Madness and Wonder: An Excerpt from The Gardener’s Year

Gardening is a magical and mad pursuit. It’s perceived as nonsensical by bemused neighbourhood onlookers, a ridiculous waste of good time by unimpressed family members, and rather silly by everyone else. Yet, at the same time, it’s a grand and worthwhile enterprise capable of connecting us to the truth of existence like few others. I am drawn to the tension between gardening’s insanity and worthiness, hilarity and wonder. It keeps things interesting.

Czech writer Karel Čapek in his 1929 book, The Gardener’s Year, walks a gorgeously penned line between these extremes. It’s a book I continue to pick up. I read, giggle, ponder and return to the earth with his words rolling around my head. To Čapek, an extremely accomplished writer and playwright, a gardener is ‘a creature who digs himself into the earth and leaves the sight of what is on it to us gaping good-for-nothings. He lives buried in the ground. He builds his monument in a heap of compost. If he came into the Garden of Eden, he would sniff excitedly and say: “Good Lord, what humus!”’

So, here’s a short excerpt from The Gardener’s Year on the wonder and madness of seeds. It’s glorious writing. Thank you Mr Čapek.

Seeds, from The Gardeners Year by Karel Čapek

With regard to seeds – some look like snuff, others like very light blond nits, or like shiny and blackish blood-red fleas without legs, some are flat like seals, others inflated like balls, others think like needles; they are winged, prickly, downy, naked, and hairy; big like cockroaches, and tiny like specks of dust. I tell you that every kind is different, and each is strange, life is complex. Out of this big plumed monster a low and dry little thistle is supposed to grow, whereas, out of these yellow nits a fat gigantic cotyledon is supposed to come. What am I to do? I simply don’t believe it.

Well, have you sown your seeds yet? Have you put the pots into lukewarm water and covered them with glass? Have you shaded the windows against the sun, and shut them, so that a hotbed of a hundred degrees will be produced in your room? Very well then, now the great and feverish activity of every sower begins – that is, waiting. Drenched with sweat, without coat, in his shirt-sleeves, the breathless watcher bends over the pots, and with his eyes he draws up the sprouts which ought to come up.

The first day nothing comes up, and the watcher tosses in his bed at night, unable to await the morning.

The second day, on the mysterious soil, a tuft of mold appears. He rejoices that this is the first sign of life.

The third day something creeps up on a long white leg and grows like mad. He exalts almost aloud that it is here already, and he tends the first seedling like a mother nursing her child.

The fourth day, when the shoot has stretched to an impossible length, the watcher becomes anxious, for it might be a weed. Soon it is evident that the fear was not unreasonable.

Always the first thing, long and thin, which grows in a pot is a weed. Obviously it must be some law of nature.

Well, then, sometimes on the eighth day, or still later, without any warning, in a mysterious, unregulated moment, for nobody ever saw or caught it, the soil is silently forced apart and the first shoot appears. I always thought that a plant grew either from the seed downwards like a root or from the seed upwards like the haulm of a potato. I tell you it is not like that. Almost any plant grows from under the seed upwards, lifting the seed on its head like a cap. Think if a child should grow carrying its mother on its head. It is simply a wonder of Nature; and this athletic deed is performed by almost any shoot. It lifts the seed with an always braver thrust, until one day it drops it and throws it away; and now it stands here, naked and fragile, bulky or lean, and has on its top two such ridiculously small leaves, and between these two leaves something will become visible later.

But what I shall not tell you yet, I have not got so far. It is only two tiny leaves on a pale little leg, but it is so strange, it has so many variations, it is different with every plant – What did I want to say? Oh I know – nothing; only that life is more complicated than one can imagine.’

This essay is an extract from The Gardener’s Year, by Karel Capek, first published in 1929. It’s a brilliant little book.