Close Observation of a Plant
July 2, 2004 twilight
I don’t quite know what I hope to accomplish. I’m not sure what I’m doing. I hope I can observe. I hope I can record the things I see. I hope I find something true. I’m not sure even of what I’m saying now. I can betray myself through my own desire--the wrong one--the desire to sound smart, to impress, to Write.
I was sitting here on a wooden bench on the back porch thinking about observing flowers--but not just flowers. Everything. And it seemed to me--suddenly it seemed an insight--that almost none of us do this simple activity. The natural world is as far removed from us as the ground is from airline passengers looking out the window at 35,000 feet. And so we go through our lives, soaring above and past the world around us. The very ground, the earth, all the physical objects of our universe. Like this potted plant, small and herbaceous, which sits right in front of me on this wooden table, companion to my bench, both made of soft pine and stained to resemble redwood.
Take this plant--I’ll try to do it justice. First, I don’t know its name. The leaves resemble English ivy, but the largest is like a tiny, emergent English ivy leaf (Hedera helix?). I don't mean to change subjects, but I think I see one of those newly hatched 17-year cicada pupa crawling up the trunk of the white dogwood just off the back porch here. It has never been above ground since the brief moment it emerged from its egg casing 17 years ago and droped down to the ground around the tree it's now climbing. Yet it seems so purposeful in its movements. What is its life like? This tiny creature, if it is a cicada pupa, has not only already lived as long or longer than most dogs and cats, but it has done so entirely in the dark, a meter or so underground, through summer and winter, attached to plant roots from which it has drawn its life. What do we know of that life?
But I digress from my purpose, the plant in front of me. These tiny leaves, the feature that strikes one’s eyes first, are simply cute to me. From 1/4 to 1/2 the size of your smallest fingernail, they have ten or more tiny, tiny, lobes, like the tips of stubby fingers pushing up on the lining of a green mitten. And the blade of the leaf is formed with these lobes, and with the veins that radiate out from the leaf stem, into a cupped shape not unlike a tiny little league baseball glove, if plants played baseball. They look like they’re trying to catch something. Rain? Dust? This cupped shape is enhanced by the slight curling over of the leaf edge in the lobes.
There’s another tiny creature on the soil surface of this potted plant--this one winged, with hair-thin legs, its wings a pale, irridescent plum. And over there, just now, a teeny, dark coffee-brown spider invisible against the soil until it moves, its abdomen nevertheless shiny as it moved suddenly into thin air above a miniature ravine in the soil’s surface--no doubt tightrope walking on silken thread completely invisible to me. Could it be hunting?
The plant is readying a second bloom, ... this task is impossible. I’ve barely begun a description of this one plant; would I be so generous with the rest? Could I?
One blossom is open--a long, thin, bell-shaped lavender flower that has opened into five fluted sides. Imagine a real trumpet so shaped. Would it sound worse? It would look quite funny, accustomed (or blinded) as we are to its given shape. Five tiny bracts clasp the blossom at the base, yet they’re also fluted away gracefully from the blossom’s bell. The whole thing is no longer than my thumbnail, and aside from the fluted ends, no wider than my pinky nail.
And with the back porch light on--it’s now about 9 p.m.--I can see the shadow of the pistils and stamen in miniscule silhouette against the sides of the blossom like a tiny shadow play against a lavender curtain, only this one also has graceful, vertical lines, ultra thin and pale, but unmistakeable. All this I see, and so, so much more I haven’t begun to describe, especially my feelings and thoughts about this act I’m engaged in.
Yet how does it all compare? What am I trying to express? The truth of my vision? Or simply what presents itself to my eyes? What?
Three weeks later ...
I remember that moment. I was wholly engrossed, and though I struggled to express what I saw, what my eyes found, I didn’t (really couldn’t) simultaneously describe my thoughts about it nor my feelings. I may never be able to capture in words what I see and feel when I look closely and carefully at this garden I love--at particular plants, leaves, parts of flowers, stems, shadows, shapes--at the trees, the sky, when everything is wrapped together in twilight, the sombre cloak that descends and envelops the world. I do love it so. And I wish someone could see it as I do--just to affirm that it so indescribably beautiful.
Copyright © Mark McTague, 2004