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giveaway: rooting around for answers, in liz gilbert's 'the signature of all things'

"The Signature of All Thing," by Liz GilbertI’M BLAMING LIZ GILBERT for my sudden craving for a massive writing project to hold me prisoner for years. That’s what I imagine it took her to write such a layered and wildly original tale as “The Signature of All Things,” her new novel. It’s the story of plant-passionate Alma Whittaker, born in 1800, who, “was never scolded for returning home with muddied boots and hems, so long as she came home with good specimens for her private herbarium.” Lucky girl. I had such fun this summer reading an early copy, I bought four extras to share now that it’s out.

Being plant-mad myself, I knew right away that the title referenced the obscure Doctrine of Signatures (later called the Signature of All Things). It’s a folk-medicine-meets-theology notion put forth beginning in Medieval times that God, in an act of mercy toward humans, had imprinted in all things—and on plants particularly—a signature, or sign, that revealed their use and meaning.

From shape, color, or habitat of origin, herbalists and healers could gain a clue to a plant’s purpose—for instance, one with red sap might strengthen the blood (think bloodroot), or a kidney-shaped nut might be good for the kidneys. Some common garden-plant names today still echo the Doctrine, such as lungwort (Pulmonaria, for pulmonary ailments) or snakeroot (an antidote, it was thought, for snake venom).

NOW, GILBERT’S NOVEL is not a musty old book about the Doctrine of Signatures; I promise. Nor is it a book about the other scientific disciplines–evolution, for example–that likewise play roles in its pages. Put very simply, I suppose “The Signature of All Things” is about the notion of looking for meaning—for gleanings of truth, and also for reassurance–in the natural world.

It is through the eyes of Gilbert’s heroine–a child of the literal Age of Enlightenment–that we go on that eye-opening adventure. Alma Whittaker, born three weeks after the death of George Washington, is the brilliant offspring of a rough but cunning plant-explorer father, and truly “her father’s daughter,” we learn: stubborn, uncomplaining, and inclined to “restless inquiries.” (Some of the latter get a bit steamy, as Alma is inclined toward serious self-exploration, too. So much for repressed Victorian sexual urges!)

Alma has what is to my mind the most admirable of qualities:

“She wanted to understand the world,” Gilbert writes, “and she made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance.”

Though her planstman father was of meager beginnings, he made his considerable fortune in the 19th-century botanical trade. Alma grew up in emerging Philadelphia, in “an Arcadia” called White Acre, whose greenhouses were stuffed with the plunder of plant explorers arriving back from shores of a fast-expanding world: treasure like cycads, palms, orchids, ferns, and citrus. She also lived surrounded by books.

mosses in the woods near my houseBUT IT WAS THE NATIVE WOODLAND around their home that drew Alma in most, and where she sought—by examining what are among the toughest-to-differentiate plants of all, the mosses of the Bryophtya—to make taxonomic sense of things, and in the process parse ever-bigger questions.

“What Alma wanted to know most of all was how the world was regulated,” Gilbert writes. “What was the master clockwork behind everything?”

That’s the biggest question of all, of course, and this is a big book, chronicling an ambitious life journey (both Gilbert’s in the writing of it, and her leading lady’s).

Eventually Alma–long a spinster, then briefly a bride–finds herself at age 50ish as a botaniste voyageuse on a boat to Tahiti, off to investigate another form of “why?” after a mishap befalls someone close to her. Her sea captain along the route flatters Alma, his only female passenger, as “a right little daughter of Neptune” when she stays calm in water that is anything but—though by this time we know that terra firma is the undaunted Alma’s true realm.

As a reader, I was glad for Alma’s tireless examination of every tiny bit of moss; for all the days she spent rooting around ever deeper and deeper. I was likewise glad that Gilbert, who has become a keen gardener in recent years, gave herself over to the challenge of this botanical quest.

how to win ‘the signature of all things’

I’VE PURCHASED four extra copies of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things” to share with you. All you have to do is answer the question below, with your comment in the box below:

What book or books with a natural backdrop—whether garden, wilderness, birds, the sea—are among your favorites?

Two of my many answers:

I love the little novel “Birds in Fall” by Brad Kessler, a tale of an ornithologist and others who fall from the sky in a plane crash, and the connections that form when their loved ones gather near the crash site to look for answers. In non-fiction: “The Snoring Bird,” the eminent biologist Bernd Heinrich’s homage to his father, a man of natural sciences in his own right who was driven from the family land in Poland by the Red Army, and forced to flee Europe and start again.

Nothing to suggest, or feeling shy? That’s fine; just say “count me in” or some such, and I will. But I’d love some reading suggestions from you! Winter’s just ahead, you know.

I’ll choose four winners after entries close at midnight Tuesday, October 15. Good luck to all.

You can also order a copy of “The Signature of All Things” right now.

And guess what? I got almost all the way to the last sentence of this post without saying, “Eat, Pray, Love.” Why? Because my favorite Gilbert of all is not that breakaway hit but rather, “The Last American Man,” the true story of Eustace Conway, a modern-day mountain man. Speaking of grand tales of exploration set in nature.

(Disclosure: Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission, with which I purchase books for future giveaways.)

CategoriesNature woo woo
  1. Joanne Williams says:

    “The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert, ” by Craig Childs. Reviewers describe this better than I, but he is an exquisite writer:

    ” Childs writes without Abbey’s bluster, and with a measured lyricism that well suits the achingly lovely back canyons and cactus forests of the Southwest. By turns travelogue, ecological treatise, and meditative essay, Childs’s book will speak to anyone who has spent time under desert skies, wondering when the next drop of rain might fall.” –Gregory McNamee (Amazon)

    “His highly personal odyssey combines John McPhee’s gift for compressing scientific knowledge and Barry Lopez’s spiritual questing.” (Publisher’s Weekly)

  2. Will says:

    “The Song of the Dodo” by David Quamman – A non-fiction explanation of evolutionary strategies and reasons for extinction. He uses examples from across the world.

  3. Lynn says:

    “The Last American Man” is my favorite of hers, too. You can feel her love of the subject (Eustace and those Conway men!), and I loved being told the story like we were sitting together, hearing it over beers one night. I tell this to everyone who mentions “Eat Pray Love.” Thanks for the giveaway. Look forward to reading this.

  4. Peggy LaBelle says:

    My current favorite is “Weedless Gardening” by Lee Reich. I like the idea of outsmarting the weeds instead of spending hours trying to pull them all up.

  5. endless mtns edna says:

    the Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein I read it to my grandson and we have many interesting conversations because of it

  6. Anne Wellington says:

    1. Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper- read to us by our fifth grade teacher, Mr. More, on Elmendorf Air Force Base, Anchorage, AK. Having never been to the east, the vivid description of the landscape will always color my vision of New York and the region.
    2. Call of the Wild, Jack London

  7. Lisa Sypher says:

    I loved The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich — and also her book The Future of Ice. Enemy Women by Paulette by Paulette Jiles is also an interesting and beautiful mix of fact, history, and an unforgettable heroine’s relationship to the natural world.
    There are so many wonderful young adult novels that speak to the wonder of nature– like Each Little Bird That Sings, The Penderwick’s, as well as My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.
    And then there are the poets– like William Stafford and Mary Oliver.
    Oh, the wonder of it all!

  8. Pam Waldrep says:

    I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard many years ago and it changed the way I look at everything. Herbal Rituals by Judith Berger, magical, enchanting and spellbinding, is sadly out of print now. If you should come across it somewhere don’t let it slip away.

  9. Christine says:

    The Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter is one of my all time favorite books which was a gift to my daughter from my mother when she was a tween. We had many enjoyable evenings reading that book together! A classic worth reading.

  10. Eileen says:

    I sincerely recommend Rare Encounters withOrdinary Birds by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. This is a lovely collection of personal essays, each about a different bird. Ms Haupt is not only a poetic writer and naturalist, she is an eco-philosopher as well.

  11. susan mendell says:

    The Secret Garden comes to mind first. I cannot remember the title of one book I really enjoyed, I think it was by a British author, it was a collection of letters between two people focusing alot on their gardens, I think the title had 3000 in it. I loaned it out and never got it back.

  12. margaret says:

    And the winners (who have been notified by email) are:

    Jill, William Bown, Sherri and the Crowded Acre. Congratulations — and thank you all for an amazing booklist that you have helped create.

    I must sit down for a day and organize it for future reference for all of us!

  13. Ellen Findlay Herdegen says:

    I’m past the deadline but nevertheless….Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. I had just graduated from college and began my teaching career on the Northern California coastal town of Fort Bragg. I remember sitting on the edge of Pudding Creek watching a dragonfly ballet illuminated by Annie’s book.

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