Marvels at Our Feet

Introduction | Exhibit Homepage | Credits

Above: “Trifolium repens—the White Clover,” in L. H. Bailey, ed., Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (1947), vol. III, fig. 3842, and also in LHBGC, p. 91. Below: Liberty Hyde Bailey with Hortorium Specimens, 1949. Liberty Hyde Bailey Papers, #21-2-3342. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Also available online here, and in LHBGC, back cover flap. Liberty Hyde Bailey in Trinidad on a palm collecting trip, 1921. Liberty Hyde Bailey Papers, #21-2-3342. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Also available online here.

“Everyone should be put in contact with the mystery of life that stands stark before us but which we do not apprehend. It is in every leaf, every growing thing, every pulse of life, every foot of earth on the planet. The rapture of life grows as our knowledge grows. It is unnecessary to go to far-away places to see marvels. The mystery is always at our door.” –LHBGC, p. 217

During his most productive years, in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Bailey became heavily involved in a number of social movements aimed at bettering the living conditions in rural areas and empowering cooperative farm communities. Sometimes he has been criticized for moving away from such work after retiring and focusing more on botanical collecting and taxonomy—one scholar described this as Bailey’s “retreat to the brambles,” referring to Bailey’s fascination with Rubus, the genus including raspberries and blackberries. On the right, we see him in 1949, the year he turned ninety-one, surrounded by specimens he had collected from around the world. He was sitting for a Life Magazine photoshoot, for an article profiling the nonagenarian globetrotter who had missed his ninetieth birthday party while on a palm collecting trip in the Caribbean. But labeling his long, productive retirement as a retreat to the brambles would seem to miss the relationship Bailey always felt between his horticultural work and his social/philosophical work.

After Bailey retired from his position as Dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University in 1913, he did begin to devote more time to botanical collecting and building up his horticultural herbarium (a collection of dried plant specimens used for taxonomic identification). He published many articles on the cultivated plants he studied, but not just academic papers—he continued publishing literary garden writing in many popular magazines and journals (in fact, twenty-eight out of the fifty selections included in LHBGC were written or published in Bailey’s retirement years). Between 1915 and 1928, he published his series of seven “Background Books” outlining the philosophy behind his understanding of the nature-study and country life movements. He edited the monumental Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, an updated reworking of his earlier Cyclopedia of American Horticulture which would continue to serve as a standard reference for gardeners and horticulturists throughout the twentieth century, and produced a number of other practical reference works like The Pruning-Manual (1916), The Cultivated Evergreens (1923), Hortus (1930), and Gardener’s Handbook (1934), and he edited dozens of reference works for Macmillan’s various series on farming and gardening, all of which would provide authoritative information for people engaged in practical life in the country. With his daughter Ethel, he compiled four volumes of a series he called RUS, a biographical register of rural leadership in the U.S. and Canada, from 1918-1930. He wrote educational books like The School-Book of Farming (1920) and How Plants Get Their Names (1933). And he wrote his series of four Garden Books (1937-1953), discussed in the section of the exhibition titled The Plants, which brought together art and science with prominent illustrations by artists like Florence Mekeel and Elizabeth Burckmyer. He had stepped away from administrative duties, which his daughter later reported had driven him close to a nervous breakdown, at the age of fifty-five, but for forty more years he devoted himself to work meant to help anyone who wanted to tend a bit of the earth and become better acquainted with the plants that they grew.

Bailey enjoyed traveling around the world in his retirement, seeking to make sense out of the taxonomic puzzles presented by plant families related to human cultivation, like the palms, Rubus, the gourds, and many others. But he always came home to the land, to his gardens and greenhouses at Sage Place. He sold off most of his Bailiwick farm, but he kept the lake-facing portion as a summer home for years, eventually donating it to become part of a Girl Scout camp that is still active to this day. As his late-life writings attest, he continued to find satisfaction in gardening and wonder in nature into his last years.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s spurred a resurgence of activism around issues of land conservation which continued through the 1940s. Part of this was due to the advocacy of The Friends of the Land, an alliance of farmers, ecologists, writers, and artists who disseminated information on land stewardship and published a quarterly journal titled The Land. When the group was first forming, they came to old Dean Bailey, then well into his eighties, for advice.

Bailey was encouraging, noting that it reminded him of an old proposal he had written for a “Society of the Holy Earth.” The editor of The Land, Russell Lord, sent a copy of the first issue to Bailey, whose grateful letter in response was published in the second issue of the magazine. Five years later, at the age of eighty-seven, Bailey contributed an essay to The Land titled “Marvels at Our Feet,” which along with the brief manifesto for “Society of the Holy Earth” forms the epilogue to LHBGC. As he describes in the quotation from “Marvels” at the top of this page, he continued to find life itself to be a “mystery,” and one that invited endless discovery in every encounter with “every leaf, every growing thing, every pulse of life, every foot of earth on the planet.” He had continued to marvel at the wonders that presented themselves to him every year in his garden, across the decades, since that first garden of pinks left to him by his mother, and continued to insist that “everyone” deserved to be put in contact with that “garden sentiment.” At the end of that 1945 essay, he wrote:

“We deceive ourselves if we turn from the essentials and try to satisfy ourselves with the small and trivial gratifications of this age. Let us look more closely about us and see how good are the common things, how marvelous are all things made at the beginning. The meaning of life is in its beauty. And ten thousand years from now children will call across the centuries that the world is young, that the sunshine is good, that love and faith, and mystery and the buoyancy of life are the only realities.”

Liberty Hyde Bailey, in LHBGC, p. 224
W. S. Holdsworth, “The Botanist’s Resort on a Rainy Day,” in L. H. Bailey, Lessons with Plants (1906), fig. 439, and also in LHBGC, p. 213.

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