AT THE GENTLE MERCY OF PLANTS -- ESSAYS AND POEMS
READERS MAY WONDER how we came to include "Wildfire: Berkeley, 1923" in a book whose theme is Hildegarde Flanner's honorary citizenship in the Plant Kingdom. The fact is we've been waiting for years for this opportunity to present our favorite essay in book form, and would have found a way to fit it into almost any theme.
There is a special reason, though, why the Berkeley fire essay belongs in this collection, alongside "Roots and Hedges." Together they tell of the last years of Hildegarde Flanner's mother and the first years of her marriage to Frederick Monhoff. Had there been no fire in Berkeley, there would have been no garden in Altadena.
Such is often the case in nature. When fire burns the California chaparral to the ground, its heat provides the space and releases the seeds for the next year's growth, the next chapter in the life of a plant.
"THE PEOPLE OF California are a possessive lot," writes Miss Flanner. "There are elements of our landscape which we believe to be unique and we celebrate them. They may be local and particular and very seasonal, like a patch of poppies or a field of lupine. Actually, these are very usual flowers, and that is why they create a landscape. In other words, they are indigenous. Ordinary as they are, they are a joy. We live among them proudly. We announce their advent, and we never forget them.
"There is another element in the western landscape which follows on the time of the spring flowers and it also is indigenous as they are. It is in the earth. It is in the air. It is rooted in the chaparral. It lies ready to leap up from the yellow grass of summer. During all the rainless months it is a dread, a menace, and we never forget it. It is fire. We fear it and we hate it, but we settle our lives and our homes in its territory because that is where the excitement of beauty is naturally established -- the richest views, the loveliest valleys. Thus we learn to live with it, not knowing at first but learning in the end that like the innocence and frailty of the flowers the catastrophe of fire is native to this earth and to its meaning.
"At the mercy of -- four ancient words. To how many things they apply."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
HILDEGARDE FLANNER was born in 1899 and has lived most of her life in California. Her books have been published by Macmillan, Porter Garnett, Grabhorn Press, New Directions, Ahsahta Press, Ikuta Press (Kobe, Japan), and No Dead Lines.
Her articles and poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Westways, New West, Botteghe Oscure, Poetry, The New Republic, The Nation, and a host of literary quarterlies. Her forte is essays and poetry of western provenience, with particular devotion to plants. According to Diana Ketcham of the Oakland Tribune, "Hers is the generation that knew how to write. The unpretentious grace of Flanner's prose should make us regret she hasn't published more."