On freezing winter days I visit my local green house and read. I take off my shoes and warm my feet on the hot pipes, disappear into the green and watch life explode around me.
When I was a kid I was obsessed with Botany, and it is this obsession that seems to have resurfaced in my recent reads. Whatever grows out of these pages make me rush to fill my life with greenery – until even my clothes are dappled with prints of leaves and fronds.
So to fuel my botanical mania, here is my picks of the best books about those lovely things that grow.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert, the patron saint of the self-help memoir, astounded me with this vast novel that spans generations and decades.
Alma, a woman born in 1800 is not one you would expect to become a scientist, but a scientist she became, through means of wealth and class. She first finds herself focusing on Botany, as her father did, then narrows her study to mosses, and studies moss for twenty five years. Alma articulates that there are a variety of times – human time, cosmological time, divine time, geological time, moss time. Science and creation take time, plants need care and the study of them brings wonder and deep understanding.
“Alma loved botany, more by the day. It was not so much the beauty of plants that compelled her as their magical orderliness. Alma was a girl possessed by soaring enthusiasm for systems, sequence, pigeonholing, and indexes; botany provided ample opportunity to indulge in all these pleasures. She appreciated how, once you had put a plant into the correct taxonomical order, it stayed in order. There were serious mathematical rules inherent in the symmetry of plants, too, and Alma found serenity and reverence in these rules. In every species, for instance, there is a fixed ratio between the teeth of the calyx and the divisions of the corolla, and that ratio never changes. One could set one’s clock to it. It was an abiding, comforting, unfaltering law.”
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
I wrote about this lovely one (and my little kid obsession with botany) for the Undone Journal book club. Read it here.
“No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor — to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. The tiny rootlet has only once chance to guess what the future years, decades — even centuries — will bring to the patch of soil where it sits. It assesses the light and humidity of the moment, refers to its programming, and quite literally takes the plunge.”
Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend
The story of a spinster cum spy and how her life is shaped through her life in the Galápagos Islands. The struggle to tame nature, not only of plants but of people too.
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf
The cover of this book is one of the most beautiful ones I have ever encountered (and I have encountered an almost uncountable number). It is the resurrection via words of the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who shaped the natural world as we know it, but everyone seems to have forgotten.
A mountain range in New Zealand’s South Island is even named after him – if you’re ever in Queenstown, go for a visit.
“Humboldt ‘read’ plants as others did books – and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movements of civilizations as well as of landmass. No one had ever approached botany in this way.”
Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson
I have a complicated relationship with religion (don’t we all), but at times I find myself overwhelmed by the beauty and detail of nature and can’t help but know that there is a god – a divine creator. If God is in the seeds and the stars, then the world is my church
“In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair.Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God… I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”
The Poetry of William Wordsworth
Willy first entered my life at high school, and his musings on nature have stayed with me ever since. His poem ‘Nutting’ disturbed the sixteen year old me and ever since I have considered myself an environmentalist.
I think of Wordsworth as I seek out the countryside of my childhood whenever I tire of the city and the “dreary intercourse of daily life”.