Discover more from Cathleen Falsani: This Numinous World
Sunday Stories: The Constant Gardener
The seeds planted in my heart by a professor whose passion for words was matched by the ardor with which he tended majestic gardens, blossomed into a love of poetry that continues to shape my world.
For most of us, the passions that fuel our lives don’t enter them by accident. Someone introduces (or re-introduces) us to them at the moment we are ready to embrace them profoundly and enduringly.
Dr. Rolland Hein, a professor emeritus of English literature at my alma mater, didn’t introduce me to poetry — my parents took care of that in my earliest days with the help of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, Shel Silverstein, Mother Goose, and Cricket magazine, among others. I read and even wrote a bit of poetry throughout my grammar, junior high and high school years, and in the first half of my first year as an undergraduate.
But in the spring of 1989, when I took a class with Dr. Hein, who left this world peacefully after 90 years on March 10, I understood — or at least began to understand — the power of poetry to move my heart and mind in life-altering ways.
While I cannot recall the first poet or poems he shared with us in class or even which class it was, I remember listening to Dr. Hein read or recite a poem and truly “getting” it for the first time. He taught me literally how to read poetry that wasn’t written in rhyming couplets. He showed me how to feel my way through the text, to breathe with the punctuation, to let the words roll through my consciousness like bits of sea glass.
Truthfully, however, the poetic epiphany I remember most vividly came outside Dr. Hein’s classroom, when he delighted the student body by famously reciting “Green Eggs and Ham” during what I recall as a student-run event to mark Dr. Seuss’ death in late September 1991.
I’d read the tale of Sam I Am or had it read to me innumerable times since early childhood, but when Dr. Hein performed it, with his sonorous, honeyed voice and an altogether different kind of interpretation, I heard the familiar words in a new way that broke me open.
If he could make that happen with Dr. Seuss, demonstrating poetry’s endless possibilities, how it continues to open like a blossom each time you read it, what might other poetry do?
What alchemy could my lens, voice, experience and the words of a poet create and how might it widen my aperture, meld my heart and faith, and even the world?
Poetry is infectious. Over the years, I’ve had friends whose love of certain poets and poetry has left an indelible impression. Andrew, who convinced me to skip chapel and head for the late, great independent Toad Hall Bookstore in Wheaton, Illinois, where he pulled volumes from the poetry stacks and read them aloud. I seem to remember him favoring the romantics — Byron, Keats, Blake.
While I was a seminarian and working as an associate editor at Daughters of Sarah magazine, someone introduced me to Mary Oliver. I don’t remember who you were, but, my God, THANK YOU from the bottom of my meatball-wrapped diamond heart.
On my first visit to Ireland 30 years ago this summer, I wandered into a bookstore in Dublin and discovered Seamus Heaney, the poet whose words have meant the most to me throughout my adult life. To my mind, he is the St. Francis to Oliver’s St. Clare. The pair of them have taught me how to read the Book of Nature, how to listen and watch the world, my life, and to reach for words that aspire to describe experiences that feel (and perhaps are) beyond the grasp of language.
I’ve “discovered” many poets by perusing the poetry section of the marvelous indie bookstore in my hometown here in California — Laguna Beach Books — and the stacks at Los Angeles’ unrivaled The Last Bookstore; at the Strand and the now sadly defunct Unopressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books in New York City, Powell’s in Portland, the Tattered Cover in Denver, Women and Children First in Chicago, and countless other indie, new, and used bookstores in pretty much any locale anywhere in the world I’ve visited since I was in my twenties.
In them I have found poetic companions and more than a few prophets. Jericho Brown. bell hooks. Paul Muldoon. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Marie Howe. Padraig O’Tuama. Rumi. Mahmoud Darwish. Luci Shaw. Alice Oswald. Wendell Berry. Yeats. Wilde. Ginsberg. Bukowski. Denise Levertov. David Whyte. My beloved Patti Smith and John O’Donohue. And so many more.
Every time I walk into the poetry section of a bookstore, I think of Dr. Hein.
And each time I do, I give thanks for the gift of having been his student; for his wisdom and passion for words, faith, art, and teaching. For having caught a fire from the torch he bore and for being able to carry it forward in some small fashion.
In May 2007, I saw Dr. Hein for what, I believe, was the last time in person. While we spoke by phone once or twice in the intervening years, I would never again enjoy the blessing of one-on-one time with my favorite professor.
Our visit that spring too many years ago, took place amongst the immense gardens that surrounded the home a few towns west of Wheaton to which he and his childhood sweetheart, Dorothy, had moved a decade earlier. We talked about cultivating flowers and faith, of poetry and gardening, words and wonder, and about the ineffable things that linger beneath all of it.
Here is a gently edited excerpt from the column I wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times based on our last visit, that ran on May 4, 2007:
Gardening is an inherently hopeful endeavor. You put the seeds or the seedlings in the ground, water and watch, hoping that leaves will leaf, flowers will blossom, and fruit will appear, sometime in the future.
This got me thinking of one of my beloved college professors, Rolland Hein, now an emeritus professor of literature. Hein was, to my mind, all tweed and Faulkner until one summer evening more years ago than I care to mention, when I saw the august professor dressed in a gardener's jumpsuit, wild-haired and sweating as he worked in his immense garden that abutted the yard of a college roommate's parents' home a few blocks from campus in Wheaton.
I was shocked to see Hein in a setting so viscerally and dramatically different from an austere classroom at Blanchard Hall — kind of like a third-grader who runs into her teacher at the supermarket. I was simultaneously kerfuffled and intrigued by Hein's agrarian alter ego.
Recently, I watched for a second or third time that marvelous film The Constant Gardener, which has much more to do with justice than gardening, and thought of Hein, who wrote a lovely volume a few years back called Growing With My Garden: Thoughts on Tending the Soil and the Soul. Combined with my new-found preoccupation with all things outdoorsy/gardening-y, I rang the professor and asked if I could come for a visit.
Walking the grounds of his home in St. Charles, where Hein moved with his wife, Dorothy, in 1996, I was astounded at the vigor with which he approaches gardening. It is not a hobby for Hein. Gardening is a passion.
"It would be difficult to live without it," Hein told me, as we walked through one of four huge gardens that flank his home. "Such an infinite variety of things. And I'm always trying something different."
As we strolled and chatted, catching up after more than 15 years, the professor pointed out beds of day lilies, Russian sage and Oriental poppies. More than 3,000 daffodils dance across his massive garden that also includes apple, plum and white peach trees, a grape arbor and unplanted beds awaiting the arrival of hundreds of dahlias — his specialty.
"A person falls in love with nature, with plants, with the process of growing and seeing things go from seed to flower," Hein said as a lone incandescent blue dragonfly buzzed our heads. "It teaches you something about life. It not only soothes the spirit, it brings a sense of peace and satisfaction. It's kind of hard to put into words. . . . It's medicine for the spirit."
It is then, seated at a table in his greenhouse stuffed with pink bougainvillea, phaleonopsis orchids and ginger plants with their scarlet shoots reaching toward the sky, that Hein does something I remember fondly from my days as his student. He recites a poem from memory.
Robert Frost's "Prayer for Spring" is what has come to the professor's mind on this particularly spectacular spring afternoon, and he begins to intone the words of the poem in his low, velvety rumble.
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today; And give us not to think so far away As the uncertain harvest; keep us here All simply in the springing of the year.
Dahlias are the professor's favorite flower. He's something of an expert at cultivating the blossoms he calls "the king of flowers."
What is it about these bushy blooms that arrive in late summer, even though he begins readying the tubers for planting in his basement in February?
"The dahlia responds to nurture, and you can grow them large and impressive, but you've got to dis-bud and dis-branch, and fertilize rightly, and water rightly. It's kind of a temperamental flower," Hein says. "And a person is not always successful. But you keep trying."
May Dr. Hein’s beloved Dorothy, their children, grandchildren, and all those who loved him dearly have all that they need most as they mourn the absence of the great man. May he rest in peace, rise again in glory, and may his memory forever be for a blessing.
Let us who remain on this side of the Veil live as bravely and kindly as we can.
Perhaps find a poem or two and read them today, tomorrow, or sometime soon. Let them work their magic on your spirit.
And please don’t forget, dearhearts, that you haven’t met yet everyone you will love and you haven’t met yet everyone who will love you.
Much love from me,