The Language of Flowers

 When it comes to flowers, the world has pictures aplenty: calendars, seed catalogues, seed and bulb packages, entire websites devoted to flowers, Facebook pages, artists’ canvasses, greeting cards, bookmarks, art galleries, t-shirts and sweat shirts, dresses, even jewelry—everyone who has ever had a camera in hand has taken pictures of flowers.

In preparation for a recent PowerPoint presentation, I went to the internet for garden photos and was promptly overwhelmed. I should have anticipated that: I have never walked through a public garden or conservatory without seeing at least one dedicated photographer equipped with tripod and several lenses.

Photo of outdoor gardens in Winnipeg, with a photographer about to take a picture.

 As anyone who has read this blog knows, I also carry my camera into gardens, and assiduously grow my own flowers.

Who would not want to appreciate the abundant gift of the Creator, whether or not we understand the complex roles that flowers play in all the divergent ecologies on Earth?

 What astounds me most of all, though, is the sheer, undisciplined abundance of wild flowers, many growing where human feet rarely tread, some in climates so harsh that some never grow taller than an inch or two, and flowers are measured in millimeters. While I can admire a dinner-plate dahlia or tea rose with all the awe it demands, my deepest respect is given to tiny wild flowers, such as moss campion and Western spring beauty, both native to the higher altitudes of the Rocky Mountains, and requiring a better camera than what I have.

Yes, the Rockies again. Get used to it. I haven’t spent over 40 summer holidays camping and hiking in the Rockies without having been forever changed by the thin air and the thin places where the soul is called beyond itself into worship.

Early in that history of following trails in the national and provincial parks, I wanted to call the wild flowers by name. I bought books on Rocky Mountain flowers, and for decades now, I’ve been teaching myself their names (their common ones, that is, not the Latin ones), trying to distinguish different varieties of the same flower, practicing my identification skills for the benefit of family members.

 It would be appropriate here to insert some photos of those various flowers who have become my friends. As it happens, even the close-up photos that succeeded often leave the individual flowers looking bereft, even uninteresting, as if color has been leached out or the background badly chosen.

The more time I spent this week browsing through my photo folders, the more dissatisfied with my efforts I became, until I realized I was missing the most important point here: flowers, like people, like animals, like birds, belong somewhere. None lives alone. If hiking the backwoods trails can teach us anything, and if reading the now ubiquitous articles on climate change can likewise teach us anything, it is that habitat is everything.

Just as who I am and how I present myself depends on where I am and with whom I keep company and how I live, so flowers are themselves in their habitat, which they share with other flowers and grasses and birds and animals. I had not understood the subconscious knowing that informed my better flower photos: flowers are loveliest and most themselves in the company of of other flowers, of stones and grasses and fallen trees and running water.

Herewith some of my favourite flower photos taken on mountain trails:

Lady’s Slipper, with bunchberry plants around them and possibly a false Solomon’s seal.
Lance-leaved stonecrop, a gorgeous bright yellow, here keeping company with purple asters, not yet opened, and white mountain avens.
Yellow arnica, rose-red Indian paintbrush, purple self-heal, and a whitish yellow flower at the top left that I haven’t been able to identify.
Sometimes I think I should have chosen this photo of wild strawberries for my home page: stones, flowers, and the promise of deliciousness.

 The language of flowers is spoken through color and texture. It is always brief, spoken on the wind, as it were, since no flower remains in bloom for long. Yet their brief presence echoes off rocks, reverberates in moss, accompanies the slow and fruitful rot of logs, remains in the tangled roots of the fallen trees. What solo parts they might be offered here and there, perhaps in a single spot of sunlight in the forest, are still performed in a theater created by other living things, not least of which is the deep, dark soil that other flowers, shrubs, and trees have died to create.

We who have been chosen to speak more articulate, distinctive languages, which carry heavy responsibilities—“words are for those with promises to keep” (W.H. Auden)—could benefit from spending more time with the seemingly silent whisperers of color. Gentleness and beauty in the midst of harsh winds, rhythms of life and death, laughter of resurrections from the humus of the earth: who would not feel comfort and gain courage from those?  

and I think of each life as a flower, as common / as a field daisy, and as singular, / and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, / tending, as all music does, toward silence, / and each body a lion of courage, and something / precious to the earth.

Mary Oliver “When death comes

The Company of My Book Friends

First written in 2017, shortly after the SK government budget of April 2017, in which library funds were severely cut and then restored in the face of considerable protest.

In the midst of the recent brouhaha concerning provincial funding for libraries, I visited the Frances Morrison Library in downtown Saskatoon to return a video, ordinarily a routine errand. Now it felt like a pilgrimage – and a privilege. In memory of my long history with this library, I chose to linger.

I was just a pre-teen farm girl when my mother first bought me a big-city library card that changed my life. Each week I climbed the huge stone staircase, pulled open the heavy old doors, then hurried up the stairs to the children’s department on the second floor.

Image A-1175 courtesy of Saskatoon Public Library – Local History
Exterior front view of the Saskatoon Public Library building on 23rd St, opposite City Hall, circa 1945-55. A wide staircase, sheltered by white portico and pillars, formally welcomed passersby into the building which served Saskatonians as their “main library” from 1928-1965.

 There, waiting for me, was my sanctuary. Near the back of the room was a story corner: small benches, low book shelves filled with picture books and occasional stuffed animals, a box of alphabet blocks, large windows overlooking the alley (not lovely, but abundant natural lighting warmed the whole room). I didn’t care that I was too big for the benches. It was a secluded corner. While my parents did their shopping and other errands, I could read undisturbed for hours.    

No teasing schoolmates here to mock me. No one to summon me to tedious chores or rebuke me for some failure of duty. It was the safest place I knew. I could slip into other worlds, keep company with animals, make friends with book children from other cultures. I could be someone else entirely—until heavy bongs from the City Hall clock announced the end of my freedom. Still, I could take an armload of books with me to devour (along with delicious popcorn) on a Sunday afternoon or to read secretly when I should have been doing homework.

 Eventually, I promoted myself to the young adult section on the main floor. I loved that front room, with its tall windows, big chairs, and elegant wooden shelves. Love, death, jobs, art, beauty, travel, friendships—teenage protagonists guided me through it all. On days when I felt truly daring, I wandered into the adult stacks, and discovered Thomas Hardy (I could wallow in bleakness without having to own it), shelves full of photography books that showed me the art of seeing, and sex education books I’d never have found in our small school library.

In the midst of the often lonely unhappiness of my teen years, that blessed, beautiful library offered me an escape, where I could make friends with books and learn to love their authors.  This was an egalitarian world without snobbishness or bullying. Ignorance and naiveté mattered nothing because I could choose what and how much information to absorb.

By the time I became a wife and then a mother, the venerable old brick building had been replaced by the current Frances Morrison Library, where I regularly took our three sons for story time in Pooh Corner, using my brief time off from mothering to browse the shelves for as many books as our four library cards would permit us to sign out. By now, I knew also that librarians are as essential as books—we had many happy conversations about favorite books and special reading places.  

Before those years, though, the Murray Library at the U of S had become another sanctuary; it still is that. So many long hours I spent in the small one-person carrels in the literature section. Just being near the long stacks of books was comforting. In the light of the slanting winter sun, I wrote love letters to my absent boyfriend, overwrought emotional diary entries, compulsory essays (and personal ones), and I read novels, poetry, philosophy, history. It’s not a surprise that my automatic response to seasons of despondency is to seek the company of my book friends.

 And I have had the pleasure of building my own library, beginning with two 6-foot planks held up by bricks, in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, back in my undergraduate days. How I envied my professors with their elegant, book-stuffed offices. Thanks to second-hand book stores and sales, those two shelves and a few bricks have given way to expansive bookcases in almost every room of our house. In whatever bedroom I have ever slept, I wanted a book case nearby; failing that, I kept my current reading on the floor beside the bed.

One of our spare bedrooms, properly equipped with books. Note the hardcover Harry Potter books on the top shelf!

When I returned to the university to earn another degree and then to teach, whatever cubbyhole I was granted for an office quickly became my home by virtue of the books I gathered around me. Publishers supply free textbooks, and conferences have book tables, with discounts. Eventually, in a real office in St. Thomas More College, I was surrounded by books that I had long loved, that I hoped to read, that I bought at sales to give away to students.

 On that day in the Frances Morrison library, as I sat in the sun, remembering, I overheard a heart-warming conversation. A patient librarian was helping an elderly gentleman, on his iPod, showing him how to borrow e-books, learn about library events, and search the Internet safely. She listened to his stories and smiled at his jests.

I was reassured to know that libraries are still a safe place in which to learn, to escape, to enter other worlds, and to know oneself as part of the company of friends: people friends and book friends.           

A COVID-19 postscript:  The libraries are all closed now. Who would have imagined that to be possible? Wryly I recall my annoyance, back in my teaching days, at the observation of a Chief Financial Officer puzzling over why professors should want books in their office: “Everything useful is online now anyway. All that’s needed is a laptop and internet access.” Indeed. Now that’s all we have, unless we have built our own libraries in our homes. The comfort of a well-loved book in hand has become more precious than ever.

What remains accessible, provided we diligently wash our hands at the first opportunity, are all the little libraries that have appeared in residential streets all over Saskatoon, or at least in the areas in which I walk and cycle. Their cheerful painted exteriors and marvelously random contents signal literal Adventures in Reading, as language arts textbooks in the 1950s were titled. My heartfelt thanks to every home owner who has set up such an invitation to make some new book friends. If you’re lucky, you might get to chat with – at a safe distance – either the proprietor or someone else eager for something to read.

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

Cicero

The Language of Stones

Had I been told, when I was a child, that I would someday talk about stones as if they were alive enough to “call to me,” I would have giggled in embarrassment. “That’s just stupid. Rocks are dead.” 

Although my father and older brothers did mutter resentfully that every spring, the land seemed to have “grown” more stones. Exempt from the hard labor of picking stones, by virtue of my age and my sex, I only knew the stones, piled in heaps alongside barbed-wire fences, as wonderfully climbable. Sometimes, at their base, I found wild strawberries, unmatched in taste by anything ever purchased since.

My indifference to stones disappeared when I had my first road trip that I can remember through the Rocky Mountains. True enough, at that time I made no connection between that majesty and the stones we cursed on the farm. From then on, when I heard the biblical phrase “God is our rock and our salvation,” I imagined the heights and austere beauty of the Rockies along the highways that we traveled on the way to Vancouver.

Stanley Glacier, near the highway to Radium, BC

 In the summer of 1968, I moved to Jasper, Alberta, in search of tuition money for the next year of university and maybe some adventure.  And I fell in love.

white fabric background, and the goldstone pendant necklace

With previously unknown gemstones. Such a gift that was, my first gemstone necklace, given to me by my best friend and roommate who worked in a gemstone shop. That delicate goldstone star charmed me, all the more when I learned that goldstone is relatively soft, difficult to work with. Now, more than 50 years later, that goldstone star has lost none of its inner golden glints. Its shape is still perfect. I am still in awe.

 My fervent love of hiking in the Rockies was born that summer as well. Every possible day off, every spare hour or three, was spent on the trails near the townsite. If I had access to a bicycle or a car, the hiking was more extensive. The mountains claimed my heart and soul; in them, I could breathe and feel the presence of the Divine without any strings attached—no guilt, no struggle to achieve perfection, no intense shaping of words into prayers. I just was. Small and insignificant, yes, but caught up in beauty without a name or creed.

 Just when and how that beingness attached itself to actual rocks that I could hold in my hand, I don’t know. The love of mountain hiking was soon shared with the man whom I would wed and raise children with. He and I sat together by the side of the Athabasca River, picking up rocks out of the water, drawn wordlessly to the mysterious inwardness of that which was supposed to be inanimate.

The bank of the swift Athabasca River, framed by spruce trees - focus on the rocks, polished by the water.

We began collecting, one by one, special rocks from beloved trails and favorite campsites. I began speaking of rocks as if they had individuality, as if there was a spiritual connection between me and them.

On our first visit to Wanuskewin, a First Nations park just outside of Saskatoon, we heard the indigenous narrator of the introductory video speak reverently of the ancient rocks, seemingly rooted in the prairie, as “grandfathers.” She gave words to a vague feeling I had never been able to name and could scarcely acknowledge. Stones are part of the created world, a necessary part of the ecology, descendants of great glacial movements. They matter. They embody ancientness. They speak.

 Stones also need a habitat; they need plants, and plants want the company of stones. The breakdown of rocks into smaller and smaller bits eventually makes sand, and the energy of plants growing and decaying widens cracks among the rocks and makes humus. Together they make more beauty, a beauty that breathes and multiplies, cell by cell.

We began a rock garden in our front yard, and indoors, I placed small, favorite stones next to my houseplants to keep them company. Stones and flowers: the hard and the delicate, the impermeable and the fragile.

For decades, we have gathered rocks, never many from any place. On the shores of Lake Superior, we found green and pink-speckled stones, yielding a multi-colored sand. Their belongingness near the vast waters that curved out beyond the horizon was not immediately clear to me, not until I attempted to place a few into the dry creek bed we’d created in our front yard. Lovely as they were, they didn’t belong. I had not known that stones know their place, whether they are large or small.

 Two years ago, on the Labor Day weekend, we visited Grasslands National Park, and in the everlasting wind, we walked the trails through virgin prairie, inhabited by herds of bison, veritable congregations of prairie dogs, noisy insects.

A prairie hillside with many rocks of all sizes and gorgeous yellow-flowered shrubs.

This was a harsh landscape, which, despite my initial resistance, called to my prairie-born soul. There were stones everywhere, often covered with lichen, adding color to a minimalist landscape. As usual, my eyes noted particular stones, yet something stayed my hand. These ancient stones belonged; they did not “call” to me as I had thought other stones did. They invited me, instead, to be there, with them.

Four small stones, all very different, placed on a white cloth background.

When I did finally select four small stones, I did so on my knees, grateful to the grandfather stones who were willing to let me carry their little ones in my hands, so that I could sense their eternity. They lack a place now, except in my heart and in a photo, as a work of art.

Creativity, a knowledge of place, a listening to the inner heart of things–all these are gifts to us from the Creator. A necklace and some photos, Lord – I am grateful.