Synchronicity is Jung’s concept of meaningful coincidence. They happen to me every so often. Maybe it’s a matter of keeping one’s eyes open for them, of having a plentiful store of meaningful things to connect. Or maybe, as Jung thought, it’s a woo-woo thing.
As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate the things in life which are inexplicable. In a good way, that is. There are far too many things which are inexplicable in a bad way, like mango-flavored martinis and apps about the Kardashians.
When I was a freshman in college, I worked in the dining room, bussing tables, scraping wasted food into the trash, topping off the tubs in the salad bar with ranch and Russian dressing (no, NOT cleaning them out thoroughly each time and refilling them. Topping them off). Even though the sneeze shield was invented in the 1950s, as far as I can remember, we did not have one. (I avoided the salad bar.) I used to come back to my dorm room smelling of fryer grease, my ears ringing with the sounds of clattering dishes. I was a scholarship student, but I still had to work in order to make ends meet, clearing tables for the other girls, who were from more affluent families.
Then, miraculously, I got a job in the library. It was like going from Purgatory straight to Heaven. There wasn’t much for me to do, but I reveled in the stillness of the place. It was the kind of library where people spoke in hushed voices, or not at all. The first task I was given involved using red ink from a bottle to tint the top edge of cards for the catalog. In the Library of Congress system, subject cards always had this red top.
After I proved my trustworthiness at card-coloring, I was put on duty checking books in and out. This was only slightly more challenging. I enjoyed smartly stamping the cards with the big date stamp and filing them, or returning them to their pockets in the books.
I re-shelved books, which required a working knowledge of the Library of Congress system (and the disciplined ability to resist the temptation, when in doubt, to just shove it somewhere). Mostly I sat about, reading and waiting to be given more to do. Finally the head librarian learned that I was an English major. She decided to entrust me with an entirely different and rather mysterious task.
She gave me a key to a locked room which turned out to be the special collections area of the library. Nobody had paid any attention to it for a long time, and she wanted a list of the books that were not in the catalog. The room was lined with closed, glass-fronted bookshelves, and below were locked cabinets. I was like Chef Barber wallowing in a bushel of fragrant, freshly-milled, organic emmer. If the library was Heaven, this was Nirvana.
One of the first things I found was a very old Renaissance book, probably from the 16th or even the 15th century. I didn’t know much about antiquarian books then, but it’s pretty difficult to mistake a book with printing that looks handwritten, bound in huge, heavy wooden boards covered with leather. It may well have been an incunabulum. The surface of the leather was decorated with lozenge shapes. It looked a bit like this:
I never found out what that book was. My Latin was at that time too weak to decipher it, and there was no internet on which to google the words (as a matter of fact, I do not recall a title page). I showed it to the librarian, who scratched her head and told me to put it back in the cabinet. She showed surprisingly little interest in it, but in a significant way, it changed my life. Another of my favorite books was an edition of Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden.
Erasmus was a physician, poet, slave abolitionist, natural philosopher and (yes!) a founding member of “the Lunar Society of Birmingham.” He was also the grandfather of Charles Darwin. His poem, designed to be read by young students of botany, dealt engagingly with the sex lives of plants (they get it on a lot more than you might think) and their classification according to Linnaeus.
Erasmus Darwin contributed more than just his genetic material to the infant who would become Charles. The younger Darwin possessed his grandfather’s humane sensibilities, his keen understanding, his interest in evolutionary theory, and most of all, his instinct to make the wonders of science accessible to all. That’s why The Origin of Species was written not for specialists, but for general readers. To this day Charles’ prose is a pleasure to peruse.
Erasmus classified male plants by their reproductive equipment (ahem). Some under-endowed males have only one stamen, but more impressive specimens have two stamens (imagine the possibilities) or four, or ten, or as many as twenty. These are classified, naturally, by their respective lengths. Then there are all the different combinations of males and females. I was particularly intrigued by the category “Polygamia,” which might involve numerous males with one female.
Volume 2, The Loves of the Plants, had to be published anonymously because of its provocative language. The poem begins relatively innocently, but with a distinct whiff of eros:
At certain points, things noticeably heat up, as in this simile about the elderly Aeson’s rejuvenation in Medea’s fire:
Aeson “feels new vigor stretch his swelling limbs” and the good Doctor comments, “To those who are past the meridian of life… the warm bath for half an hour twice a week I believe to be eminently serviceable in retarding the advances of age.” Gentlemen, take note!
At the time, I did not realize that Volume 1, The Economy of Vegetation, contained engravings by William Blake from designs by Henry Fuseli, as well as an early look at the famous Portland Vase which was being copied by Josiah Wedgwood (Charles Darwin’s maternal grandfather). Erasmus had a theory that it portrayed the Eleusinian Mysteries.
I blush to confess that I only made it through the second canto of The Loves of the Plants. I never owned a copy of Erasmus’ poems (too rare and expensive), and didn’t have many chances to read his books later in my life, though I did find a copy of his masterpiece Zoonomia in the library at UW-Madison, when I was a graduate student there. And yet, I did not forget about Grandpa Darwin. His poetry has never been taken seriously, but I thought it was beautiful, and that he had an amazing gift for versification. He lacks Pope’s sharp wit, but he is very pleasing.
Fast-forward many years, to the day I needed a Google username. If you’ve ever gotten a Google account, you know that your actual name is most likely not available, given the zillions of users. I tried all sorts of permutations of my real name, but all were taken. Finally I just made up a name: Linnet Moss. And behold, it passed the test. It seems there are very few other Linnet Mosses in the world.
The Linnet is a cheery, finch-like bird native to Europe and Asia. It is oft-mentioned in English poetry (in one of his most famous poems, Yeats wrote of “the evening full of linnet’s wings”). I was amused to learn that the bird’s scientific name is carduelis cannabina, the thistle-eating and hemp-loving finch. Linnet does enjoy a toke every now and then.
Fittingly, it was search engines that illustrated for me the principle of synchronicity, the meaningful coincidence. On Amazon, if you search my name under books, Erasmus’ Botanic Garden pops up beside the novels of Linnet Moss. For a time, I found this puzzling, if quite thrilling, as though the good doctor was mysteriously reaching out to greet me from the past. Then I discovered that if you google my name, you will turn up this passage from The Loves of the Plants:
And why did I need a Google username? I was ready to “try my tender song” as a newly fledged author of fiction. So yes, I like to think that out there in the celestial Botanic Garden, the Doctor Darwin is cheering me on.