I’m having my own little variety of religious experience these days, courtesy of Henry Mitchell. As promised (threatened?), I have been happily, hopelessly devoted to Henry Mitchell on Gardening these past few weeks. If you’re of genteel sensibilities, you might say I’ve been luxuriating in it; otherwise, it might be more accurately said that I’ve been wallowing in it, like the proverbial pig in its preferred ecosystem.
As with his other books, there is more than can be digested and appreciated in one read, and as with his other books, how I look forward to dipping into this one over and over again. One thing I’m taking away from this go-round is Henry Mitchell’s love of Brazilian morning glory, Ipomoea acuminata, a recurring guest star throughout the book. The several mentions of this flower don’t strike me as repetitive, but rather endearing, as if to say, “by the way, you really ought to check out this plant”, and again, “did I mention that you really ought to check out this plant?”. I guess I really ought to check out this plant.
There’s a piece in the book that I’ve already begun returning to, nearly daily. It’s wedged in the middle of the pieces in the “April” chapter. Its unassuming title, “Budding Romance”, bears a tinge of the irresistible garden pun, with scarcely a sign of the matters of which it is about to speak.
The daffodil ‘Cantatrice’ is the icon here, a favorite daffodil of Henry Mitchell:
Just the other day I sneaked out to see if that white flower out there was not the pretty old trumpet daffodil ‘Cantatrice’. As if I wouldn’t know it out my window a mile off. And what a pleasure to see it once again, and what a great glow of having put one over on Fate, because although this flower has grown like a weed in this scrawny cat-run of a garden for so long now, there were whole decades in which I could not grow it at all. Couldn’t keep it even for two years in my former garden a thousand miles from here.
But this piece isn’t really about successes and failures in the garden. You realize that it’s really about something else, by sheer dint of the great pains taken by Henry Mitchell to seem almost off-handed about it:
When I discovered I could grow it here — I like to say any jobbernowl can — I was as pleased as a dog with two tails. Or a pilgrim in sight of Jerusalem.
And then open the floodgates, spilling the beans:
A cantatrice is a beautiful singer, the kind, I suppose, that sits on rocks and lures sailors to their doom, or maybe something not so grim. Any gardener, once he gets set in his ways, will find a few flowers that work like talismans or magical beasts. I have even known gardeners who choked up at clover fields or geese chomping Johnson grass in the cotton. They don’t say so, but when they see the field or the flower they know they are on holy ground.
There is nothing wrong with that gardener’s head. Except no mortal is strong enough to absorb what you may call 100-proof infusions from the farthest galaxies, not strong enough to bear the surge from the farthest core of life. He may pretend he has not known it, but it does him no good. He has known. Right there in front of him was the blessed cantatrice and he was not the same as he formerly was.
Then, on the off chance that one who had read thus far would need further convincing, he brings in Plato’s Symposium. The 1958 Encyclopaedia Brittanica’s thumbnail description of the Symposium is accurate, dry as dust, and dead as a doornail:
The immediate object of the dialogue, which professes to record the discourses made in eulogy of Eros by a group of eminent speakers at a banquet in honour of the tragic poet Agathon, in the year 416-415, is to find the highest manifestation of the “love” which controls the world in the mystic aspiration after union with the eternal and supercosmic beauty; to depict Socrates as the type of the aspirant who has reached the goal of “union”; and to set in sharp opposition to him the figure of Alcibiades, who has sold his spiritual birthright for the pleasures and ambitions of the world.
Leave it to Henry Mitchell to bring the dialogue and its true import to life, in a few spare paragraphs, in a gardening column, on newsprint:
…that sketch of a Greek party long after the age of heroes where a roaring drunk crashed in — the golden Alcibiades, divinely smashed and unable to join the rest in their arguments about the nature of love. The wine scoured his poor brain, leaving only a direct perception of godly beauty in the person of that difficult and irritating philosopher Socrates. The drunk, famous for his beauty, saw himself as ugly when confronted by a philosopher whose body was no handsomer than a toad.
Sometimes he had to shut his ears when Socrates was talking, he blurted out. Otherwise the beauty of the old teacher would so seize his soul that he would grow old just sitting at his feet. The great thing here was that even a golden boy (not much admired by boys in school) when properly medicated could see a divine beauty far greater than his own, and could see the proper response to it. Divine beauty is where you find it probably. There is authority for the notion that God once spoke through a jackass, a real one with furry ears. But another time perhaps through a toad-faced philosopher? And beyond doubt, sometimes through a weather-defiant flower.
Now, how does one talk about the numinous, without making it sound like something that’s only good for writing a paper on, or falling into the commission-driven patter of a soul-saving salesman? In a divinity school class over twenty years ago, the theologian Martin Marty told us about his impulse as a four-year-old child, dumbstruck at the idea of unbelievers, to erect a giant, glowing neon sign bearing the word “God”, so that they too could “see” what he had seen. And I suppose that’s the natural impulse of those who have heard the song of the cantatrice and seen, if they dared to look, the vision toward which she beckons. It’s a relief, then, to find Henry Mitchell at the end of this piece, finally comfortable enough with us, and perhaps trusting by then that we are comfortable enough with him, to tell it like it is:
What the right flower can do, with luck, is heal the gardener, making him fit (more or less) to love, by steps however slow. Growing old, still in awe, still sitting at her feet.
All of which now means that I’ll have to track down the narcissus ‘Cantatrice’ and find a place for it in my garden. Not as idolatry–for the worst thing would be to mistake the flower itself for what it’s meant to merely be a reminder of–but for the chance to gaze upon this flower again and again, each time to be reminded of Socrates, Henry Mitchell, and the matters of which they spoke.
Originally published January 24, 2004. Copyright 2004 Chan Stroman. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.