Saturday, September 19, 2009

Masters of Description: Colette & Farrer

Though I have no plans to teach, I've been putting together readings for a course I'd call "Description," in which students would merely describe. I shouldn't use the word "merely," a word hardly applicable to writers like Colette and Reginald Farrer, the great British plantsman I learned about in Mark Doty's blog. To write as Colette and Farrer do takes a complete self-forgetfulness--never mind if Colette's hip is aching or Farrer is combing his moustache over his repaired hare lip--and at the same time the power to gather the must acute attention and fix it on the object to be described.

In China he discovered the wild tree peony:

Here in the brushwood it grew up tall and slender and straight, in two or three unbranching shoots, each one of which carried at the top, elegantly balancing, that single enormous blossom, waved and crimped into the boldest grace of line, of absolutely pure white, with featherings of deepest maroon radiating at the base of the petals from the boss of golden fluff at the flower's heart. Above the sere and thorny scrub the snowy beauties poise and hover, and the breath of them went out upon the twilight as sweet as any rose.

Though Farrer's ode to the peony is justly well known, my favorite is his description of Primula secundiflora:

The outside of the bell is of a waxen dulled flesh-colour, filmed with a strange powdery bloom, and suffused with lines and nerves and flushings of claret and deep rose, with blue mysteriously suggested over the whole, omnipresent as the faintest of tints, like the whiff of onion in a good salad.

Unlike Farrer, Colette writes about food and plants to flavor food:

For the pickle jar, and in the earthenware keg where the mysterious mere of the vinegar slumbers and swells . . . . Late in the season, when the nasturtium sheds its flowers and puffs up its seeds, I would pack it off to join the button capers filched from Segonzac's caper bush, the plump stalks of sea fennel the aborted little melons, the puny carrots, a few stringy green beans, the verjuice grapes--a whole season's surplus stock which, giving up the idea of growing rich in sugar, would release its pale properties into the vinegar, in hopes of later brightening up the melancholy of cold veal and breaking down the last resistance of a big salt beef.

The sea fennel Colette writes about is "samphire," a plant of rocky seasides and marshes.

Though the photo of Colette is obviously a publicity shot, I like to think she is studying some marvelous thing to which to devote herself so she may describe it.


  1. A friend just told me about someone she knows who left one job, I have no idea what it was, but it didn't have anything to do with the outdoors, and did a lot of reading and learning about flowers/plants and now has a peony (farm?) in Maine, having created an entirely new life and livelihood. My friend goes over to help her, a task she'd do without pay because it's so wonderful, but her friend insists on paying her because it's work...
    wouldn't it be nice to spend time learning about plants?
    and isn't it amazing what we learn from other people's blogs?

  2. The peony farm must be wonderful. I know about a day lily farm near Boston with the most unusual plants. Are you thinking of a new life for yourself?