Framing a local exhibit: River Life – Botanical Reflections

In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous. 

Aristotle, 384 – 322 BCE

Over the past few months I’ve had the great pleasure of working with local botanical artist, Linda Hamilton, as we developed an exhibit for the Almonte branch of the Mississippi Mills Public Library.  Linda creates exquisite paper sculptures of flowers and foliage and today we installed River Life – Botanical Reflections. This talented artist living in Almonte, Ontario, invites you to see the garden that’s in and around the river and the wet. Linda’s aim “is to create work that connects people with the natural world and inspire them to reflect on that connection.”

We share a mutual interest in plants and in those who capture them in herbaria, prose, science, and art, and this was a great opportunity to meld her refined creations with an accompanying narrative to frame her art.  Check out Daydream Flowers.

River Life – Botanical Reflections

River is blue green with a temperament shaped by the undulations of land and time.  Close your eyes and imagine a wonderous map of water, this country rich in waterways that travel east, west, north, and south.  Liquid life powering nature, people, reverence, economies, and recreation. Water is life and so the stories of a place are shaped by the thrum of blue green where plants are part of the telling.

Art finds a way to see these plants and to creatively capture them in time for us.  Art invites reflection to remember moments embracing the outdoors, informing our worldview, poetry, literature and science – reflections on the blue green world made real.

River predates us – a wildness innate in nature. Stand in this town and sense that great liquid artery, the Mississippi River, traveling 200 kilometers from Upper Mazinaw Lake to merge with the Ottawa River east of Arnprior. This river and land have been known and populated for over 10,000 years rich in indigenous history, and later, with that of new settlers. You stand in that sprawling watershed, in the bicentennial year of Mississippi Mills. You know some of this liquid story – you’ve walked the river edge or floated in or above it.  Maybe you touched the water, wanting for a moment to hold the reflection of the day in the palm of your hand.

But look closer to this landscape moving over stone and soil, to the pools, the edges and those lands close to the rivers. You’ve seen them for a lifetime, see them again. There is a garden in and around the river and the wet. This moving world is a green world – a home for plants. 

Trees soar above the waters; shrubs frame the living edges and bend over liquid beauty; grasses and sedges rustle to dance with the breeze; vines twine; leaves and blooms unfurl. Every botanic story responding to the surrounding environment: the climate, the sun and shade, the geography that it is faced with. Life takes hold on the margins and in the muck, in marshes, bogs and swamps. A seed, a spore, a root or cone begins to journey in and near water to claim a space.

Names are a key to knowing more about plant nature, or maybe, ours. We name plants in ways that have been observed in nature, or where and how we found them.  The Pickerelweed, Pontederia cordata, where it is said the pickerel fish, or northern pike, enjoyed living under it’s shady leaves, that the Anishinaabe people called kinozhaeguhnsh – pike’s plant. Turtlehead – Chelone glabra – look at how the flowers resemble those river dwellers with their mouths open, chelone meaning tortoise in Greek. Jewelweed – Impatiens capensis – known by active names such as spotted touch-me-not or orange touch-me-not among others, in Latin referring to the seed pods that explode sending hundreds of seeds flying away from the original stand.

Watch for the tiniest detail – be drawn into the world around plants: insects, frogs, fish and food – each story linked to the green and blue. That Milkweed is beautiful at all stages and so necessary for the Monarch butterfly’s survival. Willow and bulrush have been dried and made into baskets, tools to make the day easier and to please. Berries and roots are prepared as food – knowledge gained over the years.

There are plants that twine and climb – think bindweed, virgin’s bower, grape – that grow over and around surfaces to frame a verdant scene.  Designed to float, the water lily is home in quiet, cool waters, where tendrils rooted deep in mucky silt grow up and up through blue green – canoes and kayaks slip by and the memory brings on smiles. 

And beyond the green seasons, plants continue to offer up botanical beauty that captivate – look to the tracery of trees against a winter sky; to the red of the dog wood or seedheads poking up through snow.

Our individual time here is shorter than that in which the rivers have run, but we can be rich in knowing about those that live all around us – the green beings: the foliage, the flower, the fruit.

Slow down next time you’re near the tumble of water, the swirl of a pool, the hum of a stream. What do you see? What green lives near you and shares the story of the river? How will you be part of that story? 

I am interested in each contemporary plant in my vicinity – and have attained to a certain acquaintance with the larger ones.  They are cohabitants with me of this part of the planet, and they bear familiar names.  Yet how essentially wild they are – as wild really as those strange fossil plants whose impressions I see on my coal.

Henry David Thoreau, Journal Entry, June 5, 1857