Portraits of Plants, Lesson 3

For the first lesson in this sequence, go here.

I always draw from real plants—never photographs—because plants are three dimensional and were once alive… They are physically present, and can move, change, and challenge the person drawing them. Sarah Simblet, Botany for the Artist

Two summers ago I signed up for a class on botanical drawing taught by Claudia Fitch. Most of our classes met at the wonderful Victorian conservatory at Volunteer Park in Seattle. It was a difficult experience for me in many ways, plunging me back into the sense of inadequacy that I remembered from my high school art classes.

Claudia began with assignments to produce contour drawings like those I described in the first two lessons. Then she introduced us to the concept of drawing negative space. The illustration from the Betty Edwards book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, shows how if we try to draw what we see (as the artist did in the top picture) we will often produce an unsatisfying reproduction. If instead we try to focus on the negative spaces and the outlines, we can produce something that looks more like the object being drawn.

When drawing a plant, the easiest way to see the negative space is to use a frame to isolate the plant. We created viewfinders out of thin cardboard (they should be the same proportion as the page on which you are sketching).  (You can also take a photograph to frame a subject as well.) What you want to do is make sure the plant is not floating in white space in the middle of the page but that it extends to the edges, on at least three sides. Then you draw the negative space, rather than the positive space. The illustration on the left comes from Edwards.

Claudia also taught us to do ten or so quick sketches, trying to frame the subject in different ways, before deciding how we were going to draw. We could move our frames (cut out of stiff cardboard) to see what would make for the best composition as in the example below. As you can see I didn’t finish all of my sketches of the tree trunk I was studying.

When I did these assignments, I became totally absorbed in the task at hand, just focusing on my tools (usually a pen or pencil and a sheet of white paper). It was only when I stopped drawing and looked at my drawing critically that I got frustrated. My sketches bore little resemblance to the plant in front of me.

Yet now, when I am no longer confronted by the actual tree, I am quite happy with the result. This unfinished sketch, takes me back in memory to the actual tree, to the intimacy established as I traced each of its curves with my pencil and then the charcoal.

Once we had achieved some success at reproducing the shapes we actually saw in front of us, we began working with tones and shading. Claudia had us create five distinct tones, ranging from very light to very dark, as samples on the side of the page and then isolate those tones on the plant, almost like doing a paint by number painting. Though it sounds mechanical, this was another interesting exercise in seeing what was really there, rather than what I thought. Again, I didn’t like this sketch of a broccoli leaf at the time I did it, but I can see that by focusing only on tone, I was able to capture some details that I would have overlooked because they didn’t fit my belief about how a leaf looks.

Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook suggests another way to learn how values work: choose a color photo and make a black-and-white reproduction of it. She also suggests turning the photograph upside down as a way to dissociate from what you think you know about the item you are drawing and look instead merely at the shapes and colors.

Making an Impression

And yet, I know artists whose medium is life itself and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased life. They see and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive. Frederick FranckThe Zen of Seeing

I have to admit I really struggled throughout the botanical drawing class. If, like me, you suffer from perceived artistic ineptitude, you might prefer some of these other ways of capturing the likeness of a plant.

Try painting making leaf impressions.  Claudia Nice in How To Keep A Sketchbook Journal describes her technique. She brushes leaves with a medium thick coat of water color, blots them with a paper towel and then presses them on the paper. Gaps in the print can be filled in afterwards with more of the water color paint. She mentions that fuzzy leaves like sage make nice prints. Siegel suggests experimenting with dry and damp paper. She places a piece of newsprint over the plant and smoothes it down with her fingers or an artist’s brayer, a little roller you can buy at art supply stores.

You can also do this in reverse. Put the leaf down on the page (it’s better if it’s something fairly flat and stiff), secure it to the paper with rubber cement or tiny bits of tape, then brush or sponge or spatter paint around it.

I own an extraordinary book called Leaves: In Myth, Magic & Medicine, which is composed of the most exquisite leaf prints created by Alice Thoms Vitale. She applied water-based printer’s ink to the surface of fresh leaves with a brayer. She then lowered the paper onto the leaf (rather than the other way around) and pressed carefully and selectively with her thumb. Then the paper was lifted off and allowed to dry. The delicacy of these images just has to be seen to be believed which is why I am reproducing the paper birch on this page to show you how Vitale elevates what seems like a child’s kindergarten project into an art form.

Another easy way to play around with the shapes of leaves is to do a shadow tracing. Place an object between the sun and your paper so that it casts a clear shadow. Then trace the outline. You can then color in the outline, if you like. I’ve done this with chalk on a sunny day with a tree shadow. It was a fun ephemeral art project.

Assignment for Week 3

If you aren’t totally terrified of an art assignment, then try any one of the sequence of steps I outlined above:

  • Choose a subject and draw it, focusing on the negative space.
  • Create a viewfinder; use it to make six or nine quick sketches framing your subject
  • Choose one view you like and spend time just filling in the negative space with color or charcoal
  • Choose a subject, create a tone palette and then color in your drawing

If you are terrified of art assignments, try one of the more playful approaches.

  • Paint a leaf or flower with water color paint and impress it on a wet or dry page
  • Outline a shadow of a leaf or flower
  • Create a stencil by placing a fern or other stiff plant on paper and painting around it
  • Draw around the shadow of a tree on the pavement with chalk

 

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Earth Day/Arbor Day

Earth Day is a fairly new holiday. Earth Day was first proclaimed on March 21, the Spring Equinox in San Francisco in 1970. Doesn’t that seem perfect? The spring after the Summer of Love. Just a few weeks later, also in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, called for an Environmental Teach-in (modeled after the Vietnam war sit-ins) on April 22, which had been celebrated for many years as Arbor Day.

Arbor Day is almost one hundred years older than Earth Day, but still young for a holiday. In 1872, J. Sterling Morton, the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, declared April 10 a day for planting trees (according to this history compiled by the Arbor Day Foundation).  In 1885, it was declared a legal holiday in the State of Nebraska and moved to April 22, Morton’s birthday. It was adopted as a holiday by other states but the date has varied, depending on when tree planting is ideal. It is now usually celebrated on the last Friday in April but it seems to have fallen out of favor as Earth Day has gained popularity.

Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Although Arbor Day and Earth Day are relatively new holidays, they align with many older traditions. There are many ancient April festivals which honor the goddess as garden guardian (Venus Verticordia on April 1) and Earth mother (Megalisa on April 3, Cerealia on April 13, and Fordicalia on April 15). April is also the month of St. George (his feast day is April 23), the dragon slaying saint. For centuries, the celebrations in honor of St. George have associations with verdant nature. The very name George means farmer.

In Carinthia and Transylvania, a birch tree or willow tree, decked with flowers, is called Green George. Sometimes a boy is dressed up in branches, leaves and flowers. Albanians slaughter a lamb on this day and smear blood on sills (recalling the Jewish holiday of Passover) to protect them from evil. Before an icon of St George, they pray: “Holy St George, this year thou hast sent me this lamb, next year, I beseech you, send me a larger one.” People go on picnics and weigh themselves holding sprigs of green. St George or Mari Ghergis is the most popular saint in Egypt where he is associated with El Khider, the green man, who appears to travelers who are lost or in despair.

Mrs Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach) celebrates Earth Day by doing an inventory garden tools and supplies. She makes presents of gardening gloves and other accessories. Each of her children has a tree, and on this day they clean around their own tree and tie a ribbon on the trunk to honor it.

On the very first Arbor Day, more than one  million trees were planted in Nebraska. Planting a tree can still be a great way to celebrate.

Or you can simply admire trees. Go on  a tree walk like the one I took two weeks ago at the University of Washington with our local plant and tree expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson.
I was delighted when we entered the quad which is famous for its flowering cherry trees and found it thronged with people. Students were lounging on the lawns. Japanese families were taking photos of their young ones under the trees. The profusion of pink flowers seemed like an ample reason for celebration.

If you don’t have knowledgeable guide, the Arbor Day Foundation provides this useful key which will help you identify trees.

In honor of Earth Day, experiment with eating only local food. Determine what foods are available within 250 miles of your home and create meals based on those foods. Find out where your eggs come from. Visit a local farm. Stop at a roadside stand. Invite your friends for a feast or a potluck to celebrate local foods.

Resources:
Al Khidr web site (source of picture)

Arbor Day Foundation web site
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Breathnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Simon & Schuster 1990
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Legend, Maria Leach, editor, Harper and Row 1984
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Morrow, Susan Brind, The Names of Things, Riverhead 1997
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
Wikipedia article on Earth Day

First published on April 12, 2012

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Portraits of Plants, Part 2

Portraits of Plants, Week 2

Second in a series of posts from My Year in Flowers. During the month of April I learned how to draw plants. The first post is here.

Draw bamboos for ten years,
Become a bamboo,
Then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing.
Georges Duthuit

I produce pages of sketches for every plant I study. I usually begin with a contour drawing or spirit drawing. Then I do a more literal contour drawing, placing the flower on the page, and tracing around it. Although this usually produces a rather clumsy outline, at least I have a life-size reproduction.

Clare Walker Leslie and Charle E.Roth in their book Keeping A Nature Journal, recommend a series of sketches. A contour drawing, then a modified contour drawing (that is one where you are allowed to look at your page). They then recommend what they call quick gesture sketches. Looking at your subject and your page, draw a quick sketch in 5 seconds, then another in 10 seconds, then another in 15 seconds.

The next sketch is diagrammatic. This is where I focus on the details.  How many petals? How many stamens? How do they line up? I try to describe colors (a silvery pink, a greenish-brown) and note scents. As you work with the flower, the botanical terms that seemed so artificial become real. The intricate parallel lines of the monocot family become apparent in the leaf. You notice right away that the leaves are alternating rather than opposite on the stem. I find the sepals most interesting—like little green jewel cases with their green ribs and undulating shapes. They almost always recapitulate the number of petals and stamens.

I tend to draw flowers straight on but they rarely look right. Leslie and Roth suggest several different approaches: a profile, looking down, looking straight at the flower, viewing it from the side.

Sometimes I create a design sketch, breaking down the shape of the petals into simple shapes, lining them around the center in an ideal pattern. I examine the way the flower and the leaf are attached to the stem and draw those nodes on the paper. These botanical details can be rendered as blueprints, and in that way, they begin to resemble design patterns.

I’ve always dreamed in design. It used to be that when I closed my eyes, I would see designs for fabrics, for china, for wrapping paper, flashing behind my eyelids. These went away as I got older. Where did they go? Perhaps they atrophied due to disuse. But even now when I look at the plates from old herbals, the ones I like the most are the ones in which plants are “reduced to decoration” or “stylized beyond recognition” in the words of Wilfrid Blunt in his book The Illustrated Herbal.

William Morris is one of my heroes. I love the dense, color-saturated floral patterns of the wallpapers for which he is famous. Perhaps I was his wife, Janey Morris, in a former life and my visions of designs were simply etched into my brain because of all those hours spent embroidering them into curtains.  Try transforming your flower into a two-dimensional shape that will still convey the quality of the flower. What is the simplest shape that is still recognizable?

You also don’t need artistic talent to do this sort of drawing. Of course it helps. But I have none (as my high school art teacher made clear to me). Yet I manage to create sketches that are recognizable. More important, they are educational. Remember the purpose of the sketch is not to create a lifelike rendition of the flower, such that people will gaze at it and say, “Wow! That looks just like an alstromeria!” But rather that you will have learned more about it.

I was a snob about alstromerias until I drew one. I thought of them as frivolous products of the cut flower trade. They have no scent and they last forever in the vase, two signs of a flower that has been turned into a freak of nature. But a few years ago I spent two cold, wet weeks in March at a writer’s retreat. The only flowers to be found were the alstromerias that had been purchased to adorn the main house where we ate our dinners. I took a few stems with me to my cabin in the woods and I began to draw them. It was me and the alstromerias for hours. I could not get enough of them. I loved the clever shape of the flower with its three rounded pink tepals, serving as a base, for the more narrow, more vertical tepals, flaunting splashes of yellow and distinctive black nectar lines, designs as decorative as the spots of a cougar or the stripes of a zebra, luring bumblebees into the nectar at the heart of the flower.  I loved the six-sided little green basket of the ovary, the three little curlicues on each pistil. I loved the way the snake-like curve of the stem, the twist of the leaves. Never again will I snub an alstromeria.

Assignment for Week 2

Continue to sketch flowers. Choose another one. Bold flowers with simple shapes are probably the easiest. Lilies and tulips. Buy a stem of flowers from the grocery store or florist if you can’t find anything you like in your garden. A stem with leaves is just fine.

Try a number of different techniques: contour drawings, quick gesture sketches, tracing the outline of the flower, viewing the flower from different angles, diagramming the various parts, reducing a flower to its simplest outline.

For the third lesson in this series, go here.

Illustrations: The lovely William Morris design is the pattern called Chrysanthemum. I found the painting of the sage looking at the bamboo here. I took the photo of the alstromerias I was drawing. But I haven’t found the drawing I did of them.

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Portraits of Plants #1

 

From A Curious Herbal, published in Nuremburg in 1757

The way of seeing is a way of knowing.
Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

I found identifying plants difficult until I began drawing them. When I first chose a conifer to identify, a scrubby evergreen at the corner of my block, I spent weeks puzzling over it. I cut off a sprig and studied it, comparing it to the illustrations in my tree identification book. I took photographs with my new digital camera but they didn’t capture the details that seemed so relevant to me: the milky color of the swelling bud tips, the nascent cones, jutting forth on the stems, clotted with fresh scales. It was a spruce, I thought, but the tree book contained at least 22 varieties of spruce, none of which resembled my specimen.

Finally I sit down and sketch it in my notebook. Here a packet of needles, unpacked. I learn there are two in each bundle. There an attempt to draw those phallic bud tips. A more mature cone dissembles into scales, each a diamond with an impressed oval at its highest point. When I turn the cone upside down I see the scales are actually rectangles, fanning out from a central point like blades in a fan. The growing cone resembles a miniature pineapple, with a flush of chartreuse green beneath the brown scales. By the time I am done, my fingers are covered with sap. A little bug crawls out of the cone and onto my page. I whisk it outside. The scent of pine fills the room, evoking Christmas.

Nothing gets you up close and personal as quickly as sketching a plant. You take it apart like the pieces of a puzzle, poring over each fragment, sniffing out its mysteries. So many ways to look at it. Prying open the petals to count the pistils and stamens. Twirling the stem in your fingers. Outlining it with a pen, while pinning the plant in place with a fingertip. Tracing the network of veins on the leaves. Shading in the shadows on the folds of the petals. Noticing the tiny star on the base of the berry.

As I handle the plant, turning it upside down, flattening it, pressing back the petals, fondling the leaves, details emerge that surprise and delight me. It’s like exploring a lover’s body during those lazy hours you spend in bed at the start of a relationship. A snowdrop has never been the same since I peeled back its petals and found, to my surprise, striped green sepals inside.

I learned my favorite drawing technique—contour drawing–years ago in a high school art class. Betty Edward also describes it in her seminal book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The instructions are simple. Look at your subject. Put your pen down on the page. Outline the contours of the object with your pen. Do not look at your paper. Do not take your pen off the page. Resist the temptation to peek at your drawing as you proceed. This often turns a lively sketch into something stiff and stilted (though perhaps more accurate).

Why does this technique work better than conscious imitation? What we believe we see is not what we really see. Try drawing a cup while looking at the cup. Then draw it again using contour drawing. I think you will be surprised by how much more the second version actually resembles a cup. We have a notion of a cup shaped by our three-dimensional experience with it but it’s not the cup our eye sees.

I used contour drawing throughout high school and college classes to capture portraits of my teachers, other students, my shoes and my own hand drawing. Sometimes you get an undecipherable tangle of squiggles. But other times you end up with a lovely sketch that really captures the essence of the person.

Spirit drawing takes contour drawing to another level. Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook says it’s as if “what the eyes sees then travels through the heart (the emotional heart, which can recognize the spirit or essence of an object—something the mind cannot do), then continues down the arm and fingers, and finally through the pen or other tool and is then recorded onto the paper.”

Before beginning to draw, spend time simply taking in the subject as much as possible.

Then take your pen (Siegel encourages the use of a pen, as it will force you to commit), choose a spot on the subject, and focus your eyes and attention there. Begin drawing, traveling along the lines of the object. If you are drawing a flower, pretend you are a tiny bug traversing the edges of each petal. Or you can imagine tracing the edges of the subject with your fingertip, the gentle caress of a lover. After tracing the outline, you can begin to trace some of the interior edges.

Siegel uses spirit drawing as a warm-up before a more studied attempt and I’ve used it this way as well. I have to admit that the first sketches are often more lively than the sketches I labor over. As the name implies, they capture more of the spirit of the plant.

For instance, here’s an attempt to analyze the way a plantain plant looks as it bursts into blossom.

And here is a spirit drawing I did of the same plant as it withered and shrunk. I think it has more life (though it’s clearly ebbing away).

 

 

 

Although I’ve been practicing spirit drawing on flowers, I’ve also started using it to capture glimpses of my everyday life. I have to admit these are my favorites. For instance, this picture of a dog I saw at my favorite café, Pettirosso, one afternoon. It might be hard for you to tell what this is supposed to represent, but for me it vividly recalls that moment when the dog woke up to look at a customer.

Assignment for April, Week 1

Try doing a contour drawing of a plant this week. Don’t despair if your first version is a bunch of squiggles. Try again. Do a drawing a day. If you start to feel comfortable with the contour drawings, try a spirit drawing. Then write up a report on how it went.

If you’d like to share your sketches, you could post them on Facebook, either in the private group for A Year in Flowers 2017 (you need to “friend” me on Facebook and I can invite you) or on the Living in Season page.

For lesson 2 of Portraits of Plants and a new assignment, go here.

 

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Naming the Trees in Winter

This year, I made a commitment to learn about the trees in my neighborhood, as I participate with the students in my current online class, A Year in Flowers. This was the next logical step in my quest to find nature in the city.

I had already spent several years learning about the plants in my neighborhood. My plant blindness was fading. After taking classes and going on field trips with the Washington Native Plant Society, and with Seattle’ resident plant expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson, I recognized most of the plants in the few blocks around my apartment building. Here a hedge of sarcococca humilis, var. Hookeriana, already emitting its sweet perfume in January. On the corner, a witch hazel, all yellow curlicues. At the entrance to the alley, a stand of wild violets, re-emerging with their heart-shaped leaves from the mud.

But when it came to trees, I was at a total loss. I could lump the evergreens into major categories: pines, firs, cedars. I still had a lot to learn about species. But the deciduous trees were the bigger problem. In January, they were just so many trunks, so many branches. Without their leaves or fruit, I was stumped.

I began by trying to recognize the same trees when they appeared in different settings on my daily walks with my dog. It helped to give them names based on their appearance. The lumpy bumpy tree. The freckled grey bark tree. The cavorting branch tree.

My usual tools at this stage of my research: the field guides were not useful. I paged through three of them looking for the tree I called the grey freckled bark tree. I had put days into the search when it occurred to me that maybe the freckles were not part of the bark but lichen.

Now there are easy ways to identify a tree, especially in Seattle. The City of Seattle, through the Department of Transportation, has compiled a Street Tree Inventory which you can view as a clickable map.

Or you can start from the other direction: If you think you know the tree genus, you can look it up in Arthur Lee Jacobson’s excellent book, Trees of Seattle. After some remarks that help you identify the trees, Jacobson supplies some locations where those trees are located.

There are problems with both of these approaches. One is that the streets on the street inventory are self-reported so they may be incorrect identifications. And I have the older edition of Jacobson’s book. Many of the trees he mentions have since disappeared, especially the ones near my apartment on Capitol Hill, cut down because of new construction.

But I also spurned these as initial approaches because it feels a bit like cheating to me. I like to make myself work a little harder. I find it is the effort I put into the identifying process that helps me remember what I’ve learned. It’s like the difference between making small talk and getting to really know someone over a series of coffees and meals and conversations.

So I spend a lot of time studying the bark and branching patterns of the deciduous trees around me. Some trees are easy: the liquidambar in front of the apartment building are still bearing their knobby fruit capsules (sometimes called space balls). The hawthorn down the street finally shed its leaves during the last windstorm but is still sporting dark red haws. And who can forget the Empress tree? Even though there won’t be any lilac-colored, vanilla-scented flowers until May and strange pods until July, it is unforgettable once identified.

While walking a little farther afield with my dog, Flora one day, I happened upon a tree with the same grey bark and white freckles as the tree I was trying to identify. But this one still had leaves on it, all of them dried and crunchy. I took off a leaf and went home and used a field guide which was designed like a key. Gradually I made my way to the beeches and decided my grey freckle bark tree was a beech.

I mentioned this to my friend Dan and he said, “Oh a copper beech. They don’t shed their leaves until spring. The new buds push out the old leaves.” He knew because he had one in his yard. And indeed, when I looked up copper beeches I learned all about abcission (the process by which trees shed their leaves) and marcescence (some trees hold onto their leaves through the winter, notably oaks, beeches and hornbeams). The leaves won’t fall off until wind snaps the brittle petioles. One theory about why this is advantageous for a tree is that it discourages herbivores from nibbling on the emerging twigs. A mouthful of brittle, dried leaves is not appealing.

Looking up the name beech, I discover that its species name (Fagus) derives from a Latin word for edible that comes from the same root as beech. The name beech is also cognate with book. This may be due to the lovers’ practice of scratching entwined initials within a heart on the bark. Because the tree retains the same bark for its entire life, rather than shedding it like madrone or birch, or growing new protective layers like most trees, the writing remains for the tree’s lifetime. The beech is a book, recording forever the moment in time when RF and FH decided to memorialize their love.

And when I looked up beeches in Arthur Lee Jacobson’s Trees of Seattle book, I found there was another one a block away. On my next walk, I found that tree. It had the same smooth grey bark with white freckles on it. Lichen, I learn. Lichens love beeches because they don’t shed their bark.

Alas, when I turn to the Street tree inventory, it identifies my grey freckle bark tree as a Midland English Hawthorn. That’s clearly wrong. I know where the hawthorn tree is. Just a block away. So at this point, I’m going to let hold my identification lightly in my mind and heart and wait for the tree to reveal itself to me when the leaves emerge.

How do you identify strange trees in the winter? If you’d like a challenge and some companionship along the way, you can sign up for the Year in Flowers class. It’s $20 for a month, $120 a whole year of lessons.

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Michaelmas Daisy

The Michaelmas daisy, among dead weeds
Blooms for St Michael’s valorous deeds

Any of the various asters can also be called a Michaelmas daisy, so named because they are members of the Daisy (compositae) family and they bloom through Michaelmas, providing a late show of color and bloom in the garden.

There are species of asters native to America, Switzerland and Italy. The aster amellus or Italian starwort is the original plant dedicated to Archangel Michael, whose holiday we celebrate on Michaelmas, September 29. (For more on this holiday, see this article.)

The 16th century herbalist, Gerard, commented on the aster native to England, the sea starwort (aster tripolium) which grew along the coast but flourished when brought into the garden. He called it tripolium because “It was reported by men of great fame and learning [he was referring to Discorides]..that it doth change the colors of his flowers thrice a day.”

In the 17th century, the plant collector, John Tradescant Jr. began bringing asters from North America to England. In 1633 he brought over the Virginia aster (aster lateriflorus). Later he introduced the very popular New England aster (Aster nova-angliae) and New York aster (Aster nova-belgii). These plants have since been reclassified; they are still in the tribe of Asters but under the genus name of Symphyotrichum (from the Greek words for “growing together” and “hair”—poor plant, aster is a much more appropriate and glamorous name).

Still if you were looking for one in a nursery, you’d probably say you were looking for an aster. There are many varieties available, most of them hybrids of the New England and New York asters, in many colors and sizes, with names like Harrington Pink (an heirloom aster dating from the 1930s) and Persian Rose, September Ruby and violet Carpet, Purple Dome and Wood’s Pink.

Aster Etymology

Asters are named for the stars they resemble—the name comes from the same root word as astrology and asteroid, asterisk and disaster–and in England, they are sometimes called starwort (wort simply means herb or plant with healing properties). Several legends are told about their origins. One says that Virgo scattered stardust on earth and they became asters. Another attributes their origin to the goddess Astraea (often associated with the constellation Virgo) who withdrew from earth out of sorrow and looking down wept. Her tears became asters

Aster Folklore

In ancient Greece, aster leaves were burned to keep away evil spirits and drive off serpents. Pliny the Elder recommended a tea of aster in cases of snake bite and an aster amulet to ease the pain of sciatica. Virgil wrote about it in the Georgics:

There is a useful flower
Growing in the meadows, which the country folk
Call star-wort, not a blossom hard to find,
For its large cluster lifts itself in air
Out of one root; its central orb is gold
But it wears petals in a numerous ring
Of glossy purplish blue; ’tis often laid
In twisted garlands at some holy shrine.
Bitter its taste; the shepherds gather it
In valley-pastures where the winding streams
Of Mella flow. The roots of this, steeped well,
In hot, high-flavored wine, thou may’st set down
At the hive door in baskets heaping full.

Helen Baroli in her book about Italian holiday food mentions picking yellow Michaelmas daisies on the beaches near Rome. She also made a yellow sponge cake called “Margherita” (daisy) on Michaelmas.

I don’t think the cake has any asters in it but the Plants for the Future website gives aster amellus, the native Italian aster, a rating of 2 for edibility and 2 for medicinal qualities. The roots have been used to make medicine for coughs, pulmonary infections and malaria. However they warn that although the native aster is probably safe to eat, the hybrid decorative varieties may not be.

The aster is considered a herb of Venus and like the daisy, which belongs to the same family of Compositae, it has been used in love divinations.

Growing Asters

Asters are easy to grow. I just saw a meadow full of three-foot high purplish-blue asters in a marsh on Puget Sound, where I presume they were growing wild. Although the plant can grow in poor conditions, it likes moist soil and lots of sun. Asters should be divided every three years.

One of my favorite garden writers, Paghat, offers a selection of aster photographs and tips on cultivation (at least in the Pacific Northwest) at her website.  Check her index for other asters.

She’s also the person who referred me to Picton Garden in Worcestershire, the site of the original Michaelmas Daisy Nursery founded in 1906 by Ernest Ballard. He was an English plant breeder who specialized in Michaelmas daisies.

China aster painted by Redoute

Chinese asters come from a different genus Callistephys, but they also bloom in autumn at the same time as the Michaelmas daisy. Their name means beautiful crown from the Greek kallistos (beautiful) and stephanus (crown). They were often planted in Chinese gardens in pots and arranged in a row with one shade blending into one another to produce a rainbow effect, something that might be fun to do with asters in your garden.

The sheer variety of China asters in shapes and color, is why aster means “variety” in the language of flowers. Asters are also associated with elegance and daintiness.

References:

Barolini, Helen, Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italian Holidays, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich 1988
Gerard’s Herbal, edited by Marcus Woodward, first published in 1597, reprint by Studio Editions 1994
Martin, Laura C., Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Martin, Laura C., Wildflower Folklore, Globe Pequot 1993
Martin, Tovah, Heirloom Flowers, Fireside 1999
Parson, Frances Theodora and Mrs William Starr Dana, According to Season, A Celebration of Nature, Houghton Mifflin 1990
Ward, Bobby J, A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 1997

Illustrations:

The lovely picture of the purple aster was taken by Heather Oetkin’s elementary school students and featured at the Human Flower Project website, where Julie Ardery admits that asters are on her hated plants list.

For Cecily Mary Barker’s depiction of the Michaelmas Daisy Fairy
First published on September 9, 2011

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Flowers of July: Lotus & Water Lily

lotuses4Every Fourth of July, the talented pyrotechnicians who create the firework display that decorates the sky over Lake Union in Seattle devise new fireworks and the year I was working on this article, I was pleased to see fireworks that looked like lotuses, with outer petals fading from white to pink and central rings of rose deepening to red. The lotus, after all, is the flower for July in China. And the water lily, the flower of July in England, blooms in water. What could be more cool and refreshing during the hot days of July than contemplating the water lily?

From the earliest Indian collection of Buddhist sutras, from the reign of Ahyu, comes this description of the beginning of the world:

“Between the mountains there were many rivers, flowing in all directions along 100 different routes, moving slowly downhill, without waves. The rivers were shallow and their banks weren’t steep, making them easy to ford. The water in them was clean and pure, and flowers floated on the surface in abundance. The currents were full of them…”

According to this passage, the lotus was the first flower appearing in a world of water.

Natural Facts about the Lotus & the Water Lily

Although there is a botanical distinction, the lotus and water lily are often used interchangeably in folklore and mythology. Generally lotus refers to the water lily of India or the plant depicted in sacred art and stories, while the water lily is more often used by naturalists. As an example of the confusion, the World Book actually has two entries, one for the lotus, one for the water lily, both clearly referring to the same plant and neither referring to the other entry.

The lotus of India belongs to the Nelumbo genus (Nelumbo is the Sinhalese name for the plant). It has large flowers and leaves that sometimes grow up above the water. The plant’s thorny stalk discourages fish from nibbling on it. The upper cupule or fleshy capsule of the lotus dries out at maturity and separates from the plant. Floating about, it scatters seed from the many perforated holes in its surface.

In Asia, there is only one species of lotus with red and white blooms. Yet early Buddhist scriptures, referring to the seven precious lotuses, mention blue and yellow flowers. The water lily, native to Egypt, has blue flowers but the yellow-flowered water lily is native to North America. This mystery may be addressed in this Buddhist sutra:

“The lotuses of heaven can change according to people’s wishes, flowering when needed. In this way they bring joy to the hearts of all. There is no need to declare one false and the other real. Both are called the wondrous lotus flower.”

The water lily belongs to the Nympha genus, derived from the same word as Nymph. The Greek word nymph, besides being used to describe the feminine spirits of water and trees, also means something young and budding (like the larva of certain insects) and is the name for the labia minora. In Europe, the common white water lily, the one painted by Monet, is Nympha alba while in North America, we’re more familiar with Nuphar lutea, the yellow water lilies, also called spatterdocks or cow lilies. The English sometimes call the plant “brandy bottle” because the flowers smell like stale wine which attracts flies, the pollinators for the plant.

According to Chelsie Vandaveer, the Amazon Water Lily (victoria amazonica) imprisons its pollinators. The pure white flowers open in the evening and release a fragrance like pineapples. Beetles attracted by the smell find their way to the pale flowers on the dark water and feast on the central petals, while the flower closes over them. Then the anthers ripen and shed their pollen all over the trapped beetles. By the second evening, the flowers have turned pink and lost their fragrance. They open again and release the pollen-covered beetles which fly off in search of more white flowers with that incredible fragrance. Thus the lily is never self-pollinated since it can only be pollinated when the flower is white and fragrant. I love this description of the flower that changes colors and fragrances overnight, all in the service of sex. No wonder it’s considered a magical plant.

Yellow water lily

Growing Lotuses

The Sunset New Western Garden Book does distinguish between lotuses and water lilies.

Water lilies, listed under the genus Nymphaea, have round leaves with a notch at one side where the leaf stalk is attached. The flowers float on the surface of the water or stand above it. Water lilies sold in nurseries are hybrids. Hardy water lilies come in colors ranging from white through yellow to red. Tropical water lilies come in more colors, including blue and purple, but are more sensitive and prefer (no surprise!) to live in areas where orange trees flourish. They can be grown in colder climates, especially if the roots are stored in damp sand over the winter.

Lotuses, in the genus Nelumbo, have perfectly round leaves that spring up in summer above the water level and large fragrant flowers on separate stalks. Lotus roots should be planted in spring in 12 to 18 inches of fairly rich soil, which is then covered with 8 to 12 inches of water. They often will not bloom the first year, unless the summer is warm early. If the water will freeze in your area, the pond should be covered or filled with more water in winter. Nelumbium luteum is the American lotus, with pale, small flowers. The Indian or Chinese lotus, Nelumbium nelumbo, usually has pink flowers although white, rose and double varieties are available.

To make things even more confusing there is a genus called Lotus but it’s a completely different plant, a member of the pea family. Let’s not even go there.

Lotus Engraving
Engraving of a lotus from an old herbal.

Sacred Loremohenjodaro

When the white lotus descends to this world, it changes everyone’s life for the better. Chant from the White Lotus Sect, Ming dynasty

Jonas Balys, a Lithuanian folklorist writing on the lotus for Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia of Folklore and Mythology provides a great summary of the significance of the lotus through the ages.

The oldest representation of the lotus was made centuries before anyone ever wrote about it: a statue unearthed at Mohenjo-Daro showing a wide-hipped goddess, lifting her breasts with her hands and wearing lotus blossoms in her hair.

The Hindu goddess Laxmi, is also called Padma, Kamia and Kamalasana, all names for the lotus. She emerged from a lotus which sprang from Vishnu’s forehead (an improvement on Athena’s method of birth, I think). Vishnu himself is pictured holding a conch, a wheel, a mace and a lotus in his four hands.

lakshmiThe earliest written reference to the goddess in a supplement of the Rig-Veda describes her as born of the lotus, standing on the lotus, garlanded with lotuses. She is the hue of the lotus, lotus-eyed, lotus-thighed. She is often depicted flanked by white elephants who pour water from their trunks over her and the lotus she holds. Supposedly elephants love to eat the steam of lotuses.

In India, the Lotus also represents birth. Vishnu puts forth from his body a single giant navel on which Brahma, the lotus-born Creator is seated. This lotus has 1,000 golden petals from which mountains rise and waters flow.

Buddhism borrowed the lotus pedestal from Brahma. The Buddha is often depicted sitting on a lotus or holding a lotus. Yoga students and meditators sit in lotus position.

Legend says that when the Buddha was born, he walked seven steps in ten directions and with each step a lotus flower appeared. Look closely at the soles of his feet when you see a statue of Buddha — you may see the imprint of the lotus.

Buddhist periods are initiated by the appearance of a lotus, which indicates the location of the sacred tree of the Buddha. If there are no blossoms, no Buddha will appear. At the beginning of the current era, the Bhadrakalpa, there were 1,000 blossoms, signifying the birth of 1,000 Buddhas.

The Buddhist sutras say that the lotus has four virtues: scent, purity, softness and loveliness. Yet as Chang Chin-ju notes, many other flowers are soft, clean and fragrant. The lotus was singled out because Chinese botanists once believed that it flowered and bore fruit at the same time, thus symbolizing the ability to transcend the limitations of time.

In China, even before Buddhism arrived bringing its special devotion to the lotus, the lotus was honored as the plant of summer. One of the eight immortals holds a lotus, the “flower of open-heartedness” or a lotus-pod wand. It was an emblem of purity, fruitfulness (because of its many seeds) and creative power.

The Lotus Sect of Chinese Buddhism believes that people can be rewarded for virtuous acts by leaving the cycle of reincarnation and going to dwell in the Western Heaven. This paradise contains the Seven Treasure Pond which brims over with the Water of Eight Deeds and Virtues. The bottom of the lake is covered with gold dust and the lotuses are as big as carriage wheels. The blue flowers give off a blue light, the red a red light, the yellow a yellow light and the white flowers a marvelous fragrance. The different colors have different meanings. White represents purity, blue goodness and red enlightenment.

The Sacred Lake of Lotuses is often depicted in Temple Courtyards. Each soul has a lotus on this lake which will open to receive them after death and where they will wait until the time of its opening. The flowers thrive or droop according to the piety of the individual on earth; for the devout they open immediately when he dies, admitting the soul at once to the divine presence.

In China, the envelopes given to the family at a funeral are impressed with the outline of a lotus. And in rural areas, people still burn incense to the Spirit of the Lotus. In Chinese Buddhism, the goddess Tara is also called Lotus. And Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, is often depicted holding a lotus which she gazes at with downcast eyes, or reclining on an expanse of lotuses.

In Chinese Buddhism, the lotus became a symbol of purity. “Bathing in the clear water of the spiritual pond, the lotus’ roots dig deep into the soil.” It represented being able to distance oneself from vulgarity. But Mahayana Buddhism takes this symbolism a step further: “This flower doesn’t grow in the highlands, but rather it blooms in the vile swamps.” In other words, purity is no different than pollution—the spirit can bloom in any circumstance.

The lotus became a popular symbol in Chinese folk custom. Pictures showing fat dancing babies holding lotus leaves or flowers are purchased in the hope that people will give birth to several boys in succession (because the Chinese word for lotus sounds the same as a word meaning “one after another”). And since lotus leaves protect the goldfish under them, the lotus also symbolizes abundance year after year.

Long before the classical Hindu scriptures wrote of the lotus, the lotus was an important symbol in Egypt. In fact, the lotus may have come to India from Egypt. It was associated with the sun because it opens in the morning and closes at night. Horus, the sun-god was often depicted sitting on a lotus (like Buddha and Brahma). The lotus was also the flower of resurrection, used in funeral rites and depicted on tombs. Mourners would pray that the deceased would have the chance to bloom again, “like a water lily reopening.”

The water lily appears all over the tomb of King Tutan-kamen which was built in 1361 BC. Water lilies adorn the tops of columns. The oar King Tut is using to row to the land of rebirth is made in the image of a half-open water lily. A beautiful woman who resembles Cleopatra offers the water lily she holds in her hand to another woman to sniff.

A Dakota legend tells about the origin of the yellow pond lily common in North America. A Star Maiden came down from the night sky and wanted to live with the Dakota. The chief, Red Strawberry Man, sent his son with the maiden to consult the tribe’s advisor who lived across the lake. While rowing across the lake in the darkness, the son’s canoe hit a log and the Star Maiden tumbled into the waters. In the morning, the first yellow water lily appeared at the same spot.

Lotus Holidays

The sixth moon of the Chinese lunar calendar is called the Lotus moon. In Peking, the birthday of the lotus is celebrated on the 24th day of the sixth month, according to Burkhardt. People flock to see the pink lotuses blooming in the lakes around the Winter Palace with the same enthusiasm the Japanese bring to cherry-blossom viewing. The sight of the lotus blooming in ponds and moats signifies that prayers to the Dragon-Prince have been answered and there will be sufficient moisture for an abundant harvest.

On two Chinese lunar holidays that usually fall in the month of July, the Chinese celebrate with lotus flowers. During the festival of Tanabata, the weaver woman, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, children carry lotus flowers. And lotus lanterns are lit for the Ghost Festival on the first day of the seventh lunar month.

Thoreau wrote an entry on June 25, 1852, that implies it was the custom for young men to bring water lilies to church on Sundays while they were in bloom:

“The nymphaea odorate, water nymph, sweet water-lily, pond-lily, in bloom. A superb flower, our lotus queen of the waters. Now is the solstice in still waters. How sweet, innocent, wholesome its fragrance. How pure its white petals, though its root is in the mud! It must answer in my mind for what the Orientals say of the lotus flower. Probably the first a day or two since. To-morrow, then will be the first Sabbath, when the young men, having bathed, will walk slowly and soberly to church in their best clothes, each with a lily in his hand or bosom, with as long a stem as he could get. At least I used to see them go by and come into church smelling a pond-lily, when I used to go myself. So that the flower is to some extent associated with bathing on Sabbath mornings and going to church, its odor contrasting and atoning for that of the sermon.”

June 2

Heat lingers
As days are still long;
Early mornings are cool
While autumn is still young.
Dew on the lotus
Scatters pure perfume;
Wind on the bamboos
Gives off a gentle tinkling.
I am idle and lonely,
Lying down all day,
Sick and decayed;
No one asks for me;
Thin dusk before my gates,
Cassia blossoms inch deep.

Po Chu-I (772-864) Autumn Coolness, translated by Howard S Levy and Henry Wells

Lotus Dreams

Jian Nan Shi Gao, a Song dynasty poet, was 78 years old when he had the following dream: He met an ancient man who told him: “I am the lotus scholar and responsible for the mirror lake. But now I am leaving, and I was wondering if you could take my place minding the moonlight, wind and dew and protecting the lotuses? Every month you will receive 1000 jugs of wine in payment.”

Lotus & Palm
Lotus & Palm border from the Palace of Darius 1 at Susa. Pesian, 6th century BCE in the Musee du Louvre.

Lotus Medicine

Indian folklore prescribes the leaves of the lotus to cool the fires of ardor. Pliny says the same thing: “According to tradition nymphaecea was born of a nymph who died of jealousy about Hercules, and therefore those who have taken it in drink for twelve days are incapable of intercourse and procreation.”

Huron Smith (quoted by Coffey) noted in 1933 the medicinal use of the yellow pond lily (nelumbo lutea) among the Forest Potawatomi who call it pine snake, because of the way the roots look when exposed. The roots were cut in quarters to dry, then pounded into a pulp to be used as a poultice for inflammatory diseases.

Michael Moore, the noted North American herbalist, prescribes it for exactly the same thing that medieval herbalists did: cooling of too much heat (appropriate during the heat of the Dog Days!) Moore recommends using the dried seeds and tea made from the root for soothing inflammation of the intestinal and urinary tract, caused by “too much sex, three days driving in a subcompact in the summer—or the jalapeno syndrome.” The fresh root is especially good for soothing the reproductive organs, whether used internally or externally. Moore cautions that the root is for cooling and shrinking hot, inflamed and sharply painful conditions, not for dull, congested, subacute and achy conditions that need stimulation. The root can also be used as a poultice or bath for inflamed joints.

Warning: Although I’m convinced by the reports of reputable herbalists and the ancient folk tradition that ingesting lotus root is safe, Jeanne Rose in her herbal marks the water lily with her symbol for highly toxic. And David L Spess, in his book on Soma, posits that plants from both the Nymphaea and Nelumbo families were the source of the divine hallucinogen, known in the India tradition as soma. He says that both plants are psychoactive, as well as having rejuvenating and healing powers.

Lotus Panel
Assyrian carved stone panel of a lotus blossom from the 6th century BCE

Lotus Food

Every part of the lotus found in India (Nelumbo nucifera) is edible. Seeds are roasted to make puffs called mahkanas. The plant’s roots are ground up to make lotus meal.

Native Americans also used the ground flour of a similar plant, Nelumbo lutea. Thomas Nuttal (quoted by Coffey) made notes in 1821 of the way the Quapaws of Arkansas used the plant. The young leaves were cooked, the tubers baked, the young seeds eaten raw or cooked and the ripe seeds of winter roasted, boiled or ground into meal. Furthermore they extracted an edible oil from the seeds.

You can eat the seeds of yellow pond lily. Moore offers a recipe from an Alaskan herbalist, Janice Schofield, for Pond Lily Popcorn, made by popping 1/4 cup of seeds in 2 tablespoons of oil and flavoring them with butter, nutritional yeast and whatever else you fancy. He comments that it sounds more palatable than the way the Assiniboin and Micmac ate them: fried in bear fat.

Lotus border
Lotus border painted on cornice moulding on the Portico of Thersilion at Megalopolis

How to enjoy the water lily in the month of July

  • Rent or borrow a canoe or kayak and go out on the water near some water lilies
  • Chant Om mani padme hum (a lotus wishing-spell)
  • Sit in lotus position
  • Create a pond (perhaps using a barrel—but don’t use redwood — it discolors the water) and plant some lotuses
  • Burn incense to the spirit of the lotus
  • Make an offering to the Buddha or Laxmi of a water lily floating in water

Resources

Burkhardt, V.R., Chinese Creeds and Customs, Hong Kong: South China Morning Post, 1982
Chang Chin-ju, translated by Jonathan Barnard, “Lotus, Flower of Paradise”
Coffey, Timothy, The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers, Houghton Mifflin 1993
Jenks, Kathleen has a wonderful section on the lotus sutras, plus beautiful lotus paintings at her fabulous website, Mything Links
Kear, Katerine, Flower Wisdom, Thorsons 2000
Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Santa Fe: Red Crane Books 1993
Sunset New Western Garden Book, Menlo Park: Lane Publishing Company 1979
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset & Dunlap 1972
Spess, David L., Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen, Inner Traditions 2000
Vandaveer, Chelsie, “Why does the Amazon Water Lily imprison its pollinators?”
Ward, Bobby J, A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Cahpel Hill 1997

 

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Wet January

winter creek

Photo by John Brew

by Kelly Fine

January is the middle of the long wet season here in Seattle. It’s mid-January and I’m sitting beside a fast-flowing stream, a piece of vinyl between me and the wet sponge of the forest floor. I’ve come to my favorite neighborhood park – a remnant of second-growth forest – to see what drizzle, rain, and fog have made of the woods.

I visit these woods often enough to know that the leaf litter surrounding me has been wet for months. The water and fine sand splashed over its surface give it a matte sheen. On cold nights the leaves freeze brittle, and over the course of the overcast mornings, each leaf slowly relaxes again. As usual, it’s overcast today, and beyond the trees I can see a stretch of the white stratus cloud blanketing Seattle. That’s because the maples and alders surrounding me have lost their leaves for winter, and most of the taller shrubs have done the same. If I were a tree facing six months of cool, dim winter, I’d probably give up my leaves and go dormant too. But winter brings plenty of rain to those plants that keep their leaves all season, and the clearings in the canopy allow plenty of cloud-strained light to reach the understory evergreens — Oregon grape, young conifers, sword ferns, salal, and the mosses and lichens that grow on every surface of these woods and thrive in the Northwest winter.

Photo by Michelle Simkins

Photo by Michelle Simkins

When I lived in southern California, I thought I knew what health looked like: chaparral growing steadily in the sunlight, ravens gliding overhead. But in these wet woods, health looks like moss slowly pushing forth into another white day, drinking water from the air. On the lower branches of a small hemlock near me, moss grows long and thick. Sprays of hemlock needles emerge from the mats of moss, but it’s the moss that will shade the ground during the next cloudbreak. The moss reminds me of a retriever’s fur, muddy but drying in clumps after a dunk in the river.

Photo by Curtis Kukal

Photo by Curtis Kukal

Big-leaf maples must be the mossiest trees in the Northwest. Running my hand over the damp moss of the maple trunk beside me, I notice a pale dust lichen splattered over its surface and fir needles caught deep in its net. Springing from the moist decay held in place by the moss, I find a small mushroom, its delicate cap thin as an inner artichoke leaf. But the most prominent living things springing from the moss are licorice ferns. Moisture-loving, they poke their tips out from the moss every fall when the rains return. After the maples lose their leaves in November, the ferns come into their prime; maybe this access to the sky gives them the light and water they crave. Now they’re extending more than a foot out from the maple trunk beside me, and their tips are just starting to feel the pull of gravity. I’m not sure I’ll ever adjust entirely to the sight of ferns growing from live tree trunks, but almost every big-leaf maple in these woods supports at least a few of them.

Rain is never far from these woods in winter, and now it arrives, a few hard drops splattering my notebook page. Soon the mere tug of a pen will tear that page. I have a lot to do today, and the cold is starting to stiffen my writing hand. Rain gathers at the tip of a sword fern leaf, sags into a teardrop, and rips free. I want to stay and see more, but I should go. As I’m debating, a black lab discovers me on the ground and gives one startled bark. I tell him it’s okay, and he comes wriggling to bury me in steaming breath and dog delight.

 

Kelly Fine writes from suburban Seattle. Find her at Cracked Offering.

To view more of John Brew’s photos, go to Flickr. To see more photographs and other work by Michelle Simkins, go to her website:  Greenwoman Studio.

 

 

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The Isle of Eigg

by Fiona Doubleday

I am rethinking my relationship with time and, in particular with the seasons, after a recent visit to the Isle of Eigg off the west coast of Scotland.  The island is only 5 miles long and is owned by the 80 residents who call it home.  In 1997 the islanders raised the funds necessary to buy their island ending a long period of unsettling change.  Since then I think the islanders believe anything is possible and their engagement with life is evidence of that.

Eigg is the most beautiful of islands with heather hugging hillsides that seep away towards sandy shores.  To the north west of the island lies the island of Rum.  This island watches over Eigg and offers up the most astonishing summer sunsets.  I was humbled on Eigg as I walked the shores and climbed the hills letting the land speak its own tales.

It is a land that is carved out by crofters who continue to live off the land with their roots firmly fixed in seasonal changes.  I am not sure you could live on Eigg and not live through and with the seasons.  In the summer the days are so long with warmth and light to grow the food.  In the winter the days are much shorter and the wind and rain take a grip on the tiny island.  Islanders spoke of days and nights dictated by seasonality as part of the heartbeat of island living.

This tiny land is often battered by Atlantic storms and in those times the ferry does not sail.  The people of Eigg are cut off from the people who supply them with so much, making the community pull together to survive.  Self sufficient in energy, the islanders are far more aware of how much energy they are using and have become experts at living with less.  Only a very few cars travel the single island road, erasing motor sounds from the soundscape.  The result is true peace.

Peace is around every corner and through every flowing burn.  Your ears adjust to a different way of hearing.  Your body is cleansed by clean air as it learns, once more, to breathe deeply.

When I first stepped onto the island I had an overwhelming feeling that humans shouldn’t be on this land.  I tried to walk gently on the land as if to acknowledge the spiritual guardian that is Mother Nature.  My breakthrough moment came while standing alone on the shore.

While encircled by a wild soundscape, I entered into a deep and illuminating meditation which reached to the deepest parts of my soul.  My conscious mind filled with images from my childhood: growing up in the countryside and feeling completely and utterly free.  These were very old memories that had long been forgotten and I welcomed them back.  As the meditative state began to depart I felt much closer to the land that is the Isle of Eigg.

My travels later that day took me to an old crofting museum where I met her.  She was sitting on her wooden chair by the fire but her bones had grown cold and weary.  As I sat with her she began to tell me of a life well lived with a family much adored.  She was a crofter on a small Scottish island in a time now forgotten. She told me about a time when crofting was all that there was.  Her family lived on the edge of survival for long periods when the weather grew harsh and the land tired.

Her tales inspired every step I took from that point onwards.  She stayed with me the rest of my time on Eigg, even while I was visiting the tea rooms buzzing with locals waiting for the supplies to come off the ferry.  As they chatted, she watched and I listened.  When it was time to leave I looked for her but she had gone.  She will be back on her chair with her bones growing cold.  But now I can take her tales of a life well lived and know that, through her, I learned to walk with the land.  My visit to Eigg took me back to a place located deep in my soul and I will be forever grateful.

 

All photos by Fiona Doubleday.

Fiona Doubleday is the mother of four beautiful children and lives on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. They live on a smallholding where they grow herbs, cut flowers and willow. Fiona runs a small craft company With Love From Arran and is a freelance writer. She teaches online courses, blogs regularly as Scottish Island Mum and is creating a new web site called One Soul Many Hearts which launches October 11.

 

 

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Temple of Rhododendrons

My friend, Mary Oak, introduced me to the concept of Goethean observation. J. W. vonGoethe, who I knew only as an author, had wide-ranging interests, which included science. As a writer, he was on the leading edge of the Romantic movement and as a scientist, he moved away from the objective scientific method popular at this time. His approach was similar to what we call today a holistic approach, studying plants in their own environment, rather than as dead samples in a herbarium, and appreciating the whole plant as well as the parts. Rudolf Steiner admired Goethe’s perspective and incorporated it into his teaching, which is how Mary, who teaches at Sound Circle Center, learned about it,

None of the human faculties should be excluded from scientific activity. The depths of intuition, physical exactitude, the heights of reason and sharpness of intellect together with a versatile and ardent imagination, and a loving delight in the world of the senses—they are all essential for a lively and productive apprehension of the moment. Goethe

Under Mary’s tutelage, I used Goethean observation to get to know a rhododendron at Volunteer Park. I must admit that prior to my observation I had a lot of disdain for rhododendrons, those ubiquitous plants that decorate the yard of every older Seattle home. But going through Goethe’s process changed my perspective.

Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us. Goethe

Goethe suggested getting to know a plant by moving through four phases, from the most objective to the most subjective. In the first phase, you make precise observations. For instance: the flowers are purple, have five petals, have ten pistils and one stamen. The flowers appear in groups of ten at the end of slender branches. I could go on and on, but the point is to simply state the facts without interpretation, so even though I might want to speculate on why there are ten pistils (two for each petal?) or describe the branches as weaving a basket of flowers, I restrain myself. The goal is a list of observable facts.

There is a secret element of regularity in the object which corresponds to a secret element of regularity in the subject. Goethe

In the second phase, your goal is to look for patterns and repetition within the plant, and to imagine how the plant develops through time. For instance, you might pick leaves in various phases and lay them all in a row to see how a leaf develops. I didn’t do this with a leaf but I did observe the flower in almost every phase, from the bud to the shed petals which littered the ground beneath the plant. The flowers about to open looked wet and crinkled. When they unfolded the golden spots on the most vertical of the petals attracted bees which were crawling into the flowers. And then the petals slipped off, leaving behind the pistils and the stamen. The base of the stamen began to swell. The plant I was observing even had some dried fruits from the previous season: hard stems, brown nut-like fruits and some papery seeds inside.

During these first two phases, drawing the plant helps you develop your observation powers and slow down to more thoroughly appreciate the details of the plant. I traced around the actual shape of a flower and pressed one into the pages of my journal. The color got even brighter and more fluorescent against the white of the blank page.

We do not know what is stirring in the atmosphere that surrounds us, nor how it is connected with our own spirit. So much is certain—that at times we can put out the feelers of our soul beyond its bodily limits, and a presentiment, an actual insight is accorded to us. Goethe

In the third phase, the mystical and subjective enter the equation. Step back and allow words to enter your mind that might express the spirit of the plant. For a writer, this is the time when the metaphors and adjectives I’ve been suppressing come to the forefront. The sunlight fell through the foliage of the rhododendron creating a dappled shade underneath. The trunk grew straight up, then the branches arched and curved outward, and the thinner, more supple branches that bore the leaves and flowers bent down even more, creating a sense of enclosure. The effect was that of a temple, with the flowers as offerings to the gods. The word “glory” came into my mind, and with it a sense of joyous exaltation (and this was from someone who has never liked rhododendrons).

The fourth phase remains mysterious to me. This is the realm of the poets. It involves becoming one with the plant, so much so, that you could speak as the plant, for the plant. It takes time to develop. I will work up to it by practicing the first three steps. Still, I felt my first exposure to Goethean observation was successful. A plant that I had previously overlooked is now one I view with appreciation. If you have the time and desire to get to know a plant better, I recommend this practice.

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