by Eric Miller
Conditions on the ground, if you want the moral of a garden or this excursion right away, are widely discrepant from what they look like from afar. In this respect, naturalists concur with soldiers.
Linnaeus’s Philosophia Botanica, a manual for those with some interest in plant life, tells the eighteenth-century traveller to attend to everything, etiam tritissima, even the tritest, the most well worn, entirely commonplace things. Nowadays we use the word “non-descript” when we want to avoid talking about what is so boring there are no words for it but that adjective. Yet in Linnaeus’s day “non-descript” meant something no one had ever said a word about, in a particular way—a naturalist’s way. Times change but a botanical garden is about philosophy still, it is about discovery don’t you think? Discovery, collection, not to say exclusion are obvious topics once we consent to enter the precincts. How does discovery differ from inventing? Who discovered what? How we discover is naturally a dimension of what we discover. That revelation goes on. We discover meanwhile what we can, there is much we cannot, such is our constitution. Or we discover it, and we forget it. I could not even recount this experience had I not already substantially forgotten it. Obliviousness is the prerequisite of any chronicle. So welcome to Van Dusen Gardens, Vancouver.
Rules for visitors
Do you hear that, too? Could I be right? Yes, it is the voice of a daemon—the Genius of the Place. What could this Spirit be saying?
“Theophrastus of Athens described both men’s characters and plants. He took care to distinguish one project from the other. Unlike Theophrastus, some must coerce a mirror from the unlikeliest materials and neither identify nor honour the disparity but instead insist on their own image and listen to how they fuss. That is not me! they fume. It could not be me! How could it not be me!
“Separate life appalls them. They wrest it like a weed. Now it has a relation to them! What can they approve but variations of their image, what do they rebuke but deviations from it?
“Leave them be. It is one of the more magnanimous resolutions a mortal or an immortal can make. There wink fewer looking glasses in nature than may be supposed, and the physics of the mistake are disappointing. What a fight to pick, with what was never there. What a side to choose, where there was never any but one’s own. Trespass is impossible where, no matter how far or how deep one penetrates, every advance yields only another glimpse of that moral beauty, oneself. From the start one wasn’t there or shouldn’t have been, fortunately all was safe from invasion because invasion lacked any capacity to recognize itself as such. De te fabula is usually neither our experience nor our aim, nor (insofar as I glimpse it) enigmatic nature’s. Even travesty can pledge love but, please take the daintiest of desolations, my pattern omits you wholly and always did. Ransack it all—you have already, haven’t you?—See? You are nowhere: nowhere among my effects. Estrangement may comprise the first principle of kindness. Don’t be so familiar. I am not you. And isn’t it nice not to be the point of reference? Let me admit confidentially that remains one of my happiest aspirations.”
The Spirit has fallen silent. What a privilege that was!—though I cannot say I quite understood the tenor of those puzzling remarks.
Dear reader, thank you for saying all of us can only “weather” bewilderment: a hortulan verb. An instructive aspect of the weather is: it does not apologize. It just gets on, remorseless in a fine way ofttimes. Yet still it is as if organisms should leap to enroll themselves in a field guide, clap themselves between pages, inscribe themselves in the index. How did you get there? You weren’t there till now! No one saw you come in. Are you sure you want to stay? We would even ease their escape out of the record, such is our compassion. This way to the exit! Meanwhile, have you noticed how that thing called righteousness and that other one, called vanity, make unstable compounds?
But is any of this what gardens are for? The true saints of our secular dispensation know when to ignore their fellows, some styles of indifference have become an important branch of charity. In the name of charity therefore let us perpetuate our pause beside this first pond here, having been issued a small map I find agreeable. It is an absurd map because Van Dusen Gardens is no great size and yet every garden makes a mockery of size altogether.
This pond might once have been a water hazard for golfers. Presently, though I imagine it has been enlarged since its days as a golf hazard, it is quite eutrophic. Less of the sky reflects from it than our quick scoping of the place concluded. Tepid waterweeds tile the top almost as far as its amoebic, reed-pierced bounding line. To perceive how each almost touches the other, like scales, makes us long for an interval in which the eye, like a water-strider, might scull a short distance without bumping a leaf. If you have peeped over the rim of a robin’s nest and seen the young in it erupting with pale pinfeathers all over their dark-complected nakedness, you will have a surmise of the malaise occasioned by a glimpse of one kind of organismic cluttering. I mean the sentiment of discomfort communicated, as alien as intimate. If I were less polite I might eventually have the urge to utter profanities, a scene of lacustrine crowdedness can jangle.
Looking at this water hazard now so thickly sown with discs of leaves here and there flaring into colour we recall how in some moods every flower painting disappoints us, why even a painter we knew and admired, Paraskeva Clark, she painted flowers sometimes and I can recoil from those paintings, as though a person pressed a bouquet on me for which I have no place, whereas paintings of trees never trouble me in quite that way. No one asks me to position a tree somewhere in my private habitation as a sign that I acknowledge my donor’s thoughtfulness where there is no making room for it. The defect could have to do with the formal imitability of flowers—a flimsy, enamelled, nestling-like gape into space anyone can sketch though not necessarily well. Expectation insists we find them beautiful and this moralism irks me, thank you for bringing flowers we sometimes, not always lie. The invalid, for example, howls inwardly, close beset by the flaccidity of decapitated plants which manifest keen halitosis of a floral sort. Even here we make an effort to ah and to ooh, easy since we are out of doors where everything flops and breathes freer, and no one, moreover, has beheaded these blossoms for us out of duty, duplicity or real personal attachment. They grow in place, we can really see them again, etiam tritissimos, easy enough and observe their affinity with stars none of which is visible. But the moon, a damaged disc like a floating leaf, part sunk in the morning empyrean the way some of the pooled oval foliation lists in the old water hazard, reminds us, cloud-like though it hovers, how flowers, uncropped, engross vacuity far beyond their veridical tips. Their platform, radial, or their flute or cup is bottomless not in itself but in its orientation toward nothingness of which, from their perspective, we are part, emptily inhaling. Then their reality does not throttle, their aroma is diffused by the wiles of the wind, and only imitations of them bother us. Pictures in a field guide never have a malign effect, it is only the aspiration of fine art that stifles like a cloak of algae now and then. As for a herbarium, an album of pressed plants, now that is honestly fit, like hoarded wisps clipped from their loved body, for longer-enduring revery.
The contrivers of Van Dusen Gardens have trawled the wide world of wetlands to plant this water hazard with soused blossoms and I don’t know about you, it is partly the lack of a canopy over the pond, its terrible openness to the pounding August morning sky, I want to see other plants less drenched. My thought can bounce from the surface sure enough, but I would prefer to do so with cloud cover overhead to catch it. Overcast would entirely alter the aspect of this aquatic showpiece. After all nothing exists apart from the weather, weather makes more than half of everything, the science of the psyche so called should employ isobars, anemometers and the like and gauge, painterly, the degree of umbration and sub-umbration, and all the subs below that under-colour of shadowing which so often points up perplexing lustre. Where did that light come from? Darkness is built by flowers a part of their structure, a degree of darkness, more of it, please and thank you, that’s a bouquet: for the rest, I am beginning to dislike the way in which we are expected to meditate in a particular fashion as we confront this pool. I don’t like a designer to anticipate and so to bully us. Now, in fact, this busy ex-water hazard reminds me of a schoolfriend’s father’s ping-pong table diorama of a hedgerow-obstructed battlefield on which he, the father, had fought and, whatever it meant to him, won. The enemy pinned down his friends and slew them all in their vehicles lumbering on lanes narrow as those between Van Dusen’s water-hazardous leaves. What in his privacy did the father do with this diorama, sunk as it was in a basement smelling as off as flowers too long dipped in a vase of unfresh water? Did he rescue his friends from artillery no bigger than twigs he so carefully aimed at them from recreated emplacements? We thoughtless boys, we shifted things, transposing where we would entire trees, no larger each of them than lacy carrot tufts in an August garden, we did not shift the hedges for they were glued in situ.
We come round into the midst of a lawn that seems, just before we happened upon it, like a person to have lain down and thus lengthened and, as a result, lowered, widened its outstretched but unstrained curves. The whole system of dips and swellings might all at once, but unwitnessed by us, have undergone re-assortment—redistribution—and we deal, on approach, with discovering an abrupt assumption of languor and savoury foreshortening of a long savannah, and here clusters a grove exclusively of beech trees, their shadow ever more densely scented with what could be wet and wetter clover. Inept noses that we are, we call clover-y what tingles stalled halfway to honey, stopped between sweetish leaf and strong nectary. It is a garden of beech trees.
Who does not, wholly helpless, accede to a beech tree’s nobility? We cannot be cynics in this vicinity, quality exists. It is our misfortune to see beyond it immediately. Yet, if we possess a sensorium apt to admit the arête of a beech tree, and we do, then in us, no matter what, there must also echo (dactylic, anapestic) a beech-like trait while we whisper a favoured name, the sky (exiling us, with the assistance of time, from our old love) enriched by a very dignified tegmen of gracious ellipses, namely dark leaves. Everyone knows the height of a tree may exceed the height of heaven. Everyone knows we are at times more to others than to ourselves. Everyone knows we like to go out on the swinging bough and tarry where its tufted fragrance shakes, forks and threatens (for the welcome is writhing) to cast us like seed.
Passenger Pigeons in their billions once dined upon beechnuts. With them, their fat appetite is extinct. Why mention a defunct bird such as that one in British Columbia? There are few records of these creatures even flying west of the Rockies—none at all for the neighbourhood of Vancouver, or for Vancouver Island either. I have written a scene of a Passenger Pigeon hunt myself, it happens in what is now Quebec, a local grandee named Monsieur Darcy Empée de Sebcy imprisons a bateauman who opposes the slaughter but this I will save for another time. There are no pigeons today in Van Dusen Gardens, none that I hear and none that I see.
But there is one beech tree in my neighbourhood, not in Van Dusen Gardens, of which I am fond. I watch it pretty much day by day. It is not an old tree or a young one. As winter comes on it keeps its formal yellow leaves evenly distributed while it forfeits them there by the banks of a stream. These leaves fall proportionately throughout or across the world of branches of this tree, no more on this side than on that side, or at this height than at that height: it is a case of equilibrium in loss, an ideal old age which of course is an illusion since the tree buds as soon as (or even before) it completes the feat of relinquishment, the finale of symmetric caducity. All the guides call beech leaves serrated or fine-toothed round the edge but this description, since description is one of our themes, sounds too violent, gnawing, for the impression the fringe makes more decorously on me personally. I do not think of cutting or chewing things when I see beech foliage. Quite the contrary each leaf soothes me with a discovery of elegance.
In Van Dusen Gardens all these beech trees of various kinds are planted close to one another as would not happen in the wild whatever that may be, they look happily midway through metamorphosis either in transit toward the wholly dendral or passing from woodenness into the daemon-like before our eyes and enjoying every phase of the change. We traverse times like that when leaving one moment and entering another is a pleasant teetering, an ecstasy commonplace but not trite, much as you see a Spotted Sandpiper, frequenter of forest lakes, pretending imbalance when no disequilibrium chances in truth to upset its stepping off a stone. The beeches have gotten muscular without working or working out, in this they must resemble the gods, and they render the sun for us a delightful gold ball we need not catch, they preoccupy the sun divesting it of just the degree of heat and light we want and the trees share it all with us such is their charitableness. The colour of the smooth tree’s bark, veined here and there like a horse’s neck, is obviously a sort of grey yet it does not seem grey and unfastens greyness of commonplace associations as effectively as ivy fixes its spade-shaped shingles to trunks. The bark’s non-descript colour comes across glamorous and glowing and frankly, in its subtlety, like a sonneteer’s beloved, puts the sun in the shade where, for all we know, that luminary craves to be to get out of its own heat.
Reader, who would not reflect briefly now about how lucky the bushtits and chickadees who flock, not cognizant of their good fortune, secure within this gathering of beeches from all over?
Discovery was a ship captained by George Vancouver that came to the coast of British Columbia in the late eighteenth century. Archibald Menzies, surgeon and botanist—both vocations involve slicing—, has his last name incorporated into the name of the arbutus which bears, even today, the Linnaean binomial, Arbutus menziesii. People millennia-long in the neighbourhood, to apportion them some credit, seem to have been well aware of this tree before the surgeon arrived on their shores. They told stories about it. And, to give Menzies credit, too, his journal records, in respect of the arbutus tree made to eternize his name, no sense of “discovery.” He writes on the second of May 1792, as he reconnoitres the shore woods of our British Columbia, that he found the Oriental Strawberry Tree whose “peculiar smooth bark of a reddish brown colour will at all times attract the notice of the most superficial observers.” Generous of the botanist thus to have associated the bark of a plant with the superficiality of ordinary observation: bark and spectatorship both peel away easily. Nowadays it is the habit to mock a man such as Mr. Menzies for presuming to discover anything, though he makes no vaunt of that kind for he has no idea then the arbutus will be named for him. What he means by non-descript (and the Strawberry Tree so far as he is concerned is not non-descript) means, as I have said already, never described according to a set of protocols, Linnaean prescriptions—philosophical botany, that is the phrase. Discovery amounts to a matter of describing, not a matter of being the first in any absolute sense.
For my part, contemplating Mr. Menzies beside his Strawberry Tree, I discover in myself a mode of seeing not much celebrated. The rules are simple and difficult. Look without resort to measure, look immeasurably in this sheerly renunciatory sense, look with the intensity of curiosity in the absence of curiosity. Let no thought accompany it. The desire is to look much as you might have the desire to lie down on a rock outcropping or to walk over rocks thoughtless as a sandpiper which never takes a thought for the placement of the dots that vary its plumage. A distance from science, a distance from art. What other people try to interpret as your mind is just human lichen, inconclusive. A stain no one would wipe off, it is beneath that response. No justification, no product. Qualities like sun falling in a certain place also qualities like shade falling in a certain place. I know many people think all the time or show every sign of wanting to, but I am far from being such a person. So many strangers and acquaintances want to coerce a virtue or a vice, yet I come up blank. You rise to the top of the water and blow out air and gulp some more and vanish even while, apparently, you remain visible. It is diving while staying in place and diving where there is no depth of water or water at all. Don’t root for significance, it has grown no roots.
This kind of witness if witness is not reducible to evidence and yet it partakes, a little, of discovery. It is not being bored yet it has something in common with boredom, if boredom were interesting. And other people, don’t you find? always want to approve or to disapprove and keep going in that direction once they have started on it but in truth they cannot get the stain out but all the same it has entirely evaporated. What day is it? You might as well answer May second 1792, the day (portentous!) of no or not much judgement. Here is a confrontation with, or a commemoration of the commonplace that does not make it exceptional but does deprive it of commonality. Rhetorically speaking it hoves close to the happy predicament of the example, which at once represents a class supposedly yet does not belong to that same class being raised on the dais of the specimenal. For example every arbutus is a discovery equal to the discovery of the arbutus. I like Mr. Menzies for calling the tree which remembers, at the moment, for some, his name the “Oriental Strawberry Tree” which clearly has nothing to do with him at all, there it is. The orient for him must have been somewhere other than Scotland. He may have meant to say south Europe. Mr. Menzies, otherwise a man of some precision, nevertheless allowed that superficial observers will also like it, the arbutus!
“Strawberry Tree” is simply what the Romans called it because, implausibly to my eye, they thought its fruit looked like strawberries. Or some early Roman did, impaired possibly by poor eyesight. The very word arbutus is related to the fundamental idea of a tree for the Romans, arbor. Thus the arbutus counted, almost, as The Tree, the aboriginal instance, to these ancient people. Mr. Menzies was right that the Canadian arbutus is related to the one in Europe. No Romans, however, transplanted themselves colonially in olden days into Vancouver so far as we know—no more than Passenger Pigeons did, despite their powerful wings. The orient is where the sun rises which means we see it every morning we get up early enough. The occident and the orient are thus the same place and we may behold them tingeing the bark of Mr. Menzies’s Strawberry Tree. This is what it means to be immortalized I guess. Right now it’s still the morning infusing Van Dusen Gardens, though no longer early in the day. As he walked through those coastal woods of 1792, Mr. Menzies came across men’s heads impaled on poles, as well as the Strawberry Tree. Had Mr. Menzies been in Europe at the time, he would have witnessed this very sight there also. Human behaviour is consistent, even when the motives proposed for implanting a head on a pole differ superficially here from those for implanting a head on a pole over there.
The primitive sense of the word fern is feather. That analogy of frond with plume, unlike the case of the fruit of the Strawberry Tree, strikes me as sound. Do you cherish a cult of ferns? I understand why. They abridge the gap between alive and fossilized, momentary and permanent. They make this respiring instant partake of the flint of the sempiternal, and void corruption from the passage between quick and dead. Here a young woman on her knees tends a shaded patch of Van Dusen Gardens, crouching like the ferns that are her spraddled wards. I like to kneel in dirt myself, to forget the necessity ever of cleaning those knees, to track the hazy straying of feelers which animate insensible tracts of skin, to run fingers up the undersides of fern leaves for the stippling spores stored in relievo there—myself, for once practically inoffensive to anything (what a feat!), almost decomposing in place. No, we need not consult or disturb our Van Dusen fern-gardener, there are labels stuck on stems into the earth: Sword Fern, Deer Fern, Maidenhair Fern. The genus Maidenhair is Adiantum which translates, for the fern repels rain and dew, as, in so many words, a thing resistant to soaking; whereas the French call it capillaire, as fine as hairs are. Thanks to Archibald Menzies, 1792 is our year, we remove from Vancouver now once again to the Saint Lawrence River where we visit with Miss Sone (you have heard of her before) and Elizabeth Simcoe and a notable man of Lower Canada, we stand amid ferns therefore both in fact and in story.
The known powers of Nature
—Here all is adapted to the person who likes to circumscribe himself says the Chevalier de Lorimier handing Elizabeth and then Miss Sone over a gush that gushes on all sides of the bouldery islet in dainty bifurcation that, re-weaving soon, sluices into the Saint Lawrence. I call this island “Sans Souci” (he explains), and I have hazarded in my time a Flora restricted to precisely this small tract.
—Sans Souci is almost sans everything remarks Miss Sone.
—But observe that I have contrived a staircase here, of the living rock. When you sit here you may command Sans Souci, or it will command you.
The Chevalier carries a herbarium, and settles on a shelf of rock. One of his legs looks less pliant than the other. Miss Sone and Elizabeth follow him, and at their feet, saluting every direction with an isoscelar frond, pleases them the careless crispness of fern. Ferns equal in their reality all the elegance that Anticipation vaguely imputes to them. In sisterly duplication of gesture the women coax from introspective silk the ribbons that secure their albums. They share today a box of paints, and their diluting water they have drawn from the water that frames Sans Souci in gilt ripples. They hold their brushes straight upright a moment; the bud-shaped bristles at the tip of each brush stand an instant as candles. Then the women ignore each other, tip their brushes down, dip them and drop their eyes into the ferns. It is a real plunge.
—Capillaire says the Chevalier, it is a fern they call Capillus Veneris. He touches his wig and says, The locks of Venus.
—Why? asks Miss Sone attempting to pull her eyes from the clumped pinnae of the plant beneath her but she is trammelled. They are thinner than paper, looking through them is the piercing of veils, but these veils in turn convulse around what has pierced them, and pierce and hold and beguile even elaborate, the whole length of extended looking.
—The stems clarifies the Chevalier. Look they are like ebon strands of hair.
—They are like ebon strands of hair repeats Miss Sone separating some in her gaze with the labour of one who untwines another’s hair.
It is not the stems that stop Miss Sone’s eyes. It is the lobes some of which trail from damp rock into water. These delirious hems touch but do not admit the element. Why does a hem she begins to wonder—.
The Chevalier who respects the health and the innocence of Botany says, It is the genus Adiantum, it means “unwetted.” It never can get wet.
Being wet it is not wetted thinks Elizabeth regarding the tip of her brush, the saturated hairs. Looking down at the maidenhair fern she forgets herself, and considers impermeability. Inviolability.
—How? asks Miss Sone, How does this fern stay dry?
—It repels as well as quaffs water explains the Chevalier: it is a property of the plant, I imagine an exudation, it rebuffs yet it swills. The known powers of Nature may be reduced to two primitive forces, let us call them attraction and repulsion.
Baptism thinks Elizabeth: we would think ourselves saturated would we not. To what degree are we by our experience saturated? Maidenhair maidenly established on the bedrock that shows forth the centre on the surface, beside the living waters. Deciduous? she wonders, thinkers have. Maiden now, maiden always, children pass through us as though we were a footpath, swell and subsidency. The watercolour glows with the self-possessed, with the maidenhair fern. Our experience is naïve, it thinks itself experienced. We are untouched. We drown, and have never once touched water. Naiad-like, among the fern wings she spies nymphal forms, triumphal forms. Her eyes twist in among them swimming, she does tire and would like to bring her eyes to rest at the bank. The plant drinks of the source, and has not entertained it. A naiad—and this “Sans Souci” a Nymphaeum.
Miss Sone touches the Chevalier’s knee, his leg is a little extended.
—Almost amputated says the Chevalier reaching down from his eminence to wrest between a sharp thumbnail and an index a lobe bright of capillaire. The chirurgeon said, “Amputate” and I said, “No, kindly, Monsieur”. Doctors, I do not trust them. It was in the assault at Bennington I was wounded and I would rather take the wound with me than leave it somewhere to rot, don’t you concur in the wisdom of this? We must rot altogether not piecemeal. I am all myself still and like the fern I am proof against what at the same time slakes my thirst: this penetrative circulatory life. There is a way, young woman, of taking your losses with you, they are lost but yet not. A wound can be a gift.
—It is new at least says Lady Simcoe.
—Yes losses are renovations of a kind agrees the Chevalier. Damage is a fresh guise of youth in age, attrition the domain of Hebe when one considers it from an inward rather than outward vantage. Decay too is growth. Where I decay another gains: and I am arguably that gainer. That is how erosion works. As for me, to speak of my fate, I have been in my own manner a nympholept. Louise my spouse and accidents have captivated me and behold the sanctuary they merit, Sans Souci. You have taken your pictures here as I my leaf: but this theft is enrichment, here it is richer always as I am persuaded I too am.
—We are says Miss Sone.
The Chevalier slaps his leg. Just try to take it away from me!
The water lifts its skirts and preserves its curves, Rococo Kindly Ones. The Chevalier raises his lobe and casts it: Fontana numina! Return to yourself as you always were. Guard me goddesses. All to the good.
Elizabeth blushes and asks the blush Why? Poor lame man. I do not quite like him.
To bless in French is to break reflects Miss Sone: but we are blessèd and can bless. The fern softly breaks and parts to let her go, as a woman a farewell diminishing man she has observed it. We diminish to go but we enlarge elsewhere, where we arrive. Such are the laws of perspective. They depart Sans Souci and their care, which they resume on the other shore, they portage, Watteau, water. Wiser? A canoe is sveltely shaped nothing. Sleek is it a wound in the air imposed, on the water: a wound is empty, and of that cave has the Chevalier fashioned a chapel. Like children they pass on the footpath through the diminishing forest. What happened never, keeps happening. Is that hope? It springs, as strong as hope. This shared trait Resilience, brings the Unknown at least that degree of affinity with Hope that defines a genus perhaps. It is not hope thinks Miss Sone, something else. She dilates hopefully. Confusion of categories? She smiles into un-mirroring trees.
I like, I dislike thinks Lady Simcoe.
A Gallery of Worthies
Dear reader, we would have had no reason to mention Linnaeus or Archibald Menzies, either, if we did not come across, right in the midst of Van Dusen Gardens, several severed heads. Yes, they are busts of bronze set upon plinths. Here is Linnaeus, and here is Mr. Menzies. Hello, gentlemen. The founders of this botanical garden thought to commemorate their elective ancestors, and so, you see, they put us in mind of those dead men whose mere heads stand about the height of our chests. Behold truncated an old-fashioned Gallery of Worthies.
It is a clever move isn’t it?—to pre-empt beheading by an artful decapitation? These eminences, Linnaeus and Mr. Menzies, have anticipated history’s summum supplicium, its supreme punishment, by smiling here, happy severed heads. It is true that those who here in Vancouver collected these venerable smithied heads did so from admiration, from some degree of devotion. Because the botanists have lost their heads they keep them, so far so good, to this day. Like us, despicable reader (yes, I do mean you), Mr. Menzies and Linnaeus were awful people. Awful! Careerist Linnaeus, to take one example, exaggerated grossly his youthful travels. He wanted more grant money, the Uppsala Science Society paid him by the mile. Do we honestly weigh that against the small—the flower-sized—delight in herborizing he propagated, passing it on like an amaranthine bouquet? There visit us as many moods, after all, during which we like every flower painting as moods during which we despise them and express distaste. Whereas Mr. Menzies was only wicked to the extent that his epoch was, considerable you may say as (forgive me for saying so) wickedly you plot your life and course of honours. Eventually we begin, rapt by a dissident spirit, to recall how inwardly none of us feels as we are represented (no human field guide quite makes the grade) and how pleasure, near non-descript and innocent as even the suspicious call it, is the medium, more than air or water or fire or earth in itself, in which we live and thrive.
So there on those moulded lips (the sculptor is okay) is the smile of some kind of reason, it gleams as real as sunshine too. True those dead men’s heads were crammed with nonsense in the very ratio with which ours, assuredly, are not! We are free of pseudodoxia. But, being consistent through and through, a statue is more blameless than its model, always. Enlightenment passes but recurs, we must not make out that things were—or are—worse or better than the brazen world in which plants, botanists and statues are smelted. Confess, confess! Did you ever truly deserve in your life a beech tree or an arbutus? Did you? I won’t say a word.
But look over there. Hardly a breeze and a palmetto, two or three times your height or mine, shakes its finely differentiated fronds as though in great agitation. Quite the development on the shade-seeking fern! Such a thing, once stirred in this manner, seems the fervent oracle of irrelevant fear, some other dimension’s. The spectacle, less bouquet or tree than inordinate rattle, an almost bony plant, makes me drowsy. Sleep and death are brothers they say. Thank goodness we may rest in peace yet remain alive, we can fulfil the wishes of epitaphs to the letter and keep on breathing. 1792 is a good year isn’t it? Did you seem to see Linnaeus nod? He was dead already by 1792, then Mr. Menzies, does he nod on his plinth or is that the shadow of a bird in passage bestowing fleet semblance of reason on a mineral smile? The expression is ours, there is no Mr. Menzies here. “Ring-composition” has a pleasant sound. You want a moral, the moral of a garden or of a battlefield? Conditions on the ground are widely discrepant from what they look like from afar.
The painting of arbutus trees is by the great Emily Carr, care of artnet.com. If you like the fragment of fiction embedded in this piece, more is forthcoming from The Dalhousie Review.