Once or twice a month I’ll share newsy items, links to some of my favorite blogs about books, writing, and creativity, and whatever else strikes my fancy that I think you might like.
Here is what’s caught my eye lately:
A short, beautiful video, “Lessons from Flowers,” that is a narrative about death and loss. Larisa Minerva at Wildest Blue says we could stand to change our attitudes about death. My next post will feature a new memoir about death and dying.
Lonesome Reader’s review of Kate Atkinson’sA God in Ruins. I’ve read and written about her novel Life After Life, and hadn’t planned to read her newest which features another character in Life After Life. What more could be said about this mesmerizing World War II story? But Lonesome Reader convinced me otherwise.
We’ve been in Paris, where our son has been studying and working in industrial design. I had so much fun walking around this enchanting city which, among other treasures, has secret gardens galore, flower vendors and flower markets, and floral shops offering spring flowers, herbs, and foliage, all beautifully arranged and presented.
A few years ago I was browsing in a local used book shop when I discovered a volume of essays by Colette,Flowers and Fruit,first printed in the US in 1986.
Some of the essays were inspired by a Swiss publisher, who for a time sent Colette a bouquet of flowers once or twice a week so she could write sketches of those that inspired her.
Colette wrote one of the longer essays in this collection, “Flora and Pomona,” during the Nazi occupation. According to the collection’s editor, Colette conceived of the writing project to “keep the coal bin at 9, rue de Beaujolais well filled and pay the black-market prices for rabbit and cheese and chicken and other comestibles otherwise unavailable, even to much-loved novelists living in the Palais-Royal.”
At the time of its publication, some critics said factual errors, weak editing, and a less than adequate translation detracted from Flowers and Fruit. I find Colette’s writing challenging, so this isn’t the kind of book I’d read straight through. It’s a little treasure for floral enthusiasts that’s fun to browse when I want Colette’s unusual take on flowers.
We were lucky to be in Paris on May Day. This holiday’s signature flower is lily of the valley, one of my favorites. They were everywhere.
Here are some of my Paris floral photos paired with Colette’s thoughts on flowers and gardens:
“I do believe that there’s something exquisitely powerful about taking something in nature and molding it with your own two hands. From the moment you dig up that first clump, you’re empowered because you immediately enter into collaboration with nature, and who better to be in collaboration with than the greatest force on earth?” Fran Sorin, Digging Deep
You don’t have to be a gardener to enjoy Fran’s book, though if you are, all the better. Fran says, “My mission is to show new and experienced gardeners alike how they can use their gardens – be they rolling, manicured lawns or tiny, blank plots of land – as tools for their creative awakening. I believe from the depths of my heart that gardening can be one of the most profound ways to unearth the creative spirit buried within every one of us. Once you unleash this creative energy, you’ll be amazed at what happens in all areas of your life. You’ll begin to see how living creatively opens up new vistas in your imagination and new windows of opportunity in your life.”
I’m a new gardener, and gardening has become for me a pleasurable, relaxing complement to writing, perfect for getting my body moving outdoors in nature. As I write about growing up in a family flower shop, sowing and tending and reaping resurrect the fragrance of fresh blooms and damp soil, and many other sensory pleasures, from my childhood.
When I ran across Fran’s book online, I was intrigued with her melding of gardening and creativity. The first edition of Digging Deep was immensely popular, hence the 10th anniversary edition in 2014. I’m glad to have discovered it this time around. In addition to being a garden expert and deep ecologist, Fran is an ordained interfaith minister and a soul tending coach. I point this out because the deceptively simple Digging Deep is a profound and spiritual book that is part memoir, as Fran draws upon her own rich life experiences to tell the story of how she arrived at the wisdom she shares here.
I’ve found that to nurture a creative practice (mine is writing), it is good to have other creative outlets just for pleasure, quite different from your primary practice. These “low-stakes” pastimes give your mind and body a break from routine and stimulate your imagination by allowing you to play and experiment. This spirit of play permeates Fran’s book. Her chapters take you sequentially through the cyclical nature of gardening, and creativity: Imagining: The Spark of Creativity. Envisioning: Giving Shape to Your Dreams. Planning: Laying Down the Bones. Planting: Taking Action. Tending: The Act of Nurturing. Enjoying: Reaping What You Have Sown. Completing: Cycling Through the Season.
Here is a favorite passage from a section called “Appreciating”: “Savoring your garden brings more than just sensory pleasure, though – it fills your creative well. In the moments that you experience the reverie of simply being there without working or planning or doing anything other than just drinking it in, you can experience a heightened awareness that elevates your consciousness. Any expression of art, be it a Rembrandt or your own garden, reflects the best of humankind, and tapping into this wonder expands your creative capacity so you may in turn create even more art – more awareness, more inspiration, more aliveness. The cycle feeds itself, but only if you stop to smell those literal and proverbial roses.” (boldface is mine)
Fran includes some excellent gardening guidance and tips, but her book is not a gardening manual. Rather, her aim is impart a deeper wisdom, a kind of spiritual instruction about connection to soil and nature, to foster creative awakening.
Jigs and Jo Ann Gardner’s Gardens of Use and Delightisabouta remarkable couple who for thirty years taught themselves how to live off the land on a farm on remote, hardscrabble Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. (They now live on a smaller farm in upstate New York.) I wanted to pair it with Digging Deep because, although Jigs and Jo Ann are immensely practical people, they are deeply connected to their land and passionate about homesteading, which they portray as at once the functional task of reawakening fertility and abundance in the landscape and making it beautiful as well. The subtitle is Uniting the Practical and the Beautiful in an Integrated Landscape, and that is exactly what Jigs and Jo Ann did on their isolated farm, while also raising four children (and a few foster children for good measure.)
Gardens of Use and Delight, like Digging Deep, is part memoir. More of a how-to book than Fran’s, Gardens, for me, stands out because of Jigs and Jo Ann’s instinctively creative approach to seamlessly blending beauty and fertility as they rejuvenate and work their land. I will never rehabilitate an entire farm as they did, but in Jigs and Jo Ann’s book I find an approach to making my much smaller landscape both productive and beautiful. Jigs and Jo Ann remind me of Helen and Scott Nearingand their classic and influential The Good Life,although Helen and Scott were not concerned with aesthetics as are Jigs and Jo Ann. The Gardners view their land as an artist does a blank canvas, to be molded and planted with flowers, herbs, vegetables, fruits, shrubs, and trees.
You’ll find some recipes and homemade craft instructions, too, such as pressed flower cards, candied petals, herb salt, rose petal jelly, and skin freshener. Elayne Sears’ watercolor illustrations of the landscape, fruits, vegetables, flowers, and Jo Ann’s rustic farm kitchen and pantry are delightful – I’d love to have prints of them to hang in my kitchen.
I have read other titles by Jo Ann Gardner and hope to collect everything written by this talented, tenacious homesteading and gardening virtuoso.
Slow Flowers Challenge
I wanted to also tell you about Debra Prinzing’sSlow Flower Challenge for 2015, which you can join at any time. Every day, once a week, once a month, or once a season, you can design and make a floral arrangement using slow flowers. If you don’t know what slow flowers are, click on the above link, or read my post about Debra’s book, Slow Flowers. (St. Lynn’s Press)
More WW II fiction, a travel-to-the-ends-of-the-earth memoir, a wolf, Scandinavian literature, Little Golden Books, a favorite author visits Rome. Etc. Etc.
“For me, windowsill arranging is almost a spiritual practice. When I am looking for materials to display and placing them on the windowsill, I feel more like a poet placing words in a haiku than a floral designer placing stems in a vase. I love the limited space, the double connection to the outdoors (through the window and my materials), and the structure that repeating the same activity over and over provides.”Nancy Ross Hugo,Windowsill Art
I wrote about flowers and flower-themed books this past summer to commemorate the Ohio floral shop I grew up in (we just sold the building where my parents had the business for some fifty years) and to chronicle a renewed desire to have more flowers in my life. When St. Lynn’s Press asked me to review their new book, Windowsill Art, by Nancy Ross Hugo, I was thrilled. There is much, much more to this small, hand-sized book than meets the eye.
Windowsill Art is, first of all, about discovery: using seasonal blossoms and other easily accessible gifts of nature all around us – seedpods, cones, leaves, twigs, foliage, fruits, and vegetables – to make simple, striking designs we can display in the modest spaces of our windowsills.
Secondly, it is windowsill art as artist’s practice. Hugo writes, “Windowsill arranging can be to floral design what pen and ink drawing is to oil painting: a way to strip the art form to its basics and distill the essence of it.”
Nancy compares her windowsill practice to the work of a vegan cookbook author she once heard speak. The cookbook author focused exclusively on vegan cooking even though she was not a vegan. “She limited her universe in order to investigate a small part of it more deeply.” The simple art of windowsill arranging, Hugo writes, can be “a path back to….innocence and [the] beginner’s eye….And it can help focus a lifetime of practice and observation.”
The author is a naturalist and floral designer who, for three years, created floral windowsill art every day and posted photographs of it on her blog, Windowsill Arranging: Creating Nature on the Windowsill. She learned that her work greatly increased her readers’ sense of artistic freedom: techniques and ideas they hadn’t thought of before opened up new creative paths and possibilities.
Hugo offers instruction in how to find plant material and choose containers; ways to explore the process, including combining and shuffling materials and letting arrangements evolve; and experimenting with styles and techniques. She is suggestive and encouraging; there are no hard and fast rules. Nancy wants you to feel artistically uninhibited, free to try new things. Windowsill Art is generously photographed, featuring a gallery of Nancy’s arrangements through all four seasons.
You’ll want to keep Windowsill Artclose to your work area for inspiration.
Windowsill Art has inspired me to try some arrangements myself. I’ve noticed bits and pieces from nature in our yard I would have overlooked for use in an arrangement. We have a great deal of moss because of shade from our huge hemlock and beech trees, so I hope to use moss in my next arrangement.
I’m expanding my collection of vases and containers, too. At a local dairy, I bought large and small glass bottles of milk and cream; the empty bottles are terrific vases. I recently put aside a small jug that was filled with maple syrup, as well as an empty balsamic vinegar decanter.
“There were Lupines, Sweet Peas, Phlox, Bluebells, Day and Tiger Lilies, Monkshood, Peonies, Columbine, Daffodils, single and double, a Bleeding-heart bush in the front yard, and vines at each corner, which at times nearly covered the house. And always there was Golden-glow by the kitchen door.” An Old-Time Gardener
In The Language of Flowers, the main character, Victoria Jones, is a floral designer with a knack for choosing just the right foliage and blossoms for her customers, based on Victorian-inspired flower dictionaries that she’s studied. Having grown up in an Ohio floral shop, I was intrigued by the contemporary, upscale San Francisco flower scene depicted in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s story.
In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, our shop carried the standard blooms – roses, carnations, gladiolas and the like – which were shipped from California and South America – and laden with pesticides, though at the time we didn’t give that much thought. Nowadays, floral designers are artisans who use seasonal, locally grown, pesticide-free cultivated and wild flowers, in artful, natural-looking bouquets and arrangements.
In both books, Debra highlights American flower farmers who are passionate about sustainable methods and land stewardship. Slow Flowers is a colorful, lush, small-sized, book with flower arrangements for every week of the year. As in a cookbook, Debra lists the “ingredients” (4 stems hydrangea, 9 stems pink snowberry, 5 stems Dahlia ‘Nijinsky,’ 15 stems amaranth), provides instructions, and suggests vintage and unusual vases and containers.
In The Language of Flowers, Victoria Jones falls in love with Grant, a flower farmer. She first meets him at a flower market, where he is selling varieties of lilies: tiger, stargazer, imperial, and pure white Casablancas. Here is what Victoria has to say about Grant:
“His face had the dusty, lined look of a manual laborer. I imagined he planted, tended, and harvested his flowers himself. His body was lean and muscular as a result, and he neither flinched nor smiled as I examined him…
He withdrew a single orange tiger lily from a bucket.
“I wanted to spend my life choosing flowers for perfect strangers.” The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Flowers were part of my earliest days and inseparable from family life. My parents opened a flower shop in July, 1952. This month, fifty-eight years later, we sold the building that housed our shop, though the floral business closed some years ago.
To commemorate the flowers of my past and mark how flowers remain part of my life, I’m highlighting a handful of books and authors, and a Finger Lakes “secret” garden. First, a book. Here’s an excerpt:
I’m single but I don’t want to be, the woman said.
She watched me work, arranging the white lilac around the roses until the red was no longer visible. I wound sprigs of rosemary–which I had learned at the library could mean commitment as well as remembrance–around the stem like a ribbon. The rosemary was young and supple, and did not break when I tied it in a knot. I added a white ribbon for support and wrapped the whole thing in brown paper.
First emotions of love, true love, and commitment, I said, handing her the flowers.
In a review of the novel The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh,Paula McLain (author of The Paris Wife and herself a foster child) writes: “I feel it’s only fair to warn you, dear reader, that Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s central character, Victoria Jones, is going to break your heart three ways from Sunday.”
The character of Victoria Jones and her fate drew me to The Language of Flowers,as did the lush California landscape of flowers against which this story is set.
Victoria has lived in more than 30 foster homes, and when she is emancipated at 18, she isn’t ready. It’s difficult to imagine any child emerging intact from our foster care system. I don’t know which was more heartbreaking, to see foster care let down Victoria time after time, or to see the ramifications of this in Victoria’s adult life.
Victoria’s talent with flowers, which may ultimately be her salvation, is another dimension of the novel that intrigued me. Her one kind and loving foster parent, Elizabeth, passed on to Victoria her floral “genius.” Victoria can not only artfully arrange flowers, she has a knack for giving people the particular flowers they need.
I loved this book and plan to read it again.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh cofounded the Camellia Network to support youth transitioning from foster care to independence. The flower camellia means my destiny is in your hands.
Hidden away in the woods on a hillside overlooking Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes is a stunning collection of over 40,000 day lilies. Grace Rood planted her first lilies in 1957, and now her son oversees Grace’s Garden. We visited the garden in mid July, when the day lilies were at their peak.
In the language of flowers, lily (Lilium) stands for majesty. A white lily stands for purity and sweetness. In Kate Greenaway’s dictionary, a day lily stands for coquetry.
A passionate bouquet could consist of bird of paradise for magnificence, bougainvillea for passion, and lily for majesty.
Doesn’t the secret language of flowers inspire you to make your own bouquet for someone you love?