We get our images from all over the place – from real life, from books, television, movies, YouTube, wherever. Images stick with you sometimes, like wallpaper inside your head, a permanent part of the structure. I read a lot of books to my kids when they were small. One image, from one of those books, was this.
The character you see, Miss Alice Rumphius, had a grandfather who had traveled to faraway places and then become an artist and lived by the sea. She told him, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live by the sea.”
“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”
“What is that?” asked Alice.
“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.
“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.
Whenever I turned to this page, where Miss Rumphius, as a young woman now, goes into a conservatory and lets “the warm, moist air wrap itself around her and the sweet smell of jasmine fill her nose,” I was right there with her. I was in that big glass house where the beauty of gorgeous, growing things filled me too, enveloped me too, transported me too. Almost.
The way she puts it: “This is almost like a tropical isle…. But not quite.”
So she went to a real tropical isle (and I’ll tell you later how she made the world more beautiful.)
I’ll settle for a real conservatory.
Monday was the perfect day to visit the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, Virginia. There you get the real deal – the huge glass house, the pool with fountains, the pathways with multiple shades of green leafery hanging from stone archways…
…the azaleas bursting with color…
… even a turtle scurrying off under more incredible blooms.
But in that conservatory, oh my, you are indeed transported. The wing of the building with the orchids left me speechless. This gives you some idea.
I know you can buy orchids in the grocery store now. Yeah, yeah, flowers, you say. Look a little closer at these flowers! Their colors, delicacy, form, patterning, individuality, splendor! Let your eyes fill up with the beauty of these blooms and tell me if you are not, even in a small way, transported to a place of wonder…
In this same conservatory is a special room for incredibly beautiful butterflies and moths. You enter through one door into an airlock space, then through another door into a larger space where flutterings happen all around you and even on you! This weary traveler used Mom’s leg as a pit stop for a few minutes. She, post-back-surgery, wisely limiting her walking, happily hosted him. Uhhhhhh…. Is it going to fly off soon?
He was perfect and delicate up close.
But not quite as pretty as his fellow flutterers. They were not so easy to photograph. Orchids just sit there of course. These fellows do land here and there, but often they close up their wings so you can’t see their glorious spreads. I caught a few – some on plants, some on metal grates, some on the rotting fruit put there for them to feed off. Again note their colors, delicacy, form, patterning, individuality, splendor!
Whoever made this conservatory, whoever grows and maintains the orchids, whoever protects and oversees the butterfly/moth room – these people have surely done something to make the world more beautiful.
Miss Alice Rumphius, for her part, planted a few flower seeds – lupines, one of her favorites – at her house by the sea, and then fell ill for a long time. From her bed she saw out her window that the blue and purple and rose-colored flowers had come up the next year and she said, “I have always loved lupines the best. I wish I could plant more seeds this summer so that I could have still more flowers next year.”
But she was not able to.
The next spring, when she was finally able to get around a bit, she saw a large patch of lupines on the other side of the hill! The birds and the wind had dispersed the seeds and her one small act, her few planted seeds, had made the world just a little more beautiful.
Then Miss Rumphius had a wonderful idea!
She ordered five bushels of lupine seeds from the very best seed house and sowed them everywhere she went. The next spring, and every year after that, there were more and more lupines. Miss Rumphius had done the third, the most difficult thing of all!
Now let me think… For my part, what am I doing to make the world more beautiful?…
Miss Rumphius, Story and Pictures by Barbara Cooney, Viking Penguin Inc., 1982