“This is happiness,” Willa Cather’s fictional narrator gaspsas he sinks into his grandmother’s garden, “to be dissolved into something complete and great.” A generation later, in a real-life counterpart, Virginia Woolf arrived at the greatest epiphany of her life — and to this day perhaps the finest definition of what it takes to be an artist — while contemplating the completeness and greatness abloom in the garden.
Nearly a century later, botanist and nature writer Robin Wall Kimmerer, who has written beautifully about the art of attentiveness to life at all scales, examines the revelations of the garden in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (public library) — an unusual and richly rewarding book blending botany, Native American mythology, natural history, and philosophy.
In a particularly enchanting passage, Kimmerer, who fuses her scientific training with her Native American storytelling heritage, considers happiness as a sort of reciprocity between the Earth and the human spirit — a gladdening mutuality of affections and animacy:
It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness.
I was hunting among the spiraling vines that envelop my teepees of pole beans, lifting the dark-green leaves to find handfuls of pods, long and green, firm and furred with tender fuzz. I snapped them off where they hung in slender twosomes, bit into one, and tasted nothing but August, distilled into pure, crisp beaniness… By the time I finished searching through just one trellis, my basket was full. To go and empty it in the kitchen, I stepped between heavy squash vines and around tomato plants fallen under the weight of their fruit. They sprawled at the feet of the sunflowers, whose heads bowed with the weight of maturing seeds.
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