Sunday 22 July 2012

The Gift of a Dandelion

The G.K. Chesterton Library has its own web page at last. It is only a modest affair – a free blogspot used to post the vital information about our identity, plans, and needs – but a fully customized web site will replace it once the Library is properly launched in 2013. For the time being this is all we need, and it is there to encourage donations via PayPal to the Trustees or to the Oxford Oratory to support their work in promoting interest in one of England's greatest men of letters and Christian apologists.

One thing that may puzzle you is the emphasis on dandelions. You’ll see there a famous picture of Chesterton graciously accepting the gift of a dandelion from a young admirer next to an ugly brick wall. The page itself has a dandelion motif at the top (along with a picture of Oxford’s dreaming spires among which the Library is located). But dandelions are a pest, and a weed. They are the gardener’s bane – constantly spreading, rooting deeply, hard to kill. Their little golden faces are so lurid they could almost be called ugly. Looking unkempt, they creep into places deprived of human care and attention.

I have seen whole landscapes spoilt by unchecked dandelions (in Lithuania, for example). And yet everything that lives is holy, and Chesterton is a great inspiration to us because he would love and cherish and defend everything as a direct gift of the Creator and an expression of his wisdom and beauty. In his first book of essays, The Defendant (1901), he defended, among other things, skeletons, cheap thrillers, china shepherdesses, slang, planets, and ugly things in general. He even defended defending them in the Introduction. Yet he left it to the end of his life, to the last pages of his Autobiography, to mount a proper defence of dandelions. He mentions asking in his earliest juvenile poems, "through what incarnations or prenatal purgatories I must have passed, to earn the reward of looking at a dandelion."
"I do not believe in Reincarnation, if indeed I ever did; and since I have owned a garden (for I cannot say since I have been a gardener) I have realised better than I did that there really is a case against weeds. But in substance what I said about the dandelion is exactly what I should say about the sunflower or the sun, or the glory which (as the poet said) is brighter than the sun. The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed."
He goes on, this mystic of the ordinary, to defend his whole philosophy of life by means of a dandelion. And we want to preserve his precious words, as dense and prolific as the petals of a dandelion. Others choose more noble flowers as their emblem – the rose or the lily. But Chesterton’s emblem is a golden flower that no one values, the seeds of which were handed him by a little child.

A longer version of this article appeared in Gilbert! magazine. A rather different piece along the same lines – "The Romance of Receptiveness" – was published on the Imaginative Conservative website in August 2013.

1 comment:

    Where I live in Canada we usually also have a lot of dandelions, but I disagree with the classification of dandelion as "weed." Compared to real garden weeds — the really prickly and unpleasant kinds — it isn't fair to compare the gentle, pretty, and very useful dandelion to such nasty weeds. Artistically, I would not call the bright yellow landscapes with dandelions "spoilt". Our grassy areas in parks have been overrun by dandelions ever since the city banned the use of herbicides, but I think the parks look quite nice with dandelions for a few weeks, very much like the vast yellow canola fields.

    Likewise the dandelions in our yard — we aren't using dangerous chemicals to kill dandelions and so I can control them by harvesting them. One can not only eat the greens as salad, or harvest roots for medicinal purposes or coffee substitute, but it is possible to make dandelion honey or pancake syrup or even dandelion wine, something Chesterton may not have been aware of, but surely would have approved of. Besides, it is apparently also used in the traditional English root beer. And believe me one needs a lot of dandelion flowers to make a few gallons of good dandelion wine. In fact, this year I am disappointed, because we have hardly had any dandelions due to extremely wet weather.

    As a garden weed, dandelion is considered a "beneficial weed", (which is an oxymoron), or rather a good companion plant, because its roots will bring up nutrients for plants with shallower roots, its roots also add nitrogen and minerals to the soil, the flowers attract pollinating insects, and since the plant releases ethylene, dandelion aids fruit ripening.

    Historically, dandelion is a very valuable medicinal plant, one that can prevent or treat numerous diseases, as you can easily find out on the Internet. Dandelion is an excellent source of essential nutrients and it is one of the best sources of vitamin K, especially considering that all artificial forms of the vitamin have some toxicity. The newest medical research shows that it may be effective even for treating cancer and leukemia, see the link below.

    Perhaps Chesterton wasn't consciously aware of dandelion's usefulness, but one could hardly find a better symbolic flower signifying Distributism with all its aspects — hardiness, beauty (as even its old English name indicates), food, thriftiness, medicine, healing, honey, wine, etc. Besides, the image of millions of dandelions is very much like Walt Whitman's image of the leaves of grass signifying democracy.