Flora As the Expression of Place

It’s an obvious point, but so often I forget it. Plant life is literally the expression of a place.

What kind of plants you find in a place is a function of the soil, of the altitude, of the rainfall, of the angle of the sun and the latitude of the place. Although… today many places are overrun with non-native plants. But even those plants could not grow there if it weren’t for the climate. Although… humans keep plants that would otherwise die alive with irrigation and fertilizers and greenhouses. Although… most places one goes are either farmland, where the plants aren’t wild because they’re meant to be food, or cities, where the plants aren’t wild because they’re meant to be decoration.

Still, gazing at the local flora with the right kind of gaze can open up the secrets of a place. I was this morning over a cup of coffee looking at the strange fronds and flowers planted in the garden of my hotel here in Honduras (where I am traveling for work). I don’t know which are native and which are not, but I do know that none of them grow where I live in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

After some minutes of gazing at the scene with no particular thoughts or theses, I turned back to the immediate present: to my day, my plans, the time. I noticed the air again as if for the first time, its particular scent and humidity and warmth. I noticed how the face of the india hotel maid who passed me by seemed to fit in seamlessly with those plants and that air.

Later, gazing out a window from inside a boxy, air-conditioned, fluorescent-lit office building that could have been anywhere (and therefore feels like nowhere), I saw some of the peculiar local plants out beyond the parking lot. I recalled my morning revery, and let my mind wander to memories of playing in the forest near my house as a child.

The plants there were cedars, pines, ferns, and lichens. The air had its own smell, moist and clean and spicy. The fresh mist that hung in the air was enough to make your cheeks feel cold and clammy, but not so much as to chill the bones. Running about made your temples sweat, but your nose was still cold.

The ground made a unique soft crunching sound when you ran on it, and there were slugs and pill bugs and spiders lurking under every rich, rotting fallen branch or stump. Everything was bright green or blackish brown, streaked through here and there with deep reddish brown or masses of intense dark green. The sky was grey and featureless, and the mists were ever present.

Those ferns and those cedars can evoke for me everything else for me about that place and time; just as the spiky palm fronds and garish pink elephant flowers do here in Honduras.

That brown-faced maid, with her high cheekbones and narrow eyes, could be the granddaughter of the genius of this place. A Mayan Goldberry, if you will.

For yes, that is what got me thinking about these things in the first place, Tom Bombadil and Goldberry and the Old Forest in the Lord of the Rings. [People often wonder what on earth that chapter is doing in the book, as it seems to have almost nothing to do with the main plot. But it is absolutely key. To understand, look at the question again: What on earth is that chapter for?]


Then another clear voice, as young and as ancient as Spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills, came falling like silver to meet them:

Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather,
Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather,
Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather,
Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:
Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter!

And with that song the hobbits stood upon the threshold, and a golden light was all about them.


In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the other door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feet in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water-lilies were floating, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool.


2 comments on “Flora As the Expression of Place

  1. bgc says:

    As you would probably guess, I love the Bombadil section of LotR and re-read it as often, or more, than any other.

    Probably – seeing what they did to the Ents, by far the worst aspect of a generally magnificent achievement – it is just as well that the Peter Jackson movies did not go near TB or Goldberry.

    I am also delighted by the extra glimpses in The Adventure of Tom Bombadil poems – including the wonderful illustrations.

    What is fascinating is to see TB through the eyes of Hobbits – who are (at his point in the story) so unspiritual – to see their glimpses of something really remarkable – something both high above them and below them. They find it harder to understand Bombadil than the Elves; and even Elrond cannot make sense of Bombadil or his motivations (he is too young!).

    Only the immortal, ancient and empathic Gandalf, and of course Treebeard, seem to have an inkling of what Bombadil is about.

    The strangeness of vegetation. I spent a month in Galveston once, and was quite deeply disturbed by the strangeness of the plants. I had very vivid dreams of England at the time – all moist hills and the smell of bent grass and heather.

    • outofsleep says:

      I have thought often about my own relation to my own “native” state. I put native in quotes because my blood is mostly Scots and Swedish. If I were truly native here, I’d be a Duwamish Indian. But, I note that the climate of the British Isles and that of the Pacific Northwest are, while not identical, rather similar. More similar than that of Galveston, for example. I think I feel even more at home in my home because of this.

      The scene with Bombadil laughing at the Ring is very powerful. One can see his total indifference to power, possession and domination — something that not even little hobbits can claim.

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