OK, just one more Powells story. When I'm working on a new book, I gather up artifacts related to the subject and build a little nest around my desk with them. For instance, when I was working on Flower Confidential, I started collecting vases that had some connection to the history of floriculture, like a hyacinth vase that allows you to force a spring flower indoors and watch it grow roots and bloom. I also bought a reproduction of an interesting old Delft tulip vase. I tacked up postcards from the Dutch flower auction and collected goofy diagrams of the human brain showing the emotional impact of flowers (this is something a floral association created to convince people that flowers will make you happy, as if you needed a diagram to remind you). And of course, I always had a bouquet of flowers on my desk. Always.
Just as I was beginning to research the book, I happened to be in Portland, so I stopped in at Powell's to look for flower books I might use in my research. I found a few things — a lily-growing manual with some references to Leslie Woodriff, the creator of the 'Star Gazer' lily and the main character in my first chapter, and a good history of the bulb-growing industry in Washington State.
But here's what else I found: the entire library of some long-ago carnation farmer. These books were old and dog-eared and they were all shelved together as if they couldn't stand to be separated. I imagined that they had been shelved this way for years in someone's house, gathering dust until it was finally time to get rid of them. Now here they sat, waiting for their next reader.
I wondered about the farmer who owned them. A carnation is an inexpensive flower and it is also very durable, which makes it ideal for growing in Latin America and shipping to the United States. In fact, there are only 24 commercial carnation growers left the U.S., representing just 1.5 percent of the carnations we buy. Almost all the carnations we buy come from Colombia now.
I thought about what it was like for this farmer to watch his crop move south of the border. I wondered if the farm stayed in the family or if, like so many other third-generation flower farmers, the family that inherited the land had decided to grow condominiums, not carnations.
I bought all the carnation books. I couldn't help it. I didn't need them — the information was outdated and fairly dry anyway — but I just felt like they should go home with someone who would appreciate them and understand what they once meant. They are artifacts, too. I never did read them, but sometimes I would just open them up and press my nose into the pages and breathe their musty old book smell. Would a carnation smell as sweet?
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Amy Stewart is the award-winning author of six books on the perils and pleasures of the natural world. She is the cofounder of the popular blog Garden Rant and is a contributing editor at Fine Gardening magazine. She and her husband live in Eureka, California, where they own an antiquarian bookstore called Eureka Books. The Drunken Botanist is her latest book.
Books mentioned in this post
Amy Stewart is the author of The Drunken Botanist