Friday, August 25, 2006

Circaea lutetiana

The wood is a doorway. Things come out of it, rarely and devastatingly. When you walk in, you immediately know that it's the beginning of endlessness, even when (rationally speaking) the wood is small and bordered on all sides. In other parts of the world the wood is literally endless, that's to say you could start walking and know you'd die before you got to the end.

It's summer and the wood appears empty. This plant, never eye-catching, has run to seed. You think nothing of it, stepping through the woodland. The plant, however, thinks of you, and it posts discreet fruits on your socks. It mainly works with smaller animals such as pheasants and foxes, which is why the fruits (though not the flowers) are pointed downwards.

The resulting beautiful shape of the fruiting stem is described elsewhere as "herringbone". I admire that effort, but the truth is that plants as a matter of course use patterns of three-dimensional rotational symmetry that have no real analogy in animal form; and therefore, we have no common-language words for them and a difficulty even visualizing them. When you look at these photos remind yourself that it's a 3-dimensional raceme.

I should have said rotational a-symmetry, because although you can see there's a genetic predisposition towards a symmetric and optimal plan, plants need to be plastic to accommodate the reality that a plant's microclimate is unsymmetrical - because of the sun's track if nothing else -; but there usually is something else; the shade cast by a nearby tree-trunk, the habitual routes of the wind... Thus in this case if I twiddle the fruit-stem I can see there's a way of holding it that unexpectedly reveals that there's one plane that nearly all the fruits avoid.

On cameras the macro feature is conventionally indicated by a flower-symbol. Flowers are in fact among the things we like photographing most. The flower is the part of a plant that is designed for eyes. But when you examine other aspects of plants, photographs (being 2-dimensional) are surprisingly unhelpful. That's one reason grasses and sedges have such a bad reputation for being hard to identify. If you are shown them by someone who knows (which is how all farmers learn about their crops, forage and weeds) then the difficulties disappear, but you need to go round and about, and examine them by touching and turning in ways that virtuality hampers.

The circæa resembles the cultivated trychnon in appearance. It has a small swarthy flower, a diminutive seed, like millet, growing in small horn-shaped pods, and a root half a foot in length, generally triple or fourfold, white, odoriferous, and hot in the mouth. It is found growing upon rocks exposed to the sun. An infusion of it is prepared with wine, and administered for pains and affections of the uterus: to make it, three ounces of the pounded root should be steeped in three sextarii of wine a day and a night. This potion is effectual also for bringing away the after-birth. The seed of this plant, taken in wine or hydromel, diminishes the milk in nursing women.

This is from Pliny the Elder's Natural History, Book 27 Ch 38. That mouthful of a name "Enchanter's Nightshade" was first used by Gerard and alluded to a theory of the Flemish botanist De L'Obel that this plant was Pliny's Circaea and moreover that this name implied magical powers far beyond the modest uses that Pliny mentions: the enchanter therefore is Circe, who could change men into swine. The Linnaean name makes the same allusion (lutetiana=of Paris). How De L'Obel explained away Pliny's references to horn-shaped pods and sunny rocks I really can't imagine. But magical associations, though their origin may be both mundane and questionable, once they come into existence have a way of clinging on and becoming real; that is, real in a magical way, not real in an unmagical way.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

august darks

The phrase returned to me. I knew there was a poem called The August Darks and I've now discovered it was by Amy Clampitt, whose books I got rid of ten years ago (it wasn't because I'd gone off them). I don't remember the poem, I may not even have read it, and I don't know if she meant what I mean.

In the north of Sweden, August is predominantly an autumn month but in England it is considered the definitive summer month. There is a tension in us between two conceptions of summer. One is to do with light and is embodied in the word "midsummer". The other is to do with warmth and also social things like the timing of school holidays, not to mention the now-unaccountable Bank Holiday at the end of August. The upshot is that we happily use the expression "midsummer" but none of us really thinks that June 21st is the middle of summer; some tidy-minded people even try to equate the four seasons with the equinoctial quarters; thus they consider "midsummer" as when spring ends and summer begins.

For of course there's a time-offset between light and warmth. In water the offset is even longer. Swimming in the sea is cold until far into July, but then you can go swimming to the end of October. There's also a diurnal offset. The coldest time of each day is at sunrise, while in the evening it stays quite warm until midnight. Which is why, if left to ourselves, we tend to stay up long after sunset and sleep until long after sunrise.

Those dark warm evenings are never more noticeable than in August, itself the summer evening of the year. As the month goes on it's impossible to deny what our senses tell us; the nights come earlier. Yet the warm air urges us to stay outside. Teenagers, birds on a wire, sit closer together. At dusk, gardeners are still cutting back rank growth, still watering what's left. In the countryside it's quiet and a sombre green, with ripening berries: there are still lots of flowers around but there are no more blazes of colour.

We notice the evenings because we're still out and also because, now so far from the solstice, the times are changing more rapidly. There's a tenderness in this hush, keeping loss at bay, but no longer easily. It's also, as everyone knows, the time for street trouble. Love and hate, instead of being merely professed, are uneasily felt. Perhaps that's why so many people seek relief in being away.

And waking early, we are surprised to find shadow and red splinters of dawn on the horizon.


(Note 2010): I didn't know when I wrote this that there is a Swedish expression "augustimörker" (August night, August dark). It seems to be remembered as a valued if slightly wistful phenomenon around the end of summer, associated with tranquility, crayfish, dark ripples on water.

Friday, August 18, 2006

secret kitty

This is Button. In Frome, all the dogs are called Jenson and all the cats are called Button. I named Button this morning after she (or he) nipped through the front door while I was talking to a neighbour. Apparently Button has been left behind by some people who've done a runner from the estate, so if you live in Frome and you want a cute nearly-kitten cat, then it seems like this one's going begging. I don't know if they're the same people who left the outside sofa and the crashed hanging baskets.

Button wants to move in with me, but that's no good. I'm allergic to cat hair, I'm never here, I'm not allowed pets, and besides, I think we'd compete for the same social role. Also, I like all the creatures that Button roams around killing. So when I left for work, Button had to go too.

Still, I did feel the pull. Button was extremely tactful, not asking for any food, not bothering me while I was washing up, just having a look round and then settling down in silence. (There was some minor trouble with a potted plant.) I've never known a guest who was so quick at grasping social niceties, so perfectly decorative.

We need company so much, but not everyone can manage relationships with other people. We crash in language, in bed, in parent/child incomprehension. They all go away. We don't know we're lonely, but we're so, so lonely. Then, one day, in walks Button. Button seems to appreciate the hoovered stairs, the counterpane smoothed free of any wrinkles and the scatter-cushions. Button sits and watches us fussing at the sink. Button's eyes go sleepy, Button is completely relaxed. It's a long time since we saw someone truly relaxed in our company.

Cats used to have a job as mousers, but now they are a parasite species. Our species needs a superfluity of maternal feelings and therefore by some fortune or other there'll always be quite a few people who have the feelings without the use for them. That's an ecological niche for any animal who can accept this superfluity of love. Just as, since we cleared Britain of larger carnivores and then moved off the land ourselves, we created a new niche (bursting with excess venison) for any animal that would be discreet enough to keep out of human byways, a niche now inhabited, as some think, by Button's larger cousins. (And since that curious animal stalked me on Long Knoll one dusk, I guess I think so too.)

[Title in honour of Catherine Daly's free and bewildering eBook Secret Kitty]


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

summer of low cleavage

because something I've often wondered, is, if you could get through to that point and, kick your heel up onto the other ledge, you should be able to, jack up on to the perimeter where those weeds are, and all the mess of sticks, that's where I'm convinced, it is. Should we

Geoff's shorts were crumpled, his brown stick legs untidy with hair. Hairs curved from his nose and ears, he had a long neck and glasses that needed cleaning, and an array of antique possessions, a stout knobbly walking stick for example and a knife in his belt. I liked looking at them.

This one, said Geoff showing it to me, is rather interesting. There's a story attached to it. I made that part from a plug, of mammoth bone - oh yes, you can get it quite easily, there's so much in the ice, and the wood is, some sort of elm, but the blade, that's right, it had two edges originally, damned difficult process to file it down, not something you'd ever do, but. No, the other way; it only sits one way, or you cut the stitching. Well, I, inherited I suppose you'd say

I jumped from stone to stone under the cliff, splashing rock over rock. I was dozy today and as I watched birds in the zenith I felt up there with them. The stream fell through to the canyon, eventually it flowed into the green country, to gossiping fowl on grain-slides, to mills and vans and all that haughty, noisy concourse.

Every couple of days Geoff's grown-up daughter drove up in the jeep and that was all the company we saw. Her name was Charlotte and she didn't wear any make-up, she had big calves and she was expecting and she had a wide face, dark straightened hair, and a cheese-cloth top. I didn't listen attentively to Geoff and his daughter talking; it was sheep and the show and banks. Charlotte was far from good-looking I thought besides being at least twice my age but she was nice and when Geoff went to unload our milk and potatoes she asked me, are you liking it - really? Which I certainly was so it was easy to nod. You don't say much but it's all in there, she laughed and up and down they went like the ground when you pulled up the chimney.

The tent heated up all day but I was still dozy so I said goodnight quite early. My Camels had got wet in the pocket when it poured so I ripped off the filters desperate for a smoke. Eventually I managed and lay there on my bag with a rolled-up jumper for my pillow and as it still wasn't really dark I could see my skinny pale self with thigh-high sunburn looking like a girl's in red stockings, that's if I narrowed my eyes to swimming. When I lit up the tent seemed a bit darker, all but that brightening and dimming stub. The jumper was too low really to make a sitting-up pillow so I had my other arm behind my head and I suddenly bent my neck and began to nuzzle along the smooth part of my arm like Julie Smart and me in the coach at the end of term but she kept laughing so much I don't know if we got off exactly.

It's more of an off-width for me, Geoff said, but I didn't ask. The grip had worn off my stinking shoes and once I nearly went, sweeping a toehold of gravel-stones down into the air, I hung on and kicked around in nothing for an awful time while I thought about it and my grips were starting to die on me, so I stopped thinking, I forced a stretch that I never would have because it put me in a new shape, my leg willed to lengthen, and a little piece of grit caught between my worn sole and the face. I was shocked and my hands so weak it never felt I'd move again. I watched the trembling country and zoomed in on a new waterfall, a deer browsing in grey willow, I almost forgot I was in space, I KNEW it but in shock and I wanted to drift down and just kiss into my feathery warm dream, one feather bouncing slow motion onto a bed of feathers... And later Geoff told me he was shouting at me to get going the whole time, but I never heard him.

It was a massive broken nest, lime-caked but not too smelly, and still with a bit of bowl-shape that I lay in and had my secret Camel, my ear-drums boom-booming. I was going to a festy when I got back, I too would like to give an angel to no-one in particular, have them swaying up there with my neck gripped in loud, happy sweat like I'd seen on the news.


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

sleeping in daylight

Poplar Hawk Moth (Laothoe populi)

In the snoozing heat branch gestures stop watches and start them again.
A bamboo blind filters in graveyards, crown hair rustling groves;

will you reserve my place? the bulb in this room
the rag and stems
dumb on the astral, shagfest and lay it off, scatter, wither

Garden Tiger (Arctia caja)

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