Sometime in the last few years, I realized that my ignorance of botany was interfering with my enjoyment of literature. This truth was brought home to me once more last night as I read Sigrid Undset’s novel Ida Elisabeth. The title character, Undset tells us, “would have liked more plants in pots”:
It made her green with envy to go past windows which had swelling tea-roses and bright bunches of red and white pelargoniums pressing against the panes. Marit, for instance—she had a huge green window-box full of Jacobæa lilies; in summer it was like a regular thicket of long, narrow dark green leaves arching and crossing one another, and then in autumn came the flowers, as many as twenty at the same time. . . . Ida Elisabeth felt wild with longing; she did not quite know for what, as she sat and looked at all these tall, stiff stalks with bunches of great staring red calyxes—the colour was so strange, so bright and clear, and the shape of each separate flower seemed so perfectly clean-cut and strong.
It’s supposed to be an evocative passage, but I had no idea what Ida was looking at.
I can easily find out what the named flowers look like: here are tea roses, red and white pelargoniums, Jacobæa lilies. But when I’m reading in bed, I don’t want to get up and Google it. Even when I’m reading with a computer nearby (no e-reader for me), I rarely want to disrupt the experience of reading by pausing to look something up, whether a word or a plant.
The problem seems trivial, I know, but it represents a sad impoverishment of the imagination: When I (and presumably many others today) read “pelargoniums,” no picture comes to mind. The word is divorced from the image, disconnected from the thing it names. And in most cases, the names and descriptions of plants function as more than just background or filler material. Rather, they develop the atmosphere of a scene, or establish a metaphor, or reveal something about the inner life of a character.
For example, by telling us in the above passage that Ida Elisabeth is drawn to certain bright, lush flowers in full bloom (rather than to delicate baby’s breath flowers, a simple green shrub, or a stately tree), Undset probably means to underscore that Ida wants a richer life than she experiences during her busy days indoors as a seamstress and mother. In the context of the book, this interpretation seems obvious; without a mental picture of the flowers named, however, the reader is less likely to connect the flowers with the more explicit descriptions of Ida’s desires.
Similarly, not without reason would D. H. Lawrence name lime trees, balsam pines, and copper beeches in the poem “Trees in the Garden.” When we know nothing about those trees—what they look like, where they’re found, what emotions or characteristics are commonly associated with them—we’re not going to get much out of the poem. One cannot skip over the types of trees he names in the way a small child can skip over unknown words in a book and still grasp the story’s development. For the writer’s purposes, then, our ignorance of the natural world resembles not merely a stunted vocabulary but the lack of a whole language: We cannot understand what we’re reading on the level the writer intends. And that is a sad loss.