Forsythia: An Incantation

I have James Smith’s Vascular Plant
Families open to page 203, Oleaceae:
Olive Family
. At least ten words are
unfamiliar (actinomorphic, androecium,
gynoecium, placentation
), and another
ten mean nothing to me in terms of botany
(bisexual, united, cosmopolitan: I envision
throngs of jasmine and forsythia
marching down the streets of Chicago,
celebrating Gay Pride week). I’m flipping
to the glossary for each word, but
the definitions don’t help much. I start
with exstipulate: without stipules. I turn
to stipule: an appendage, usually seen as
paired structures, inserted at the base of
the petiole
. Petiole: the leaf stalk; the portion
of a leaf which supports the blade
. Ah
ha! I scrounge around for an illustration.
Page 40, Fig. 8. Leaf parts and composition.
A line from the word petiole points
to the base of a generic drawing of a leaf,
where the leaf connects to the branch,
and another line from stipule points to
the small knobs on either side. Being exstipulate,
the plants of the olive family,
including the forsythia, do not have those
knobs. I imagine them away.

I have reasons for researching the
forsythia. Over the summer, I read
Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, fell in unfounded
love with farming, and decided I
wanted to buy some cattle, plant a little
wheat, maybe some corn. Feeling dissatisfied
with the direction I was headed
(graduate from college, find a menial editing
job, maybe go to graduate school,
settle back down in suburbia), I yearned to
return to the land, and exchange my worn out,
disconnected suburban life for a life
animated by my Scandinavian roots, the
roots that valued independence and thrift,
that transformed the occasional Sears &
Roebuck dress, now wearing thin, into a
dress suitable for daily work, then into an
apron, and, once that had been thoroughly
soiled by pans that spit grease and tomato
sauce, into scraps tossed to the rag pile.

I wanted to slow the rhythm of my life,
to leave room for the journey of a dress, for
telling stories on the front porch, for learning
to listen to the sky. I dreamt of buying
back my great-grandparents’ farm in Sunburg,
Minnesota, from the people who replaced
the narrow stairs in the kitchen corner
with a grand staircase that swallowed
the entryway into its giant throat. But all
their improvements had made them unwilling
to part with the farmhouse and
the property, so I’d have to get started on
my own. I’d have to get a huge loan, read
up on agriculture, decide what to raise (I
once had a writing professor who wanted
to quit teaching and raise alpacas–maybe I could join her), accept the solitude of
rural life, open myself to the hardships of
unpredictable weather, find a man willing
to live the farming life with me, pretend
not to be bothered by small-town stereotypes
and stubbornness–in effect, not
merely redirect my life, but actually pick
it up from its current course and set it
down on a gravel road in rural America.

This was more than I was willing to
accept. I’m fond of pavement and 24-hour grocery stores.

Even after realizing the absurdity of
my dream, though, I couldn’t shake the
longing for place, especially the deeper
spirituality of a people tied to the land.
People intimate with the land seemed to
me more whole, more human. Adam of
the adamah–human of the humus. I
was human of the concrete, girl of the fluorescent
lighting, and I wanted to change
that.

So I tried to construct that sense of
belonging to the land, having moved too
often to establish it naturally and having
spent more time holed up indoors than
out among the wildflowers, listening for
the three-wattled bellbird or watching
garter snakes. I fiddled around in my
mom’s garden, offering to pick the tomatoes
and pull a few weeds. I signed up to
spend this semester in the backcountry
of Oregon, where I believed that chopping
wood might lead to a spiritual renewal. It
was the best I could do to make up for the
earthiness I thought I had missed.

But even without one particular
landscape embodying my spirit, I hoped
I still had connections to the land, so I
started to dig, started to conjure up the
dreams of childhood, the childhood I
spent in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I
had an exploratory fascination with the
natural world, setting up forts under fir
trees, bathing in puddles alongside ducklings,
and crowning my snowmen with
the golden sprigs of forsythia. As I pictured
the neighborhood, I remembered
the abundance of this forsythia, unspectacular
for most of the year, but self-indulgently
bright for a few brief weeks in
early spring. The memory of forsythia rekindled
both my curiosity and my spiritual
thirst for land, so here I sit next to
the wood stove, mountain light slapping
the botany books spread across the floor.

Looking up actinomorphic
takes me to perianth, which
directs me to calyx and corolla.
Now I’m headed in two
directions. Following calyx
leads me to sepals, which
takes me back to calyx.
Dead end. I try corolla: calyx
again, and androecium,
another of the words on my
list. I look it up. I’m pointed
back toward corolla and also to gynoecium,
which takes me to carpel, where I’m no
more enlightened: megasporophyll? I shut
the book.

But I’m still determined to learn
something about the forsythia plant, that
riotously yellow shrub that bloomed all
over Ann Arbor, so I pick up C.L. Porter’s
Taxonomy of Flowering Plants. Porter’s
introduction, which presumes I’ve taken
an elementary course in botany, makes
me nervous, especially after I’ve failed to
understand Smith’s supposedly simpler
book, according to its introduction: “This
book is intended…for anyone who is interested
in learning about the families of
vascular plants. It is assumed that the
reader is unfamiliar with the subject.”

Unfamiliar, yes, but also undeterred,
I turn to 376 in Porter. Here again: Oleaceae,
the olive family. More misleading
words (polygamous: now my forsythia
wears the plain garb of a Mormon sect, a
single hatted shrub surrounded by several
others wearing bonnets), and then,
Forsythia: Golden-bell, an ornamental,
 
The memory of forsythia rekindled both
my curiosity and my spiritual thirst for
land, so here I sit next to the wood stove,
mountain light slapping the botany
books spread across the floor.
 

early-blooming shrub
. Opposite the text,
there is a floral diagram of the forsythia.
It looks like an eyeball, or a cross-section
of Earth. On the cardinal points of
the main circle swell smallish hills. Inside
that circle is another ring, where brackets pucker at the secondary compass
points. From both the east and the
west of the smaller ring, a short line juts
inward, two tiny loops on either side of
its innermost end, looking like pairs of
closed scissors poised to puncture the
earth’s mantle. At the very heart of the
little planet glows a perfect circle, divided
at its equator.

I have never seen forsythia look anything
like this diagram.

I cannot see the connection between
the plant and this illustration, especially
with none of the parts labeled. My sister
has a friend, Betsy, a precocious girl whose
hands, busy pantomiming her sentences or
adjusting her glasses, are never quiet, and
who orders her world according to two categories:
“organic” and “sharply delineated.”
Although Betsy insists that only she fully
understands these classifications, I can
guess that she would categorize the mathematically
precise diagram as sharply delineated,
and an actual forsythia, with the
brown spots of insects or the runty petals
born of poor soil, as organic. The two have
nothing in common. I am lost
again.

I set the botany aside for
now in favor of the history of
the forsythia. Native to China,
it was discovered by the plant-hunter
Robert Fortune in the
eighteenth century. It is fitting
that the plant’s discoverer
was Fortune, as if he shared
something of the plant’s extravagance:
 
Her show of generosity is ridiculous;
it will never last, and maybe she
knows this. Maybe she is a tourist of
winter, turning up her haughty nose
and dropping pennies into dirty cups.
 

early in March, the forsythia
throws her yellow coins to the world,
the rest of the landscape yet languishing
in the poverty of snow. Her show
of generosity is ridiculous; it will never
last, and maybe she knows this. Maybe
she is a tourist of winter, turning up her
haughty nose and dropping pennies into
dirty cups. Or maybe she is more good-natured
than that, this good Samaritan
of the natural world, pouring out her oil
and wine on our wounds, giving the innkeeper
the two denarii to cover our stay
for two months, enough to sustain us
through the lingering end of winter. She
is merciful to us. Who is her neighbor?
We are all her neighbors: she is an indiscriminate
lover, extending her blessing
beyond her small parcel of soil. As Simone
Weil writes, “Love for our neighbor…
is analogous to genius.” My forsythia is
mad with love, generous, the most brilliant
of all plants.

She was generous also with me, a child
preoccupied with fashioning homes: homes
of Legos and blocks, homes for my dolls,
homes on paper, with penciled smoke spiraling
from chimneys above bright-eyed
windows and smiling front steps, homes of
cardboard refrigerator boxes, homes among
the pines and oak of the forest, among her
own wild yellow limbs.

She was generous when we lived in
Ann Arbor in the University of Michigan’s
family housing, while my dad worked on
his Ph.D. in some sort of Chinese political
theory. The neighborhood was no more
than twenty years old, with rows of wood-paneled
apartments ringing the courtyard
like covered wagons around a campfire.
Between blocks of apartments grew
a cluster of pines and a shock of forsythia.
To a five-year-old, this patch of wilderness
pulsed with possibilities: climbing
trees, playing tag, converting these
bushes here into a living room, those
ones into a bedroom. I remember playing
house with Chelsea, the long-lashed girl
who lived across the courtyard. When
Chelsea bent over in concentration, her
dark hair fell forward over her shoulder,
and she developed an elegant sweep of
her hand to send it sliding toward her
back again. While playing house, everything
became an opportunity to fling
her hair back: making mud pies, digging
sumps, leaning down from bedrooms in
the trees. I used to imitate her hair-flip
by whipping my bobbed orange hair back
until my parents told me that only Chelsea
and Miss Piggy could get away with it
and my hair was too short anyway.

One afternoon in spring, the snow
gone but the forsythia still bright, Chelsea
and I decided to remodel our bush
house. The living room was looking small;
it needed expansion. We snapped off a few
branches to give more height; suddenly, we
had the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral: the
forsythia in all her glory. The broken twigs
we arranged as incense on our altar, the
fragrance of our exaltation. We cleared the
leaves to open the floor space; we stood on
hallowed ground. Barefoot already, with no
sandals to remove, we regarded this lighted
shrub with the reverence of Moses standing
before the burning bush at Horeb.

I am searching Exodus for the story,
for its significance. The notes in my Bible
identify Mount Horeb with Ras es-Safsaf,
the Willow Peak. Is it coincidence that the
forsythia looks like a miniature willow,
flinging its long yellow arms out, letting
them fall toward the earth? Here stands
Moses before his speaking bush, struck not
with the shock of a plant that refuses to
burn down, but instead with the glory and
grace of a sun-illumined forsythia.

What is this voice within the bush?
From this bush, God calls Moses. Moses
thinks he has found a home in the wilderness,
but God sends him back to Egypt,
where the daughter of the Pharaoh plucked
him from the whispering fingers of bulrushes,
to speak freedom to the Israelites
and call them to a real home. Inviting Moses
out of hiding, God calls to him from
within the wilderness and calls him out
of that wilderness. Should we take this
to heart? Is the Sunburg farm my wilderness,
a place to hide? Is it also the place
where the bush burns and speaks? I had
thought that I was called to a land
where the rows of corn comb past,
where people learn to scent hail on
the wind, but maybe that farm is
instead the early bud of forsythia:
merely a prompt, not the absolute.
Maybe I should go to the wilderness–a farm or even a forest–to listen.
Maybe that’s what I’m doing here
in the high, timbered air of Oregon:
hoping to hear a call as I read
about plant taxonomy.

Let me hear you, Lord. Here I am–here, here.

Let us hear the generosity of your
Word. Our senses are destitute; we have
forgotten how to hear. “Stir the root-life
of a withered people,” writes Jean Toomer. Forsythia
Speak to us from burning bushes:
Euonymus atropurpurea, shouting red in
autumn, Dictamnus albus, its oils catching
fire in the summer heat, and Forsythia
intermedia
, those plants that mediate our
encounters with you.

Open our eyes: let us see beyond the
petals, the branches, the leaves, and let us
see bushes aflame with hope against our
listless landscapes. Tune our ears: let us
stand at the edge of daisy fields and listen
as the poet Louise Gluck listens, challenging
the fool who believes that we want “to
shine, plainly, as / machines shine, and
not / grow deep, as, for example, roots.”
No, we want to be rooted.

Call us to spark freedom in the hearts
of people caught like birds suspended in
air, far from their nests. Call us out of
Egypt into lands of promise–countries of
alfalfa and soybeans, neighborhoods with
sprinklers, or cities throbbing with jazz
and public transportation–that we can
call home. Make these homes more than
houses, mere desert dwellings. “Call them
from their houses,” says Toomer, “and
teach them to dream.” Teach us to dream
once again of the forsythia, to accept the
charity of her yellow boughs and to reciprocate
by offering to her residence in our
gardens, where we can listen.

On still mornings, you can hear her
golden bells incanting the Word. Kyrie!

Grace Olson is eagerly
awaiting this year’s first
forsythia blooms. In the
meantime, she is finishing
her final semester
as an English major at
Hope College in Holland,
Michigan. “Forsythia:
An Incantation,” took
first place in the nonfiction
category of The
Conference on Christianity and Literature’s student
writing contest in the spring of 2009.