I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”  ~Henry David Thoreau

When I was a student at Michigan State University in the 1970s, three natural science courses were required of all liberal arts students.

An artsy kid, I’d nearly flunked math and biology in high school. So I was terrified, initially, by MSU’s rigid science requirement.  But thanks to a very creative counselor who supervised my independent study track, I was allowed to replace the final natural science class with a graduate-level botany course in my senior year.

I was born with a green thumb, so this was both a thrill and a relief. The class required several field trips to outdoor nature centers, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Throughout the term, I learned to identify a wide variety of plant life, and even memorized the Latin names of species. I collected leaves, seed pods, and mushrooms. I sniffed berries and wildflowers. I learned that nature is an intelligent system; more than a thing of beauty in a controlled suburban landscape. Understanding and respecting that system — the miraculous cycle of decay and regeneration — has gotten me through some of the roughest times in my life.

But I digress. Botany was a blast — and guess what? I ended up with the top grade in the class — the first (and only) 4.0 I ever earned in a science curriculum. I’m still proud of that grade, and awed by the fact that so much of what I learned in a botany class serves me well to this day.

My love affair with plants is reflected in the Botanic Garden dish set my family uses now.

Produced by the Portmeirion Pottery company in Great Britain, the Botanic Garden pattern first caught my eye when I was outfitting my first apartment after college graduation. Durable and beautifully crafted, the designs were inspired by original 19th-century botanical drawings, replete with the Latin name of each plant. But the imported dishes were way out of my price range at the time. I was newly employed as a research assistant for a reference book publisher in Detroit, earning an annual income of $7,500.

Margaret, a favorite room mate from MSU who shared the post-grad apartment with me, bought my first Botanic Garden cup and saucer for my birthday in 1979.  “If I know you as well as I think I do, then I’m sure you’ll find a way to get the whole set one day,” Margaret wrote on the card that came with the gift.

I didn’t have the nerve to register for the Botanic Garden pattern when I got engaged 30 years ago; Doug and I thought it was too much to ask of our wedding guests during an economic recession.  But over the years, we managed to acquire a full set. Luckily, the price of the dishes started coming down in the last decade, and we found several pieces on sale at discount stores and Bed Bath & Beyond. We’ve also received a few of the serving pieces as holiday gifts.

Typing this, I realize it might seem silly or frivolous to romanticize plant science or a set of dishes. But at the end of a very difficult week, awaiting test results for my widowed mother’s worrisome health issues, I find comfort in these simple, ordinary pleasures. And Margaret was right. When you want something badly enough and your heart is in the right place, you’ll find a way to get it. That includes meeting academic challenges — and acquiring expensive dinnerware. — Cindy La Ferle

— Photos by Cindy La Ferle —

16 thoughts on “Botanica

  1. Cindy, I beg to disagree with you … romanticizing a set of dishes or a college class is not trivial at all. It is the stuff of life, and in our own personal lives, these say so very much. As a coincidence, we planned on looking for a new dinnerware set today, and I’ll really be looking for something personal now, to tie it in with who we are.

  2. Joanne, Thanks for the validation re the last paragraph. I suppose with all the talk and the worry about Haiti, I am hesitant to glorify these “lifestyle” issues… But like you, I believe the stuff of life is important to our well-being. And I hope you’ll share a post about your new dinnerware too 🙂

  3. Cindy,

    It’s terrific that you wrote about your dishes (I ate off the very same kind at home last night!). Taking delight in our surroundings makes life more pleasurable and keeps us in its wonder. Enjoy!

    Congratulations, too, on your beautiful poetry appreciations. The Jane Hirshfield poem is a wonderful gift, and a new one to me. Many thanks.

  4. I LOVE those dishes! They’re ironstone? I bet it makes you feel good every time you take them out of the cupboard.

    Happy dishes go in the “Life Is Short” category. Enjoying every second, loving how we live, taking pleasure in the small things. So much of life is small things.

  5. As an avid collector of dishes, I can totally relate to having dishes with a pattern that has meaning to you. Think of all the wonderful memories you have eat time you use them!

    Wonderful post. It made me smile.


  6. Hi Cindy,

    I am sorry to read that you had another difficult week waiting for test results for your Mom. It is good that you have little joys to help you be strong in this difficult time. I hope this week is peaceful for both you and your Mother… and that you can enjoy a cup of tea together!

  7. I enjoy thumbing through gardening magazines and outdoor design books, yet I do not have a green thumb at all. I admire people that look at a patch of ground and envision a masterpiece.

    I am so sorry to hear about your mom, Cindy. I wish you hear only good results.

    For the last five years I cringe when the phone rings in the middle of the night. My mom’s battle with cancer is ongoing.

  8. i love that you collected this set over a lifetime… how beautiful is that! and i hope & pray that you receive good news about your mom…

  9. I love teapots and a red one remains my deepest wish. It has eluded me thus far but your heartfelt post has helped to revive the weakening passion to keep dreaming and searching for my red teapot.

  10. I can picture you with these dishes, Cindy.
    And I think that we should always seek beauty and joy. Especially in trying times. Aside from the devastation , I have been quite struck by the “life” in scenes shown from Haiti. They are singing and cooking and dressed in bright colours, living for each moment that is gifted to them.
    I have to admit I’ve been struggling as my husband and I booked a typical beach vacation this past weekend. Were we supposed to take the funds and send them off? Look for some higher calling ? I don’t want to feel guilty for some of the abundant life we are getting to enjoy , but am often torn about how to walk the capitalistic balance. We chose a spot where my husband gets to unplug ( a very rare thing), and worship his sun god, and I get to tour around old museums, churches, and towns. Together we will visit natural parks and have the opportunity to see a culture that will no doubt undergo huge changes soon. Yet there is still the sting of shame. Silly.

  11. Deb, you make a lot of sense here, excellent points. And you’re not alone. I know many people, women especially, who nurse bleeding hearts, and are susceptible to acute guilt when we hear about the suffering of others.

    Yet … when we’ve worked long and hard for what we have, we have no reason to feel guilty for enjoying life’s pleasures, including a vacation. In your case, with such a big family, I think a vacation is essential to your well-being as parents. You are hard-working people. Taking care of yourself so that you can be and feel your best isn’t selfish. I think the antidote (to the guilt we are talking about) is to check in with ourselves — to be sure we are generous and grateful. Generous to the causes we need to support, and grateful for all the blessings we have.

  12. Thanks for the link Cindy. She’s a riot. I love red shoes too. Own one pair. It is old but still got some life. I am look for another to pick up the slack. Hell, I just may buy two pairs.

  13. Cindy, the botanical pattern on your dishes suits you, what with your green thumb and love of nature. Science classes have always been a challenge for me, though I thoroughly enjoyed a geology class my first year in college. There is something about rocks that makes sense to me.

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