#2880 - Monday, July 23, 2007 - Editor: Gloria Lee
- #2880 - Monday, July 23, 2007 - Editor: Gloria LeeNondual HighlightsA little poem was posted by Tom to the GardenMystics, and it made me curious who the author might be. Thus began one of those serendipity trips around the internet to discover a fascinating and mysterious person writing from the early 1900's. Fortunately, Benjamin Hoff, author of The Tao of Pooh, discovered Opal Whiteley in the 1980's and became obsessed by her story. How a backwoods of Oregon girl was first lauded as a genius, patronized by the wealthy, vanished into obscurity, and then ended her years in a London asylum for the insane - is story enough. But it is her writing itself that still fascinates many, despite the quaint language. Genius, mystic, fraud, mentally ill: perhaps all of these? What does it matter if truth lives in her words? -GloriaShe was ahead of more than the hippie movement, says Benjamin Hoff. "She was New Age before New Age ever came along." She predated the environmental movement as well -- and Hoff believes we've yet to catch up. "Opal related to trees and animals on a completely different level than we're even doing now, so I think she was still 50 to 100 years ahead of us."THE FLOWERS HOLDING
God gives the flowers
something to hold every day,
some days, it's the tears of mothers,
sometimes, it's the years that men call failures,
sometimes, it's the fragrance of lost words,
sometimes, it is part of the symphony,
God lets it come to tune
in the heart of little flowers.
Sometimes, it's the dreams
for sleepy children's eyes.
God knows the flowers
will make them heaven-wise.
Sometimes, it's just a song of blue.
Sometimes, it's just a thought of you.
--Opal WhiteleyThe Story of Opal was first published in 1920, when Opal was nearly twenty-three. Subtitled The Journal of An Understanding Heart, the book was celebrated as a work of wonder and imagination, if not genius. Purportedly written during her sixth and seventh years, it is a record of her trips through the woods around Cottage Grove, in western Oregon's Lane County. Opal befriended the animals, birds, flowers and trees, giving them fantastic names from classical mythology, and professed her love for all natural things. "I do like it, this house we do live in, being at the edge of the near woods," she writes in the opening pages. "So many little people do live in the near woods. I do have conversations with them."The story behind the diary, though, has for years overshadowed the book itself. How it was written -- with crayon on scraps of torn-up paper -- had skeptics looking closer. Nor did they believe the account of when it was written -- critics said she wrote it when she was twenty and tried to pass it off as a childhood work. And Opal's claim in the book that she was not Opal Whiteley, but actually an adopted French princess, made for more sensational copy than the book's tales of joy, hope and love. Within months, praise turned to disdain, and the remarkable young woman with long, black hair and large, round eyes faced in turn rejection, obscurity and finally death in a London insane asylum.
But she keeps coming back, and interest in her now is stronger than ever. A half dozen versions of her story circulate today, from Seattle to South Carolina, from New York to the United Kingdom. The complete diary is reprinted; there are two biographies, a children's book, a verse adaptation, at least two musicals and a traveling one-woman play. There's been talk of a BBC documentary, and yes, even of a Hollywood movie.
Exactly what she might have made up is still not certain, although author Benjamin Hoff clarifies much of the story in The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley. Originally published in 1986, then reissued by Penguin Books with updates in 1994, it is a reprint of the diary, framed by Hoff's biography of Opal and extensive commentary on his investigation.
Hoff, best known for The Tao of Pooh, stumbled upon Opal's diary in 1983. He was so taken with it that he researched Opal's story literally to the point of exhaustion. Digging through library and newspaper archives, interviewing hundreds of people in Lane County and elsewhere, encountering hundreds more theories and opinions, he writes that "bit by bit, facts that had seemed confused and contradictory at first began to arrange themselves in a clear pattern, and an extraordinary story began to emerge."
That evergreen tree Opal climbed might have been Michael Angelo Sanzio Raphael, "a grand fir tree with an understanding soul." According to the diary, Opal would climb onto the barn roof and jump into the tree, nestle in the branches, or "arms," and have one of her conversations. "After I talked with him and listened unto his voice, I slipped down out of his arms. I intended to slip into the barn corral, but I slid off the wrong limb, in the wrong way. I landed in the pig-pen, on top of Aphrodite, the mother pig. She gave a peculiar grunt -- it was not like those grunts she gives when she is comfortable."
With Aphrodite, Brave Horatius the shepherd dog and her other animal friends, Opal went "on explores" through the woods. She seemed to have a special way with wild creatures. Her father said she could tame anything in the forest, and one person who knew Opal said that birds and butterflies would sit in her hand (a story reminiscent of Thoreau, who reputedly could row across Walden Pond and pet the wild ducks without disturbing them.) To Opal, all of nature was alive, and all beings of the natural world members of a grand chorus of the Earth. "Earth-voices are glad voices, and earth-songs come up from the ground through the plants," she writes in the diary, "and in their flowering, and in the days before these days are come, they do tell the earth-songs to the wind. And the wind in her goings does whisper them to folks to print for other folks, so other folks do have knowings of earth's songs. When I grow up, I am going to write for children -- and grownups that haven't grown up too much -- all the earth-songs I now do hear."
Opal then outlined her plan to teach children across Oregon about God by explaining to them the plants and trees, rocks and rivers and sea shells. "My nature study is of much help to me in my work with the juniors, for I find that the child's heart readily unfolds to the true and the beautiful," she said. "To me all God's out-of-doors is one grand cathedral."
"She is a product of the Oregon outdoors who knows that outdoors almost as well as the One who made it," Bede duly concluded.
This statement was shortly affirmed by officials at the University of Oregon. In Eugene for the Christian Endeavor state convention, Opal visited the university and astounded professors there with her knowledge of the natural sciences. Although she hadn't yet completed her high school credits, university officials unanimously agreed that Opal should be admitted. "Tutored by nature, a tiny, seventeen-year-old mountain girl, her hair down her back, has opened the eyes of the Eugene teaching profession and left it gasping for breath," announced the Eugene Daily Guard. "Entrance rules have been cast aside; scholarships are proposed."
"This experience happens but once in a generation," said Warren D. Smith, head of geology. "She knows more about geology than do many students that have graduated from my department."
She was also quite a sight on campus, often running after some butterfly or insect, with her long braids and skirts flying. And one day Mrs. Prince Campbell, wife of the university president, came upon Opal kneeling on the ground, looking down and singing a hymn. Mrs. Campbell asked what she was doing. "I am singing to one of God's creatures," Opal replied. And in front of her on the ground was an earthworm.
"If Opal were on campus today," said a former student in 1969, "she would be the prize hippie of all. She was a walking exponent of 'love,' and she constantly talked what would be the hippie line of today: that people must meet and love one another."
She was ahead of more than the hippie movement, says Benjamin Hoff. "She was New Age before New Age ever came along." She predated the environmental movement as well -- and Hoff believes we've yet to catch up. "Opal related to trees and animals on a completely different level than we're even doing now, so I think she was still 50 to 100 years ahead of us."
But a double misfortune in early 1917 could not have been prophesied. Lizzie Whiteley died in May, after a prolonged bout with cancer. Her maternal grandfather died the next day. "I do not believe Opal ever quite recovered from the blow," wrote Inez Fortt in 1969. "She was never again active in Junior Endeavor or the church. She very seldom saw her family." (A reaction that has since been attributed to her worsening schizophrenia.)
Living now in a small house on Franklin Boulevard in Eugene, Opal turned her attention fully to nature studies. She supported herself through lectures, charging a ten-cent admission. Using handbills picturing herself in a white dress, with butterflies perched on her head, shoulders and hands, she advertised topics such as "Nearer to the Heart of Nature" and "The Fairyland Around Us" -- which she would later incorporate into a book bearing the latter title. "When she was a little girl, Opal dreamed of someday writing books for children about the inhabitants of the field and forest," writes Hoff in The Singing Creek. "As she grew older, the dream became a driving force."
Detail from 1917 poster promoting Opal's nature lectures.This site is dedicated to the artistic works of the mystical nature-lover, Opal Whiteley. Here you will find a full presentation of Opal's lost book, The Fairyland Around Us. (Ed.note: While this book is out of print, it would still be enchanting and educational to children of all ages. The "fairies" are every plant and animal she finds and describes, including scientific names.) You will also find the complete text of her childhood diary, which is in print.
Many more resources and links here, done as a project by the University she attended.