After dipping into lotus history, a celebrated horticulturist soon finds himself fully in the thrall of an obsession.
Griffiths, editor of The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening (1992) and Linnaean Society scholar, begins in the subterranean vault of that society, where he shows a visiting Japanese scholar Carl Linnaeus’ original notes and samples, including a lotus. Later, in gratitude, the scholar sends the author some ancient seeds with complex directions for handling. The author provides a moving, even dazzling, description of the plant’s initial responses to water and its growth. Before long, Griffiths became a monomaniacal lotus-eater—quite literally: He consumes various parts in assorted dishes—and began avidly pursuing the history of the flower through libraries, archives and, eventually, throughout Japan, where he soon lost himself in the deep history of the plant and its emergence as an emblem of enormous metaphorical and spiritual power in Japan. There are many moments of wonder in this book. A Japanese sports stadium now stands on the site where seeds perhaps 3,000 years old were unearthed during an archaeological dig—a discovery that caused builders, willingly at first, to delay construction while volunteers searched for more seeds. Griffiths tells the story of Ernest Fenollosa, an American scholar who was revered in Japan for his expertise in that country’s history and culture, and whose efforts eventually affected the verse of Yeats and Pound; and Dr. Ichiro Oga, a paleobotanist who specialized in the lotus and led the team at the sport-stadium site. Eventually, though, the author became so intoxicated that he seems to have forgotten a fundamental principle of narrative nonfiction—that writers on a frenetic quest must look back occasionally to make sure readers can keep up. Griffiths will leave most behind as he hurries ever deeper into the tangled garden of medieval Japanese history, legend and literature.
Prodigious research and immense passion both amaze and narcotize.