Today a flower caught my eye—a little yellow flower that grows everywhere here at Pendle Hill in the spring, and which I must have seen hundreds of times, but I’ve never paid any attention to it before. It’s the kind of flower you would have noticed and admired with the enthusiasm that I love so much in you. I can almost hear your "oohs" and "ahhs" of admiration.
As I sat outdoors with friends eating lunch, I looked out across the unkempt lawn and noticed that it was covered with little yellow flowers strewn about like clusters of stars.
"Does anyone know what these little yellow flowers are?" I asked.
"They’re buttercups," someone said without much interest as she grazed on her salad.
"I’m pretty sure they’re not buttercups," I replied. "Buttercups are round and when you put them under someone’s chin, you can tell if they like butter."
The memory of buttercups brought smiles to both our faces, but still I wanted to know more about these yellow flowers with star-like petals and heart-shaped leaves. I asked again if anyone knew the flower’s name.
"It’s an invasive weed," someone else said. "We have to pull them up all the time in the garden. They’re a nuisance."
"At least they’re an attractive nuisance," I replied.
All day as I went about my other business, I puzzled about this little flower. Its tiny yellow petals reached out to the sun with such joy and hopefulness. Surely it had a name and a story.
I went to the source-of-all-knowledge, Google, and found images of hundreds of little yellow flowers, but none were like the ones that blanket Pendle Hill.
Later I had dinner with an interesting young African American man named Adam who told me about his spiritual journey. Born into a Baptist family, he had discovered Islam, then explored various African religions, and now was experimenting with Quakerism. As often happens at Pendle Hill, our conversation took a mystical turn and we both agreed that everything is interconnected. We are all One, and yet somehow diverse and individual.
"It’s like those flowers," I said. "We are all alike and yet unique. Each of us has been given a unique name so we can know each other. As God says in the Bible, ‘I will call you each by name.’ When we can name each other, we can have a relationship. We can love each other, as God loves us."
Adam has a beautiful wife with the lovely name Saba and two beautiful children, a boy and a girl, whose names are Morningstar and Little Bear. It’s nice knowing that my new friend’s name is Adam, and that Adam means "earthling" in Hebrew. If I didn’t know Adam’s name, how could I be his friend?
As I wandered about Pendle Hill, enjoying the trees with their nametags, I continued to wonder about the nameless flower that seemed to pop up at my feet wherever I walked.
Not far from the Barn, I ran across O. O is the name of an African American woman who wears all-black clothing (t-shirts and pants) and has a Mohawk tinged with gray. She has a daughter in her 20s. O often gives messages during meeting for worship that speak to and about the mysterious depths of the soul and body. O’s official job is hospitality co-ordinator, but her real position is that of prophet-in-residence. I asked O if she knew the name of this flower.
"It’s a lesser celandine," she said with calm confidence.
I was impressed but not surprised that O knew what no one else seemed to know or care about. O knows everything worth knowing about Pendle Hill.
So I returned to that lesser oracle, Google, to find out more about the "lesser celandine."
Its Latin monicker is ranunculus ficaria. It is described in Wikipedia as a "low-growing, hairless perennial with fleshy dark green, heart-shaped leaves."
Hmm. Hairless. Fleshy. These are adjectives that never would have occurred to me, yet there is no mention of its lovely yellow petals. Who could fail to notice the celandine’s most striking feature?
The article went on to note that the celandine is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring, is found throughout Europe and west Asia, and was imported to North America. It prefers bare, damp ground and is considered a persistent garden weed by many people.
But not by all. William Wordsworth "discovered" the celandine and was proud of the fact that he was the first English poet to celebrate it in verse. Like most of us, he passed by the celandine for many years until one day he noticed its simple, yet striking beauty:
I have seen thee, high and low,
Thirty years or more, and yet
Twas a face I did not know.
Once he came to "know its face," the celandine became a flower that Wordsworth loved and celebrated throughout his life. He identified with its ordinariness, its lack of aristocratic pretense. Unlike the rose or the orchid, the celandine did not expect or need special treatment. Unlike the tulip or the daffodil, it was never prized. Yet it was at home everywhere:
Kindly, unassuming Spirit!
Careless of thy neighborhood.
Thou dost show thy pleasant face
On the moor, and in the wood.
In the lane—there’s not a place,
Howsoever mean it be,
But ’tis good enough for thee.
Wordsworth saw the celandine not simply as a ubiquitous presence, but as a "prophet of delight and mirth." And like most prophets, the celandine is "ill-requited upon earth."
The Germans called the celandine Scharbockskraut (scurvywort) because they believed that the leaves, which are high in Vitamin C, could help prevent scurvy. The English nicknamed the plant pilewort because the knobby tubers of the plant resemble piles and therefore could help alleviate hemorrhoids. I don’t want to speculate about how this herb was used.
Folks in earlier times may have given this little flower unappealing names, but at least they thought that it was a useful herb. Nowadays, we regard it simply as an invasive weed.
Excited and delighted to learn so much about this flower, I went back to the dormitory to see if I could find anyone with whom to share my discovery. A bunch of mostly young students were about to watch a documentary called The End of Suburbia. It’s a doomsday film about peak oil and how the U.S. way of life is about to go down the tubes. When I told them about the celandine, the only thing that caught their attention was my comment that the celandine was a non-native species. This factoid got everyone talking about how awful non-native species are, and how they are ruining the environment.
In a sense this is true, but many indigenous folk would see all of us in the room as "non-natives," and we are ruining the environment in ways far worse than what the celandine is doing.
But maybe that’s being too hard on the celandine, and on ourselves. Maybe we need to see the world through the eyes of a prophetic poet like Wordsworth.
Wordsworth saw the world with the kind of vision that enabled Jesus to say of wildflowers, "They neither toil nor spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."
The compulsive workaholism of people in the United States, and our obsession with celebrity and success, would not have impressed Wordsworth. He enjoyed debunking the pretensions of "great men" by praising this simple, everyday flower known to all, but noticed and appreciated by very few:
Eyes of men travel far
For the finding of a star;
Up and down the heavens they go,
Men that keep a mighty rout!
I’m as great as they, I trow,
Since the day I found thee out.
Little Flower! I’ll make a stir,
Like a sage astronomer.
Wordsworth ends this poem by addressing a flower as humble as an old shoe (or shoon), yet as praiseworthy as a pyramid, when seen through the eyes of a lover:
Thou art not beyond the moon,
But a thing "beneath our shoon."
Let the bold Discoverer thrid
In his bark the polar sea;
Rear who will a pyramid;
Praise it is enough for me,
If there be but three or four
Who will love my little Flower.
Wordsworth continued to love and to write about this little flower even as he grew older and became aware of his infirmities and dark moods. In a later poem, he writes that "there is a flower, the lesser celandine, that shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain." But on "one rough day" the poet notices a celandine that doesn’t close up against the storm; it stands up stiffly in the icy blasts. That’s because the celandine is old and dying. Wordsworth again identifies with his "old friend." "In my spleen," writes Wordsworth. "I smiled that it was grey."
Perhaps it seems sentimental or overly romantic to have a long-term relationship with a flower, particularly one that most people regard as a weed. Yet I feel somehow richer and more complete having shared this experience with Wordsworth. I am grateful to have had the time to commune with the living things here at Pendle Hill and to have come to know the lowly celandine as a friend.
Whenever I come back to Pendle Hill in the spring, I will remember the time when I first noticed this little flower that caught my eye and captured my heart. Without a doubt, a day will come when I am old and gray, and have to hobble along with a walker just like some of the older board members who come here faithfully each spring. Even then, I will remember that time.
Feeling the need to write and reflect on the celandine, I left the room where the young students were watching The End of Suburbia. When I returned I said, "What did you think of the movie? Are we doomed, or is there any hope?"
"We’re all going to die someday," a young man said with a brave show of cheerfulness.
This is true. But when I pass on, I will have experienced the little celandine in all its glory. Maybe at my memorial meeting, someone will remember me by saying, "Anthony was someone who loved flowers and wrote a little essay about some little flower here at Pendle Hill thought to be an invasive weed. What was that flower’s name, anyway?"
When Wordsworth died, it was proposed that a celandine be carved on his memorial plaque inside the church of Saint Oswald at Grasmere. But unfortunately they used the wrong flower, the greater celandine.
Only those who know the little celandine and love it as Wordsworth did would notice or care.
That, my Friend, is the latest news from Pendle Hill, where there are no weeds, only flowers and plants that we don’t have a name or story or a poem for yet.
Apologizing to Weeds, and Other Memories of Pendle Hill
I first came to Pendle Hill around 1985, not long after I first started attending Princeton Meeting. I was on leave from academia to take care of my ailing mother and was also on a spiritual search that led me to explore many spiritual paths in addition to Quakerism. I eked out a living by editing a little magazine called Fellowship in Prayer. One of the chief benefits of this job was that it gave me an excuse to visit spiritual teachers and leaders from various spiritual traditions.
This was, I believe, what drew me to Pendle Hill and to Parker Palmer, who was the director at the time. Parker is well-known for his writings about spirituality and education, but what I remember most vividly about my visit was the garden and the woman who tended it. She called herself "Sara Rivers" and is not very well known outside of Pendle Hill circles Sara spoke very little, but always slowly and with gentle wisdom. She seemed deeply rooted in the soil she lovingly tended.
Looking down from Firbank Library, I can see the Pendle Hill garden emerging from its winter sleep—a few rows of vegetables sprouting up at the end of an open field, with a line of large pines growing up behind it. An old greenhouse/shed stands in the midst of the garden, its white roof reflecting the sunlight. Near the greenhouse is what appears to be the skeleton of a wigwam made out of branches and the remains of a sweat lodge. Someone is raking the soil. To the left of the garden is a colonial-style white clapboard and stone house with a large heart on the door. That’s where the gardener lives.
My most memorable experience in the garden occurred when I had a conflict with my boss, who was also a f/Friend. I can’t remember what the conflict was about, but it was bitter and painful, and I needed some time away from the office to sort things out. So I came to Sara Rivers hoping for a friendly ear.
Unfortunately, she was busy conducting a class when I arrived, and didn’t have time to talk with me. She offered to see me afterwards if I wished.
"If you like, you can join us," she said. "We’re having a class on weeding."
Weeding is a subject I had never studied, so I decided to join the group and find out what Quaker weeding entailed.
We all sat in a circle by the greenhouse to hear her lecture.
"When you pull the weeds, remember they are living beings just like us," Sara told us. "It’s not their fault they are growing in a place that is inconvenient to us. They are just doing what they are supposed to do. So be tender as you pull them up, and tell them you’re sorry."
Apologizing to weeds seemed a little silly to me at the time. But being open to new experiences and new spiritual practices, I decided simply to do what Sara had asked.
As I kneeled in the dirt and yanked out a weed, I said, "I’m sorry." Over and over and over again. "Sorry, little weed. Sorry, sorry, sorry."
This I know experimentally, as George Fox used to say. Upon my arrival at the garden, I had been irritable and tense because of my argument with my friend, but after an hour of apologizing to weeds, I felt somehow calmer and more relaxed. "I’m sorry, little weed" became a kind of mantra. I also found myself smiling at my own absurdity. After all, if I had spent an hour apologizing to weeds, surely I could apologize to my boss, who was also my friend.
After the hour was over, Sara walked over to me and asked if I wanted to talk.
"It won’t be necessary," I replied.
She smiled as if she understood that no explanation was required.
Flash forward a couple of years. By now I am deeply involved with Quakers, working on a Soviet-American book project that took me to Red Square in the midst of a magical Russian winter and led me to be part of a movement that helped to end the Cold War. I am still eking out a living, and still having conflicts with my boss, but now I know a lot more about Pendle Hill. I know it’s the Quaker center for study and contemplation, the place to learn what Quakerism is all about. I am contemplating the possibility of being a student at Pendle Hill, and so I made an appointment to meet with the dean.
I arrive on a beautiful spring day in late April. The redbud and magnolia and cherry are in bloom. I am especially struck by a cherry tree that is blooming in front of Main House. It has been partially hacked down but it is in full bloom and radiant. I walk over to the tree and touch it. I may even hug it; I am not ashamed to admit that I hug trees from time to time. I feel very sorry for anyone who goes through life and never pets a cat, plays with a dog, or hugs a tree. As I commune with this particular cherry tree, with which I feel a kinship, I feel buoyed by its energy. Even though it had almost been chopped down, it is still standing, still blooming, still vibrant with life. It gives me hope.
During my interview with the dean, I learned the cherry tree’s story. Apparently someone had decided to chop it down, and Yuki Brinton, the genius loci of Pendle Hill, had heard about it, and was outraged. The tree was one of her husband’s favorites, and she was not going to allow it to be destroyed. The story so charmed me that I wrote the following poem/song:
Quaker Hymn to Spring
(for Yuki Brinton)
The sunlight seemed to sing out in a weeping cherry tree
that spring day I arrived at Pendle Hill.
Someone had hacked it halfway down, and yet it sang to me:
"There’s that in me no one can ever kill." (Repeat)
I stood amazed and listened until someone told me how
a widow old and small but hardly frail
had hurried to this spot when she had heard the horrid sound
of a chainsaw and its silence-shattering wail. (Repeat)
This tree her husband planted, and it now was in her care.
Some say she climbed it like a mother cat.
Some say she brought the woodsman down with just a piercing stare.
This much I know: this broken tree still stands. (Repeat)
In the stillness of the morning, in the stillness of my heart,
it sings its light-filled song to joy and spring. (Repeat)
I eventually was accepted as a student at Pendle Hill and spent a year there, where I had many adventures. It was at Pendle Hill that I studied with Bill Taber and Bill Durland, and connected with many other notable Friends. But the most important person that I met at Pendle Hill was my wife Kathleen, a Methodist pastor who was on a sabbatical and trying to learn more about retreat centers and spiritual communities. It would take many pages to describe the story of my year at Pendle Hill and what it meant to me. Suffice it to say, it is a joy and a blessing to come back every spring and fall and do my little bit to help Pendle Hill to continue in its unique mission—to be a place where we can reconnect with the Spirit and deepen our connection with people and other living beings.