If you did not love “Eat, Pray, Love” and if you love a big juicy interesting read, you will love this one, because Elizabeth Gilbert, when released from neurotic navel-gazing, is a smashing writer with brilliant insights
I hated to say farewell to the protagonist, Alma Whittaker. A botanist in the 1800’s [who even imagined female botanists at that time?] she is a force of nature. Raised by an ambitious father and a stoic hard-edged mother, her intellect is prized, and she ends up taking command of the family’s personal and professional lives, including their massive homestead and her father’s thriving pharmaceutical business. Alma takes control of many things, including her libidinous passions, and like so many true intellectuals, she is curious and wise about the ways of the world, in this case the plant world, but often completely ignorant of personalities and penchants.
But Gilbert’s Alma is neither arrogant nor dismissive. She is a student of all things, including her own nature, and she learns from her mistakes with a determination rarely seen in anyone much less a woman of the 19th century.
The title stems from the writings of Jacob Broehme, a 16th century German who had mystical visions about plants, which he dubbed the signature of all things. Broehme contended, and what is commonly accepted among medicinal herbalists and shamans, that hidden clues for human well-being are embedded in the design of flowers, leaves, fruit, and trees. As such, basil is shaped like liver, walnuts like brains, etc.
Alma also comes to believe in the concept of multiple timeframes. Human time as a limited narrative based on collective memory and recorded history. Geological time, about which Charles Lyell and John Phillips had written, that moves at a snail’s pace. She also accepted the idea of Divine time, which is eternal, and she ultimately postulated what she called Moss time, blindingly fast in relation to geological time because mosses expand so rapidly by comparison to geographical phenomena. Over a lifetime of study, Alma “observed these great, inaudible, slow moving dominions of green as they expanded and contracted. She measured their progress in fingernail lengths and by half decades.”
Trust me, mosses, and algae, are fascinating!
Once Alma recognizes that she will devote her life to science, she rejoices in the possibilities: “Alma’s existence at once felt bigger and much, much smaller – but a pleasant sort of smaller. The world had scaled itself down into endless inches of possibility. Her life could be lived in generous miniature… She would probably die of all age before she understood even half of what was occurring in this one single boulder field… it meant that Alma had work stretched ahead of her for the rest of her life. She need not be idle. She need not be unhappy. Perhaps she need not even by lonely.”
And what a life she lives! From Pennsylvania to Indonesia and to Holland, Alma leaves an indelible mark on the people in her midst, and on the reader, and in the pages of this remarkable novel lies profound universal and personal truths, as well as emotional and scientific fascinations.
I read a lot of good books and I can tell you this one is a true winner. Brava Elizabeth Gilbert and thank you.