Photography by Kristin Reimer
I recently learned of a flower shop in Hudson, New York, that uses Mother Nature as its muse. This is no ordinary flower shop, where you purchase items that will die in a week or two, but a display of artisanal everlasting arrangements, consisting of dried flowers in an array of colors, textures, and shapes.
Introducing the Quiet Botanist, where you can smell the aroma from the streets! My background as a makeup artist and my love of color and flowers collided when I entered the space. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but I let my sangomas spirit guide me to the right flowers. Founder and creative director Rebecca O’Donnell, born in Australia and based in New York City, shared that this response is common with guests in her store. Upon entering, they calm down and the spirit world guides them in the right direction. That’s why she created the Quiet Botanist: out of a desire to slow down and listen.
I was always a quiet child who felt a magical connection to flowers and plants. When I was a little girl my mother took me to the botanical gardens. When she turned away, I picked a bunch of flowers and started smelling them. The scent overcame me, and my breathing became heavy. The next thing I knew I was dancing in a trance, but there was no music playing. In my head I heard the djembe, which is an African drum (pronounced gem like gemstone and beh like the beginning of bed).
I closed my eyes, and the smell, sound, and movement took over me being on earth. I remember opening my eyes and my mother just looking at me and shaking her head in approval. When we got home that evening, she said “welcome” and explained that our ancestors were from a very special group of magical healing women called sangomas (the Southern African name for witch doctor). She told me that the trance dance I experienced was out of my thinking mind or an altered state and that the dancing, combined with the gifts from the earth, such as flowers, herbs and plants, was used to heal. In Botswana and Namibia, women would sit in a circle, clap, and make tongue sounds (lay-lay-lay-lay), while the healers danced and danced. That day in Hudson, this is what I transcended to. In Africa, the word doctor always follows the word witch. Witch doctors are healers and respected in most of the tribes. I learned that day that this was my ordained destiny even before my birth (lay-lay-lay-lay).
My fate did not keep me in Africa. The pale tribes came before my birth from Europe to conquer the darker tribes and ship them off to distant lands. Africans were stripped of their names, culture, history, and freedom to some extent. But we were never stripped of our sangomas spirit. The sangomas live in our healing. The sangomas live in our food. The sangomas live in our dance. The sangomas live in our wombs. The sangomas live every time we see and smell a flower, pick an herb, and connect to this new place, our new existence. Our sangomas spirits are still rooted to our motherland.
In Africa, our witch doctor culture was loud! We praised! We danced! We drummed! We made noise (lay, lay, lay, lay). In our new lands we were taught to be quiet. We were taught to be submissive. We were taught to obey. To the pale tribe it looked this way but was never that! Our inner sangomas spirit, even when quiet to earthly ears, was always loud to the spirit and to the earth.
My silence had always been extremely loud around flowers, herbs, and plants. I speak to them, I kiss them, I cry to them. As an urban farmer I grow them and love them. They are an integral part of my well-being. They make my spirit sing, and sometimes my worldly body rejoice (lay, lay, lay, lay). I still pick up flowers, smell them and dance.
In Hudson, standing in her magical store, O’Donnell and I talked more about the Quiet Botanist. She shared that one of her current favorite flowers is the Banksia hookeriana, an Australian flower known to help with fatigue. The energy of this flower is said to give you vitality, strength, and inspiration. Another of her favorites is the bearded iris, which, if it were to speak to her directly, would say slow down, enjoy the process, downtime is essential to keep everything in balance. It would also say call your mum.
I shared that I had a similar connection with iris and its properties of royalty and wisdom, and that when I take in its scent, especially when I feel beaten down, I receive mental powers (lay, lay, lay, lay).
We spoke about our shared creative background. O’Donnell was a creative director until Lyme disease steered her on this new path where she is able to merge her creative skills and love of botany in a quiet environment.
The displays and arrangements in her shop are simply poetic! When I asked her about whom she would create an arrangement for if she could do so for anyone in the world, O’Donnell chose the poet Mary Oliver, whose poem “Invitation” is her favorite. She would create a large, wild foraged bouquet with flowers from upstate New York—Queen Anne’s lace, thistle, goldenrod, and daylilies—that would be hung to dry, and it would express how much O’Donnell appreciates Oliver’s talent. This sounds like pure magic!
I truly believe there is a quiet botanist in all of us (lay, lay, lay, lay).