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Alice Willits: an essay

A Pink Pathway

Dianthus carthusianorum Her shriek split through the tanker drone along the Thames near Tilbury. My mother had spotted fuchsia-pink arrows, clustered on tall stems in the sun; stems that have the kind of arthritic bumps along their length that cause the whole thing to bounce stiffly like thin old men at a dance. "Deptford Pink!". We were standing on a piece of gravelly, river-side scrub. Behind us was a rough building site for luxury apartments around which the river path had been rerouted. And there they were. Hiding in plain sight. This wildflower, on the extinction red list and thought no longer to be growing in the area, was pointing at us from among grasses and thistles or, more precisely, pointing at my mother. Just that morning she hadn't been able to pull the word "cup" out of her brain but now she saw something else that was lost, and had named it triumphantly. “Because memory – not gravity – pins us to this trembling. And when God first laid eyes on us, She went mad from envy. Because if the planet had a back door, we’d all still be there – waiting for the air to approve our entry. Because your eyes were the only time the peonies said yes to me. Because no matter how many times I died, I always woke up again – happy.”* In Carthusian monasteries, a monk grows vegetables for the community and flowers for himself. I'm almost sure this flower-growing-for-self is a meditation, a personal communion with the plant. I'm told the monk spends most of his time in his cell in solitary contemplation. Once a week these solitary men walk out of the monastery into the countryside for exercise, to talk. In my family we walk and talk to take in the long view; to breathe the good air near the river out of the confinement of city terraced living. Does the monk leave his cell for the opposite reason? To be shown a close-up of reality, of the material, of the there and not there of existence? In October, in my garden, the dying and waterlogged flowerheads of Dianthus carthusianorum prod the backs of my legs like little paws testing out the give of wood. The daring pink petals that cheered me up all summer have gone. Stiff stems lie awkwardly over the bench where I sit to drink tea. I harvest the whole stem, hang them upside down to dry, wait for them to become beige and then release in their own time. Each of these little dark brown seeds holds the excitement of my late mother's discovery by the river that day: the possibility of being seen when everyone thought you'd gone. *"The Body In August", Robin Coste Lewis (Voyage of the Sable Venus, Knopf 2019)

Alice Willitts is a poet and plantswoman from the Fens. You can find her here:


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