Good Materials

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Above: Liberty Hyde Bailey, Melons—Collection, 1901, cyanotype photograph. Liberty Hyde Bailey Papers, #21-2-3342. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Also available online  here.

“I am convinced that we need much to cultivate this appreciation of the physical perfectness of the fruits that we grow. We cannot afford to lose this note from our lives, for this may contribute a good part of our satisfaction of being in the world. The discriminating appreciation that one applies to a picture or a piece of sculpture may be equally applied to any fruit that grows on the commonest tree or bush in our field or to any animal that stands on a green pasture. It is no doubt the mark of a well-tempered mind that it can understand the significance of the forms in fruits and plants and animals and apply it in the work of the day.” –LHBGC, pp. 126-7

We might begin an investigation into Bailey’s philosophy of gardening with the quotation you see above, from the chapter “The Admiration of Good Materials” originally in Bailey’s 1915 ecological manifesto The Holy Earth, appearing also in LHBGC, pp. 125-133. Bailey believed that to truly admire an apple, a gourd, or a spear of asparagus, you needed to know something about its life history. He describes an old judge at a rural apple festival, going from plate to plate of displays, and the practiced ability to tell, for instance, that a “stem very long and well set” indicates “a fruit that does not readily drop in windstorms” (LHBGC 126). This living knowledge of the plant heightens the beauty of the fruit itself (see his description of an apple’s beauty at the bottom of our “Apples” page). And such an appreciation is available to anyone with any access to plants, domesticated or wild, unlike the “picture[s]” and “piece[s] of sculpture” that he compares with fruits in the above quotation. An artistic appreciation for plants might be a democratizing force, in that way, and it enhances everyday joy—our “satisfaction of being in the world”—for free. Bailey exhibits this joy in his photographic record-keeping of the plants he grew, such as in the cyanotype at the top of this page and those featured elsewhere in this exhibit. He treats them with an artistic eye—inside and out—even though the photographs were also functional records for his horticultural projects.

For Bailey, the “admiration of good materials” leads the admirer’s imagination onward, beyond the apple in her hand to the field in which the apple grew. This gives the experience a sort of transcendence, but it is a transcendence born of material knowledge and experience:

“The best thing in life is sentiment; and the best sentiment is that which is born of the most accurate knowledge. I like to make this application of Emerson’s injunction to ‘hitch your wagon to a star’; but it must not be forgotten that a person must have the wagon before he has the star, and he must take due care to stay in the wagon when he rides in space.” –The Nature-Study Idea (1911), p. 27

A deep knowledge of the common and near-at-hand (the apple) would lead to a greater awareness of the interconnectedness of nature (the tree, the field, the farmer, the wind in the branches). To the extent that the natural world was interconnected in ways far “beyond us” and our human comprehension, Bailey described it as “divine.” Divinity was immanent, then, in the “good materials” of the earth. Regarding this philosophy, he wrote that “there is no danger of crass materialism if we recognize the original materials as divine and if we understand our proper relation to the creation, for then will gross selfishness in the use of them be removed” (The Holy Earth xxvi, 4). For this reason, he warned that “every process that removes us one step farther from the earth is a distinct loss to the people, and yet we are rapidly coming into the habit of taking all things at second hand” (LHBGC 127-8).

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