- Floral Images from Childhood
Now and then I wonder: do I understand plants better than people? I garden, write about flora, and photograph flowers—the last coming close to an agreeable obsession. The result, both in the garden and in commercial publications, should be ample satisfaction. Yet sometimes, I find, digging into the nature of my plant love is as compulsive as cultivating actual dirt beds or wedging into tangled undergrowth to capture an image of a wildflower. The reason why, I find, is as elusive as a perfect garden or a flawless snapshot. Fervidly apply horticultural or photographic principles, and still the upshot amounts to an experiment always subtly imperfect in one way or another. My life-answers are like that—as ever burgeoning and unpredictable as the plants attended while I kneel by my garden border, or sit at my keyboard, or crouch behind my camera.
Where did my floral infatuation begin? There was no Eden-like origin for me, no lost world of green youth trailing clouds of glory in a bucolic setting. I was born and raised on a crowded, urbanized edge of Newark, New Jersey, where little of nature as such figured in our lives. My parents' home consisted of five rooms on the second floor of a shingled house with a small, thinly grassed, and shrubless hill of dirt serving as a front lawn. A narrow, stone-covered driveway, the only space between us and our neighbor's house, led to a detached garage in the rear. Between our house and that garage there was a little patch of earth where a few tall bushes provided a left-side barrier along the edge of our other neighbor's driveway.
Two hundred fifty square feet hardly seem conducive to developing a passion for plants. And yet this undersized plot invigorated that passion. There was, however, a memorable incident before we moved to this house from the rented flat on Nye Avenue. On the day of my kindergarten graduation in June 1947, I had received a two-foot-high Rose of Sharon as a school gift. I begged my father to plant it in the landlord's yard. When later [End Page 1] that summer it bore several radiant mauve blossoms, I was so enchanted that every morning as soon as I could I ran outside to check on them. I remember that indescribable delight, a kind of love at first sight, as if my heart had literally swollen with elation. A bright color picture of that Rose of Sharon, as clear in resolution as the day I mentally photographed it, is permanently albumed in my mind.
There, I suppose, is where my preoccupation with flowers must have taken root, though I had no inkling at the time of anything germinating within. There, too, began a lifelong habit of viewing flowers with a painterly and photographic eye. Unattractive distracting details have always been edited out, even as my first childhood photo shows nothing of the house mere inches from the young Rose of Sharon. My floral memories are all carefully cropped, zoomed for close detail, and highly textured. Scale is irrelevant. From the outset, this snapshot model has defined how I see, remember, and imagine flowers.
A second and especially treasured memorial image depicts a scene from that 250-square-foot backyard at my second home. It is nearly spring, the sun is shining in the icy air, the ground is white with glazed snow as starred candle flames blaze along arched ribs of a small yellow-flowered forsythia.
A moment of pure diversion for a six-year-old suffused with feeling. No thought, no latent metaphor about a phoenix life force—just an unnamable beauty so complete. All the surrounding clutter that was certainly also literally present—including the garage with peeling paint and warped doors—have been f-stopped out of the picture.
Another memorial image is set later that spring in the same location—spears of pussy willow. I would gently bend these skinny stems so my younger sister could pet their fuzzy catkins. I possess a picture of the pussy willow's slender limbs thrusting these furry marvels...