A passionate lifelong gardener, the poet had fallen under the spell of wildflowers while composing her astonishing herbarium as a teenager. 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).
Published the year On 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:
I charge thee, flower, of beauty born,
Lift not thy head too high,
For, like the lowliest of thy race,
Thou, too, wert born to die.
The Power that lifts thee to the sun,
And bends thee to the gale,
Doth watch, with equal care and love,
The Lily of the vale.
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.