I have just started to read a new book - The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. I have not get very far into it, but have great hopes that it will be a really good read. Well above airport novel fare and yet perhaps not quite at high literature heights. Not far off though. A sweet spot just before good literature gets to be heavy going. It's a historical novel set in Victorian times. I suspect it will be about women's rights, amongst many other things, but, as I say, I have not got very far.
The quote is placed in the mouth of a very young servant girl who looks after the heroine, who, at the beginning of the book is a child. Her mother died when she was born and now she is in the care of her father who works on the Oxford English Dictionary under Dr. James Murray and Lizzie, the servant girl.
The context for the quotation is a response from Lizzie to a question from the protagonist about why she does needlepoint. The response is longish, but to expand on her final comment, which ends the chapter, and is the inspiration for this post, she also says:
"It proves I exist. ... I clean, I help with the cooking, I set the fires. Everything I do gets eaten or dirtied or burned - at the end of a day there's no proof I've been here at all. ... "My needlework will always be here," she said. "I see this and I feel well, I don't know the word. Like I'll always be here."
"Permanent," I said. "And the rest of the time?"
"I feel like a dandelion just before the wind blows."
Those last words struck me enough to want to write it down in my little book of quotes. At the time I just found it beautifully written. Since then I have been thinking about it though and I think it is so much more than that. And it's such an apposite metaphor for these times, and for so many other things. Simultaneously sad and yet hopeful if you look at it more closely.
Just before the wind blows, a dandelion is perhaps in a state of perfection. Certainly as far as beauty is concerned anyway. Numerous artists have painted them in this state - many more than when they are in flower. So delicate, and wispy. So white. Ethereal and fragile. Such a wonderful metaphor for young life. Then the wind blows and the seeds, for these we realise are what those delicate puffs are, fly away, leaving a yellowing dry husk.
One of the greatest artists of all time, Monet, in fact somehow made this delicate collection of tiny feathery parachutes, look somehow dry and desiccated, almost dead. I think so anyway. Maybe he was old when he painted it and could not see past what the seed head was to come. Which is wrong really for they are so childlike and light, and they so remind us of childhood when we would blow the seeds away. His almost look heavy. Which is a bit of a digression. I just wanted to include the painting. Sorry.
So back to those seeds, for seeds they are, floating away to become new plants, to generate new life. And blossom into life they will, for dandelions are tough plants - weeds in fact. Despised and the object of extreme efforts by agriculturalists and gardeners to remove them. But they have survived them all. You have to actually dig them out to get rid of them. Well before the next lot of seeds fly in from somewhere and take root.
Moreover it is a completely beneficial plant really.
"It is packed with vitamins and minerals, full of antioxidants, and is great at breaking up poor soil and extracting nutrients from difficult soil. Ecologically, it is an important plant in the recovery of damaged systems, and can serve as a marker for the health of an ecosystem. Dandelions also provide nectar to bees, butterflies, and birds at times when other flowers are not blooming." Gerry - That's How the Light Gets In
And you can eat it - the leaves are almost becoming fashionable - certainly with the foragers - in salads and stir fries. The flowers make wine. and I think you can do things with the roots too. Really they should be a commercial crop! But such a good metaphor for a poor serving girl in Victorian England. Despised by society but beautiful, necessary even and unnoticed.
It's actually a good metaphor for everyone. For we are all but ants toiling away with most of us not making much of an impact on the world. Well superficially, because we all do make an impact of course, albeit unrecognised both by ourselves and society at large. Particularly women, I am tempted to say. Which is perhaps why this author chose it as a metaphor for her subject.
As to food - well apart from the actual dandelion being, in fact, food and therefore valuable, Lizzie's explanation of her life - how everything she does is impermanent could very well apply to cooking and preparing food. We toil away to a greater or lesser degree, and yet even the fanciest, most labour intensive and inventive food disappears in little more than an instant when it is consumed and basically turned into excrement. Although excrement could be beneficial to the earth itself if it was treated as a resource rather than as waste.
And as to COVID19 - well maybe this is the moment when the seeds are blowing away. Perhaps they will nourish new ways of seeing, new ways of doing, new ways of living. Or maybe they will just sow what has been already. Maybe they will sow nothing at all and we shall be left with the brown husk of the seed head.
Anyway, although when I first read these words I felt their sadness, as I have thought upon it I see the hope that new life will come from a kind of loss, even if it is the life of a despised weed. Maybe that will change too. And if Lizzie thought herself as the dandelion before the wind blew, then perhaps she did think of herself as beautiful. As I said, it's certainly the moment of peak beauty for the dandelion.
I think Van Gogh, who painted this when he was in that hospital where he spent his last few years, and who therefore had good cause for despair, nevertheless saw beauty in the ordinary things around him. Dandelions and trees.
I found this rather wonderful photograph of Dr. Murray in the Scriptorium in Oxford where the dictionary was compiled. The heroine of this book, as a child, hid under the table and rescued lost words which fell off of the table on to the floor. Those pigeon holes contain the words and the quotations that the contributors found and submitted to Dr. Murray for inclusion.
The book is about words as well.
Lost, unnoticed but valuable things.