The Sunflower Hill Chronicles, Part 4: Viriditas
By Birgitta Jansen
April 8, 2022
Today is a quiet day. The sky is overcast, the temperature is neither warm nor cold, and once in a while I can feel the wind exhale. A raven flies high overhead, calling out but receiving no reply that I can hear.
I set out on Campground Trail. It’s a short uphill trek to reach Jimmy Russell Road, where I stop for a moment to ponder the question: do I turn right or left, or go straight? In the past I could only turn left or right, since the little trail up the hill wasn’t there six or seven years ago. It’s a wildlife trail that developed one winter and was quickly appropriated the following spring by Homo sapiens, usually accompanied by one or two domesticated members of the canine family.
Today I opt to turn right, walk through the woods, and make my way up the hill. At first blush, the landscape looks a little dreary, so I plan to just enjoy the walk and not have many expectations. But then I stop to look at the mountains, the clouds, and the hill, and notice the green grasses emerging between the brown shrubs and rocks. A word comes to mind: viriditas. As I continue to put one foot in front of another, I contemplate viriditas and how the evidence of it, the greening of the landscape and new growth, is emerging. More about the concept of viriditas later.
Continuing on my walk, I find the willow shrubs that I photographed not long ago. They look even more devastated than the last time I visited them. Most of the ends of the branches are chewed off, but the culprits left some evidence: multiple heaps of black pellets.
It has not been an easy winter for the ungulates and probably wildlife in general. But as I mosey on, I find a shrub that is probably more than 10 feet tall. On the highest branches, I can see an abundance of catkins. I point my camera up.
Not long thereafter, down Duck Pond Trail I go. A narrow trail of bare soil meanders through the remaining layer of melting snow and ice. Before I reach the intersection with Jimmy Russell Road, I turn left onto the little game trail to reach Campground Trail and I am suddenly reminded of viriditas once again. The kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) I see along the trail is a luscious, vibrant green. You can look at those healthy, shiny little leaves and know that photosynthesis is happening. Little flower buds are already forming. Here is the power of plants in full view. Once I’m done admiring it, I move on.
A few more steps and I’m stopped again as my eyes gaze upon a western spring beauty (Claytonia lanceolata). Somehow seeing this little flower moves me deeply. Then I wonder about pollinators. Thus far I’ve seen very few insects around.
I cross Jimmy Russell Road and I find myself busily navigating the ice, mud, water, and snow as I cautiously make my way down Campground Trail. That mud is slippery. But then I spot a little spring garden.
Did I really think this was a dreary day with not much happening? I couldn’t have been more wrong. Viriditas is evident everywhere! It is a celebration of life coming into being as it has in different forms for millions of years.
When I’m back home, I do a little more checking into the concept of viriditas. I email Hans Bork, Assistant Professor of the Classics at Stanford University. He kindly provides me with the literal interpretation. Viriditas (a noun), is derived from the Latin verbal root, vireo, that indicates a specific quality. In this case, it literally means “greenness.” He adds that the use of the word was later extended to “vigor, living and vibrant.” And this is where Hildegard von Bingen comes in.
Viriditas was used in antiquity, but the concept seems to have been popularized by a remarkable woman, Hildegard von Bingen. She was a German Benedictine abbess and a mystic, author, artist, and medical practitioner in the 1100s. Hildegard referred to the term often in her writing but employed a variety of meanings. To her, it wasn’t only related to growth, greenness, vitality, and fruitfulness, but also had spiritual and theological connotations.
Fast-forward to current times. Physician and medical historian Victoria Sweet has explained that Hildegard von Bingen used the word viriditas in the broadest sense: the unifying force of nature which propels all life, and the creative power of life. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a biologist and Indigenous author, is of like mind and refers to the concept as the power of plants to grow, to put forth seeds and fruits, to heal and be healed. Perhaps most important to Wall Kimmerer is viriditas as a force of kinship because the urge to live is a force that all biological beings share.
In my mind’s eye I can still see the vibrant green of the kinnikinnick, and I an awed by the power of plants, the power of all life, the wonder of it all.