Brent C. Dickerson

Copyright © 2000 Brent C. Dickerson

"There is no part of History so generally useful as that which relates to the progress of the human mind, the gradual improvement of Reason, the successive advances of Science, the vicissitudes of Learning and Ignorance, the extinction and resuscitation of Arts, and the revolutions of the intellectual world."—Dr. Samuel Johnson.

(We writers are very thrifty, and very lazy, and like to use whatever scrap of writing we might have produced. In December 1998, I set aside the below speech, intended for my appearance at the Lyon Congress on old roses, without having fleshed it out or polished it, and never took it up again, due ultimately to that great devourer of hopes, human frailties. I am certain, however, that there will be much of interest in it to not only those interested in old roses, but also to anyone with dreams and aspirations; and so I have stitched together for you what I have of it. In reading it, please imagine me at the lectern in front of you, in Lyon, France.)

      Ladies and gentlemen, lovers of the rose, friends, authors, distinguished researchers, presenters, hard-working organizers—what a wonderful event this is, how wonderful to be here with colleagues from all over the world. How wonderful in particular to a person such as myself, whose studies of old roses have brought me time and time again to Lyon in the pages of rose history, back to the early days of rose breeding. I walk the streets here, I see the various precincts, the names, indeed often the very buildings with which the greats of the past—and of the present—have been familiar. Each step reminds me of their efforts and devotion to the plant which has earned our own efforts and devotion—the Rose, the Queen of Flowers! Some of these figures, well-known in their day, are obscure in our day: Beluze, Gamon, Alégatière, Damaizin, Labruyère, Dubreuil—one could go on and on listing these hard-working rosiéristes, so much has Lyon been involved in the development of the rose. These people, obscure to a greater or lesser degree today, nevertheless had their shining moments when they won their successes in the name of our Queen. Others of these hard-working Lyonnaises bear names which are immortal in the annals of the rose, and in the history of Horticulture: Pernet-Ducher—and indeed, separately, also Pernet and also Ducher!—Lacharme, Plantier, and I can mention no name more august than that of Guillot! These are the figures I see in my mind's eye as I walk the pavements of this city. What an honor and privilege to have been invited to such a congress in such a place. I give my deepest thanks to the organizers of this event, and offer my congratulations on its obvious success.

      But ladies and gentlemen, if I may impose on your patience, I will share with you the quandary I was put into by the invitation to join you here. When the kind Monsieur Lemonnier contacted me, I was honored and something more than elated. But perhaps it was a dream. I pinched myself. Perhaps my eyes—crossed and weary from trying to read my own writing—perhaps my eyes were deceiving me; and I gave them a rub or two and looked again. And then, ladies and gentlemen, I pictured myself right here, yes right here in front of you, opening my mouth and saying…well, and saying what? For the truth of the matter is that, in my work, I have only been the mouthpiece of these greats of the past. I have only given voice to their observations, their thoughts. It is their ambitions, successes, and hard work which have brought us together; but most especially it is their ambitions, successes, and hard work which have put me here today. What could I offer that they have not already given you?

      The old rosarians were proud of their work, not only as work successfully accomplished, but also as their work successfully accomplished. I immediately thought of the great rosarian of the first half of the 1800s—Vibert—Jean-Pierre Vibert—a Parisian, I'm sorry—I thought of an event in Vibert's life. Early in his professional career, when he had been in business only six or seven years, Vibert was visited at his premises by a very distinguished gentleman, the editor-in-chief of the prominent journal Bon Jardinier, one Monsieur Boitard. Now, Monsieur was not only an editor of a prominent journal, he was, because of this, a prominent man himself with very lofty connections—it appears that he was in the same circle as many distinguished savants, professors of the Musée, journalists, court artists, and indeed courtiers and other court-figures of the time; Redouté and Thory, who produced that wonderful work we all know, Les Roses, were in this clique, it seems. And so, we cannot suppose but that Vibert, a wounded veteran of the Napoleonic wars still early in his new career as a nurseryman and rose breeder, would have been delighted to receive him there. But let us here from Vibert himself, who wrote, "It was in June 1823 that I saw him for the first time. He returned the visit, accompanied by Monsieur Godefroy, nurseryman at Ville-d'Avray, who justly enjoys a merited reputation. Monsieur Boitard…wanted the forty most beautiful roses I had grown from seed to be described in the Bon Jardinier of 1824; and he did the botanical descriptions on the spot, in the presence of Monsieur Godefroy and myself. I had not requested this favor, I told him; Monsieur Boitard responded that it was nothing more than an act of justice. It was he who, that same day, evincing a desire to do so, named 'Charlotte de Lacharme' and 'Aglaé Adanson'." But I must break in on our friend Vibert and tell you the circumstances under which he wrote these words.

      At some time between Monsieur Boitard's visit and the publication of the Bon Jardinier of 1824, Vibert himself published something—the first cahier of his Essai sur les Roses, in which he discusses—and very interestingly, too—the rose-scene of his day, including such topics as the vagaries of nomenclature and nomenclaturists, and, as he called one chapter, "Error and Exaggeration." Some of the nomenclatural vagaries were those of Redouté and Thory in their great work; and, unfortunately, some of the errors and exaggerations to which he referred were to be found in…the pages of the Bon Jardinier.

      The Bon Jardinier of 1824 came out with a list not of the anticipated forty roses from Vibert, but rather of fifty-five varieties which the famous nurseryman Louis Noisette had to offer. However, without mentioning Vibert, Boitard did include the roses he himself had named, 'Charlotte de Lacharme' and 'Aglaé Adanson'. And so, let us return to Vibert's words: "I must say that it was not without surprise that I saw that Monsieur Boitard had forgotten his work"—Vibert means Boitard's work of botanically describing the forty roses—"his work and his promises… Some [of my roses] escaped this ban, among which were 'Charlotte de Lacharme' and 'Aglaé Adanson'; the reason can be guessed. Still, couldn't it have been stated that these roses came from me?". Couldn't it have been stated that these roses came from me?—Vibert's modest plea to be recognized for his work.

      Vibert paid for his outspokenness. Boitard wrote an insulting article against him, and retained enough ill-will to still be referring to him unpleasantly ten years later in his important and interesting Manuel Complet. The other members of his clique backed him up; another horticultural writer and editor, Pirolle, who eventually edited a new edition of Les Roses, wrote slightingly about Vibert in another journal a few years later—in answer to which Vibert wrote a long and brilliantly-executed pamphlet which I am certain cost Monsieur Pirolle a few nights of sleep.

      This of course all took place in Paris.

      And so, with Vibert's plea for recognition and with his defiance of those who had obscured his contribution both still ringing in my ears, how could I, who have contributed nothing, stand before you and present the results of their work as if it were my own? Rather, let me do justice to him and to the other individuals in the world of old roses; let me call on you to recognize and encourage the work of individuals as arising from individuals.

      We come together here as a group, happy in our shared love of the Rose. Many of us are members of societies or committees, and many of these societies or committees have done fine work in organizing events and exhibitions—our very being here today cries out as great evidence of this. And yet, I ask you, ladies and gentlemen—I ask you, is there one single rose in our gardens—even one—which is due to the work of a society? What committee has bred what roses? Where are they? In very rare cases, different rosiéristes in different circles have thrown together and cooperated; I am thinking of Gravereaux in France and Müller in Germany in the development of some early Rugosa hybrids and Fœtida hybrids. But such examples are exceedingly rare. Ladies and gentlemen, while societies and committees have played important parts in facilitating, publicizing, and providing moral support—all of them important contributions, but, still, generic in their importance—while societies and committees have played important parts, breeding progress has come about due to the dedication, the single-mindedness, the dreams, and the hard work of uncompromising, self-confident individuals. The role of societies, the role they play best and to greatest eventual and lasting effect, is to support and encourage the unique efforts of the individual to follow the beat of his own drummer.

      "Why, Brent—this is what we do!", I hear many saying to themselves; "our members meet twice a month to review each other's work and thoughts, and to encourage them in it." Yes, perhaps… Perhaps that is the intention. But I have noticed something in my experience; and I wonder if you have noticed it too. Sometimes it looks very much like policing for conformity.

      When I first began my research, I quickly found many things which did not add up in the data. I found that many old truisms or attributions, while being mouthed by the insiders as a sort of litmus test of who was the "serious old rosarian," were nevertheless contrary to both history and sense itself. Though I had concerned myself solely with relaying historical facts, I found myself embroiled in something like gang warfare. In one of the most well-meant but appalling pieces of advice I was given in those early days, I was told that I should watch what I said and be careful of whose turf I was treading on. In other words, conform or begone! And this, while we are all equals treading on the turf of Queen Rosa! Groups of people have this characteristic, that they arrive at a comfortable common "truth"—what they decide is truth, anyway—and then close their books, close their minds, their "truth" having become received doctrine. It is a human failing born of the innocent desire to have the security of fitting in and being protected. But it is pernicious. It is retrograde to progress in any field. Boitard's clique didn't like its "error and exaggeration" to be displayed to the world, though it had published them to the world; its concern had gone from advancing the field to advancing the insider's clique. Vibert was an outsider; if he didn't conform, he was to be destroyed. But Vibert was a veteran soldier, a warrior; he fought back. How many weaker personalities with high hopes, creative ideas, and big plans have been crippled, their unique efforts rendered nullities by monolithic groupism? Why, in order to obtain some degree of the facilitating, publicizing, and moral support I mentioned above, why must the free-thinking individual be subjected to a gantlet contrived by the flat commonalties of the "least-common denominator" brand of group thought? Why should progress in any field be held hostage to politicking and the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" attitude? Does this not doom to impotency and meaninglessness the very ideals and goals which founded such a group? Indeed, does it not smother the creative impulses of the insiders in such a group?

      Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of Vibert, on behalf of those who have, alone, striven mightily and succeeded with their great ideas and projects; but even more on behalf of those who have, alone, been squelched and have failed with their great ideas and projects because they were outsiders, or because they were insiders who did not have the individualistic power to succeed on their own—on behalf of these people, I ask you to stop for a moment to ponder two things—first, how you would respond to an enthusiastic young or indeed old rosarian who came among you and would turn everything you knew on its head. Would you encourage him or her?—or would you say, "Well, that's not the way we look at it here; here's what the proven experts have to say about that…"? But, no—don't say that—don't lay a dead hand on new thought. Let him—or her—propound the new ideas, let him develop them, encourage him in it. The ideas will at length demonstrate their own merit; and the value of what the "proven experts" have simply accepted for years will be tested and shown at its true merit, be that high or low. History has had many many laughs at the expense of "proven experts" and their thoughtless disciples! And I address them when I say that it is testimony to your faith in an idea to allow it to be tested; it is testimony to your insecurity about it to protect it blindly.

      But, second, and even more importantly, I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to ponder how you yourself could wake up tomorrow and be that self-same rosarian who would turn everything on its head. I look over this gathering of fine people from diverse corners of the globe, and I see people who, each and every one of them, could return home tonight—well, please don't return home tonight, as our Congress still has a few more days to go!—but people who could return home at some point and, all by themselves, make a wonderful contribution to rose progress—either rose breeding progress, or progress in understanding roses, or progress in furthering our knowledge of rose history. For an instance of this lattermost, there have been many locales in countries all over the world in which societies have done their useful work of facilitating by publishing, in their own minutes or proceedings, or in their local periodicals, news, developments, or observations of concern to the rose scene; such things have been the most fertile sources of the most useful details recorded in my own work. And yet, due to the scattered locations of these minutes, proceedings, and periodicals, few indeed are the people who can travel, gypsy-like, from locale to locale, taking the time to search out and study these old local publications, many of which lie mouldering and going to dust even right now, right now as I speak to you. Will the last copies of such old printed materials decay, their facts lost forever, before anyone rescues them? Before anyone even recognizes them? Perhaps! But how many of you who hear me speak could return home, seek out in the vaults of the local library or agricultural society, these materials, could study them, could copy them, write about them, and disseminate the knowledge they contain? How many of you? —Every one of you! You can be the individual whose contribution will put the final piece of a puzzle into place, or who can provide the world with some new beauty in rosedom. Do not let the social aspect of societies turn you aside from their very raison d'être; we do wrong to elevate the feast over the saint.

      I mentioned "new beauty in rosedom," and I believe I saw several faces look up hopefully, anticipating perhaps that I would put aside these abstract thoughts and start talking about the beauties of Queen Rosa. And it is true that I should draw these remarks to an end. Perhaps I can weave these two strands together! Let me try.

      Ladies and gentlemen, I spoke a few minutes ago about Paris and Parisians. Let us look to the glories of Lyon. I quote from an article written a number of years ago about Lyon's great individualist, the rosiériste Pernet-Ducher. "The masterwork of his life of research was without a doubt the creation of a new race of roses, the Pernetianas… [He] had noted that the roses grown around 1880-1885 didn't have sparkling coloring, the yellows coming from the Teas not being a pure yellow. One day in June 1885, walking the in Parc de la Tête-d'Or, still quite a young park, he was struck by the luxuriant bloom of a 'Persian Yellow' and a Rose fœtida 'Bicolor'. This was a wake-up call, an epiphany which excited his imagination; and soon he had plotted out his way: 'to bring large, reblooming flowers the yellow and coppery tints of these two varieties.' But the difficulties were great, because 'Persian Yellow' and 'Bicolor' had small, non-remontant flowers… Nevertheless, he put his shoulder to the wheel; and only thirteen years later, in 1898, he convoked the rosarians at his new nursery at 114 route d'Heyrieux, at Lyon-Monplaisir, to admire a sensational rose, 'Soleil d'Or'…

      "Pernet-Ducher had the reputation of being a taciturn, eccentric man, especially at the end of his life after he lost his two sons. Undermined by illness, he had some sad years. But he had always detested interviews, reporters, and publicity—and quite often, when journalists would pay him a visit, he would slam the door in their faces!… He always dressed extremely simply, hating pomp, and received the highest personages while he was in the course of his work. Everyone knew to stand in awe of the omnipresent blue apron, with his straw hat on in nearly all seasons as he walked through his nurseries, back bent, hands behind his back, eyes bright behind his glasses. Often, he would stay for whole hours among his roses, observing them, and thinking out the crosses he wanted to make.

      "Despite his difficult manner, he had the esteem of his colleagues, and some fanciers had indeed a true veneration for him. He always imbued the value of a rose with his opinion of the person it came from; and, in his judgments, it was impossible for him to be impartial. Not putting himself to the trouble of beating around the bush, he would state succinctly his point of view, in which he would always strive to say the most precise thing to make the most beautiful rose come out on top. His whole life was research, and the rest of the world had little interest to him. This great simplicity certainly contributed yet more to his greatness…

      "Pernet-Ducher was, for all his life, simply a researcher, and never a man of money. His great artlessness was that of many scholars who never leave their laboratory—he never left his roses. An intelligent observer, a dogged worker, he created beautiful roses for professional and fancier alike. He paid no attention to either of them!—and this is what we should be thankful for. For 50 years, his fame was universal, living like an artist, working like a scientist. It is perhaps only today [long after his death] that we can appreciate all the more the importance of his work. He stamped his indelible mark on the world of Horticulture."

      Ladies and gentlemen, this Lyonnais, Pernet-Ducher, "he paid no attention to" professional and fancier; but "he stamped his indelible mark on the world of Horticulture." In that you have the beautiful and characteristic contribution of the individualist! Wherever you go, I beg you in the name of progress, support such individualists; and never hesitate to be one yourself.

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