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An Illustrated Love Letter to Gardening

A lush serenade to the patience and fortitude of living with uncertainty and letting life unfold on its own terms.

An Illustrated Love Letter to Gardening

“I work like a gardener,” the visionary artist Joan Miró observed in reflecting on his creative process. It was in a garden bed that Virginia Woolf arrived at her exquisite epiphany about what it takes to be an artist. For poet Ross Gay, time spent in the garden is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” Looking back on his life, the great neurologist Oliver Sacks recognized the healing power of gardens as one of only two non-medical interventions that have helped his patients, alongside music. “It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her gorgeous ode to gardening.

I too have healed, have honed my attention, have fine-tuned my artistic voice and purpose, have learned and practiced happiness in the garden, on my tiny patch of Brooklyn soil. I too have knelt on the frost-bitten ground to press into it the first seed of spring, have craned my neck by midsummer to meet the prayerful face of the sunflower, radiant and rueful in its solitary stature. I too have plunged my hands into the moist dirt, cupping the infant root system of a willow tree I know will outlive me, cupping with it the bewildering, consecrating knowledge that seed and sunflower and willow and I all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego, all the while remembering that humility comes from humilis — Latin for low, of the earth.

That — how gardening brings us into intimate contact with the rhythms and relational marvels of nature, with ourselves as humble notes in the rhythm and nodes in the marvel — is what artist Debbie Millman, my longtime former partner and now darling friend, explores in this wondrous illustrated love letter to the garden she started with her then-fiancé, now-wife Roxane Gay, part of a four-part series for TED, narrated in Debbie’s own lush and recognizable voice.

Complement with this illustrated Victorian encyclopedia of poetic lessons from the garden and a lovely contemporary children’s book about how gardening teaches us to work with unselfish purpose, then savor more of Debbie’s splendid visual stories and meditations on her Instagram.

BP

The Moral of Flowers: An Illustrated Victorian Encyclopedia of Poetic Lessons from the Garden

From the sensuous honeysuckle to the humble daisy, a lyrical journey to where nature meets human nature.

The Moral of Flowers: An Illustrated Victorian Encyclopedia of Poetic Lessons from the Garden

“In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens,” the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in contemplating the healing power of gardens.

More than two centuries earlier, gardening had taken on a new symphonic resonance with the psychological and physiological score of human nature when the philosopher Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, published The Botanic Garden — a book-length poem using scientifically accurate verse to enchant the popular imagination with the scandalous new science of sexual reproduction in plants. Botany was suddenly both sensual and poetic, seeding a new genre of literary botanica in the early nineteenth century. Crowning it is a book of especial loveliness — the 1833 gem The Moral of Flowers (public library | public domain) by the poet, painter, and self-taught naturalist Rebecca Hey.

Passionflower. Available as a print.

Perched partway in time and sensibility between Elizabeth Blackwell’s illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants and Emily Dickinson’s wildflower herbarium, this illustrated encyclopedia presents a singular fusion of Hey’s original verse, poetic prose, and perfectly selected quotations from celebrated poets about each flower, coupled with beautiful engravings drawn from life by William Clark, former draughtsman and engraver of the London Horticultural Society.

Honeysuckle. Available as a print.

The unexpected success of the book — all the rarer in an era when hardly any women were published authors — emboldened Hey to learn to paint and pursue an improbable dream that became, fifteen years later, the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of trees, featuring her own original art.

Almond blossom. Available as a print.

From fragrant favorites like the honeysuckle and jasmine, to humble beauties like the daisy and wild wallflower, to literary symbol-corsages like the violet, which Emily Dickinson cherished above all other flowers for its “unsuspected” splendor, and the almond blossom, on which Albert Camus predicated his timeless metaphor for strength through difficult times, Hey’s catalogue of blooming splendor traces the etymologies of flower names, describes their habitat, and invokes Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth to explore their cultural symbolism, aiming to “pursue such a train of reflection or draw such a moral from each flower that is introduced as its appearance, habits, or properties might be supposed to suggest.”

Field wildflowers (frontispiece). Available as a print.

Flowers of the field, how meet ye seem,
Man’s frailty to pourtray,
Blooming so fair in morning’s beam,
Passing at eve away;
Teach this, and oh! though brief your reign,
Sweet flowers, ye shall not live in vain.

Snow-drop and crocus. Available as a print.

Just as poet Jane Hirshfield would draw, nearly two centuries later, a buoyant lesson in optimism from a tree, Hey draws on flowers to contemplate questions of mortality, grit, adaptability, how to find beauty in melancholy and cheerfulness in solitude, how to live “heedless of all obstacles.”

Hare-bell. Available as a print.
Rusty-leaved rhododendron. Available as a print.
Bittersweet. Available as a print.
Rosemary and violet. Available as a print.
Daisy. Available as a print.

There is a flower, a little flower,
With silver crest and golden eye,
That welcomes every changing hour,
And weathers every sky.

It smiles upon the lap of May,
To sultry August spreads its charms,
Lights pale October on his way,
And twines December’s arms.

Forget-me-not. Available as a print.

In vain I searched the garden through,
     In vain the meadow gay,
For some sweet flower which might to you
     A kindly thought convey.
One spake too much of hope and bloom
For those who know of man the doom ;
Another, queen of the parterre,
Thorns on her graceful stem did bear;
A third, alas ! seemed all too frail
For ruder breath than summer gale.

I turned me thence to where beneath
     The hedgerow’s verdant shade,
The lowliest gems of Florals wreath
     Their modest charms displayed.
Lured by its name, one simple flower
From its meek sisterhood I bore,
And bade it hasten to impart
The breathings of a faithful heart,
And plead — “Whatever your future lot,
In weal or woe — Forget-me-not.”

Primrose. Available as a print.
Lily of the Valley. Available as a print.
Wild wallflower. Available as a print.
Violet. Available as a print.

Complement with The Spirit of the Woods — Hey’s poetic encyclopedia of trees, illustrated with her own paintings — and 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s trailblazing natural history illustrations of exotic, endangered, and extinct animals, then revisit a 17th-century English gardener on what fruit trees can teach us about human nature and relationships.

BP

The Best of Brain Pickings 2019

Love, poetry, friendship, solitude, and lots of trees.

In this annual review, following the annual selections of the year’s loveliest children’s books and overall favorite books, “best” is as usual a composite measure of what I most enjoyed thinking and writing about over the course of the year, and what you most ardently read and shared.

It has been curious to observe, in this most difficult year of my life, the patterns that emerge — strong women’s voices; the healing power of nature, of poetry, and of kindness; the necessity of unselfish love, of friendship, and of solitude; and lots and lots and lots of trees — and how they illuminate the things that help me, and perhaps you, survive. Thrive, even.

Enjoy, and may we face the coming year with the steady serenity of a tree — that supreme lover of light, always reaching both higher and deeper, rooted in a network of kinship and ringed by a more patient view of time.

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The More Loving One: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads W.H. Auden’s Sublime Ode to Our Unrequited Love for the Universe

Read/hear it here.

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13 Life-Learnings from 13 Years of Brain Pickings

Read it here.

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The Healing Power of Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Psychological and Physiological Consolations of Nature

Read it here.

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Hannah Arendt on Love and How to Live with the Fundamental Fear of Loss

Read it here.

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Trees at Night: Stunning Rorschach Silhouettes from the 1920s

Read it here.

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I Like You: An Almost Unbearably Lovely Vintage Illustrated Ode to Friendship

Read it here.

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Kahlil Gibran on Silence, Solitude, and the Courage to Know Yourself

Read it here.

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After Silence: Amanda Palmer Reads Neil Gaiman’s Stunning Poem Celebrating Rachel Carson’s Legacy of Culture-Shifting Courage

Read it here.

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Salvation by Words: Iris Murdoch on Language as a Vehicle of Truth and Art as a Force of Resistance to Tyranny

Read it here.

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Rebecca Solnit’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Books Solace, Empower, and Transform Us

Read it here.

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Planting Trees as Resistance and Empowerment: The Remarkable Illustrated Story of Wangari Maathai, the First African Woman to Win the Nobel Peace Prize

Read it here.

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Rachel Carson’s Bittersweet Farewell to the World: Timeless Advice to the Next Generations from the Woman Who Catalyzed the Environmental Movement

Read it here.

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Hermann Hesse on Solitude, the Value of Hardship, the Courage to Be Yourself, and How to Find Your Destiny

Read it here.

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“Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Losing a Friend

Read it here.

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Leo Tolstoy on Kindness and the Measure of Love

Read it here.

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On Children: Poignant Parenting Advice from Kahlil Gibran

Read it here.

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Middle Age and the Art of Self-Renewal: An Extraordinary Letter from Pioneering Education Reformer Elizabeth Peabody

Read it here.

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The Lost Words: An Illustrated Dictionary of Poetic Spells Reclaiming the Language of Nature

Read it here.

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The Fascinating Science of How Trees Communicate, Animated

Read it here.

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Harriet Hosmer on Art and Ambition: The World’s First Successful Woman Sculptor on What It Takes to Be a Great Artist

Read it here.

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Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question

Read it here.

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Year of the Monkey: Patti Smith on Dreams, Loss, Love, and Mending the Broken Realities of Life

Read it here.

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Amanda Palmer Reads “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver

Read/hear it here.

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The Astronomical Art of Maria Clara Eimmart: Stunning 17th-Century Drawings of Comets, Planets, and Moon Phases by a Self-Taught Artist and Astronomer

Read it here.

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You Can’t Have It All

Read it here.

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My Heart: An Emotional Intelligence Primer in the Form of an Uncommonly Tender Illustrated Poem About Our Capacity for Love

Read it here.

BP

An Occasion for Unselfing: Iris Murdoch on Imperfection as Integral to Goodness and How the Beauty of Nature and Art Leavens Our Most Unselfish Impulses

“The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself… to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”

An Occasion for Unselfing: Iris Murdoch on Imperfection as Integral to Goodness and How the Beauty of Nature and Art Leavens Our Most Unselfish Impulses

To recognize that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives is to step outside the self, beyond its particular conceptions of beauty — which includes, of course, moral beauty — and walking beside it with humble, nonjudgmental curiosity about the myriad other selves afoot on their own paths, propelled by their own ideals of the Good.

Such recognition requires what the great moral philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) termed unselfing — a difficult, triumphant act for which, Murdoch argues in her 1970 masterpiece The Sovereignty of Good (public library), nature and art uniquely train us.

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

A century and a half after Emerson observed that “the question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things,” Murdoch defines what we commonly call beauty as “an occasion for ‘unselfing’” — an occasion most readily experienced in our communion with nature and our contemplation of art. She writes:

Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.

Art from Trees at Night, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Oliver Sacks would come to echo the sentiment decades later in his observation that meeting nature on its own terms and timescales broadens our perspective by effecting “a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life.” But this unselfing, Murdoch cautions, cannot arise from a straining of the will, for the will is a clenching of the very self which true beauty deconditions; rather, it comes as a gladsome relaxing of the spirit, of our essential nature, into the shared pulse of existence:

A self-directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. More naturally, as well as more properly, we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1926 edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (Available as a print.)

This “self-forgetful pleasure” calls to mind Jeanette Winterson’s wonderfully paradoxical notion of active surrender as the crucible of our joy in art and the fulcrum for art’s transformative power over the self. But while there is a distinct difference between how nature and art each effect unselfing, Murdoch argues that what separates great art from the bad and the mediocre is precisely this capacity for stripping down the self rather than inflating the ego — a notion evocative of Tolstoy’s insistence that “a real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.” Murdoch writes of this dissolution of the self in the presence of great art:

The experience of art is more easily degraded than the experience of nature. A great deal of art, perhaps most art, actually is self-consoling fantasy, and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer’s consciousness. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of what is great can have its effect. Art, and by “art” from now on I mean good art, not fantasy art, affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent. Both in its genesis and its enjoyment it is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession. It invigorates our best faculties and, to use Platonic language, inspires love in the highest part of the soul. It is able to do this partly by virtue of something which it shares with nature: a perfection of form which invites unpossessive contemplation and resists absorption into the selfish dream life of the consciousness.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse: The Astronomy of Walt Whitman. (Available as a print.)

And yet, Murdoch argues, any real understanding of goodness is necessarily an embrace of imperfection — something philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in many ways Murdoch’s only worthy intellectual heir, would argue brilliantly a generation later in her incisive case for the intelligence of emotions. Murdoch writes:

The concept of Good… is a concept which is not easy to understand partly because it has so many false doubles, jumped-up intermediaries invented by human selfishness to make the difficult task of virtue look easier and more attractive: History, God, Lucifer, Ideas of power, freedom, purpose, reward, even judgment are irrelevant. Mystics of all kinds have usually known this and have attempted by extremities of language to portray the nakedness and aloneness of Good, its absolute for-nothingness. One might say that true morality is a sort of unesoteric mysticism, having its source in an austere and unconsoled love of the Good. When Plato wants to explain Good he uses the image of the sun. The moral pilgrim emerges from the cave and begins to see the real world in the light of the sun, and last of all is able to look at the sun itself.

[…]

We may also speak seriously of ordinary things, people, works of art, as being good, although we are also well aware of their imperfections. Good lives as it were on both sides of the barrier and we can combine the aspiration to complete goodness with a realistic sense of achievement within our limitations.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to the legacy of the Romantics, who married nature and art in their model of happiness and transcendence, Murdoch returns to the notion of unselfing and the beautiful tessellation of possibility and limitation that defines our nature:

The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. “Good is a transcendent reality” means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is. It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.

The Sovereignty of Good is an immensely insightful read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Robinson Jeffers on nature and moral beauty and Oliver Sacks on the healing power of gardens, then revisit Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny, the key to great storytelling, and her uncommonly beautiful love letters.

BP

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