I opened an old journal the other day and out fell a dried, pressed leaf, small and red; so dry that the edges crumbled when I handled it. I studied the entry dates of the journal to find a clue as to the provenance of the leaf, perhaps I’d picked it up in Canada. I couldn’t remember, but somewhere along the road I had slipped it between the pages to preserve a moment. I don’t recognise myself in the action, so much so that I began to wonder if someone else had put it there – I’m not a pressed flower (or leaf) kind of person. And – upon writing that line – I question myself: just what ‘sort of person’ would that be? There’s nothing wrong with pressed flowers, (I’m in full self-chiding mode) didn’t your mother used to do it? She made cards from them, charming cards. She had an old-fashioned wooden pressing block: corrugated cardboard between the boards; blotting paper between the cardboard; and then flowers, sandwiched between delicate sheets of blotting paper. Once in position (it took a steady hand), the whole contraption was gently tightened with four screws, one at each corner, and left for a few days. It was quicker than putting the flower between the folds of a thick book (or journal) only to forget about them until they had dried to a crisp. Why was I so judgemental with myself at the idea of pressing flowers? Perhaps that faintly caustic Jane Austen put-down (she was good at them) was ringing in my head; the one where Elinor, in Sense and Sensibility, makes more than the leaves wither when she says to her sister, “It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves.” When put like that, it does not sound like the most scintillating of hobbies. However, as the saying goes: each to his (or her) own.
We do allow ourselves to hold silly ideas and adopt judgmental stances about what’s acceptable as a pass-time and what’s not. Trainspotters get a hard time, accused of being anoraks, peculiar, or dull. Perhaps the derogatory use of the word ‘anorak’ as a jibe for the pursuit of something seemingly trivial, came from the anorak-wearing trainspotters. But isn’t there something life affirming about their dedication to detail? The meticulous records they keep, in a little notebook, of makes, models, and engine numbers. The world needs anoraks – in every shape, form and pursuit – as it is they who come up with unexpected breakthroughs from their tireless plodding and unstinting dedication to minutiae, to marginal and niche areas.
When my niece K. was small, she was dedicated to minutiae. She would spend hours making miniature furniture from lollipop sticks; carving shrunken Harry Potter wands from spent matches; binding the tiniest books, whose paper she had aged to a sepia tone by painting it with black tea before letting it dry. She would fashion miniature tutus for thumb-sized ballerinas from Quality Street chocolate wrappers. What was the point? There is rarely a point when it comes to whatever it is that absorbs you; perhaps the only point is the feeling of magic that descends when one is totally absorbed.
Last year the World Stone Skimming Championships were held in Scotland. I know this because it took place on the island of Easdale, near Oban where I was staying at the time. (I will always regret not going.) I’ve since looked it up and learned that the winner skimmed a whopping 122m, a flat pebble bouncing a distance of 400ft. I also managed to miss last year’s European Stone Stacking Championship that also took place in Scotland, in Dunbar, just a few miles away from my home. And the purpose in either pursuit? None, as far as I can work out, other than fun, joy, a spectacle, watching what you might call eccentric people who are utterly absorbed in what they have set themselves to do in that moment.
John Stuart Mill, a 19th Century British philosopher, influential in the history of liberalism, contended that, “The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.” Drying and pressing flowers is hardly eccentric, but it has set me to thinking: the time has come for us all to nurture our quirks.