Thursday, June 18, 2009

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

My writing studio here in Kerry is an earth-covered structure, buried in the hill. We wanted it to be virtually invisible from the village below, so as to intrude upon the landscape as little as possible. We call it the Hobbit Hole.

The front is a wall of windows looking out to sea, twenty feet of sloping glass with a wide sill inside. It is a natural greenhouse, and every summer I give it over to plants. My usual company is tomatoes and morning glories. There are a couple of papyrus plants that survive outside during the winter that I bring in for the summer. And this year, for the first time, I am starting greens from seeds in dozens of little peat pots -- Bloomsdale Longstanding, Georgia Southern, and Spinach Mustard. They have germinated, If and when they start to burst their pots I will move them to the garden.

I'm not a gardener; I leave that to my wife. And it's not really food I'm after. I just need to feel the rush and throb of the universe at my elbow as I work. I piece syllables into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. Meanwhile, the plants on the sill piece atoms into molecules, little molecules into big ones, big molecules into stem and leaf. Together we do our building. I'm under no illusion as to who is the better builder.

Consider the spinach mustard seed. It is not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. I had a hellava time picking them up one by one to put in the soil. Tiny, hard and brown, a hundred of them in their little paper packet, every one a Brassica rapa. Put one in soil, water it, give it a bit of sunshine, and in a few days two little leaves appear, splayed, like supplicant hands. Gimme, gimme. It's atoms they're after. They need a lot to build a plant. All that leaf and green to make another seed.

I once walked through Darwin's greenhouses at his home in Downe, Kent. He spent long hours there, observing plants, intensely curious as to how they behaved -- yes, behaved! -- in response to their environment. He wrote two books on the subject: The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants, and The Power of Movement in Plants. He tells us that it "always pleased him to exalt members of the botanical world in the scale of organized beings," plants generally being consigned to a lower status than creatures that get up and go. If you read Darwin, you sometimes feel he preferred the company of his climbers and twiners to the company of people.

Be that as it may, to watch a tiny seed turn itself into a spinach mustard is no small thing. All that wonderful molecular machinery, the DNA winding and unwinding, spinning and weaving, crafting proteins, artfully arranging. No matter how often I have watched it happen, it still cheers and inspires me to have it happening at my elbow.