How strange. She only meant to open the shutters and greet the morning light, touch the flowers and plants with her fingers, and all these thoughts rushed in. They always did, it seemed. Like mirrors of her soul the things of her garden reflected what grew within her and triggered thoughts profuse as petals. How strange. How wonderful.
—Murray Bodo from Clare: A Light in the Garden
Five packets of seeds sit on my desk, waiting their turn in the gray spring light coming through the window. One envelope contains the potential for the sturdy, hardy nutrition of Red Russian Kale. The next is slightly less practical, but no less delicious: Bouquet Dill, whose feathery arms and golden crowns will eventually tower over the other herbs, whispering a blessing in the summer breeze. But at this point in the collection, we begin to suspect that the gardener is succumbing to horticultural madness: nasturtium, poppies, and amaranth, beautiful enough in their photos, promise a coming riot of color in the summer garden. With a precious, finite amount of time and resources, why go to the trouble of planting such flowers from seed, and distracting care and nourishment from the more prosaic potatoes and pumpkins?
For one thing, if you ask the birds and bees and butterflies, they might order the necessity of these seed packets differently, and that’s a wonderful thing indeed. My tomatoes are going to need those pollinators and it’s the least I can do to give them a lovely, sweet bloom on the side as an expression of thanks. But even if there weren’t a practical reason to plant flowers among the vegetables, the seemingly impractical reason is just as good: we humans need beauty. We were made for more than bare necessity—out of love, for love, with marvelously permeable boundaries between our inner lives and the material world in which we live. Beauty helps open up the pathways.
In the late nineteenth century, after losing her first baby and then her husband shortly after, Mrs. William Starr Dana sought to soothe her grief by renewing her childhood interest in plants. In 1893, she published How to Know the Wild Flowers, which was one of the first books cataloguing the subject. The final sentences of her introduction underscore the unknowable ways that extravagant beauty can work in us:
At our very feet lie wonders for whose elucidation a lifetime would be far too short. Yet if we study for ourselves the mysteries of the flowers, and, when daunted, seek their interpretation in those devoted students who have made this task part of their life-work, we may hope finally to attain at least a partial insight into those charmed lives which find “—tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
It doesn’t matter whether we are amateur observers or professional scientists; what’s important is that we pay attention and expect to be amazed, by flowers and fauns, by rocks and trees, skies and seas. And if we are so inclined, it doesn’t hurt to put a bit of time and effort into creating something beautiful, whose only purpose is to delight the beholder and offer our gratitude back to a wildly extravagant world.
Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma is a caretaker at GilChrist Retreat Center, where Murray Bodo and Mrs. William Starr Dana sit on the shelves of the library in view of the wildflowers. Kirstin and her husband Rob co-direct the non-profit organization *culture is not optional and help run a fair trade store in Three Rivers, Michigan.