How to Know the Wildflowers: Preface

This entry is part 1 of 29 in the series Wildflower Poems


It started with a brief, almost cryptic email from naturalist and photographer Jennifer Schlick on January 3rd, with the subject heading “New Year Dreaming”:

So what if Dave wrote poems for these and then Deb made the whole thing into a handmade book?

I clicked on the link and found myself looking at macro photos of 16 native spring wildflowers, almost all of them old friends. Count me in, I said. I’m always looking for good poetry prompts to feed the blog, and these photos were stunners. Somewhere along the line, Jennifer filled in another vital piece of information: that her work was to be featured in a gallery show in Jamestown, New York in May, with frames handmade by a local woodworker. This was a dream whose real-world foundation was already half-laid.

But who wouldn’t jump at the chance to dream of wildflowers in the middle of a long winter? The resulting series, now 24 28 in length with the addition of some photos from Jennifer’s files, includes some of the strongest work I’ve written, which I think speaks to the power of her images. I know from my own dabbling with cameras that photographing woodland wildflowers at all can be a challenge; doing it in such a way as to avoid the easy and the obvious, and draw our attention to the true strangeness of nature, is a feat. These photos compelled me take another look at what had previously been mere fixtures in the landscape, albeit well-loved ones, and to start seeing them as complete beings.

This of course led to research in books and online. For some flowers, it’s the folklore that fascinates, while others’ unique habits or appearances call out for poetic treatment. In my mother’s large library of nature books, I found two old volumes with the same title: How to Know the Wildflowers. Unfortunately, neither book taught what the title promised — since when does mere identification constitute knowledge? But I liked the suggestion that one must learn a method of inquiry specific to flowers. Jennifer herself once wrote:

I can lose hours making my images; an entire day can disappear when I’m in the field shooting. Another day — gone in processing the pictures.

The results surprise me. Where do these images come from? And what do they want me to know?

Unanswerable questions, really, though it’s the job of poetry to try anyway. It would be hard to find a richer subject. Flowering plants are key to most terrestrial ecological communities, and flowers are potent symbols in nearly every human culture. There are more than 300,000 species of flowering plants on earth. Though we speak dismissively of “flowery speech,” as if flowers were mere ornaments, the fact is that without them, we would starve.

The basic fact of flowers’ existence — that they are sex organs — wasn’t understood until the 17th century, and the exact mechanics of flower sex weren’t documented until the 19th century, so for most of human history, poets, along with everyone else, had basically no idea how to know the wildflowers. But now we owe it to ourselves to learn all we can of these most sophisticated and essential of our fellow citizens. Pablo Neruda, an accomplished naturalist, has wowed millions of readers with his line: “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.” To know flowers in any real sense is to understand something of our place in the cosmos.


Note: If you are a publisher and would be interested in bringing this series out in full color, let us know. We’re planning to do something through Lulu, but will entertain other offers.

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6 Replies to “How to Know the Wildflowers: Preface”

    1. Thanks. The series isn’t necessarily over — I have a feeling I could write quite a few more of these, if Jennifer is able to make more images this spring. But the economics of full-color books militate against too great a length per volume, let they become completely unaffordable.

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