Nature’s valentines

Poet and artist Camilla Nelson inscribes words and messages into apples

What should garden-lovers send to other lovers on Valentine’s Day next week? The day’s history and amorous origins are entwined in the natural world. It is poor form to send a bunch of unseasonal roses flown in from Kenya or an unecological bowl of hothouse orchids. Young artists and poets are now linking messages, love and nature in ways which romantic gardeners need to exploit. It is no longer good enough to send that attractive analyst on the other side of the office an anonymous box of heart-shaped chocolates.

For the day’s natural origins, read our great poets. Chaucer is the first Englishman to celebrate Valentine’s Day in verse. His superb dream-poem, “The Parliament of Fowls”, presents our feathered friends, the birds, debating their choice of mates on Valentine’s Day, the day when they pair off and have sex. Nowadays, we humans are out with the birds, imitating their Valentine initiative.

Four hundred years ago, in 1613, John Donne’s brilliant marriage-song, or epithalamion, began with a similar theme; the birds which choose mates on February 14. The sparrow, in case you need to know, is the most promiscuous. Donne then turns with unsurpassed wit and beauty to the marriage on that very day, February 14, of Elizabeth, the daughter of England’s King James I. It was an elegant marriage, contracted with Frederick, the Elector Palatine who spoke German, and there were no eurosceptics to deplore it. Instead, Donne develops the notion of the bride, a female Sun, enflaming with her rays the bridegroom, a male Moon, in a four-poster bed in which they will exchange what they owe each other without ever giving receipts or demanding payments in coin. I strongly recommend his lines on this erotic topic to financiers who are wanting to impress a loved one. After a night of credit-swaps in bed, there will be bets, Donne says, as to whose hand will first be seen pulling open one side of the bed’s curtains after 9am on February 15. Will it be his or hers?

Diana Lynn Thompson's artwork includes poetry on leaves

Armed with words from Donne, how should you apply them? The hot advice is to think biosemiotically. The emerging poet and artist Camilla Nelson has just turned 30 and has been patiently introducing me to this new sub-field of communication. Definitions of “biosemiotics” are rather verbose but they begin by explaining it as “the study of the myriad forms of communication and signification observable both within and between living systems”. Scientists tend to look down on the literal use of words such as “signal” or “message” when explaining biological processes. Biosemiotics, by contrast, is the study of the capacity of items in the natural world to enhance communication by their lines, structures or patterns. In short, there is a message even to be read in a mushroom.

Here are some biosemiotic initiatives in recent life and art. In Canada, the respected artist Diana Lynn Thompson has been taking her cue from the lines and patterns which insects trace on leaves. A biosemiotic valentine, with her inspiration, could be a green leaf, perhaps a cabbage leaf, traced with the patterns which are left on it by a visiting slug. It could be sent anonymously to the office pesterer who has been behaving like a slimeball or even to a partner whom you suspect of slimey behaviour without admitting it.

More sweetly, you could trace the trail of an emerging young caterpillar on a tree-leaf and send it as a biosemiotic sign that you want the recipient to come out of an over-protected chrysalis. Diana Lynn Thompson has accompanied her signs with short poems which bring out meaning. She has traced patterns of pine needles and matched them with a wistful text about how “I think of pining, to pine away. Loss.” Try it on a love who is heartlessly giving you the cold shoulder.

Landowners might take a hint from the bold project of Alec Finlay, son of the famous poet and garden-artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. In 2005 he tried to express a message in a corn field, in which words would be made visible, especially when viewed from above. He inter-sowed the wheat field with a pattern of red poppy seed, arranging it to spell out the words “Alien Yield”. Unfortunately, he was a more ingenious artist than cultivator. The poppy seed never came up. However, the idea has great potential. Why not pattern a field of wheat near to your windows with annual poppy seed so as to spell out “Darling” and your beloved’s name? If the name fails to germinate, Mother Nature may be sending you a biosemiotic message. Remember that scarlet corn-poppies are annuals and, perhaps unlike your love, they will not persist from one year to the next. Undeterred by the poppy failure, Finlay turned the wheat he grew into a very acceptable bread.

What about carving a beloved name into a tree-trunk? It is an intrusive and damaging practice and not at all biosemiotic. Already in the 17th century the poet Andrew Marvell deplored that “Fond lovers, cruel as their flame, Carve in the trees their mistress’ name”. The poet Simon Armitage has come up with a much better alternative. He has sculpted words into seven rockfaces along a walkers’ route to Ilkley in Yorkshire’s Pennines. The Stanza Stones project, a collaboration between Armitage, Imove, Ilkley Literature Festival and Pennine Prospects, lay a petrified message in stages along the trail. If you want to carve, carve into stones, not trees or shrubs. You could lay a valentine in the paved path which leads up to your house.

Poet and artist Camilla Nelson

Camilla Nelson has a far better strategy for natural inscribing. Since 2010 she has been artistically marking words and messages into apples. There are two possibilities, to suit the state of any romance. One, she finds, is to cut the lettering into a big ripe apple, a Bramley cooking apple being a good choice. Into it you cut “I love you, Diana”, but she finds that when three or four months pass the words fade. She could even inscribe the words in a way which makes the name the first to fade. It seems to me like a bond dealer’s dream. You can send an inscribed apple-valentine as a sort of three-month romantic call option. By May you can have the name re-cut, changing it, say, to “I love you, Camilla”, or you can leave the original to rot and support your basic lack of commitment.

If it sounds heartless, try Nelson’s alternative strategy. When an apple tree sets young fruit this summer, she will inscribe in beautiful script a love-message into each little apple on it and leave them unimpaired on the tree. The fruits go on growing and the lettering, she finds, swells as the fruits expand too. By October you can have the ultimate engagement-proposal, inscribed on a personalised apple tree where it will be legible, symbolically, on low-hanging fruit.

The poet Ted Hughes missed the point in his seasonal poem “Apple Dumps”. He described apple trees in blossom as “breeze-blown bridesmaids” and the “ugly swellings” of the young apples as “workworn plainness” like “cracked housemaids’ hands”. The Camilla Nelson technique changes them into messengers of love, flirtatious pleaders or bridesmaids to a wedding proposal.

When Shakespeare’s Ophelia sings of Valentine’s Day, she goes on to sing that “bonny sweet Robin is all my joy”. I would cherish that message in an apple, except that when Ophelia sings it she has lost her wits. Instead, my current thinking is that the serpent inscribed a biosemiotic message on the fruit of Eden’s Tree of Knowledge, the one which biblical commentators later took to be an apple. “I love you, darling” or “Massive sale reductions”? I have yet to decide what he put there to be so irresistibly tempting to Eve.

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