Karel Čapek (CHOPek; 1890-1938) is one of the greatest writers the Czech Republic has ever produced. A novelist, playwright, journalist, translator, and artist, he gained worldwide renown as author of the drama "RUR Rossum's Universal Robots." In this science fiction play, the word "robot" is introduced and subsequently becomes part of the vocabulary of almost all languages in the world. It is said to have been coined by his brother, Josef.
Born in Malé Svatoňovice, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary (now Czech Republic), Čapek is considered one of the founders of classical, European science fiction. Although many of the themes in his diverse writings are quite serious--he explores ethical aspects and other issues related to mass production, atomic weapons, Nazism, and development of mechanical intelligent beings--Čapek had an oft-overlooked humorous side. And he was a passionate gardener!
In a small, 120-page tome called The Gardener's Year (original Czech version: Prague, 1929; English version: London, 1931, Modern Library paperback: New York, 2002), Čapek partners his humorous side with his passion for gardening. The result is a charming treatise, full of wit and hilarity, that plays on the the psychology of gardening and gardeners. He pokes fun not only at other gardeners but, being one, at himself as well. Here is a sampling of his tongue-in-cheek humor:
On How to Recognize a Real Gardener
On Garden Hoses
"One would think that watering a little garden is quite a simple thing, especially if one has a hose. It will soon be clear that until it has been tamed, a hose is an extraordinarily evasive and dangerous beast, for it contorts itself, it jumps, it wriggles, it makes puddles of water, and dives with delight into the mess it has made; then it goes for the man who is going to use it and coils itself round his legs, you must hold it down with your foot and then it rears and twists round your waist and neck, and while you are fighting with it as with a cobra, the monster turns up its brass mouth and projects a mighty stream of water through the windows on the curtains which have been recently hung...Three men are needed to tame it at first, and they all leave the place of battle splashed to the ears with mud and drenched with water."
On Unexpected Cold Spells
"If I knew that it would help, I would wrap my holly in my own coat, and draw my pants over the juniper; I would take off my own shirt for you, Azalea pontica; I would cover you with my hat, Alum Root, and for you Coreopsis, nothing is left but my socks: be thankful for them."
On Starting Seedlings
"Well, have you sown your seeds yet? Have you put your pots into lukewarm water and covered them with glass? ...Very well then, now the great and feverish activity of every sower begins--that is, waiting...
The first day nothing comes up, and the watcher tosses in his bed at night, unable to await the morning.
The second day...a tuft of mold appears. He rejoices that this is the first sign of life.
The third day something creeps up on a long white leg and grows like mad. He exalts almost aloud that it is here already...
The fourth day, when the shoot has stretched to an impossible length, the watcher becomes anxious, for it might be a weed. Soon it is evident that the fear was not unreasonable. Always the first thing...which grows in a pot is a weed.
Obviously it must be some law of Nature."
On a Gardener's Eyes Being Bigger than his Garden Bed
On Accidental Mutilation
"...well, nobody knows how it happens, but it occurs strikingly often that when you step on a bed to pick up some dry twig, or to pull out a dandelion, you usually tread on a shoot of the lily or trollius; it crunches under your foot, and you sicken with horror and shame; and you take yourself for a monster... Or with infinite care you loosen the soil in a bed, with the inevitable result that you chop with the hoe a germinating bulb, or neatly cut off with the spade the sprouts of the anemones; when, horrified, you start back, you crush...a primula in flower, or break the young plume of a delphinium. The more anxiously you work, the more damage you make..."
On the Joy of Much-Anticipated Rain
"...Storms murmur on the horizon, wind saturated with moisture springs up, and here it is: strings of rain hiss on the pavement, the earth almost breathes aloud, water gurgles, drums, pats, and rattles against the windows, tiptaps with a thousand fingers in the pots, runs in rivulets, and splashes in puddles, and one would like to scream with joy; one sticks one's head out of the window to cool it in the dew from heaven, one whistles, shouts, and would like to stand barefoot in the ...streams rushing down the streets. Blessed rain, cooling delight of water. Bathe my soul and wash my heart..."
On Storm Damage
"Next day the newspapers describe the catastrophic cloud-burst which has caused terrible damage to the new crops; but they do not say that is has caused heavy damage especially to the lilies, or that it has ruined the Papaver orientale. We gardeners are always neglected."
On the Finality of Fall
"Nature is lying down to her winter sleep. Leaf after leaf drops from my birches with a beautiful and sad motion; when they have flowered the plants withdraw again into the earth; after they have grown and blossomed they leave behind only a naked stalk or a moist stump, a crabbed brush or a withered stem; and the soil itself smells sadly of decay. Why try to conceal the fact? It is finished for this year. Chrysanthemum, don't deceive yourself about the fullness of life; little white potentilla, don't confuse this last sunshine with the exuberant brilliance of March. It is of no use to complain, children, the parade is over; lie down gently to your winter sleep."
On the Gardener in Winter
1. That the most valuable, gratifying, and altogether indispensable plants are those which he has not got in his garden;
2. That all that he has is 'rather delicate,' and is 'inclined to get frozen;' or that he planted side by side one plant 'which requires moisture,' and another 'which must be protected against damp;' that the one which he planted with special care in the open sunshine requires 'full shade,' and vice versa;
3. That 370 or more kinds of plants exist which 'deserve better attention,' and 'ought not to be left out of any garden'... "Then the hibernating gardener ceases entirely to be interested in what he has got in his garden, being fully occupied with what he has not, which of course is far more; he throws himself eagerly upon catalogues, and ticks off what he must order, which, by Jove, must no longer be lacking in his garden. In the first rush he marks off 490 perennials which he must order at all costs; after counting them he is a bit subdued, and with a bleeding heart he begins to cross off those which he will give up for this year. The painful elimination must be gone through five times at least, until only about 120 'most beautiful, gratifying, indispensable' perennials remain, which--on the wings of an anticipated joy--he immediately orders. 'Send them at the beginning of March!'--Lord, if only it were March already!"
True to His Political Beliefs Until the End
Despite certain capture and detainment, Čapek refused to leave his beloved country when it became clear that Hitler would soon overtake it. The Gestapo had already named him Czechoslovakia's "public enemy number 2." On Christmas Day 1938, Karel Čapek died of double pneumonia, thus avoiding capture and confinement in a concentration camp, a fate that befell his brother Josef, a painter and writer. Josef died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945.I will leave you with Karel's gardening prayer:
O Lord, grant that in some way it may rain every day, say from about midnight until three o'clock in the morning, but you see, it must be gentle and warm so that it can soak in; grant that at the same time it would not rain on campion, alyssum, helianthemum, lavender, and the others which you in your infinite wisdom know are drought-loving plants--I can write their names on a bit of paper if you like--and grant that the sun may shine the whole day long, but not everywhere...and not too much; that there may be plenty of dew and little wind, enough worms, no plant-lice and snails, no mildew, and that once a week, thin liquid manure and guano may fall from Heaven. Amen. -Karel Čapek, The Gardener's Year, 1929.