In my latest newsletter: a bouquet of thoughts about spring.
Dandelions and orchids
Here’s a wonderful sign I saw in a front yard while walking my neighborhood. This is exactly how I feel when I’m tossing out seeds at the beginning of a creative project: Are these weeds or are they flowers? I guess we’ll see.
But what is a weed? Emerson, ever a fan of a gardening metaphor, said it was “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
I came across another gardening metaphor just this morning: dandelions and orchids.
This metaphor comes from psychology and has to do with sensitivity in children. The idea is that some children are like dandelions and they can grow in any environment. Other children are like orchids: they need very particular conditions and the right environment to grow and thrive. And a majority of children are like tulips, somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
The metaphor, like all metaphors, has limits, but I find it personally helpful: I’m raising one boy who’s more like a dandelion and one who’s more like an orchid.
Artists tend to be highly sensitive people, and I wonder how many grown artists consider themselves dandelions or orchids.
I feel like a dandelion, myself, which is good and bad. So often, I feel scattered to the winds, content to land wherever, and do my work there. I am easily distracted and can get interested in anything. Chaos can be a very fruitful source of creativity for me.
But there are orchid parts of me that I feel are really beautiful and often neglected — in part because I pride myself on my unfussy dandelion-ness.
I suspect this has some relationship to the specialist/farmer and generalist/hunter tension.
Return of the pansies
My friend Manjula Martin (author of Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living) posted a pansy from her backyard that was so good I had to resurrect my dormant Pansy Luchadores project!
I’m become a little bit of a pansy nut and have taken to collecting (saving images to my hard drive) artwork featuring the flowers. I recently came across this wonderful painting by Tateishi Tetsuomi, who was described this way in a documentary synopsis:
Tateishi Tetsuomi was born in Taiwan in 1905. He returned to his birthplace to find painting subjects and then he had been attracted by the landscape and local cultures of Taiwan. During his stay in Taiwan, he made oil paints, illustrations and wood engravings for the magazine Minzoku Taiwan (Taiwanese Folklore).
He was regarded as a promising painter, but his achievements were to be forgotten when he was repatriated to Japan at the end of WWII and lost most of his paintings. He earned a living as an illustrator for children’s books, but finally achieved unique expressions in his last years.
And our recent neighborhood walks have yielded sights like this, so stay tuned for more:
A reader sent me this amazing find: a special “Poet’s Number” of Vick’s Floral Guide from 1893, which not only contains quotations from famous writers about flowers and gardening, but also this family of “Pansy Sailors” which show up throughout the pages. Certainly, they are ancestors of my Pansy Luchadores!
I can’t find any real explanation for them or any evidence that they were used in other Vick’s guides.
Here’s a little bit about James Vick and his illustrated floral guides:
Vick’s Floral Guide and Catalog, first produced in 1862, proved to be the perfect outlet for his expertise as a printer, writer, publisher and gardener. Filled with charming wood-cut engravings and vivid color plates (by some accounts, Vick was the first to use color illustrations in a U.S. seed catalog), the Floral Guide quickly became the most popular seed catalog of its day. “Vicks Floral Guide came like the first breath of spring, with promise of future bloom,” raves a typical magazine review. “Vicks catalog, like his seeds and plants, is first class. It is finely illustrated, on good paper, and with two beautiful colored plates.”
This particular illustration is mentioned in A Touch of Blossom: John Singer Sargent and the Queer Flora of Fin-de-siècle Art:
Inverts were also called, from at least the 1880s on, “pansies,” “buttercups,” “daisies,” “violets,” “blossoms,” and even more generally, “horticultural lads.” A Vick’s Seeds advertisement from the 1890s conflates the already queer figures of the pansy and the sailor into a suggestive hybrid. The back cover of a seed catalogue, the image depicts two flowery sailors, overseen by their captain, raising anchor. The anchor’s chain for the moment imprisons the blooming asters, but when the “sailor lads so bold and free / Put out again,” the poem at the bottom right assures us, dissemination will occur.
“A pansy is a loaded subject,” wrote John Ashbery in a 1997 retrospective of Joe Brainard’s work, then pointed out the “seed-packet look” of Brainard’s paintings and collages of pansies.
“The world keeps showing me these pictures.”
These two were spotted in Cleveland. (See more: pansy luchadores)
Beautiful things grow out of shit
It’s Juneteenth, our government is willfully tearing children from parents, and I’m thinking of Henry David Thoreau, as I often have since reading Laura Walls’ splendid biography.
Since last October, I’ve taken up the habit of reading a page a day from his journals. It shocked me, at first, how much I enjoyed Thoreau’s company, as I had pegged him as a fussy nature-lover (I consider myself an easygoing indoorsman). He is, in many ways, just that, but so much more.
I find him completely relatable: He’s overeducated, underemployed, loves plants, is upset about politics, and lives with his parents. (Pretty sure I could write a whole sitcom reimagining him as a millennial in contemporary America.)
On my birthday, I turned to the June 16, 1854 entry, and found the raw material for what would become “Slavery in Massachussetts,” a speech he’d give a few weeks later on July 4, standing under a “black-draped, upside down American flag.” Towards the end of the speech, in an echo of his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson (“We do not breath well. There is infamy in the air…[it] robs the landscape of beauty…”), he summarizes his despair:
Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.
But then, he turns back towards nature, to contemplate the water-lily. Here’s Laura Walls:
In an extraordinary final turn, he willed himself toward hope: “But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity.” Pure to the eye, sweet to the scent, yet rooted in “the slime and muck of earth,” the lily became his emblem for “the purity and courage” that may yet—that must yet—be born of “the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity” In offering his audience this American lotus flower, the sacred Buddhist emblem of enlightenment he had found lighting his path of Concord, Thoreau was offering them the core of his own being and belief, and the story of his own redemption.
It reminds me of something Brian Eno says: “Beautiful things grow out of shit.”
Beautiful things grow out of shit. Nobody ever believes that. Everyone thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head—they somehow appeared there and formed in his head—and all he had to do was write them down and they would be manifest to the world. But what I think is so interesting, and would really be a lesson that everybody should learn, is that things come out of nothing. Things evolve out of nothing. You know, the tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest. And then the most promising seed in the wrong situation turns into nothing. I think this would be important for people to understand, because it gives people confidence in their own lives to know that’s how things work.
If you walk around with the idea that there are some people who are so gifted—they have these wonderful things in their head but and you’re not one of them, you’re just sort of a normal person, you could never do anything like that—then you live a different kind of life. You could have another kind of life where you could say, well, I know that things come from nothing very much, start from unpromising beginnings, and I’m an unpromising beginning, and I could start something.
This is an unpromising beginning. What can I start? What seeds can I plant in this muck?
If you’ve watched my newest talk, “How To Keep Going,” you might remember the story about planting iris. These are purple and yellow iris blooming in our backyard, planted by the former owners of our house. Beauty brought to us by people we never even met…