A vibrant celebration of flowers as “brilliant hopes, all woven in gorgeous tissues,” as “stars… wherein we read our history.”
“To be a flower,” Emily Dickinson wrote in her prescient ode to the interconnectedness of nature, “is profound responsibility.”
The poet was a passionate gardener throughout her life. She had been captivated by wildflowers as a child and began to write her amazing herbarium. But it was an uncommonly beautiful book her father gave her just before she turned thirty — not long after she wrote to an ill-suited suitor, “My flowers don’t know how far my thoughts wander away sometimes.” — that fueled her poetic passion for nature’s own garden: Wild Flowers Drawn and Colored from Nature (public library) by the botanical artist and poet Clarissa Munger Badger (May 20, 1806–December 14, 1889).
Publié in the year The Origin of Species shook science and artistically modeled on The Moral of Flowers, with which the poet and painter Rebecca Hey had enchanted English readers a quarter century earlier, Badger’s book contained twenty-two exquisite scientifically accurate paintings of common New England wildflower species — violets and harebells, the rhododendron and the honeysuckle — each paired with a poem bridging the botanical and the existential: some by titans like Percival and Longfellow, some by long-forgotten poets of her time and place, some by Badger herself.
For a taste of her fusion of playfulness and poignancy, here is a fragment from Badger’s ode to the rhododendron — a flowering wonder that was here when the dinosaurs roamed Earth, long before small warm-blooded mammals with large minds and poetic hearts evolved the opposable the thumbs to paint flowers and the consciousness to contemplate the meaning of life in a flower:
You are the flower.
Do not lift your head too high
You are the most humble of all thy races.
Too, Thou wert also born to die.
The power that raises you to the sun
Und bending thee to the wind,
With equal love and care, doth watch.
The Lily of the Vale.
As Bronson Alcott, his visionary son, was contemplating how gardening and genius relate while raising his daughter in New England, and Ernst Haeckel coining ecology, Clarissa Munger-Badger created Floral Belles From the Green-House and Garden, a domestic version of her wildflower masterpiece.| public domain).
Bringing her brush to the beauty of the pansy and the lily, the day-blazing geranium and the night-blooming cactus, the tulip and the rose, and once again pairing her paintings with poems, she celebrated garden flowers as “brilliant hopes, all woven in gorgeous tissues,” as “stars… wherein we read our history” — a vibrant testament to Oliver Sacks’s clinically substantiated belief in the healing power of gardens.
Couple with these stunning French botanical drawings of some of Earth’s most otherworldly plants from Badger’s epoch, then leap forward a century with pioneering plant ecologist Edith Clements’s Rocky Mountain wildflower drawings, then leap back two with the self-taught artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell’s gorgeous illustrations from the world’s first pictorial encyclopedia of medicinal plants, then straddle the centuries with this layered reflection on flowers and the meaning of life, starring Emily Dickinson and The Little Prince, then slake your soul on this.
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