Anatomy of a Rose

by Sharman Apt Russell

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1723


Sharman Apt Russell has labored long and with some success as a writer about the natural world. In her latest work, she seems to have discovered a subject that arouses both her scientific bent and her penchant for lyricism. Anatomy of a Rose is not, however, an exercise in prolonged meditation. A slim 214 illustrated pages (23 of them devoted to an extensively annotated bibliography and 15 to a fairly complete index) utilizing the “trim grace and virility” of Fairfield typeface and presented in a 4.5-by-7-inch format, the book is clearly meant to be a package as precious and as metaphorical as a rose—better yet, as attar of roses.

Russell manages to pack an enormous amount of information into this distillate of received and esoteric knowledge about the vegetable world. She achieves this feat in part by breaking her narrative into sixteen chapters, each of them a stand-alone essay, each of them graced with an evocative or provocative title such as “The Physics of Beauty,” “Flowers and Dinosaurs,” “Alchemy of a Blue Rose,” and, inescapably, “Sex, Sex, Sex.” Flowers are, as Russell repeatedly notes, all about reproduction, and they are no more subtle than she is—especially in the last-named essay:

The jack-in-the-pulpit is considering a sex change. The violets have a secret. The dandelion is smug. The daffodils are obsessive. The orchid is finally satisfied, having produced over a million seeds. The bellflower is not satisfied and is slowly bending its stigma in order to reach its own pollen. The pansies wait expectantly, their vulviform faces lifted to the sky. The evening primrose is interested in one thing and one thing only.

A stroll through the garden is almost embarrassing.

Somehow passages such as this strike a wrong note, taking such an anthropomorphic attitude toward their subject as to be too much at odds with the burden of scientific information they are evidently meant to render more comprehensible. Yet, in what is probably the most affecting, most memorable section of the book, Russell manages to pull this same trick off neatly. At the outset of a chapter titled “In the Heat of the Night,” she introduces the reader to an anonymous man and woman who met “once upon a time” in a public garden in Los Angeles in front of the astonishing—and in that hemisphere, rare—spectacle of a philodendron in bloom. After remarking to one another on the phallic appearance of the nine- to twelve-inch-long flower stalk rising out of the plant, the man and woman are themselves apparently moved to mate, beginning “a conversation that lasted the rest of their lives.” Russell then telescopes their lives, moving quickly to a night many years later when the woman, now widowed and old, finds herself walking through a neighborhood in Brazil, the country where the philodendron originates. Drawn once again to a public garden, she stops before a bed of flowering philodendron, one of which she reaches out to touch. Much to her astonishment—and the reader’s—the flower stalk is hot. The revelation causes the woman to sink to the pavement, where she is at once transported: “the woman heard her husband whisper in her ear. She felt him touch her neck in the old way. Everything that had ever happened in her life was still happening now.”

This sort of thing is exactly what Russell is aiming for in Anatomy of a Rose—an exploration of the ways in which humankind interacts with the world of flowers and why that world means so much. In a chapter called “Phytoremediation,” she discusses the English physician Edward Bach, who in the first half of the twentieth century developed a series of floral concoctions he called Bach Flower Remedies, which were intended as treatments for such maladies and misalignments as “insufficient interest in present circumstances” and “over-care of the welfare of others.” Bach’s potions, which are still actively marketed, are a kind of alternative therapy not just for the soul, but for the intangible energies addressed by such popular but scientifically unproven treatments as acupuncture and deep massage. Russell has some fun with Edward Bach and what she regards as his nostrums, admitting only that they function as a sort of metaphor: “I know for a fact that violets make me less lonely.” Hers is not to reason why. Still, she does go on to provide examples of ways in which flowers can heal humans and the planet, not just contributing their essences to the prescription drugs found in medicine cabinets, but also alleviating such modern ills as heavy metal soil contamination and radioactive fallout. The humble sunflower can achieve the latter astonishing feat, a fact acknowledged in 1996 when the U.S. secretary of defense and the Ukrainian defense minister symbolically sprinkled sunflower seeds over a former missile silo situated not far from Chernobyl, site of the worst nuclear accident in history.

Here again, however, Russell goes awry, sliding from one metaphor to another, somehow linking the sunflower’s role in modern life as both a cash crop and a cure for nuclear proliferation with the ancient Incas’ worship of the flower as a symbol of their sun god. The juxtaposition is suggestive, and there may indeed be a connection, but Russell is not going to tell the reader what it is. Instead, she shifts abruptly to domestic gardens where, “right now,” people are so stunned by the beauty of their own sunflowers that they, too, are compelled to worship them.

The point here—and indeed, in the book as a whole—seems to be that there is a factual basis for the human glorification of flowers, one which people are only beginning to comprehend. InAnatomy of a Rose, Russell repeatedly holds herself up as an exemplar of this truth, concluding an essay on the commercial exploitation of flowers with a vision of herself in a Los Angeles garden center, surrounded by a bounty of blooms which moves her to tears but which also leaves her feeling hollow with the realization that they are subject to genetic manipulation by human beings. With concentrated understatement she says, “I am not always sure what I feel.” She is, here, an explorer attempting to reconcile two worlds, leaving the rarified air of the Sixteenth International Botanical Congress for the flower mart, which envelopes her in sensation and emotion. Hoping to find God—or at least the source of the flower’s essential nectar—she dissects a delphinium. She toys with the idea that the place pure science and pure sensation meet is akin to the medieval science of alchemy, which posited that nature was a continuum in which all metals, for example, could ultimately be transformed into gold. This fundamental alchemical belief was itself a metaphor for its practitioners: If base metals could be transformed into gold, human beings could be transmuted into spirit. Citing cultural critic Jeremy Rifkin’s notion of “algeny,” “a change in the essence of a living thing,” she notes that the new science of bioengineering could result, as he posits, in refinement of the metaphysical import of humankind’s relationship with nature. However, just as alchemy ultimately fell into disrepute owing to a combination of greed and bad science, bioengineering runs the risk of reaping unforeseen disaster: For instance, a strain of genetically altered corn was discovered, belatedly, to produce pollen deadly to monarch butterflies.

Humans, however, are not the only bad actors on the planet. In an essay called “Dirty Tricks,” Russell dismisses as “pure prejudice” the notion that “because plants don’t move, we think of them as nicer than animals,” then goes on to describe a number of arcane bits of botanical chicanery. In a gesture she likens to rough sex, an orchid responds to the gentle touch of a foraging bee by catapulting pollen towards the insect with such force that it is sometimes knocked out of the flower. Other bees lose their legs to milkweed blossoms, so intent upon propagating that they create a pollen mass that is almost inescapable. After providing a feast for hoverflies during its male stage, the water lily changes sex and intention, entrapping and drowning its pollinating insects. Some flowers mimic female insect forms, providing only pseudocopulaton in return for pollination. Others give off a scent of rotting meat that attracts female carrion eaters who lay their eggs in a place that will provide no sustenance for their offspring.

Russell is at her best when setting the stage for such tasty bits of plant lore. In the realm of in-depth analysis, however, she leaves much unexplored and unexpressed. Like many modern nature writers, her work is touched with melancholy. One essay in Anatomy of a Rose, “The Seventh Extinction,” delivers the by-now expectedly grim statistics about anticipated species extinction, set in the framework of her own experience. As she sits in the supercooled atmosphere of the St. Louis convention hall hosting the Sixteenth International Botanical Congress, others in the nation’s cities are expiring from the extraordinary heat of the summer of 1999. To make the point that humans are all part of an interdependent ecosystem, she not only says as much, but illustrates with the plaintive story of a fourteen-year-old boy who died during the heat wave owing to a mixup at the utility company. Russell says that she can see his face as he lays dying, and she sees that he knows he will not survive.

Like the poet T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets, Russell clearly believes not only that all manner of things are holy, but that in our beginning is our end. “A sense of wonder,” she declares, “is not only our starting point. It can also be our destination.” She ends Anatomy of a Rose where she began, in her grandmother’s flower garden in Kansas long ago. Walking naked through a canyon in New Mexico she is at one with nature, and for her, time not only stands still but runs backward: She can smell her grandmother’s garden and rests easy in the knowledge that her grandmother is still alive. This miracle, this wonder, she implies, is available to all who will only open themselves to nature’s secrets.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (March 1, 2001): 1215.

Discover 22 (April, 2001): 73.

The Ottawa Citizen, June 3, 2001, p. C10.

Publishers Weekly 248 (March 12, 2001): 73.

St. Petersburg Times, April 22, 2001, p. 5D.

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