated by ashes, stood in front of us. We went to it quickly. It appeared to be quite sound. This could not be believed without proof. My mother touched it, first with the toe of her shoe, then with her finger. I touched it also. We stood and regarded it, motionless as the can itself. We could not speak, and out of respect for the supernatural I had the idiotic impulse to address it in some way: "O Thou! O mysterious containment!" It had remained in one piece. It had not cast its fuel around to feed the holocaust. My mother moved carefully and grasped the handle of the can on one side. I took the other and we lifted it a little off the ground. It was heavy, as it had been heavy yesterday. We let the can come to rest, very gently. Next my mother unscrewed the cap. We took turns peering in. Then we smelled it. There was no twig or stick to thrust in to obtain a drop to smell more closely, so we spilled a bit and I rubbed my right forefinger in the moisture and again we smelled it. We smelled it with joy, or something as near to joy as we were capable of that day; we smelled it in a passion of relief, in delight, as if it had been lilies of the valley. There was not the least morsel or shred of doubt. It was coal oil. It was my mother's coal oil. It was exactly what we had left sitting there the day before.

We hunted about excitedly, intent on anything that might provide a clue to the miracle. Ashes and patches of bare ground where the wind had swept everything before it -- nothing else. The grass had been tall and very dry, but the fastest fire on record had gone by in such speed that there had been no time for the contents of the can to become heated. This benign truth struck us like a strong blow. I felt like falling, and there was nothing to support me. My mother's reaction was better. Here where only yesterday the fire and the wind had met in superlative fury she drew herself up with the same gesture I had often seen when she was about to pick up an important cue. In her melodious voice, simply and fervently, she said, "Thank you, Lord."

It was a notable performance. No one of the famous women she idolized, not even the exotic Alia Nazimova, could have done it better. They would all have been acting. She was not. It was drama, but the drama of truth uncontrived, and in it life and art met and no one could have told the difference. Fifty-one years have passed, and I can see her standing and giving thanks in the midst of ashes, forgetting her own losses and woes and giving thanks for a clean conscience. The moment was whole, it held only gratitude, and if she swayed slightly it was the poise of talent that swayed with her, the movement like a reed, fast at the earth but free to bend, to bend memorably at the touch of great feeling.

I helped my mother as she tipped the can and let the oil run out. It disappeared at once down a wide crack in the dry earth -- ten gallons of coal oil, ten gallons of thankful tears. I followed her as she walked across the vacant lot to take possession of the ashes of her home.
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Re: At The Gentle Mercy of Plants, by Hildegarde Flanner

Postby admin » Tue Mar 01, 2016 5:48 am

Roots and Hedges

AFTER MY MOTHER lost her home to the Berkeley fire, we settled in southern California, where by 1926 she had bought an old garden home in the foothill suburbs above Pasadena. It was not a likely property for my mother to purchase. She was used to a substantial home in a conventional setting, and this consisted of three old cottages hidden in a garden that was hidden by a cypress hedge eight feet tall. An old-fashioned and romantic air of seclusion, almost of secrecy, moved her to want the place. After the shock of losing her home and the loved furnishings of years of domestic life, she was drawn to an environment that seemed to offer a ready-made and secure welcome. Once inside the gate and down the long path, she was surrounded by a private world. So she bought the old garden -- almost half an acre, including three ancient, rustic redwood close-to-dilapidated cottages. Such dwellings, usually called bungalows, were not too hard to find at that time in southern California. People had built lightly and lightheartedly for a warm climate, and no building codes had bothered them. What was obligatory was bougainvillea on the roof. Of her trio, my mother chose the largest for our domicile. One was to be rented and one was be a studio -- a vague, exploitable title.

By the time we moved into our house, we had acquired a little furniture, and as we were putting books into a bookcase at one end of the living room a bright streak caught my mother's eye. "What was that?" she asked. "It looks like sunlight."

I knelt beside the bookcase and investigated. "It is sunlight, Mother," I assured her guardedly.

"What do you mean, it is sunlight? How could it be? That's a wall."

Still more cautiously, I said, "Mother, it's a wall with a big crack in it."

It was only after this discovery that Mother had the condition of the property investigated. It was a stunning surprise to her to learn that, typical of many modest old houses in California, ours was constructed without studs, and of walls somehow assembled of thin redwood planks nailed top and bottom to horizontal two-by-fours. Building codes and permits were still cordial, easygoing, or nonexistent when my mother's bungalows were constructed. At that early period, anybody who could hit a nail with a rock could put a house together, and often did. No proper foundations were required -- a few boulders from the nearest arroyo would do. Such houses were expected to perch. It would have been difficult to locate three houses so near the brink still perching, and, I add with affection, still so beguiling in their strangle of shrubbery and shaded paths. Style was no consideration in houses of this kind, as only the builder's desire for the picturesque or the quaint mattered, and in any case they would soon be obliterated by bougainvillea, banksia roses, and yellow jasmine, their interiors ill lit and smelling oddly -- a faint stink that came from the redwood. On the drawing boards of architects like the Brothers Greene, redwood was used for fine designing, but these others, almost spontaneous handmade structures, had their place until the thirties and forties in the historic environment of southern California. They all also had an honest place in the personal memoirs of an occupant who enjoyed their charms and suffered their haphazardness, including the carefree custom of scattering the essential parts of the bathroom hit-or-miss through the house -- perhaps just outside the house. The first control my distraught mother exerted on her new home was to assemble the stray parts of the bathroom into one location, where in the service of modesty propriety could close the door.

One colossal curiosity dominated my mother's house: the front door. Instead of functioning on hinges, it hung like a barn door on an overhead metal track, which operated like a trolley. The door contained two windows -- one right, one left -- both integral to the total creation. The thing was damnably heavy. Getting it even to budge was a challenge, and when at last it unexpectedly did roll, the sound of its thunder was dreadful. To enter the house, there was a smart step up from the porch with a treacherous sill; on this a visitor, already startled by the opening of the door, could trip and fall flat on his face into the living room. We asked each other who in God's name ever thought up such a ridiculous way to get in and out of an old house. Then we heard from a neighbor that the first known owner of our place had been a lady by the name of Miss Fortune who had travelled ardently in the Orient, particularly in Japan. She brought back with her the concept of the Japanese sliding screen, and from her description some mystified carpenter had made our monstrous version of an elegant thing. There were, without doubt, Japanese artisans in southern California who could have done it perfectly, but it appeared that she had relied upon herself (a born obstructionist dedicated to a morality of defeat). She had paid for that, and now we were also paying for it. The roof, too, was her contribution -- almost without pitch except for a little point in the middle which may have been intended to make it look like a pagoda but in fact suggested the hat of a peasant planting rice in a Hiroshige print. The sun on the roof created a stifling heat. A conventional front door and a cooling gable were alterations that followed the bathroom. I can count twelve major improvements over the years, all consoling to my mother, who with each became a little less humiliated by her original faulty judgment.

Very happily, both for my own life and our immediate circumstances as abashed householders, we had not lived in our delightful slum for more than half a year when I married. My husband, Frederick Monhoff, brought his conspicuous talents as artist and architect to this scene, which he regarded with suppressed astonishment and a sense of humor. For years to come, he and my mother, who was good at visualizing and loved floor plans, remodelled the kindling of the old houses into durable and attractive bungalows. In becoming desirable, they could no longer be laughed at. If this was a loss, we were well comforted by the presence, over all, of five respectable bathrooms, two fireplaces, French doors for Mother, and for us walls of glass, and a contemporary style in the house and studio my husband and I now occupied. The one thing we were never able to impose our will upon was the population of foothill opossums that for scores of generations had lived under the three cottages. They took kindly to newcomers. They saw no reason to move on. Whatever our improvements, they continued to make it clear that the place was theirs. Even when we added a furnace for our own comfort, it added principally to theirs. One night in winter, we heard a savage scratching under the floor. By morning, the house was very cold. An opossum of more than usual intelligence and skill had clawed the furnace duct apart at a joint, crawled into the cozy interior, and, just big enough to fit, had filled it, completely stopping the flow of heat to the registers above.


WE DID NOT know that we had settled with a permanency phenomenal in those days. In southern California, most old homes grow old in a succession of ownerships, while we set a record by remaining for thirty-six years in one place that had been old to begin with. The restlessness that animated many people and inspired the operatic aggressiveness of the real-estate market did not touch us -- perhaps we were lethargic in some ways. Still, we were busy. My mother attached herself to the Pasadena Community Playhouse with a habitual reverence for the drama and language spoken clearly behind footlights -- occasionally by herself, as she achieved a role. Fred went back and forth daily to the city for his teaching of design at the Otis Art Institute and his architectural work. I stayed at home and cultivated a sense of place and poetry. The big solid hedge shut us all in psychologically. The years brought to our family group the usual events of birth and death and the pleasures and strains of existence. Always there was the earth, nature, and the elements that demanded scrutiny.

We had been ignorant of the foothill wind that blew seasonally from the interior, beginning with autumn and going on through the late winter. It had a name we learned with dread -- Santa Ana. It blew through the canyon of Santa Ana and was capable of putting enough sand into the air to take the paint off your car and pit the windshield if you were coming through the Guasti vineyards en route to San Bernardino. At home, it made sleep impossible, it blasted the nerves, it could ruin the roof. It had its own attendant, rhythmic weather. Toward evening, the air would become clear and glassy, and a paw of wind would reach into the garden and shake the trees and scuffle with any loose foliage on the ground. Then silence. A little later we could hear it approaching down the canyons of the Sierra Madres above us. And more silence -- silence almost as menacing as the sound of the wind itself. When night fell, it settled down to its real performance -- hours or possibly days of buffeting, thrashing, and banging. It might blow only as far as the valley plain or it might get as far as the coast. Some communities it might jump over. Wherever it blew, it had no observers more attentive and taut than ourselves. We learned every sigh and roar, every whack of its repertoire, and especially the long frightening slide and spring of power as it came down the mountain and landed on top of us with a vibrating hoot into the chimney. The old cypress hedge was always bruised in these storms and gave off its pungent smell. During our first years in the garden, we sometimes fled in alarm to an inexpensive hotel in Pasadena. There, although we had been spared the sound of the wind, we would get up in the morning to see broken plate glass on the sidewalk, and on the way home trees flattened during the night, or the steeple of a wooden church wrenched crooked, with a revival meeting sign at an angle calling the city of Pasadena to "Come and live with Jesus." Finally, we grew ashamed of our timidity and stayed home while the storm raved. We never learned to take it without cringes: cringes and the raking up of the mess and the return of other people's property -- often the cat's house that flew over the hedge from the premises of two apologetic maiden sisters.

Having learned so disastrously about Western foothill fires in our brief stay in Berkeley, we might have thought ourselves entitled to immunity from even the smell of burning brush. However, the Sierra Madres burned regularly and within smelling distance nearly every summer, and sometimes directly overhead. More than once, when wind brought the fire into the outskirts of our community and we were less than a mile from flying embers, my husband spent the night packing two cars with what he decided was most valuable among his collection of architectural designs, books, Chinese scrolls, Japanese prints, and Navajo rugs. Onto this pile I always added his own etchings and paintings, which he characteristically delayed in gathering. As I helped him through the exhausting hours, I wailed, "Again? Surely not again!" and he answered with cynical sympathy, "Yes, again." Early the next morning, the wind would stop and the fire be declared under control, leaving in its wake a row of homes destroyed on the street highest up. People who come to California to live with the exhilarating joys of scenery and climate must learn to pay for the privilege, faithfully and painfully.

Our garden was typical of an era when many gardens were still inspired by the mission enclosures -- notably that of San Juan Capistrano. The padres had planted for use and nostalgia, bringing with them cuttings, cereals, seeds of vegetables, herbs, and fruits as well as of flowers. Paths imposed a kind of formality in the mission patio, with beds between them. The model was easy to copy and perfectly suited to horticulture passions that were unable to resist donations of slips and pinches, and the plain theft of something just too tempting hanging over the fence. All available space was soon filled with a rabid jungle of plants madly embracing each other and suffocating their mates out of existence. In form, our garden was of this genre, but the last owner, a retired schoolteacher who slept with an old BB gun by her bed and got up early to scare the finches raiding the fig tree, was inclined more toward fruits than flowers. We had persimmon, plum, apricot, pear, peach, pomegranate, guava, orange, lemon, grapefruit, and lime -- some of them many years old. There were also huge oleanders and an ancient jasmine on my mother's cottage. There were roses, daphne, crape myrtle, and trumpet vine, to begin with. We soon added azaleas, camellias, hibiscus, the dark, chic hardenbergia like a miniature wisteria and, among others, the night-blooming cestrum of wonderful heavy scent that choked my mother in her sleep, gave her nightmares, and had to be removed. Eventually, we had three kinds of the so called orchid tree -- lavender, yeIlow, white. The last grew to be tall, and its snowy, lilylike flowers that delicately straddled the boughs produced seedpods of considerable tensile strength when they split, which they did with a cracking sound. The seeds were thrown far and wide, and I enjoyed finding them, shining brown and squarish in shape, perhaps sixty feet from the tree. Of bulbs we had the elegant ivory freesias; a congregation of them gave off clear ethereal perfume. We had exotics like tigridia and alstoemeria from Mexico and South America, and companies of pink amaryllis, agapanthus, crinum, spider lily, stylosa, and other iris. We had beds of succulents and rosetted sempervivums, and a cereus that, as darkness approached, opened an enormous bud into a mammoth, angelic white flower, whose eerie, brief mechanism of inflorescence collapsed at dawn. These plants are now common in southern California. They represent not botanical knowledge or specialization or even success in gardening but a wistful, hilarious hunger for plants that is stimulated by a radiant climate and an earth cordial to the ever newly revealed floral wealth of other countries.

The Monterey cypress hedge that surrounded our place was elephantine, and we loved the elephant, but we found it no small chore to climb a ladder and, with aching arms and shoulders and shears always growing dull, tidy up a green monster eight by six by hundreds of feet. It was with such tough labor that I learned the wages of work -- values I paid myself in pleasure, pride, and honest fatigue. We hired help for only one day a week, and no memory of our garden would be complete without the inclusion of James Nicolopulos.

Nicky was Greek -- a smiling, dependable orb of warm light clothed in blue denim, with a watch chain swinging across his broad stomach. He worked for a number of property owners in the community and he took an interest not only in their aphids and snails but in their personal problems as well. He was not a gossip -- or not an accomplished gossip -- but a man whose kindness and good cheer could not be contained in ordinary limits of communication; rather elaborately he kept a web of discreet, or sympathetically indiscreet, information, just taut enough to entangle his employers with him and with each other. We might be social strangers, but through Nicky an expectancy bound us together. Behind our hedge we had news of what was happening to other people, although news of what was happening to other people's plants was often of more interest to me.

"That man who lives up where the street curves and his drive with the palms goes back to where his house is?" I might inquire in a twisting sentence resembling the drive referred to.

Nicky would say, "She's all right. His wife came home from the hospital all right." (I had not met his wife.)

"And the palm at the front that was injured in the wind storm?" (It was a good Livistona chinensis, and I suspected that its owner did not prize it highly enough even before the storm blew its head off.)

"The palm's all right," Nicky assured me. "So he threw it down into the arroyo, so I pulled it out of the arroyo, so I told him, 'Never throwaway a dead palm. A dead palm is never dead.'"

"Good, good," I said, and this information relieved my mind of an item of worry and indignation.

Another day: "Nicky, I need a really fine white oleander. That man who sells cars --"

"He's drinking all the time. He never stops drinking all the time. He never stops women all the time."

"Just the same, I want a cutting from his best white oleander along the street."

"Help yourself. She has a hard life." (This wife I did know and could agree.)

Only rarely were names included in these exchanges, but identities were established by plants known to me. Were other people treated to brief, vivid views of our lives? Probably.

All of Nicky's employers profited from his immediate recognition of the usefulness of any materials he might spy in a dormant or restful state. In a suburban economy during the war, it was sometimes difficult to find or buy what one needed, and Nicky kept his eye open for such needs. There was a section of the old hedge that had died and left a gap. When our son was beginning to walk and could get far enough to wander off the property, this had to be patrolled. One morning, I saw with surprise that across the hole in the hedge had been stretched precious and unprocurable chicken wire.

"From Mrs. Pier's chicken yard," said Nicky.

"Doesn't Mrs. Pier need it?"

"Not just now. She got tired of chickens. And she looks better without chicken wire."

I was grateful for our neighbor's ennui toward chickens. Then I noticed the absence of a good seedling Ochna multiflora, a shrub listed as rare in my favorite handbook of ornamental plants. The seedling had come up at the bottom of our garden just above our neighbor's driveway. I was watching it with covetous pleasure. "What happened to my ochna?" I asked Nicky.

"She likes it," Nicky said succinctly. "She thinks the seedpods are funny. So I took it to her." His sense of justice in exchange could operate quickly.

Then there was the old wheelbarrow. My mother, who never would have used it, happened to miss it one day. "Nicky," she said, "I thought there was an old wheelbarrow here when I bought this place."

"Oh, yes," he said cheerfully. "Mrs. Eddy needed it."

"Eddy?" my mother asked vaguely.

"Down on Mariposa Street, the big brown house," Nicky said. "You know the three big brown houses? Mrs. Eddy lives in the biggest big brown house."

"Yes, yes." Mother brightened. Her wheelbarrow had advanced socially. But her conscience was at once involved. "It was broken. How can they use it?"

"No matter," said Nicky. "Mr. Eddy is very nice repair man. He had good time fixing it. When you get it back it will be better yet."

Then there was Mrs. Kellogg's clump of cuphea. This affair did not turn out so well for us. Nicky, knowing of a blank spot in our garden, came one day bearing a clump of cupheas in full flower, and plenty of roots and good earth -- a gift in itself. I admired the red tubular blossoms. Nurseries had only recently introduced the cupheas. They were fashionable. As the blank spot disappeared under the expanding cuphea, I wondered what the toll of exchange was going to be. For several months, I was allowed ignorance, until one day the plant, very handsome under my care, vanished. One of its popular names was "fire-cracker." "The Cuphea ignea has exploded'" I cried to Nicky.

Nicky was calm. "She thought she didn't want it and then she wanted it bad" was his untroubled explanation.

With the passing of time, there came a day when I heard the sound of busy cackling, and I sauntered down to the bottom of the garden to take a look. Sure enough, the fence had gone. A few years had passed and the child was now a boy in school. Mrs. Pier's hens were back and the chicken wire had been replaced where it was needed.

It was fascinating to live under Nicky's cycles of use and restoration. Just as we began to feel the lack of a wheelbarrow, ours came rolling home in a splendid condition of repair -- better yet, as Nicky had promised. Mother sat on her porch and watched with approval as Fred and I hauled used brick to border a bed of herbs. Plainly she was flattered by Mr. Eddy's resuscitation of the fitness of things in her daily life.

Nicky loved my mother. It may have been her dignity and bearing that drew his respect, or perhaps it was her occasional confusion, which seemed to bring her down to the level of his own inadequacies. In any case, Nicky felt about Mother as I felt about the quail in the garden, of whom I said, because I loved them, "Quail can do no wrong." Even when she indulged in an obviously human breakdown at a stray parrot that ate her sweet tangerines (she threw stones at the robber, called him names, and swore at him), Nicky applauded and bent double with amusement -- not easy for a fat man.


THE TIME CAME when we did away with the big hedge to which we had clung past its years of health and usefulness. To chop, saw down, or somehow vanquish a perishing cypress hedge is a major job. The wood was hard and dense. And then to break into a symbol of containment as old and strong as our hedge, even though it was impaired, took more than axe and saw -- it required melancholy determination. A family does not lightly destroy the fortress of its privacy. Already three quarters of a century old, it could never in our generation be replaced. In the end, the job was too mournful for us, too demanding, and we called in a company of powerful black brothers who specialized in such destruction.

We knew at once that enclosure had been a good feeling, that we could never live exposed to public and street, with no privacy in front of daily life. We must build a wall, and Fred designed one -- handsome and original. As the trench was being dug and the footing poured, it became evident to our next-door neighbor, Annie, that he was about to perpetrate a peculiarity. A wall should be straight and stand within the property line. If it did not do so, something weird was taking place.

"Just where is your wall going to?" Annie inquired.

I responded with pride in Fred, "Our wall is designed with certain formal irregularities. Have you ever seen a serpentine wall?"

"I have not," she said, "but I can see by the foundations that yours is going to wiggle."

A short portion of our wall was straight, then beyond the gate it broke into angles at regular intervals just long enough to give grace to its composition. The materials were a pale yellow-rosy concrete block, and redwood horizontal fencing on top. It was good, it was distinguished, and I no longer mourned the hedge. On the day when it was finished and the mason was driving off with his rattling equipment, we stood in the street admiring it.

Our enjoyment was broken into by Annie at her end of the wall. "Did you know that you have built your wall way out into the street?" she said. "That's county property, and the County of Los Angeles will sue you, and probably," she continued with satisfaction, "make you take the wall down."

"Just a minute before you start wrecking the wall," Fred said. He disappeared through the gate and came back with his steel tape. If the creative calculations of his designing contained a shade of mystification, he was never flustered by a lack of comprehension in a conventional mind. He unreeled the end of his tape and handed it to Annie, "Step on it."

She did so, and he continued to unreel the long tape past the projections of the wall to our corner mark. It was plain that, instead of encroaching, we had actually donated footage to the County of Los Angeles.

Annie sighed and stepped off the tape. "I might as well have kept my fat mouth shut," she remarked amiably. Afterward, she proved herself a really good sport and paid half the cost of constructing the portion of wall between our two properties.


SOMETIMES, AS FRED and I were climbing the trail up Mount Wilson, we would hear far above us the sound of a bell. We knew we were about to meet the Hermit of the Mountains, as he was called, coming down with his burro and his police dog for provisions. Somewhere on the chaparral-covered heights he had a shelter, somewhere he lived in a chosen place that was safe from the city. But even at that distance he could not escape the sight of what was happening in the valley and on the plain. Increase -- a prodigality of increase. Increase of people whose lights shone up at him in thousands of radiant earthly stars, increase of boulevards and freeways whose blazing progress burned all night, increase of the smokes of industry, increase of planes overhead and, if unseen from here, increase of ships at San Pedro, and on some days an increase of the wandering smog -- a floating, polluted substance that hid the earth from the hermit's mountain and his mountain from the earth. As we met, we exchanged greetings, patted the burro, and respectfully said hello to the big serious dog -- five of us who paused for a moment in the fragrant pigmy forest, where mountain and nature seemed inviolable and yet afforded a superb view of stupendous change in Western history.

Summer, and ripe figs to preserve, and the dark triangular visages of honeybees clustered on the kitchen screen, drawn there by syrup and cloves. Winter, and drenching storms that fell in second showers while wind shook the wet bamboo dripping and heavy with the original rain. Spring, and the slow release of fragrance from the buds of freesias. At all seasons, there occurred in the studio in the old garden the disciplines of form and rhythm, a labor loosely and mysteriously called "creativity," but accomplished only by strict vision and tightening of thought as pastel, charcoal, brush, or tool lifted a building, a design, an etching from tracing paper, canvas, or copper plate; if there was mystery involved, it was the presence of a unique intelligence working patiently until late hours while the mockingbird sang strenuously in the loquat tree overhead. And the garden continued to be filled with its own events, indifferently turning in upon itself and unaware of the human beings who occupied it.

As the coming of a young life had been an absorbing joy, so the departure of the old life was soon to be at hand with heartache. One day, my mother, who had been losing strength and vitality, stood in her living room and cried in a voice of terror, "What is happening to me?" I could give her no answer, but I shared her terror and the cruel extremity of the moment. I suffered what she was suffering and, in addition, my own anguish of ignorance and confusion. Hers was to be a slow way of dying -- not of agony but of great tedium and frightening nervousness. "How long, O Lord, how long?" she implored each night before the drug took effect and she thankfully fell asleep. One evening, I brought her a saucer of apricots that I had cooked. "How good these apricots are," she said. They were her last words to me -- nothing to put on a monument but consoling to remember, because they were simple and natural and spoken in conscious possession of her cultivated voice. Her grandson had come to her bedside to say good night. Now, as a man, he recalls that she said to him not good night but goodbye. Before morning, she died softly in her sleep.

When an old hedge dies, you can replace it by a wall and the commitment of life within is undisturbed. When people die, the strangeness of inhabited emptiness takes over. The person is gone, but the person is still there, must be accommodated, must be believed in. Mother was dead, and although I had inherited the old garden and all that was in it, and although our own marks -- my husband's and mine -- were deep on the place, still, possession must be divided with the late owner in ways difficult to define. It had to do with a fragile spiritual leftover, the staple of immortal essence, personality. Death has no power.

The yellow jasmine on her cottage was in heavy bloom, a huge vine that let fall a sheet of small gold flowers fresh every day. Usually I swept them up in yellow heaps, but at this moment I let them lie on the bricks of the walk, growing deeper in rich gold, and one could look down from the gate and see the solid stretch of blossoms, long and wide. To leave them there was not sentimental; it was practical and comforting -- even therapeutic in its daily restoration of continual brightness. Mother was gone in a lingering, plaintive way. Nicky was not well. He could no longer take a pint of red wine with boiled sheep's head and grape leaves stuffed with rice and garlic for breakfast. We all, both dead and living, needed to be cheered up, if only by the sight of something so bright. Even at noon in the broad light of southern California the old garden felt dark.
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Re: At The Gentle Mercy of Plants, by Hildegarde Flanner

Postby admin » Tue Mar 01, 2016 5:51 am


On Forgetting The Name Of A Small Plant

A grace, a slightness, a green twist
Lightly angled from left to right,
A trace of utterness, a pendulous
White streak, God help me, what flower hangs
Down so upon its own ascension? You.
Can I forget your name and still know mine?
The soft interrogation of your tendril speaks
To me, yet does not speak your name,
And so I leave it where I must,
Known so clearly long ago,
To-day not clearly lost,
A tassel seeded in my mind,
A tangle where you taper most.
How can so much that's feminine and Greek
Take off and leave no evidence behind?
Grand botany, old friend,
In some small corner of your discipline
Permit me room and make it bright
And wish me luck,
That I may spring upon the fugitive

In the last syllable of her flight.

January Orchard

A state of light on winter boughs,
A hover of lilac on the tree,
A grove asleep in amethyst,
Drive terror from mortality.

If dying could be done like this,
A dreaming upright for a spell,
While inner secrets are awake
Planning enormous miracle,

If death were done like orchards,
Flower folded, never lost,
It would be worth the anguish,
It would be worth the frost.

To Be In Rain

The lush and lull of now the lapsing rain
The beautiful drench and flood is all about
On branch and sparkled sprawl of dripping bough
And diamond dangle slipping from the twigs,
And things of slumbered ivory huddled under
Break up from sleeping with a tender prong.
Unhushable and quiet drills the rain,
Each pointed spangle spats and pushes down
Into the little vats where lilies brew,
Into the silver cellars of the slug,
Between the jointed pillars, sheen and clean,
That lift the grass above the tremulous ant.
With shift, twist, twirl and peck of pebble under
The liquid fern, now dips the pale and spinning tip
Of rain, rain, rain into the swelling earth,
And here beneath the poise and strip
Of tactile waters tapping to get in,
The mind, the mortal soil gone bleak and sere
Goes green, puts up a candid flower, a sleek
Sweet bud, first bud, the firstling crisp and sheer.

Deep Harvest

The mild, the solid sound, American
Of lawnmowers roving on a grassy day
Is a mellow clatter, it is not only
A twist of blade laying the lawn away.
It is the audible summer in the states,
When hayfields murmur in the lovely grain,
And bees shoot in their tongues after the honey
As clovers hum and rock under the strain.
Now over all the land the wheat is blond,
It hisses and is quiet on its roots
As wind and windless happen to a place
And heat strikes home into the twinkling fruits.
The green blood of the leaves is duller now,
It is a foliage in her elegies;
From the great barns crawl out the loud machines
And the deep harvest lapses under these.
Yours and a native song let make, O blade,
Before the bough is blank and the cricket dead,
About my country's grass and the white crops,
How you possess them fragrant and to bed.

Smith Brothers' Lumber Shed

Here in the shadow of the Smiths, my forest,
The flower of Oregon is straight and dead,
The pine that whistled and the cedar's harp,
A silent lumber counted in a shed.
So many miles, so many winds between
This corner south, your sable forest north,
Where loud you rolled your branches on the storm,
Slow begot new green, slow brought it forth.
O Mr. Smith, O Oregon, I saw
All that you both possess under one shed,
The earth profoundly holding up her trees,
And every man, a home upon his head.
And more, believe, I saw and counted most
The northern stars still trembling through the branch
And far below, the pale glass of a flower,
And I forebore to pick it up so blanche.
It is for Mr. Smith, he must be laid
Sometimes limpid among lengths of lumber,
Heaving his eye up to remembered shade,
Hearing the lovely voice of living timber,
And see -- it's natural, not as a Smith possessed --
His fir-trees drinking at the snow's fine breast.

White Magnolia Blossom

The rolling, staggering bee, the honey-fronted,
Shoves his gypsy face into the pollen,
Thrusts and wallows with delight unblunted
While over him the yellow snow has fallen
And under him the deeply shaken stamens
Tremble. Tumult, O bee -- in her cool tower
Sleeps perfection that no fire can waken,
Slumbers, alaska-white, who said a flower,
Who said a more than flower, who can discern
What lantern-like and secret single
Word is bright enough for her but will not burn,
What sound is pure enough to hold and mingle
With this unseizable, impending doom --
To fall unfathomably into beauty's bloom?

Pear Song

The sun gazed hot on her single hip,
The doe left on it a crescent scar,
And valley winds, the boisterers,
Swung the bough from under my lady pear.

Lust of bee and sweat of honey,
Hunger and merry-making come to an end,
Diligence of summer lies at rest,
And the light goes out in my darkening hand.

Prayer For This Day

Here, west of winter, lies the ample flower
Along a bough not builded on by snow.
Now earth conceives the bridal and the bower.
Now what was rain is vistas in a row
Of spring, or miles of water knocking upon stone.
The random green heals over without flaw,
Hills heave their smoothness to the midmost sun.
Oh, what are we to say that worlds are lost?
Or what bears heaviest on the heart almost?

Still to a century superb for death
The emerald shrub again, the rose undwindled:
Still quail are whistling with a bubble's breath
And lean and tender lilies taper still:
Still satin moths at night with great eyes kindled
Throb into flame. If there is time to will
Prayer from a heart too long by reason fondled,
Then here where flinty branches loosen into white,
Here at the balmy side of spring's re-birth
Kneel down. We ask no vision, no heavenly light,
But simple faith, like faith of grass, in earth,
And seed's old dream against the night, the night.


Near the old woods where little birds swell
With delicious melody
You had a garden, love,
Beautiful with care of elegant produce,
Watered, hoed, and weeded straight to me.
This year thistles are in your garden
And for your sake I hack thistles,
Weeds of dread, a glass army, an ugly
Multitude of assassins and spies.
For your sake I invade the invader.
My hoe is made for a lady, my gloves
Are pretty and no good. I fight. I meet
The immortal. A thistle slain is good as
Alive and ready to shoot, while ever
The silver spies of floating seed
Scatter abomination for a future day
And torment for the human soul that trembles
In the presence of a weed.

And what do I think of most,
A thirsty fool among thistles growing old
And brittle among thistles all the way?
I think of your smile. It was like a clear lotion,
A mysterious zestful refresher.
I think of your smile.

It's a mean year for thistles,
It's a hard year for love.

Fern Song

Had I the use of thought equivalent
To moist hallucination of a flute
I could be saying how
A certain music in my woods has driven
A certain female fern to tear
In panic from her good black root.

But no transparency of clear intent
Assisting me
I only guessed at what the singer meant
That hour I heard his intervals prolong
Beyond security of common song
Into a raving sweetness coming closer,
While the lyric creature
Was still remote,
Since thrush may have a mile of music
In one inch of throat.

Black Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris)

That you should smell of carrion
And be beloved as filth
By flies, the soft small vultures murmurous
About your spathe,
Is destiny not fit for flower,
Although you be corruption's flower of state.

I, for one, pause to admire
And call you beautiful, as foul as sable
And, mused upon by your hypnotic hue
I do forget the pure, the singular, the mountain lily
White Shasta's little nymph, and red pluck of the rose,
For one whom evil raised with darkest care
Out of time's tropics, a hazard to the soul.

Offended heart, do not believe this flower,
This floral lie,
Even its awful fragrance, that of death,
His flower indeed, and his profane ideal,
With a like will to wither
As the lovely and the real.

To A Small Plant Of The High Sierras

Flower too small to gather,
Yet large in your estate
Of mountain and vast weather,

Green gem upon cold breast
Of bare sublimity,
Scarcely have I pressed

-- Sweet infant, nursed on snow --
To where you lie serene,
And chasm faints below.

All thought of you is blent
With azure sunlight, granite,
And huge, clear firmament,

Great moss, great innocent at ease
Upon Sierra's awful knee,
What tenderness you lend to these
Monuments and mysteries,

With delicate sod and bright
What loving flourishes you add
To hard works of the infinite,
And, to much awe, delight.

Pure Sum (Yosemite)

To gather wild azalea,
If you can bear to break,
Is laying by a treasure
For your heart's sake.

First the frugal mind
Numbers the pallid loss
Of petal and petal
Falling dark upon the moss,

But ever the heart grows richer
In contentment from that hour,
Compounded on the single
White unit of a flower.

Definitive Spring

When light revolves about the given green
And so makes vernal lustre,
Freesia on a line oblique
Divides her ivory cluster.
(All men adore the spring.)

The sap that spirals in the steady bough,
The emerald prism splitting on the tree,
The soft andante bird now faster singing
Move all to one velocity.

Observe the holy cypher of the spring
Exact and secret on each tattooed flower,
And hear the meadow lark capsized with music,
Toppling loud into the transparent hour.

All men adore the spring,
Even a plain leaf trinketed with rain,
Even the tree toad's cabalistic murmur,
Equation between mystery and disdain,

Even the swaggering dot on the beetle's wing,
The period that puts no end to prodigies
Of heavenly matter, on and on
Made ponderable and real to mortal eyes.

Mojave Spring

Over the flower-striped desert
Walk when it is spring,
See the mountains great with snow,
Hear the round lark sing.

Go lightly in a million flowers,
Pollen will reveal
Every greedy runner
By his golden heel.

These are enchanted acres, go
Lightly. You have found
A place where rainbows fall to earth
And grow more vivid on the ground.

Praise For A Valley Weed
(Beside the Southern Pacific tracks)

Where dusts of old departures blind the heart
And a white face forever flits
Forward down a perishing view,
Here stands a plant, frail scaffold of great nature,
Abatus and gloriosus, you,
The pillar in our bones, no less,
And trodden pith of spirit. Lacking your kind,
Adsurgens, trivialis, structural weed,
These perfect wheels, these lords of travellers, indeed,
Had never rolled out of that hot oblivion
Where, ages gone, life's shanty rocked forlorn
And barely stood,
While God without end shot slowly past.
Lacking your will to rise, your poise to fall
As deepening loam upon a shabby star,
What end save sterile lime would earth have known,
What fruitful forest giving lounge and food,
Callicarpus, ambrosioides all,
What golden victuals or what amethyst vine
Would fill this valley of the San Joaquin
And bask along the brilliant wake of speed
Where fuels and men and metals make such haste?
Pusillus and chrysophyllus, little weed.
Whose smile would deck these corridors of arrival,
Whose feet make merry to descend at home
As day, with a drag of rusty stars, turns west?
Had you not given soil for food for hunger
What language had grown tongue to test
The lilt of its own seed
In all the mumbling ages of your earthward rise
-- Lucidus ever in humilities --
Not these, the hardy, classic two, deciduous of death,
Still budding with your name and honoring your deed,
Petrophilus, oliganthus and sanctorus
and fraternal weed.

On A Hill

I was walking up the firebreak, Holly's hill,
I was setting my toes hard on the gritty ground
Where earth cracks early to the little fists
Of peony, phacelia and horehound.

The air hung clear. Each mountain was there.
Nothing from nature took one inch, one green.
Spring was swelling in the western light
That shown upon itself with a twin sheen.

Up from the river came the barest rush
Of water running dark under the lather,
While sumac, toyon, fern, a hundred more
And I stood rooted in a holy weather.

And suddenly I found myself like this,
A thing at ease from heart to cuticle
Remade to common radiance on the hill,
Dark core of canyon rock and dreamy particle.

Not for my sake, whose sake is not enough,
Would I inscribe a meaning on sublime
To make it last beyond its chance of awe,
Unnatural in the decency of time.

Better to be consumed in what I saw,
Utterly taken and left small and still,
A grain of sensibility in native light,
Barely lodged upon a granite hill.
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Re: At The Gentle Mercy of Plants, by Hildegarde Flanner

Postby admin » Tue Mar 01, 2016 5:52 am

Gentle Aliens: A Strolling Conversation

THE INTRODUCED SEMITROPICAL plants, chiefly trees, growing in southern California, are exotics so well established that they have altered the environment. It is more exact to say that they are the environment, and that to trace each one is an ambitious, fascinating and impossible task to perform, since today the introduced plants of this completely planted area overwhelmingly outnumber the natives. Director Francis Ching of the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia says that introductions account for 98 percent of plant life in Southern California gardens. From where do these exotics hail? What have they given us? And what are we, today, giving them? It is hard to realize that some of them, numerous members of great genera, or species and varieties less prominent but all desirable, have been here for one hundred and even two hundred years. There is no need to explain our surprise at time's velocity. We are glad that it passed in the presence of trees. Perhaps they are more entitled to the land than we ourselves are. It is already long ago that they settled down, and now they are valiantly, and even elegantly, fighting it out with what is one of the most congested, traffic-and smog-afflicted, greedily urbanized and industrialized areas of the globe. That is what we have given them in return for their countless endowments to us. If some alien plants have abused the native plants, these I am thinking of are not of that class. We have lived with them for so many years that they now possess for us the meanings of home, inheritance and daily life. If they were suddenly to depart, as creatures no longer able to put up with the intensities of traffic and population, we would stand here, or fall here, deprived of roots and dreams.

I have spent much of my life looking at plants. And recently it seems that plants, with sympathy, are looking at me. I wish I could get them to look the other way. It has all to do with memories, memories of the time when Southern California was different, or the world was different, and so was I.

Whom do I address? -- a resident, a traveler or myself? Just a conversation, no matter with whom, about exotics.

Parks and arboretums from Santa Barbara to San Diego are excellent for such conversations, and we will not overlook them, but this piece will be about what we find for ourselves as plant watchers, strollers and drifters. It should be exciting and satisfying to wander through a landscape that resembles a rich mosaic defined by prominent patterns.

To begin, let us remember that behind every foreign plant there stands, immediate or remote, a plant explorer or a plant introducer. Also remember that we are looking for trees, not merely herbaceous plants. The literature of plant exploration is a dramatic story of courage and patience, joy and desperate failure, danger and even violent death. Of the men who have gone down the tropics or up the Himalayas hunting for new material to enrich the gardens and farms of Europe and America, not all have returned. We have their journals, we know their ardors and their hardships. Something stirs in the trees overhead, something in the flowers at our feet.

Be careful where you step, my friend, not on a frail primula from Tibet, but a knobby seed capsule from the Tasmanian eucalyptus under which we are standing. It is Eucalyptus globulus. To be less formal we may call this massive tree the Tasmanian blue gum. Of all introduced trees the eucalypti are the most plentiful. This one, which may reach the height of 180 feet in its native earth, is the most extensively planted in California of all the species. To us it is the image of the entire genus. It is big, messy, a boss of a tree, with a blue cast to its buds and its juvenile foliage. The seedlings of this and other species were first brought to San Francisco in 1856 by a Mr. Walker, whose name should be mentioned, since he started an enthusiasm which eventually introduced so many kinds of eucalyptus to the coast that some people have supposed the tree to be native. Blue gum is the dominant immigrant exotic, uniting north and south with its characteristic odor and litter of bark. In the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century it was planted for lumber and firewood, but was not suited commercially for these purposes. However, it remained inconspicuous. A few years ago, between seventy-five and ninety species were counted as growing in California, yet in spite of its general popularity scarcely more than one-third of these are commonly seen. The rest turn up in collections.

In Australia there are some 300 species of eucalyptus, some of them giants that grow to more than 300 feet. An excitable encyclopedia reports heights of 575 feet, but even the truth is not modest. Eucalypti provide timber for paper pulp and oil. They are ubiquitous on the continent, present in Tasmania, and a few are found in Malaysia. Although eucalypti are numerous in California in every type of planting, and we might call them our senior exotics, still they are not easy trees to get familiar with. Only the botanical specialists can know them well. For the amateur they offer confusion, fascination and endless diversities of bud, bloom, fruit, foliage, scent and bark. It is probably first of all the sight of so many kinds of bark which suggests to the casual -- but soon absorbed -- plant-watcher that although one or two species of the genus may predominate, they are not alone. Most frequently planted as specimen trees are the various gums whose barks come off periodically in strips and ribbons. But the term "gum" is used for others as well. And we must not confuse the ribbon-strippers with the stringybarks of similar-sounding designation but of fibrous covering. The ironbarks, dark or furrowed, are easier to recognize. Perhaps. There is also the business of those stockings that give way to smooth limbs above, differently in different species. To be noticed with interest and pleasure are the varying hues of brown, yellow, gray, khaki or soft red, where the bark has come off and left a mottled skin. Or it may be smooth and "brilliantly white." As for the leaves, they are simple, entire and frequently sickle-shaped, Again, they are roundish or ovate-lanceolate. They may be redolent of eucalyptus oil or they may smell like peppermint. The mystery of a flower without sepals or petals must leave you aloof and sensible until you have secured a twig in bloom and seen the halo of stamens that fringes the calyx and radiates from it.

Much better than one twig in bloom but harder to put your hand on is the volume entitled Eucalypts, a collection of 250 faithful and charming water-color paintings by Stan Kelly, the remarkable engine-driver of the Victorian Railways, who for many years has found time to follow an additional schedule, that of the flowering and fruiting of the Australian forests. His paintings, sprays of bud, bloom, seed vessels and foliage, show you how sepal and petal, fused into caps or lids, are pushed off by the silky weakness of the showy stamens. The stamens are the aesthetic evidence of the flower, single and illuminated white in Tasmanian blue gum (E. globulus), striking red in scarlet gum (E. ficifolia) and drooping rose in red iron bark (E. sideroxylon), a queenly tree. The seed capsules are of great variety in shape and size, from match head to large pipe bowl.

Why not pick up seed capsules, plentiful and various on the ground? You might find some of those splendid tiny toys, the quarter-inch seed bowls of a very tall tree, the red gum, E. rostrata. One of them could hold two drops of bright rain for a dark, dry day.

At this point I pause to remind us all of an old-fashioned craft once associated with eucalyptus, and a questionable craft it was, one of the least attractive ordeals of art nouveau. My own mother practiced it, timorously and once; the stringing of eucalyptus portieres. All that was needed was a bushel of green buds of strong-smelling globulus, heavy thread, a very sharp, long needle and a lot of bloodletting. The result: a seductive curtain that smelled like Vick's Vapo-Rub and swung and clattered lightly as we passed through.

Eucalyptus is assumed to be the fastest-growing tree in the world. A blue gum has been paced in its upward race at fifty feet in less than five years from seed. It was this speed of growth that encouraged "the eucalyptus craze" of 1904, when a rumor gave rise to a fear that the country was giving out of hardwoods. The eucalypti, being hardwoods, were regarded as saviors, also as an easy way to make quick fortunes. Fifty thousand acres of various kinds were planted in the state for investment, and methodically neglected in the conviction that eucalyptus flourished without irrigation or other attention. At the end of ten years, the profit so confidently expected was neither lumber, shingles nor railway ties, but only a rich chagrin.

It was in 1770 that Captain James Cook, the famous and ill-fated explorer, reached Australia, called New Holland, on the shores of the South Pacific. The eager naturalists on Cook's initial voyage were set ashore at Botany Bay, as it was at once called because of the astounding wealth of unknown plant life. The botanists, out of their heads with the extraordinary paradise where tropical birds flashed and sang from bough to bough, discovered strange trees that exuded a gum, and the original name, gum tree, has remained, especially where these trees are native. (The botanical name refers to the secret flower contained under the cap.)

We now know that in Australia the eucalypti are the dominant forest trees, comprising 75 percent of the sylvan community. The early visitors had merely touched the rim of their supremacy. When those first amazed travelers looked up and up, far up to the blossoming top, there was no name; there was only a kind of majesty they had never seen before.

For so long we have taken the eucalyptus for granted. A closer look is like a look at ourselves. Did you suspect, guileless plant-watcher, that underneath your tight habits of thought there might be an elastic resilience ready to spring up when the lid falls off?

The palm, whose main habit of growth is undeviating symmetry, strikes some people as a tree that is not a tree, but green sculpture. Palms do not, as maples and oaks, whisper to the condition of man. On the other hand, a palm is a lyrical tree, yet its grace and poise are centered where it stands, and at almost any stage of its development it may look completed. It does not have a place beneath its wholeness for unfinished human lives. When some people say they love palm trees they do not mean it; they mean they love pillars, arches and columns with roots. They mean that, since they cannot afford a fountain in their front yard, they will have a palm instead.

The rest of us like palms because they are palms, and because more than any other tree they have provided our environment with the shape of tropical foliage and exotic shadows falling on hot concrete; and the concrete, the city streets, the sprinkler-gemmed lawns, the shopping centers become tropical landscape because of tropical palms.

There are two kinds of palms which you will at once distinguish, feather-leaved and fan-leaved. Palms have come to us from regions of the globe far separated -- Australia, Africa, South America, China, Mexico, and, well, California. That last one, which did not have far to go, is a hard-working native son (or daughter), a public-citizen tree, I would call it, planted by thousands along streets and avenues, always with an urbanizing effect. This palm is not of the kind to look like a fountain. It is sturdy and does not suggest the refined decorative arts of antiquity. But it is our own. It originated in the freedom of our lower deserts and the springs of oases, where it rose, not in straight lines of engineered planting, as we see it everywhere, but in groves and fine clumps. We all know the school of desert palm painters. This palm of the Colorado oases is the model. It is Washingtonia filifera. It grows to more than eighty feet, higher than an aspiring amateur painter can reach. There is another, close of kin, W. gracilis (or robusta) from farther south in Baja California. They are both freely used in street planting. W. gracilis, from forty to one hundred feet tall, appears less heavy. Both are important in the landscape, both have been generously planted as street trees and both have been ruthlessly cut down for street widening. In spite of being common, they are magnificent. They are roofless temples.

Palms in general, in their balance and integrity, are easy to associate with architecture. Many years ago, concerning some prominent and dull buildings on one of the University of California campuses, it was wittily remarked that the trees drew back from the buildings in horror. The trees were not palms. Palms may be counted on, because of their dignity and formality, to enhance and relieve even a dull building. Perhaps that has too often been the mission of our palms -- they have, in colonnades or green arches and long rows of tropical romance, given to boulevards and buildings a proportion these structures could otherwise not have shown.

Count it a fortunate day, palm-stroller, if in park or private planting you come upon the fan palm Erythea edulis, or Guadalupe palms, from the island of that name 150 miles off the west coast of Baja California. Erythea grows to twenty-five or thirty feet. How can I describe it for you except by extolling its leaves of stalwart green, which look always as though refreshed by moist winds off southern waters? The related E. armata is the blue palm, its leaves not so exuberant but of a lovely silver blue. Hope to find it in bloom, for you will be astounded by the long stems that arch out and down from the crown of foliage perhaps fifteen feet or more to the earth, bearing the heavy clusters of small bloom. This palm comes from Baja California, from the seclusion of wild canyons.

There is one well-known feather palm from Brazil that has a fine crown of leaves and takes up so little room on the ground that it can be grown in a narrow parkway without crowding, and there you will find it in great numbers, a civilizing presence where apartment houses face continual traffic. It used to be called Cocos plumosa, but it is no coconut. Perhaps its name as now given, Arecastrum romanzoianum, sounds silkier and so better suggests the softly drooping and richly plumed leaves. Another feather palm, and one so common that its character has unjustly suffered from overuse, is the Canary Island date palm, Phoenix canariensis, from the Canary Islands. It does not bear dates worth eating, or canaries either. It is a handsome plant, shapely and given to a kind of stout grace. It will be seen occupying all of a small front yard and serving as a planter for red geraniums, which thrive in the earth held by the bases of the trimmed petioles. Or as a road tree leading to older houses. Or you may see it fifty feet high, looking lofty and hazardous in front of some turn-of-the-century courthouse. In addition to hand-planted specialties on its trunk, including occasional tropical epiphyllums, the palm may hold small nut or olive seedlings planted by blue jays and mockingbirds. Or it can serve as a good outdoor cupboard. Where is the trowel, where is the dog's ball? Right there. It has a charming relative from Africa, Phoenix reclinata, or Senegal date palm, with fruit again not edible, but in contrast to the more common no-date date palm, it is dainty and choice, edible or not. Its leaf blades are no more than one foot long, and curve at the tips as though made by a craftsman from ancient Byzantium. It is sometimes planted in clumps, as at the Los Angeles Arboretum or at the Pasadena City Hall, a sight to please the Queen of Niger.

A prize that will make your day a special one is the feather palm from Paraguay known as Loroma amethystina or Seaforthia elegans. It has other names, too, but all that you need to know is that its flowers do not emerge from the crown of dark, regular leaf-blades, but from far down the trunk. They are delicate and lavender, and the ripe fruit is red. Altogether, you see, this palm is as desirable as a rare object behind glass. But here it stands, free and available, and even an avenue of it cannot reduce its preciousness.

Plant writers are fond of reminding us that one of the oldest known records of imported plants is that carved on the temple wall in Karnak. Peering hard at the photograph of the limestone carving, one is not able to say whether it contains a palm tree. Three and a half millennia later, not in the silence of the desert but only a little withdrawn from the sounds and turmoil of traffic, we have our honored spoils of plant life, and among them, the one whose identity and beauty is clear as though carved on a temple wall, is the palm.

The acacia-watcher should go to the Los Angeles Arboretum in Arcadia, where the largest collection of acacias in the world, outside of Australia, is located, and in performance from the middle of February until the end of April. Perhaps the visitor will find the right word for the flowering acacia -- delicate but not frail; abundant but not heavy; light but not thin; fabulous but not secret; pendant but not weak; bright but not dense; heartbreaking but not mawkish; and finally there is only one word that will do -- acacia.

The uses of this tree are reported from ancient times. It was reputed of service in the Ark of the Covenant and the Ark of the Tabernacle. The Egyptians used it for coffins for their pharaohs because it lasted, and they called it "incorruptible." Gum arabic and tannin come from acacia, and the wood of some species is used in fine cabinet work. The sweet acacia, farnesiana, is much grown in southern France for perfume. Farnesiana is one of a few species native to our own country. This large genus of shrubs and trees comes from the semitropics and the warm, temperate regions of the earth. Like a cloud of floating gold it seems to have blown softly around the globe, settling wherever climates were mild and soils were sandy and hospitable to its eight hundred species. Most of them dropped onto Australia, where acacia is the national flower. In California it has had a popular but at times unpromising career, because some members of the tribe do not survive the occasional bad freezes, and moreover it is short-lived or, that is to say, it might with luck live as long as the man who planted it, if he doesn't live too long. In spite of the nurseryman's reservations about acacia, it is one of the most loved of all the flowering plants imported into the state. Yet relatively few species of all that are known in the trade are actually planted in gardens, because the flowering of the best known, such as baileyana, has provided such rapturous satisfaction that adventurous shopping for acacias is not what it should be.

In Australia, the acacia's status is much celebrated. There it bears the utilitarian name of wattle. The early settlers had used the slender stems and branches of pliable species to weave their dwellings in the ancient manner, and a plant first known as mimosa became wattle.

Acacias offer interest, and confusion as well, in their foliage. The acacia as you will first recognize it has ferny bipinnate leaves, but some species normally reduce their leaves to leaf stalks or petioles known as phyllodia, which look like simple leaves. It is an amusing contradiction, although nature is not concerned with amusing us and does not care whether or not we get the idea. The big blackwood acacia, A. melnnoxylon,will give you a perfect demonstration and will even, here and there, put out a twig of bipinnate foliage as proof. In any case, let me tell you a little story about these capricious leaf stalks. I do not find the details mentioned in the literature, but I know it is true. For many years I lived under a huge black acacia. At certain seasons it would hum. Ignorantly, I supposed it was the bees humming among the flowers, which in this species are not showy. But a bee would not need to be shown. It was I who needed to be shown, and finally discovered the facts for myself, by spying on the bees. On every stem (petiole) of every leaf (phyllodium) there is a tiny valve which operates like a spigot to release a droplet of sweet syrup. The bees are not alone in awareness of this bit of free cordial. Botanists know about it, but they keep quiet. Now the secret is out. I tasted it myself, and it is delicious.

Acacia baileyana blooms early here, and perhaps one reason for its popularity is that, even in Southern California, it may be ahead of the season and therefore bring both promise and revelation at once. One hates to think what the event would be were acacias blue or pink. It is that pure, heavenly, prayerful gold that gives the shock of bliss but never of satiety. You may be seeing a taller species, A. decurrens, similar to baileyana, but with feather foliage and leaves that are sensitive to the touch. There are two varieties in fragrant yellow with silvery leaves in February and March. The type is dark green with pale flowers, and it blooms in April. You will find them in an old street in an old suburb. At least that is where I have lived and that is where I saw them.

Acacia flowers are of two different arrangements, one the little ball, the other a spike, in both cases fluffy, with many minute flowers crowded together, so small and so numerous that they cannot be studied with the naked eye. Seeds of acacia were first imported to San Francisco in the middle of the last century, and by 1858 various species were being enthusiastically grown for their beautiful early flowers. Immigrant and exotic, it is no stranger today to us inhabitants. Its alterations of our local world have been continual and of one bright substance. With every fresh onslaught of bloom we are captured but never astonished. We had known all the time that it was there, ready with its insignificant buds unseen overhead until they burst against the warm blue sky. Then we stare with inexpressible delight. No matter how common it becomes we will never take the acacia for a common tree. In the light gold of refinement of its flowering we have a total experience. With its weightless mass of glimmering bloom it wipes us out.

And that is what brings us to what the seventeenth-century poet, Andrew Marvell, wrote about a garden: "Annihilating all that's made/ To a green thought in a green shade." This is a favorite quotation about plants. I think it has not yet been used to express a feeling about the pepper tree. Andrew Marvell can never have seen a pepper tree, yet he created one, a tree of mystical containment that has stood erect for three hundred years in two lines of metaphysical poetry. As you stand with him under this tropical tree you see that only a poet of strict freedom could design its verdant loveliness. Utterness is what the poet hoped, and accomplished.

In Mexico the pepper tree Schinus molle has been called "the tree of Peru," and the Spanish conquerors sent seeds of it to Europe by way of Mexico. But there seems to be no evidence that the Franciscan padres brought it directly to California, in spite of the fact that in a hot, arid country its spreading shade was needed around the missions. There is one story, often repeated, concerning its introduction. It seems that a sailor wandered to the Mission San Luis Rey in the 1820s. After the customary hospitality and exchange of news, he left behind a gift of seeds, which were forgotten by the others for some time, until at last they got them in the ground. Eventually there were some strange woody plants, not recognized but set out in a row in front of the mission. As they grew into trees they were used as hitching posts and were in other ways not well treated, and they suffered in the vicissitudes that soon fell on the missions. Fifty years ago there remained only one of these trees. The pepper is dioecious, staminate or pistilate on separate trees. The rosy berries quickly grow into mature specimens, but the one tree at San Luis Rey was staminate, hence no mother of fruit. That is the story of the sailor and his gift. Whatever the facts, there are now hosts of pepper trees giving shade in a country of dust and drought. There are so many of them in California that they are known, even in manuals of Pacific Coast trees, as California pepper trees. Their range of hardiness brings them, a little dangerously, as far north as the Napa Valley. They take the place of willows for people who find the same elegiac tenderness in their pendulous, sheltering charm. An ancient tree will have a black trunk heavily embossed, a gnarled, carved pedestal for the finespun foliage it supports. Garden trees, park trees, city and country trees, avenues and arches -- the pepper trees of distant Peru have transformed our landscape. But do not think to take the hard, pretty berries in their enticing clusters to your table as good seasoning. They are hot, but not the pepper of commerce. Birds dote on them for the thin pulp. They regurgitate the seeds, neatly. I have known the sound of them like hail pattering down while a flock of cedar waxwings sat overhead, well-fed, getting rid of the hard berries.

In the late 1890s the Challey brothers -- a name well known in the eastern San Gabriel Valley -- planted nine miles of pepper trees leading down from Upland to Ontario. About one-half of these trees still exist on Euclid Avenue. In all of Southern California there is no greater evidence of the means of transforming a landscape, nor greater respect paid to a community. As the trees grow more elderly, more fragile, the statement made by the Challey brothers still stands. In the West we have perceived in this tree, perhaps more than in any other, the inner and spiritual form of peace and serenity, and to our peril we elude that reticence which seems to pursue us and surely troubles us as traffic and increase devour the land and the once-dignified rural towns. In the noise and speed there remain two quiet extremes, the rise of sap in the old wood and the elated spirit now impoverished and barely glimpsed. Would it be impertinent, after so many years, to ask whether some concern beyond public service moved the brothers to plant nine miles of supernal grace? O God, nine miles! Was it pride? Was it joy? Was it, alas, pity and prophetic anger?

Be with us all, men and trees alike, Andrew Marvell.

Toward the end of Homer's Odyssey the hero describes for Penelope the bed he had made for them so long ago from an olive tree growing in the palace courtyard. It is a dramatic passage. "There is one particular feature in the bed's construction," says Odysseus. "I myself, no other man, made it. There was the bole of an olive tree with long leaves growing strongly in the courtyard, and it was thick, like a column....I began with this and built my bed until it was finished, and decorated it with gold and silver and ivory. Then I lashed it with thongs of oxhide dyed bright purple," These words carry down to us the importance in antiquity of the olive tree as symbol, and its use, in domestic craft and life and marriage.

The olive is very old in the civilizations of warm-temperate lands. It was prehistoric in Asia Minor and spread to the Mediterranean world, associated with myth and man in horticulture, religion and other ceremonies. Its oil was called "the oil of joy." Every school child knows -- or used to, when Biblical stories were still taught -- what Noah and the dove and the rest of us owe to the olive tree. For a modern child, the chief connection is pickles and celery. Never mind, friend; when the olive tree first came to Alta California, it came in serious company. Along with the pomegranate, the fig and the vine, the Franciscans brought it from the older mission gardens of Baja California, in 1769 or soon after. In slowness of growth, in legend of life, in grace and dignity, it remains a tree of legend. Because of its beauty in age and its long association with the missions, a kind of reverence attaches to the olive tree. Its spreading, silver and slightly drooping branches give to the landscape an image of Biblical countries and desert ages. It is one of the few trees that subdividers do not hack down. Does its sanctity abash them? Not likely. It has sales value. It has sales value either where it stands in an old grove or when carefully dug and boxed for a landscape architect. It had sales value for Odysseus. His unique and truthful account of the creating of their bed finally convinced the doubting Penelope that it was her husband, and not a wandering, sea-dabbling sailor of many ports, who had come to her. So he won her and her white arms once more. Not until that touching finale occurred could the story end. It is a long, bloody, anxious story. Lacking the olive tree it would have gone on forever.

The pomegranate, coming from a great distance, from Persia and south Asia, became widely naturalized and well settled in the Mediterranean world; and had gone across the inland sea with the Moors and picked up its Spanishness long before it came to the mission gardens with the padres. By then it brought to them memories of their homeland along with its cup of scarlet gems. There is fossil evidence that the pomegranate existed millions of years ago, and there is aesthetic evidence that it has had continual fascination for artists and decorators of Asia and Egypt and the Hebrew cultures. It was a symbol of fertility and love, and being a natural jewel box itself full of ruby genius it has inspired endless royal bijoux and priestly and magisterial emblems. The Greeks held that it originated in the blood of Dionysus, and in fact it was associated with blood sacrifice, while to the Christians it later became a symbol of the oneness of the universe, a wholeness of diversity within unity. A wealth of human values from a fruit that gives next to nothing in honest food. Yet we never could have expected as much art and imagination from a potato. Nor as much trouble, either, remembering Persephone, who, captive to the lord of the dark underworld, cried out aloud at the sight of a pomegranate from the world of light, and promptly swallowed six seeds. There, in her divine, nostalgic gizzard, was the beginning of foul weather and poor seasons. You can see that in order to be at ease among plants you must recall the classics, tender or cursed, of your childhood.

To have the genuine pomegranate experience you must, like Persephone, eat one too, in private if you cannot face it any other way. The simplest procedure is to press the fruit with your thumbs, enjoying the hidden sounds of wet rubies crushed within, then make a hole and suck out the sweet and tangy liquid. Do not be ashamed of ecstacy. It does not last. If you prefer, break the fruit in several pieces and ravish the contents. And when you have had your pomegranate, you can see by looking at yourself that pomegranates have left a mark on the landscape.

It is said that the pomegranate still grows wild in Persia. It must be the small ivory or rosy fruit, while ours is the monster improved variety called Wonderful, enameled and very red. The brilliant flower is a fluted affair that sits in a coral calyx, and the fruit carries forward with that style that has moved men and gods to poetry and art for many ages. Today, we have lovingly planted so many pomegranates, north and south in California, that the only gods remaining, even the crazed gods of speed and population, stop continually to regard a perfect fruit.

Come, friend, we must hurry. Another alien tree that has changed our environment is Jacaranda ovalifolia from Brazil, with mimosa-like foliage and flowers that show it is of the bignonia family, related to our American catalpa, but of a blissful lilac color. In June and July we see its tall, lacy fling lifted in a cloud of unbelievable tethered bloom overhead, and when the flowers fall, the ground becomes as ethereal as the sky. Of course there are people who refer to the fallen flowers as dirty. Who are such people who object to this pretty litter that can be raked up as useful compost, without offense? No tree yet ever dropped a beer can.

The orange tree, any of several species of the genus Citrus, came slowly eastward from its early provenance in south China and India, and by the Middle Ages it had reached the Mediterranean. This beautiful and utilitarian tree eventually came to California in seeds brought by the Franciscans from Mexico. At Mission San Gabriel, Father Superior Salvidea established a fine grove that became known as "the beginning of the great citrus industry of California." Charles Frances Saunders in Trees and Shrubs of California Gardens gave an account of the early career of the orange in this environment. In 1841 the far-ranging Kentucky trapper and explorer William Wolfskill secured one hundred of the mission trees and started a successful grove in what is now the roaring heart of Los Angeles, where the arcade station of the Southern Pacific stands. He improved his stock and increased his grove to eighty acres, and finally in 1877 he shipped to St. Louis the first carload of oranges to leave the state. In the meanwhile, word was received in Washington's Department of Agriculture of a phenomenal sport growing in Bahia, Brazil, a seedless orange with the suggestion of an infant fruit imbedded in the skin. Young, budded trees were imported and grown in Washington, and from that stock the popular navel orange was sent to Southern California in 1873.

Thirty years ago the San Gabriel Valley, from Pasadena eastward to San Dimas, was still the site of 14,000 acres of profitable and solicitously groomed citrus groves -- a famous agricultural industry; a good example of mutual benefit to men and trees -- and miles of fragrance giving orderly green to a dry landscape, making of Los Angeles County one of the chief agricultural areas in the United States. And in the end, the soil, being level, offered no problems to subdividers. And in the end I myself saw the trees pushed over into piles and burned. And in the end there is no longer reason to dwell on the white, sparkling flowers and the bright, sweet fruit, no reason at all except outrage.

The two types of banana most often seen, Musa ensete from Abyssinia and M. paradisiaca var. sapientum from India, add emphatically to the effects of tropical landscape. Wherever you see these plants, you know that gardeners have tried to make a scene of genuine exotic enchantment, putting it together as carefully, for suspense and drama, as a Rousseau jungle, and only with regret leaving out the leopard or the black panther. If the scene is shattered by a Santa Ana windstorm and the long, broad leaves shredded to tatters, never mind; they recover their magnificent blades in a few weeks, and the tropics of tranquility are restored, along with the tranquility of the gardener. The Franciscans, not for decorative luxury of landscape, but for plain food, tried to grow the variety from India, but had no success. Rarely does anyone else, so we do not ask of the banana plant that it should feed us, but only that, as archetype of Eden, it stay healthy and stylish.

A fascinating group of plants, both private and in parks, are the plants of the succulent families. Familiar by sight and name are the agaves and various cacti, such as opuntias, those green pads hinged together. There are countless others, at least ten thousand species known to exist, of many genera. They are plants of the Americas, and any that have wandered from the Western hemisphere are thought to be out of their habitat and out of their minds. I hope that you join me in a naive glow of patriotic and hemispheric pride. The plant you may see frequently -- unless banned because of its armor -- is the Agave americana, a big, sculptured rosette of sharp spears set squarely on the ground. Agaves are silvery, green or white. There are "371 specific uses," we are told, to which A. americana is put in Mexico, including the intoxicating beverages pulque and tequila, along with that dear little margarita so beloved now on all sides of the border. At the time of its flowering the plant practically turns into a tree, rearing its powerful scape up and up from twenty to forty feet, then breaks into spreading branches of yellowish bloom. The rosette will collapse, to be replaced by a crowd of young plants or "pups." The plant-watcher is, without fail, to visit the Huntington Cactus Gardens in San Marino -- known as the supreme collection of succulents in the world -- and walk from one bristly, strictly designed, eerily fortified marvel to the next, large and small. It is a rare chance to see a concentration of plants whose relatives have truly altered a landscape.

It is possible to be startled by a flower. Such a flower is the strelitzia from South Africa, so positive and commanding a plant, including its banana foliage, that it must be recognized as an influence in the landscape. The one most often seen is Strelitzia reginae, much employed by florists in tremendous decorations at public receptions. Whichever governor or senator it may be who is passing through town, there is something about a strelitzia that supports either a Democrat or a Republican and reserves for itself the impartial honor. Meeting it informally in a garden you will see that its eccentric, flaring arrangement of inflorescence suggests the head of a fierce, exotic bird. Stand still. It will give a squawk and strut straight at you. It is a flower of the masculine gender in strong blue and orange and white. Whoever gave it the name "bird of paradise," his angels must have been military birds.

One of the most lovable of all our imported shrubs is Nandina domestica from China and Japan. It bears the popular, and wrong, name of "heavenly bamboo." It is not remotely related to bamboo, although one must concede that there is on the stem a visible ring that may suggest the node of the bamboo culm. Nandina, without help from the giant grasses, maintains its own distinct charm. It grows to six feet or more, often less, the stems closely crowded at the base and spreading gracefully at the top like a bouquet, with compound leaves, white and gold flowers and red berries. Taste and elegance, those are the marks of nandina. Robert Fortune, an early plant collector, observed its enthusiastic use by Oriental peoples as he saw it on altars and sold on the street at the Chinese New Years celebration, while the Japanese of the old school laid a leaf across a gift "to sweep the devils away." Tell your bad dreams to nandina, since this plant takes care of nightmares. No landscape can get too much nandina. Happily, ours has a great deal.

We have just spoken in passing of the bamboo. Not many years ago there was a bamboo cult on the West Coast, what might be called an arcane horticulture. The admirers of bamboo went to great lengths to get as many species and varieties as possible. Its ancient importance in the Orient gave it fascination for impressionable American collectors, who were also haunted by its frequently enigmatic character and the difficulties of identification. It had, as well, a demoralizing influence. I once planted an uncommon variety outside a garden wall for the effect it would make, and it was quickly stolen by another haunted collector. Bamboo is an education, a religion, a mystery, and there is no room here to discuss it. You will recognize it by its wands of green foliage, which swing in the lightest breeze. Take your time. You are looking at a spirit.

We have come a long stroll to see what exotic plants and trees have done to change the environment. We have found some, but by no means all, of the evidence. To be changed ourselves, if only a little, by what we see and enjoy, this is the personal ethic of seeing and enjoying.

And now good-bye, my patient plant-watcher. Let there be no hint of sentimentality to make of farewell a poor, honeyed word. We have been looking at great things, and they are honest. They are threatened. They survive where all is against them. Are they not the renewable images of life itself?
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Re: At The Gentle Mercy of Plants, by Hildegarde Flanner

Postby admin » Tue Mar 01, 2016 5:52 am

Bamboo: An Honest Love Affair

IT WAS BACK in the nineteen-twenties that I first became acquainted with bamboo. I like to think now that it was some sensitivity on my part as a young person that responded to the unexpected discovery of this Oriental plant in my mother's recently acquired garden in southern California. My family had bought an old place in the foothill suburbs above Pasadena, and among the company of trees, shrubs and perennials we now owned was a solitary bamboo that first took me by surprise and then absorbed me by its unfamiliarity. But was it only that it was unfamiliar? The truth is that some quite potent reason has given to this member of the grass family a strong emotional influence over plant lovers. It is not easy to define. What is it?

The bamboos do not often charm us with flowers, nor do we normally rely on them for substantial food, although a bamboo laden with delicate, tremulous and pendant bloom is an angelic, shimmering sight, and the addition of bamboo sprouts to our western menus has given a fashionable look to dinner while not competing with mashed potatoes for satisfaction of American appetite. No, neither flower nor fruit can answer the question that one asks. Still, if it is not answered it becomes obsessive.

Why does bamboo fascinate us? One way to discover the answer is to stand in a grove, or even a single clump, of a giant species, and look up to the tops of the towering culms. They are straight and tall and parallel. They may rise forty feet and more above us. They resemble, in a sleek and eerie way, the pillars and colonnades of temples. In the midst of these living pillars there is a presence, an excitement. Is it nature? Is it art? Is it, we ask, a touch of terror? With each question we come a little closer to the answer. It is to a special kind of majesty that we have addressed our questions. Up there and just visible is the meaning we hunt for. The human mind has been stirred by an ancient mystery. Between us and the bamboo there is an affinity. What more can we be sure of, or ask?

The taxonomy and nomenclature of this tribe are challenges to an able scientist. I am not even remotely of that elevated class. My familiarity with bamboo is simply an honest love affair, and if it is not requited, that's my own business. Bamboo has been a captivating partner of my life. The time has come to offer recognition to the plant which-- I could easily say the plant who -- in many forms, great or dwarf, has meant so much to me. This essay is a personal tribute of devotion. Such is its wistful and affectionate intention.

First of all, back there in the old garden, imagine a young woman of eager but uncultivated botanical instincts trying to find out who had brought this bamboo to the southern California suburbs. I was correct in presuming that it was no ordinary kind. It had a dark green stem or culm stained with blotches of another color. It also had style and elegance. My curiosity led me to many futile enquiries in the neighborhood, but I finally learned that my mother's garden, then about fifty years old, was planted by a woman who had travelled admiringly in the Orient. Had she eagerly and illegally smuggled into this country a rhizome of the bamboo in the sleeve of an embroidered kimono? Impossible to say. Then eventually I learned that a man who had worked for the Los Angeles County Park Department had once lived here, and might have added some plants to the garden. Was he the one? At that, my efforts at discovery of provenance and person came to a blank halt. In the meantime a good many years had passed, while the bamboo had grown into a tall, rich, graceful clump. Flourishing in the half-shade between two great cypresses it was enchanting. It bent and swung and arched. It spread its heavy plumes when the wind shook it.

At this point Dr. Russell Seibert, Director of the Los Angeles County Arboretum heard of it through my husband, Frederick Monhoff, who as an architect for County design and building was then working at the Arboretum in Arcadia, and Dr. Seibert came to our old garden, viewed the bamboo and declared it to be one of the most beautiful he had seen -- and he was a specialist in bamboo. In my search for identity I had at least acquired pride. Finally, Russell Seibert brought Dr. John Creech, in charge of U.S. Plant Introduction Garden, Glenn Dale, Maryland to observe my bamboo, an innocent plant attracting the official interest of the Government. Dr. Creech walked around it with a motion picture camera and took its circular portrait. He announced that it was Phyllostachys nigra variety henonis forma boryana. Here in a long name ended a long search. This bamboo originated in China. How it came to southern California was never decided.

That is all very real to me today although it happened so long ago. I am grateful that I can associate my first ardent feeling for bamboo with my youth, with the time of beginnings and the early years of hope, love and creativity. It was, however, a rare and lonely attachment, shared by no one close to me at that moment and catered to by no local nurseries. With the exception of Lord Redesdale's "The Bamboo Garden," out of print, hard to find and very expensive, the few books that might turn up were inhumanly technical. Two decades passed before the USA Department of Agriculture published the series of fine informative pamphlets by Robert A. Young which became the bible of the increasing numbers of bamboo fanciers. From these publications I learned of the Barbour Lathrop U.S. Experimental Bamboo Gardens near Savannah, Georgia. In 1950 returning from a summer trip to France I took a circuitous route home to the west coast by driving down the east coast to visit the Savannah Gardens. I arrived on Saturday and found the place closed and locked. This was a stunning blow, as I could not delay until a later day. But I could just barely get in, and did, by climbing dangerously over the gate. Once inside I wandered in humid bliss in the company of the florious ornamentals growing there. When, shakily, I climbed out over the Government's inhospitable gate I had forty U.S.A. deep south mosquito bites on one bare arm. I was too startled to add up the bites on the other arm.

Nothing I saw at the Gardens, however grand, stole my admiration from my own bamboo at home, for the wealth of its plumes surpassed the foliage even in hot, damp Georgia. This should have set me pondering on the relation between soil and foliage. The result is not obtained merely by love and fertilizer. In my case it had been good luck, or let's say, the bamboo's good luck to have been planted in soil of the ages that had not been weakened or polluted by its suburban use.

I recollected standing on the deck of my home above the old garden and looking into the extraordinary display of the bory bamboo, its wild movement in the wind or its mystical serenity on a quiet day. "If you should ever bloom," I said, "and die from blooming, as they say may happen to bamboos, it would be terribly sad." Then after a moment I said, "But it would make it easier to leave this place, if we ever decide to leave." Eventually, after thirty-six years of living of one home and garden we did decide to leave, taking with us much of the bamboo. It had never bloomed, or if it did ever bloom it was before we were acquainted with it, and the event was not fatal. In past years I had started bory in another corner of the old garden. There it created a handsome clump. I decided to take it whole, if I could, and as it was far too heavy for me to handle, I hired the Green Brothers. The Green Brothers were large black men who would dig your garden up and move it elsewhere, if you wished. At work on my bamboo, one of them asked, "Ma' am, why don't you'all sell some of this pretty stuff?" "Sell it!" I cried, "If I had a daughter, would I sell her?" The Green Brothers thought me very amusing.

Today I live in the Napa Valley of northern California. Here I have close to fifty kinds of bamboo, some established in the ground, some only on the potting table. I cannot overlook the disappointments and failures that have come to me through bamboo, due to my own mismanagement and lack of direction. Alongside of a woodland I have now tried to make a terraced garden featuring various bamboos as the chief ornamentals. It is all very special to myself, my own green portion. I dote on it, dote on it in an angry sort of way because I have not done better by it. How it strikes other people I have no idea. Wandering down the path in my rococo plantation my visitors are either too surprised or too discrete to utter opinions. But I myself suffer from knowing that there are fine bamboos I should have encouraged to dominate, and lesser ones that are here more prominent. Also, the volcanic soil with which we must live and work here should have been richer with the right fraction of acid, and the stones, enthusiastically proliferating underground, should have gone softer. Above all, I should have been smarter. In other words, it sounds like life, just like life. I must not feel sorry for myself, yet the salt of disappointment savors my exotic hunger. Worst of all, does my husband, who now shared my participation in gathering bamboos, think ill of what little I have achieved? Have we not come five hundred miles north from an old southern home, guided by the hope of more space for more bamboo? But my husband is a rare, superhuman human species. He never chides.

A sharp disappointment here is that the bory does not perform with its drama of grace and dignity and its array of copious plumes hung out like big flags of green. Still, it puts on a shady, impressive bamboo performance, and each year its culms are larger and its feathery shade stretches up and up. I would never permit anyone, even the King of Savannah, to speak of it with condescension. I love it. And I have nearby an excellent stand of Phyllostachys viridis which was fortunately planted in a rich spot and flourished in consequence, proving that a difference in soil is a difference in the plant's incentive. After twenty five years it is thirty feet tall with green-striped yellow culms, and a great way of throwing itself about and bending in rain and wind, or a tranquil way of standing utterly still in placid moments. It is a lofty, magisterial, poetic creature.

I can now share bamboo with people who are starting up the road to discovery and ownership. Dr. Richard Haubrich, President of the American Bamboo Society, has permitted me to offer plants in his Journal if those who respond will come and do their own digging. This has led to some pleasant relationships and a few odd encounters, one of them with a man who arrived armed with a clip-board and a long list, a veritable catalogue of names, and began to read them off to me, checking the varieties I did not have, or did have. It was such a peculiar incident, I almost forget how it went. I finally protested, "Why is this necessary? You will know when you see what I have whether you want them." "But I wouldn't know," he answered, ''I'm not familiar with bamboo." I stared at him. "Then you are just a nut?" It was not possible to think of a more courteous or sensible explanation. He shrugged. "And may I ask the size of your property?" "One hundred feet," he said. "Oh," I continued relentlessly, "A nut and headed for trouble." I tried to sound foolishly sympathetic. The incident remains as an oddity in my mind. I cannot remember how it was concluded. Amiably, I hope, but I dare say, not too amiably.

Today there are many bamboo collectors and knowledgeable nurseries. I do not pretend to be their equal. I can only say that for many years I have lived with a plant that has been a delighter, and never a deceiver. Its meaning is the meaning of grace, a grace that drips with rain, the first rain and the second rain as my bamboo takes the storm and sluices it into the earth and the wet branches sigh and bend upon each other as the culms bear the weight of water and foliage then straighten tall when their burden eases. In the sun my bamboo dries quickly and shakes itself for another day, another weather. Small birds, the bushtits, hang their long knitted nests where no cat can climb. At night the stars sit lightly in the branches.

Recently I found a pile of shipping tags from the U.S. Department of Agriculture giving the names of species sent to me years ago. They did not all prosper, but the warm pleasure of possession by a citizen is with me still. P. pubescens, the mightly Moso. Arundinaria amabilis, the lovely name and the illustrious culm. I go around our garden wondering whether this clump or that which I have failed to identify may be one of these most desirable ones, lost but not lost forever in the poor mess of time. Some day it will all be clear, if not to me, then to one whose gaze is keener.

I trust that my grandchildren are going to enjoy the fact of bamboo in their lives. May they learn to watch for the new culms breaking through the soil and quickly rising to the rustling light above, shedding and sheathed with their curious details of dots and dashes and speckles of black and brown, or those that bear no design but are a fashionable chamois color all over, like the best gloves. Also the little whiskery ears and the ribbony blades. In all of these I take a child's pleasure, myself, not deserving the pleasure of a scientist. I hope that my young kin may notice that some sheath blades have charming stripes of pink, some are plain, some are krinkled as though got ready on curling tongs. And they always are close to a neat collar whose name a child might as well learn: ligule. All of these details are different from one kind of bamboo to another, and the differences are important, not only for identification of species, but for giving pleasure to the bamboo lover. Have I begotten any bamboo lovers? I do not know. They should be using the large culm sheath of Phyllostachys viridis today as platters for the ripe strawberries, but the Australian Cattle dog Anna has eaten all the strawberries in the bed. Well, the unexpected gains and losses of life are of much interest. Lacking the actual strawberries I had thought to present to them I may still attract the imaginations of my young folk by pointing to the clump of P. vivax with its bright green culms four inches broad. "Look at this," I say, "Thirteen years ago your grandfather and I gathered the seed and planted it. We grew this bamboo for you, and some day it will be enormous, one of the biggest and strongest. The seed is like oat or wheat, and it is thrilling to feel for it hidden inside the husk, to press with your finger and feel the little hard morsel inside." And I wish I could think of a graphic way to express the bamboo's mysterious command of time, how swiftly it grows tall, and stops forever; how, if it blooms it blooms with the same tidal fervor everywhere at once. For thousands of years in the Orient bamboo has been of supreme importance to mankind, providing the means of food, materials for building, the substance of countless artifacts, promptings for religious symbolism, the high stuff of art, even the miraculous scaffolding that holds and bends better than steel and is used in the erection of many-storied buildings. What other plant has provided an omnipresent relation between nature and man? It is reasonable, I feel, to hope that one's family may be aware of this great plant and its influence on men and women, even as poetry, art and music are civilizing possessions.

May I presume to offer advice to those eagerly beginning their collection? Like most advice it will be unwanted and discarded, giving satisfaction only to myself, for whom it is too late. However, I would say, be selective. Don't try to get everything you hear of. There is no end to that. Get only the single best for your needs, and cultivate it devoutly. Make everything that you acquire into the most perfect specimen possible. Decide what you want in a certain situation and then fill it with the one inevitable most precious bamboo. If your climate permits, have the rather tender Bambusa beecheyana or B. oldhami, both large and stately, and keep the obnoxious scale off the culms. If you can't grow one of these then have an impressive Phyllostachys for that temple psyche. And, of course, a clump of exotic P. nigra. And at the other extreme, don't forget the pretty, dwarf fern leaf, nor the white and green striped Sasa variegata, also S. veitchii, for its handsome foliage. (These last three all low.) There are two Bambusas, B. ventricosa and B. textilis that stand very well in northern California. So also does B. multiplex Alphonse Karr. And for excessive drooping grace have Otatea aztecorum which, in spite of personifying the tropics, has the spirit to endure the winter chill of the Napa Valley. Already this would give you enough to make a reputable bamboo paradise in a piece of mortal real estate 100 x 100. But it is with barely controllable lust that I turn from others, seductive, amazing or modest.

My friends, I have not long, it may be, to tarry and see how your bamboos grow. It happens that I am a very elderly woman. How poignantly I wish I might begin again and explore with you the delights and temptations of one of the most fascinating of all plants. With emotions beyond my ability to express I stare up far above my head, and then stare at my feet, at both the giant and the dwarf. I lay my tribute down. Oh yes! I wish I might begin again. Now at the end I know better how to begin.
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