Around here it is summer and the Scarlet Pimpernels (Anagallis arvensis) are blooming. To many the Scarlet Pimpernel is a novel set in the time of the French Revolution. To me the Scarlet Pimpernel is a sweet little orange flower that occurs in lawns and some have the nerve to call a weed.
The petite scarlet pimpernel is an European native that made its way here as an ornamental. Dainty orange flowers with red centers dot the square-stemmed plant in summer. Found in disturbed sites and waste areas, this plant thrives in poor soils. First named by English Botanist Richard Salisbury (No relation that I have found…yet – but I mean there MUST be right?) this annual is also known as Poor Man’s Weatherglass because of its tendency to close its flowers at the “approach of foul weather” (Manual of Cultivated Plants, L.H.Bailey 1949). The Reader’s Digest Field Guide to Wildflowers also notes that this botanical barometer closes at dusk, fails to open in gloomy weather and responds to rising humidity by closing its flowers.
Summer is also the time of book lists for beach reading. While I don’t generally go to the beach and read, I will have to add The Scarlet Pimpernel to my “to be read pile” (why is it that that pile never shrinks?) simply because it is named after a plant, not because it has anything to do with plants. There are some books out there I have come across and found even more enjoyable than I expected because of their unanticipated horticultural content.
As you may remember from previous posts, I am a Stephen King fan. When I was much younger my face was always stuck squarely in a Stephen King novel. At some point, as I grew older and picked my head up long enough to realize there are other authors and other genres out there, and as I became more and more interested in learning about the natural world around me, I decided to vary my reading selections. I decided I would read one non-fiction book for each fiction book I read. Naturally, I began my non-fiction reading with Stephen King’s On Writing. This memoir/guide to writing drew me into the non-fiction world and I am hooked. I used to think reading non-fiction was the equivalent of reading a textbook for fun, and really…textbooks for fun?
Though my nose is always in a book, rarely is it ever a book I was told to read. I barely read the assigned readings in high school or college literature classes, preferring to read Stephen King, Dean Koontz and John Saul, choosing instead to listen intently and take excellent notes, as the teacher discussed the novels. Those teachers always told me exactly what I needed to know to pass the test. This always seemed to get me by. I honestly did try to read one of the these assignments, the first one – Beowulf – I still shudder thinking about it today – made me endlessly frustrated. More Stephen King please!
The other decision I made was to expand my fiction reading selections beyond my dear Mr. King. One of my first forays into this wide sea of fiction was based on the recommendation of my sister (who has reading tastes nothing like my own) – Cold Mountain. This Charles Frazier Novel is set in the Civil War. This genre of historical fiction was new to me and, honestly, a little bit frightening. How could it possibly be enjoyable? Well I will tell you how – Plants! I learned so much about plants in this book. Oh happy day when I realized I can combine my love of fiction with my love for the natural world.
Both sumac and dogwood were full of ripe berries at that time of year. The thing a person has to ask was, What else is happening that might bear on the subject? One thing was, birds moving.
Though not necessarily the main feature of the story (depends on who’s reading it I guess), the plants play an integral role in setting the scene as a soldier makes his way walking for months through the Appalachian countryside back to the love of his life. The seasons are told, in great part, through the changing of the plants and wildlife around the main characters. For the first time I read about how the simultaneous changing of dogwood leaves from green to maroon signals to birds flying high above that the bright red fruits beneath the leaves are ready for consumption. These red leaves tell those birds there is energy-packed, protein filled berries that will help fuel the next leg of their extensive journey. The small berries are difficult to see from a birds-eye-view, but those clouds of burgundy foliage are hard to miss. The characters debate the accuracy of this claim, that the trees are signaling to the birds that dinner’s ready. For me it was an “Aha!” moment that perfectly explained the connection between plants and the rest of the world that so often goes unappreciated.
I tried to talk about this book with my sister, who is a fan of history in both fictional and non-fiction formats (talk about reading textbooks…) She didn’t notice the gorgeous writing about plants. The pleasingly accurate descriptions of wildflowers and trees slid right on past her. What in the world was she paying attention to? Two lessons learned – 1. Historical Fiction is fun to read 2. not everyone will find the same things interesting in any given book. (Two important lessons to remember in case I ever join, or start, a book club, which is doubtful given my distaste for people dictating to me what I read…but one never knows what changes may come, after all I never thought I would read anything for fun besides Stephen King)
Another author who fills her books with nature to set the tone and the scenes for her characters is Barbara Kingsolver. Colorful natural history weaves through her fiction, making one feel like they have visited the small desert villages or Appalachian hamlets she writes about. The first book of hers I read, the non-fiction Animal, Vegetable, Miracle A Year of Food Life tracks her family’s year-long experience eating locally – growing their own food or sourcing it from nearby farmers. After reading this, I dove into her fiction and was immediately transported to wherever she wanted me to go – be it glistening rain drop covered leaves in the Appalachian forests or the rusty sandy back yards filled with the spiny plants of the desert southwest. Though I haven’t read them all, so far, each Kingsolver fiction I have read has contained this attention to natural detail. I have come to think of it as a hallmark of her writing.
With all due respect for the wondrous ways people have invented to amuse themselves and one another on paved surfaces, I find that this exodus from the land makes me unspeakably sad. I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in. I think of the astonished neighbor children who huddled around my husband in his tiny backyard garden, in the city where he lived years ago, clapping their hands to their mouths in pure dismay at seeing him pull carrots from the ground. (Ever the thoughtful teacher, he explained about fruits and roots and asked, “What other foods do you think might grow in the ground?” They knit their brows, conferred, and offered brightly, “Spaghetti?”) I wonder what it will mean for people to forget that food, like rain, is not a product but a process. I wonder how they will imagine the infinite when they have never seen how the stars fill a dark night sky. I wonder how I can explain why a wood-thrush song makes my chest hurt to a populace for whom wood is a construction material and thrush is a tongue disease.
It is this sentiment that seems to mark all Kingsolver’s books. It becomes evident as you read more than one that it is her agenda to educate even the most casual reader, who, perhaps ran out of anything else to read and found her stories in the bookshelf at the ski lodge or a grab bag at a local library book sale, about the interconnectedness between us and nature.
Flight Behavior is set in Appalachia and addresses climate change through the exploration of the disappearance of the Monarch Butterfly. A biologist before she was an author, Kingsolver knows just how to describe, in non-fiction detail, the life cycles, the colors, the shapes, the purpose of the natural world around her characters making the fictitious seems anything but.
Animal Dreams is set in the opposite of Appalachia, the Desert Southwest. This books tells the story of a woman returning to her home to care for an ailing father. As is to be expected, Kingsolver drops you right in the middle of the story by describing the natural world around so well you feel the grit of sand in your hair and smell the fragrance of night-blooming plants as you drift asleep book in hand.
One last book to mention, in yet another genera of book I generally shied away from – the whodunnit – features carnivorous plants at it heart. Yes! YES! Carnivorous plants – those meat-eating wonders of the horticultural world. And, as if it couldn’t get any better, it is set in New Jersey, with much of the shenanigans taking place in my beloved Pine Barrens. Tiffany Blues by J.C. Vogard brings us into the world of business co-owners Clara Martini and Florilla Munrow who find themselves a part of a murder mystery involving herbs, high heels, local New Jersey River Towns, greenhouses, big-pharma, and yes, carnivorous plants.
Not normally a type of book I am drawn to, this whodunnit had me page turning well into the wee hours wondering what these two characters would get themselves into next. For me, the ending was a surprise, as they all should be right? I am looking forward to the next in the series and hoping wherever these two end up, the author drops me right in the middle of it through her graphic descriptions of the nature around.
To be honest my “to be read” pile is divided into two stacks – non-fiction and fiction. At this point they are equally tall. As long as I can keep finding this fiction that speaks directly to my love and curiosity for the natural world I will continue to add to the pile, learning more about the world around me as I stretch my imagination.
What books have you read where you learned something unexpected – natural history related or otherwise? Now back to that “To be read” pile… be assured, there are still quite a few Stephen Kings in there. Oh how I hope one of those in my pile describes an oncoming storm by noting the closing petals of the Scarlet Pimpernel.