Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Philemon, or On Gardening

     I was so proud of it; it was full, lightly frosted, and as curly-headed as a younger František Langer; but suddenly out of God knows where came the caterpillars of the white cabbage butterfly, which, if the name were accurate, should have gone and eaten some white cabbage over in Strašnice and left my Savoyards in peace; they devoured everything down to a filigree of veins.
     Before that disaster I had been inclined to reorder my system of values and deem cabbage as the queen of the flowers. Well, it's not true; the queen of the flowers remains the rose, by the obvious fact that it cannot be eaten.
     Presumably man too must be distasteful, if he is to become the king of all creation.

     Don't think I have a collection of them. I only have the four clay pots and some hens and chicks; but the vegetation involved suffices to astound me.
     The first little cactus looks like it has a mind to grow itself a piece of raw mutton; it is red tending to violet, fat, and very comparable to a job terribly botched; this wonder of nature is, honestly put, a little loathsome.
     The second cactus decided to adopt a shape that seems to have come out of a tinsmith's fantasy. It must be doing this intentionally; it looks like a some sort of manufactured good.
     The third one is made up of pretty little fat purple and green sabers with a clear eye towards stylization; the whole thing, though, is speckled with some sort of tropical rash that looks like thick, white, mildewy pustules. It seems to not be contagious, at least.
     You should see the fourth monster grow. This hair comes up first, a little star comes out of that, and a green tassel sprouts under the star. Finally the whole thing turns into this horned ball thickly set with prickly stars. I cannot begin to imagine what will happen next.
     The strangest of all, though, are the ordinary hens and chicks. I set the first one down and ignored it; let it show me what it could do. Well, it does something interesting; wherever the fancy strikes it--in its armpit, round the back, on its head--it throws out a green leafy head. This breaks open, rolls into the clay, sends out a rootlet and grows like crazy.
     I can't even imagine what I would do if a child started to grow in my armpit or on my breast or on the back of my neck. Some hens have twenty chicks on themselves; that's an outbreak of fertility; it is motherhood completely unleashed.

     I made a discovery: each plant has not only its own leaves and flowers, but a certain kind of root as well. You who don't mess around in the soil, laying waste to weeds, have no conception of the hidden wealth of roots. There are roots that are light, fleshy, sickly pale; or fat, arborescent, rich as a shock of hair; creeping, woody, swollen, tuberous, stubborn, brittle, strong as catgut, shallow and deep, plump and starvingly scrawny, rosy as living nerves and black as dry rot, hirsute and bald; I tell you, life under the ground is just as rich as above it.

     I spoke of clay, and a gardener became angry with me. Garden soil, he said, is no clay; it is earth, humus, a useful and living substance; whereas clay, we all know, is dead matter, marl, slag itself. I was ashamed of myself somewhat; the gardener was right. Why, then, did the Lord create man out of clay and not out of soil? It is not written that Adam was made out of humus. It is not said that the Creator made him out of fine leaf mold. He carefully set the humus and leaf mold aside for the Garden of Eden. We gardeners, therefore, do not fritter away the best soil on doubtful pursuits.

How to Grow Clouds
     It takes a lot of work: it is necessary to weed very carefully, to toss out muck and small stones by hand, to kneel on the earth, bend over, dig about in the soil, water profusely, collect caterpillars, exterminate aphids, loosen the ground and serve the earth; when your back hurts from all this and you straighten up and look at the sky, you will have the prettiest clouds. Probatum est.

LN, 6 September 1925

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