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The Sweet Breathing of Plants

Judyth Willis reviews The Sweet Breathing of Plants: Women and the Green World, edited by Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson

The Sweet Breathing of PlansWhat girl child has not, during the warm summer months of her youth, played in the out of doors making weed soup from plantain leaves, grass, marigolds, any green or blooming thing. The Sweet Breathing of Plants makes a strong statement for believing that this play is but a natural enactment of the female connection to nature and all things green. The thirty-nine selections of women's poetry and prose that editors Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson put together do indeed bring a sweet sigh of belonging, of connection, and a wonderment of learning.

The subtly named sections of the book begins with A Passion for Plants, with passion vying for first place. Susan Orlean, in the first selection "Orchid Fever," writes that "Orchids arouse passion more than romance. They are the sexiest flowers on earth." Her essay is packed with fascinating orchid lore, as well as stories of collectors, their obsessions, and their occasional spiral into madness, all for the love of that sexiest of flowers.

Located in the same section, Sharman Apt Russell's essay "Smelling like a Rose" focuses on "our preoccupation with smelling good." It is tempting to want to slip the following aromatic tidbit of information into a conversation: "Most perfume today has three odor groups, or notes. . . . the top note is most often a floral scent, like lily or lilac, the middle note comes from the oils found in jasmine, lavender, or geranium, and the third, the base, is the musk, taken from the genital areas of the civet cat or the glands of rutting deer. . . . The odor of urine or feces are, at times, included to define our kinship with the rest of the world."Though Russell is to be thanked for this and other esoteric bits of information on the human desire to smell like a rose, she flies far afield from the art of perfume making. She reveals the genius of a flower's capability to enslave its pollinators and proves in the process that not all roses want to smell like a rose.

In the section Keeper of the Plants: Native Women, Louise M. Wisechild writes of a ceremony of cleansing, as performed by a limpia. The story of the healer, Margarite, in La Limpia sets the stage for the next section, Collecting Myself, which tells the history of abuse and violence practiced against women healers dating from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. Jeanne Achterberg's "Fate of the Wise Women" is chilling for its authoritative research. Also included in this section are the mothers of all mothers of plant women: Marjory Stoneman Douglas writing on the grass of the Everglades, and Rachel Carson giving one of her somber warnings. Theirs is writing that reads new each time: always fresh and always relevant.

The Sweet Breathing of Plants seems ideal for a book club selection. With the diversity of essays and poetry that the editors have included, they have offered up a fine opportunity for holding discussions on such far ranging themes as unlearning the fear of death in favor of accepting, on a personal level, the full meaning of the cycle of life. Then there is the topic of the viability of man and animal sharing the bounty of nature. And how should we view the encroachment of man on the habitat of animals? And must we grieve the good old days when the forests were dark and thick, covered with first growth, or are we living in the good old days of the future?

Finally, it needs to be mentioned that there is a noticeable lack of theories for controlling nature, managing the wild plants of the world, or improving on the world of nature, except to honor and respect the green world we need in order to live. While there is no preaching, there are the distinctive voices of women telling what they know to be true and how they feel in their ongoing relationships with the green world of plants.


Though it wasn't suggested, reading this book seems to lend the idea of giving a young person a loupe for a present on their sixth or seventh birthday and then modeling its use in taking a close-up look into the beautiful mystery of plants.


Judyth Willis is an ex-Midwesterner, an ex-Air Force wife, and yearns for the day when she will be an ex-high school English teacher. Like the Chinese proverb advises, her third career will be planting and tending a garden.
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The Sweet Breathing of Plants: Women Writing on the Green World

Edited by Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson

   North Point Press
   February 2001
ISBN 0865475598


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