By Jamieson Findlay
In mid-winter a lot of us are looking to reconnect with the blossoming world—especially with Valentine’s Day almost upon us. That’s why, as the February snow swirls outside my window, I’m dipping again into Donald Culross Peattie’s book Flowering Earth.
Everybody has his or her favourite book about trees or plants—The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant; Tree: A Life Story by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady; Arboretum Borealis by Diana Beresford-Kroeger. This one is mine, and like a lot of my favourite books, it’s a forgotten classic. Published way back in 1939, Flowering Earth is a “biography of the plant kingdom” by an American botanist who could write rings around most poets or novelists of his generation. Trees are in this book right from the opening sentence: “There is morning light here, shafting down through the live-oaks in smoky beams.” Peattie is not only a celebrant of trees; he knows them as a scientist does, and knows how they anchor and overarch all of life.
He describes a small fig tree outside his window whose leaves are “sparse, mitten-shaped, and richly green with chlorophyll.” (It has 216 leaves, he casually mentions—he has counted them all.) He recalls how, as a young government botanist working for the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, he received a letter from a ranch woman in Montana: “We got no trees hear. They all blowed down or dide. For God’s sake send us shade.” And he stands spellbound in front of ancient California redwoods that are “geologic in structure, fluted and buttressed like colossal stone work, weathered to the colour of old sandstone.”
No other book I own has such a living, breathing, aromatic presence. In its pages you can smell the incense of mountain pines, hear the wind sighing through tall-grass prairie, dig your fingernail into the wizened coat of a four-hundred-year-old lotus seed. Whether he’s talking about fungi or Final Things, Peattie is not just down-to-earth—he is down-to-the-roots. Listen to this paragraph from the closing chapter, “The Web of Life”:
“But in the end our friends come and make us a last home out of a log, and plant a flowering tree to remember us as fairer than we were. Then it will be too late to walk alone and smiling through the flicker of beechen shade, or to lie side by side on the wild sod. When brambles throw their arms around our knees in the road, we had best be partaking of the brusque offer of fruit. And if in this life we never tended brave young seedlings, in what other world do we expect to see them jump up responding, their split seed shells cocked aside their heads?”
This book would make a great Valentine’s Day gift, if you’re still looking. And while I’m at it, I can’t resist mentioning another book that could easily take the place of flowers and chocolate: Meetings with Remarkable Trees, a gorgeous coffee table book with text and photos by Thomas Pakenham. You can find both these books on Amazon:
These works are as perennial and green as the life they celebrate.