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Silence All Around

I was thinking about what I could write about while driving home from the dentist today. I looked into a forest preserve I was passing and thought, “Nothing. I can’t think of anything to write about gardening. It is just so damn gray today”. But inspiration sometimes comes out of being quiet and letting the silence in, you know? So here I was, sitting at my desk, quietly, a little somber, when I looked at a book winking from the shelf, and instinctively knew that Donald Culross Peattie would have something to offer.

For those of you who may not know Mr. Peattie, he was a naturalist and author who was born in Chicago in 1898, went to the University of Chicago, worked for government and newspapers, but spent much of his life in France. He wrote about the inter-connectedness among all living things, about nature’s “head scratchers”, and about wonder, the big picture, the tiny aspect (maybe the little gasp we make when we glimpse a first bloodroot in spring), oddities, and even ugly dis-pleasures. Mr. Peattie also wrote about utopians, botanists, wilderness plantsmen, and the romanticists. Take this sprig of his thoughts, for example: “[Compared to Romanticism]…our aims today are cautious, niggardly, unattached to fundamentals. One science is out of touch with another, and they are all shockingly out of touch with philosophy, art and religion. There IS one-ness about Nature, but scientists are lazy about looking for it. Take the sexuality of plants, for example…”. Ah, Mr. Peattie, you must have been a Scot. Poetic yet scientifically demanding.

Maybe I like Mr. Peattie so much because fabulous black and white woodcuts illustrate his nature books.

Anyway, Mr. Peattie must also have been staring out the window onto a gray December day, for this is what he wrote about today in his book, An Almanac for Moderns [1935]:

“Now everywhere in the woods, silence. There is not a single hum from the fields, of insects tuning up their tiny orchestras. I cannot think what can have become of even the crows; the squirrels today have fled the boughs; there is no scampering of chipmunks; there are no brooks that speak, only a slow dwindling of rivulets, and no pods that click, no sudden whirring of pheasant from under foot. The sky is heavy with unshed snow, and even when it falls, it will make no sound, spinning down in the first great, starry flakes, in silence. Everywhere, only silence…silence”.#

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Meet Jelena!

It’s March 10 and a very gray day (did you turn your clocks ahead?), but I want you to meet ‘Jelena’. She’s a fiery orange flower blooming right now, unaware that there’s still a lot of snow on the ground and more planned to come.

Jelena blooms on what is arguably my favorite shrub, the Witchhazel. Some call this bush, the Snapping Hazel, a name I prefer not only because it captures the look of this exploding, “bad hair day” flower but also because “Snapping Hazel” sounds like a dame I’d like to share a martini and a political argument with. But never mind, the name, Witchhazel, has its own charms. 

The great tree essayist, Donald Culross Peattie (love his name too) who could humanize any tree with his poetic descriptions, points out that it was the wood of the Wych (“to bend”, in Anglo-Saxon) that was once used to douse, divine, or doodlebug for underground water, oil, or gold.

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Note that this gentleman may be using the wrong wood if his extremely worried look is any indication…

Witchhazel is not easy to find in your local garden center. I once went looking for it, only to be told by the garden center manager that I’d never find it. After all, why stock a plant that blooms in March when no normal garden customer is shopping. Good point. You’ll have to buy it out of bloom and trust me on this one. Buy a lot of them and plant them in front of conifers for a real blast of color just when we need it most: NOW.

Take a look at the slide show below of witchhazels being tested at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Good places to buy Witchhazel:
CJ Fiore (Prairie Grove and Chicago, IL)
Johnson’s Nursery (Menomonee Falls, WI)
Chalet (Wilmette, IL)