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Flowers In Shadow

A Photographer Rediscovers a Victorian Botanical Journal

Rizzoli International Publications


When my grandmother died a few years ago, I was given her formal china, her silverware, a fur-lined lap robe, and her Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition—an old brick of a book, leather-bound, with skin-thin pages and black half-moon thumb tabs. I was more taken with the china and the silverware than the Webster’s; after all, I had much newer dictionaries, as well as a computer that could spell and find synonyms on its own. One afternoon, in the throes of spring cleaning, I decided to get rid of it. Before pitching it into my rummage box, I idly riffled through its pages. I flipped past the color plates showing house flags of steamship lines, and the multicolumned Table of Oils and Fats, and the pen-and-ink drawings of diploids and seed weevils, and page after page of ant-sized type defining “gressorial” and “sacrarium” and “tingle” until I came upon a page—“luna cornea” through “lustless”—that was stuck lightly to the next. I peeled the pages apart. Between them was a small four-leaf clover, all of its leaves facing upward, its long stem curving into a lazy “j”. The clover was still green, or at least greenish, and the leaves were dry and perfectly flat, but hardy and well attached to the stem. A little stain of clover juice was printed onto the pages it had been pressed between.

It was startling to come across these two lives, pressed between pages: my grandmother’s, and this weed, which she must have found—when? When she was out for a walk? At a picnic? Had my grandfather found the clover and saved it for her? Or had some other suitor offered it to her, hoping for his own luck? Had my grandmother tucked it into her dictionary and then forgotten it? Did she pick this page for a purpose? Or did she just place it somewhere in the middle of the book and fail to note the page, so that when she went back for it weeks or years later she couldn’t find it, and never saw it again? Not since my grandmother died had I had such a distinct sense of her—a sense of her as I’d never actually known her, as a young woman with the time and patience to sort through blades of grass, looking for four leaves on a clover, believing in the luck one might bring her. And I believed I was lucky, too, having been so close to losing it, to discarding it, to never knowing what I had in my hands.

Coming across Zeva Oelbaum’s photographs—her meditations on a young woman’s botanical journal that she found by chance—brought me back to that sensation again, that awareness of a long-gone presence, of seeing the light touch of time lingering for a moment on a little leaf, and of reading someone’s history in the flattened petals of a wildflower.

So this is what’s left behind, these things that end up as our real inheritance—the flotsam and jetsam of life, the stuff that drifts into our hands and into history, the chance impression, the little shadow each of us casts, the fragile thing someone carefully catalogues and cares for and then forgets or maybe doesn’t, the image of an image that conjures a memory that is either real or imagined—these are here, plucked and pressed between the pages, so they will stay fresh forever, or forever slip away.


—Susan Orlean

© Susan Orlean. All Rights Reserved.

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