Sunday, June 18, 2017

How can we write about Meadow Fescue (Schedonorus pratensis)?






A group of Meadow Fescue in unmown amenity grassland in a business park in Swindon, photos from 5th June 2017.


This is the grass I grew up calling Festuca pratensis, but someone has decided that the flat-leaved fescues ought to have their own genus, so Meadow Fescue and the clearly related Tall Fescue are now Schedonorus.


Despite the similarities, the two species are not really confusable. Tall Fescue (Schedonorus arundinacea)  is robust and densely tufted, forming large tussocks, generally reminiscent of Deschampsia cespitosa in terms of its growth form. It's no surprise that it tends to grow in places that are dampish, or have some hidden water source. (It is not a coastal grass in the UK - it evidently can't cope with salt -  but in Sweden, it's associated with the shores of the barely-saline waters of the Baltic.)




Meadow Fescue is a medium-tall grass -- on this verge it stands out from the lower Meadow-grass and Rye-grass --  but we're only talking thigh-high, not chest-high. It is only loosely tufted (this is quite well shown in the photograph) and it occurs typically as a major component of old hay-meadows with an open sward,  the sort of attractive meadow where you might also find Meadow Barley and maybe some Golden Oat-grass. (As at the Seven Fields reserve in north Swindon.)




Here's the northern hemisphere distribution map:






(Image source: http://linnaeus.nrm.se/flora/mono/poa/festu/festprav.jpg)


Meadow Fescue is native to all of temperate Europe and extends far into Russia.




It's also widespread in the eastern half of the USA, where it's an introduced species. 




It is notably winter-hardy, though a closer look at the distribution in northern Scandinavia suggests that it can't cope with full-on Arctic/Alpine conditions.




[Image source: http://linnaeus.nrm.se/flora/mono/poa/festu/festpran.jpg]








It makes an excellent pasture grass, being much more palatable than Tall Fescue.


http://hayandforage.com/article-478-hidden-valley-meadow-fescue-the-grass-that-won’t-be-forgotten.html

A century ago it was more widely used in the USA than it is today (though it has been "rediscovered" recently), and you can read about it as a forage crop in this 1909 booklet by Harry Nelson Vinall, based on its use in Eastern Kansas:


Meadow Fescue: Its Culture and Uses



From this I learn:


It was known by some as "English Bluegrass", a name deprecated by Vinall (quite right: the American term Bluegrass generally refers to species that we call Meadow-grass).


"Its principal point of excellence is as pasture for fattening cattle."


As hay, it can have a laxative effect (especially on horses).

















Meadow Fescue waving in the breeze






So there we have it: a grass that is quite common , but not commonplace. A grass that's only modestly attractive in its own right, but contributes to attractive places. A few grasses impress themselves on the folk-memory, because they're so abundant in school grounds, or because they have  distinctive flowerheads, that you can play games with --- but this certainly can't be claimed of Meadow Fescue. It's a purist's grass.


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How do we write about Meadow Fescue? This is a question that, in different forms, has haunted me for years. Not Meadow Fescue specifically, of course -- but taking it as instantiating all the other variety of nature that surrounds us and makes our lives without us being aware of it.


There has to be a poetry... or a prose .... that can engage with Meadow Fescue and find its relevance to our lives .... a prose other than botany for specialists, or manuals for farmers, I mean.


I look at the blank paper. Where do you start? How can you step in the rubbery wellingtons of language without crushing the particular integrity of this life, this Meadow-Fescue-y thingness?


*


My thoughts turn to Tolstoy and his supreme kind of nature writing.


Arrived at a gate, Papa told us and the huntsmen to continue our way along the road, and then rode off across a cornfield. The harvest was at its height. On the further side of a large, shining, yellow stretch of cornland lay a high purple belt of forest which always figured in my eyes as a distant, mysterious region behind which either the world ended or an uninhabited waste began. This expanse of corn-land was dotted with swathes and reapers, while along the lanes where the sickle had passed could be seen the backs of women as they stooped among the tall, thick grain or lifted armfuls of corn and rested them against the shocks. In one corner a woman was bending over a cradle, and the whole stubble was studded with sheaves and cornflowers. In another direction shirt-sleeved men were standing on waggons, shaking the soil from the stalks of sheaves, and stacking them for carrying. As soon as the foreman (dressed in a blouse and high boots, and carrying a tally-stick) caught sight of Papa, he hastened to take off his lamb's-wool cap and, wiping his red head, told the women to get up. Papa's chestnut horse went trotting along with a prancing gait as it tossed its head and swished its tail to and fro to drive away the gadflies and countless other insects which tormented its flanks, while his two greyhounds--their tails curved like sickles--went springing gracefully over the stubble. Milka was always first, but every now and then she would halt with a shake of her head to await the whipper-in. The chatter of the peasants; the rumbling of horses and waggons; the joyous cries of quails; the hum of insects as they hung suspended in the motionless air; the smell of the soil and grain and steam from our horses; the thousand different lights and shadows which the burning sun cast upon the yellowish- white cornland; the purple forest in the distance; the white gossamer threads which were floating in the air or resting on the soil-all these things I observed and heard and felt to the core. (Childhood, chapter 7)


THE PLACE fixed on for the stand-shooting was not far above a stream in a little aspen copse. On reaching the copse, Levin got out of the trap and led Oblonsky to a corner of a mossy, swampy glade, already quite free from snow. He went back himself to a double birch-tree on the other side, and leaning his gun on the fork of a dead lower branch, he took off his full overcoat, fastened his belt again, and worked his arms to see if they were free.

Grey old Laska, who had followed them, sat down warily opposite him and pricked up her ears. The sun was setting behind a thick forest, and in the glow of sunset the birch-trees, dotted about in the aspen copse, stood out clearly with their hanging twigs, and their buds swollen almost to bursting.

From the thickest parts of the copse, where the snow still remained, came the faint sound of narrow winding threads of water running away. Tiny birds twittered, and now and then fluttered from tree to tree.

In the pauses of complete stillness there came the rustle of last year’s leaves, stirred by the thawing of the earth and the growth of the grass.

‘Imagine! One can hear and see the grass growing!’ Levin said to himself, noticing a wet, slate-coloured aspen leaf moving beside a blade of young grass. He stood, listened, and gazed sometimes down at the wet mossy ground, sometimes at Laska listening all alert, sometimes at the sea of bare tree-tops that stretched on the slope below him, sometimes at the darkening sky, covered with white streaks of cloud.

A hawk flew high over a forest far away with slow sweep of its wings; another flew with exactly the same motion in the same direction and vanished. The birds twittered more and more loudly and busily in the thicket. An owl hooted not far off, and Laska, starting, stepped cautiously a few steps forward, and putting her head on one side, began to listen intently. Beyond the stream was heard the cuckoo. Twice she uttered her usual cuckoo-call, and then gave a hoarse, hurried call and broke down.

'Imagine! the cuckoo already!’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch, coming out from behind a bush.

'Yes, I hear it,’ answered Levin, reluctantly breaking the stillness with his voice, which sounded disagreeable to himself. ... (Anna Karenina Book 2 chapter 15)


Tolstoy's example is a classical one. He has, clearly, an immense feeling for grass as well as for trees, clouds and all the other things that impress themselves on us when we are outside and aware of where we are. But he uses a very simple vocabulary - you could translate it into classical Latin. Only a few trees and birds have specific names (aspen, cuckoo). Grass, no matter how tenderly and feelingly rendered, is always just grass. Nature has a meaning inasmuch as it has meaning for a human being. But when you are such a master as Tolstoy, the complete honesty of this approach supplies tantalizing hints of nature's inner life, too.


So the Tolstoyan answer to my question,  you might say, is this:


It's a mistake to ask the question "How do you write about a particular species" ... Nature, so far as it can be realized by us at all, is usually realized, not as a list of species, but as wide or piercing momentary impressions. We don't, at least most of us don't, organize those impressions by species. We acutely experience (say) a grass field, a humming meadow, a tender blade of spring grass.. the experience is living .. Thus it is to be an animal on this planet (and human beings at their best are animals). Animals live in the world, animals know nature, but they don't categorize, they don't know the names of other species.....   Nature writing, to be affecting, must always come from this animal perspective, this human perspective.


Didn't Chekhov, too, advise that when writing about nature in a story you should always anthropomorphize it, give it a human dimension and an emotional life so as to fill it with meaning for your reader?


*


I'm aware, too, that organizing a piece of writing around an individual species can have pitfalls.


One is the point made by Hazlitt, that an individual species is not an individual. We tend to see nature as types rather than individuals. We hail the primrose as an old friend --- this primrose as representative of all the primroses we've seen before.   If we regard one lamb as, in all essentials, identical to every other lamb -- a prancing skittish woolly tail-wagging little chap that lifts our hearts in spring -- then doesn't our poem neccessarily stop short of the deeper contact with nature that I'm looking for?  For after all, individuals are individuals. You would not like to be treated as a mere instantiation of your species, would you?




Another  pitfall is that when we take one species and isolate it for special treatment, the result is often a sort of allegorical treatment that consists of finding strained symbols for moral sermons, something like the art of a medieval bestiary.




Wordsworth's poems on the Small Celandine don't fully escape this stricture.


Comfort have thou of thy merit,
Kindly, unassuming Spirit!
Careless of thy neighbourhood,
Thou dost show thy pleasant face
On the moor, and in the wood,
In the lane;—there’s not a place,
Howsoever mean it be,
But ’tis good enough for thee.

Ill befal the yellow flowers,
Children of the flaring hours!
Buttercups, that will be seen,
Whether we will see or no;
Others, too, of lofty mien;
They have done as worldlings do,
Taken praise that should be thine,
Little, humble Celandine!


Wordsworth regards the plant's low habit as a character trait, a sign of unassuming humility, while its glowing yellow flower is interpreted as a pleasant and therefore kindly face. Since the plant grows in all sorts of places, however mean, it is evidently a modest plant and not a worldling like those flaunting buttercups. Few have praised it before, therefore it has been ill-requited. And so on. -- this makes a fancy embroidery, but you wouldn't say that it goes very deep in terms of realizing the plant's essence from perspectives perhaps more relevant to itself --- such as its ecology or way of life, for instance.




To some extent that's also true of this tougher poem about the same plant:


THE SMALL CELANDINE

          THERE is a Flower, the lesser Celandine,
          That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
          And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
          Bright as the sun himself, 'tis out again!

          When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
          Or blasts the green field and the trees distrest,
          Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
          In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

          But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed
          And recognised it, though an altered form,                  10
          Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
          And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

          I stopped, and said with inly-muttered voice,
          "It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
          This neither is its courage nor its choice,
          But its necessity in being old.

          "The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
          It cannot help itself in its decay;
          Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue."
          And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.               20

          To be a Prodigal's Favourite--then, worse truth,
          A Miser's Pensioner--behold our lot!
          O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
          Age might but take the things Youth needed not!




Here we escape Hazlitt: this is a poem is about one individual plant. Wordsworth notices that this plant's flower doesn't close up, despite the typically appalling Lakeland weather --- because the flower is fading. And he draws the general parallel with ourselves: how in the last decrepitude of age we can no longer defend ourselves against the storm. I don't think that's a strained resemblance: this really is a true observation of natural decline, in plants and animals alike. But still, the poem isn't quite as "about" Ranunculus ficaria as its title seems to promise.


I am more surprised than perhaps I should be that William had not noticed the Small Celandine until he was thirty. Something very big happened between William and Nature, but he wasn't interested in the details of the natural world, such things as the names of species. In The Excursion he pours scorn on the fad for scientific travelling, on amateur botanists and geologists.  And even here, it might strike you that for William the most important thing that ever happened to the Small Celandine was that he had chosen it to be his favourite.


How different from his sister. And Dorothy Wordsworth is where we should turn next.


May 141/1, 1 800. Wm. and John set off into York-
shire after dinner at half-past two o'clock, cold pork in
their pockets. I left them at the turning of the Low-
wood bay under the trees. My heart was so full that I
could hardly speak to W. when I gave him a farewell
kiss. I sate a long time upon a stone at the margin of
the lake, and after a flood of tears my heart was easier.
The lake looked to me, I knew not why, dull and melan-
choly, and the weltering on the shores seemed a heavy
sound. I walked as long as I could amongst the stones
of the shore. The wood rich in flowers ; a beautiful
yellow (palish yellow) flower, that looked thick, round,
and double the smell very sweet (I supposed it was a
ranunculus), crowfoot, the grassy-leaved rabbit-looking
white flower, strawberries, geraniums, scentless violets,
anemones, two kinds of orchises, primroses, the heck-
berry very beautiful, the crab coming out as a low
shrub. Met an old man, driving a very large beautiful
bull, and a cow. He walked with two sticks. Came home
by Clappersgate.


(The Ranunculus sounds like Globeflower. "Heckberry" is Bird Cherry. I have no idea what Dorothy meant by a "grassy-leaved rabbit-looking white flower", though I do like the sound of it.  She was writing this memorandum for herself, so the description only had to make sense to her. )


Dorothy's journal entry reminds us that treating a species in isolation is maybe not the best way. As I read this hasty list of plants, my reading pieces together a memory of the rich flora of a wet northern English wood in May. I'm not sure if it's a true memory of mine, or if I've combined different memories of woods in Cumbria, Yorkshire, Jämtland and Lappland.  So anyway, reading this raises some other thoughts about my question. 1. Nature is a community of species and is best evoked that way. 2. Nature writing mainly depends for its effect on the reader's prior knowledge.


*


To explain my own stake in this. I've long toyed with the idea of writing a series of poems named after plants. That would seem quite a natural project for someone with my interests. And yet something has always deterred me from embarking. I suppose this post is me thinking through some of the issues.


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Maybe, I think to myself, the species could be named in the title and then the poem that follows could be only tangentially about the species, and certainly wouldn't try to describe it or to draw analogies between its life-form and ours; the poem's opacity would respect the integrity of the other life named in its title.  Maybe my own poems might be a little like Zukofsky's poems in "80 Flowers" ?


#63    OXALIS

Wood sorrel lady's-sorrel 3-hearts tow ox
a leese rapids whose soul
air-spring disperses thru water elator
ox lips mistaken for clover
more ruse mulberry locust-flower shield
welcome wanderer óxalis time primrose-yellow
a breeze sweet rampant pulse
scald scold honor the bard




(Source: Ray Davis' interesting essay on Pseudopodium:


https://www.pseudopodium.org/search.cgi?essay=Reading+Leggott%27s+Reading+Zukofsky%27s+80+Flowers


)


Opinions have naturally varied as to what Zukofsky was up to, and even to what extent he was really interested in the titular flowers. Perhaps it doesn't seem quite right to describe this poem as being "about" oxalis.  Certainly it seems to be as interested in the name itself as in the plant that it names.  And yet this certainly strikes me as a fresh and involving poem. It has some of the shape and texture of nature -- unless that's an idea that I'm importing into it. Perhaps a representation of plant-life through an especially indirect medium, such as sound or music.






[Online access to 80 Flowers is extremely limited.  Here are some of the other poem titles, suggesting the arrangement was in alphabetical order:


Honesty  Liveforever  Dogwood  Raspberry  Thyme  Vines  Weeds   Zinnia





Here is the introductory poem:


Heart us invisibly thyme time
round rose bud fire downland
bird tread quagmire dry gill-over-the-ground
stem-square leaves-cordate earth race horsethyme
breath neighbors a mace nays
sorrow of harness pulses pent
thus fruit pod split four
one-fourth ripens unwithering gaping 


(Source: Jack Foley's review:  http://www.cprw.com/Foley/zukofsky.htm ).  Thyme gets mentioned twice here. Thyme has square stems. Thyme does not have cordate leaves.


Here are a couple more of the poems:


Privet

 League gust strum ovally folium
looped leaf nodes winter icejewel
platinum stoneseed true ebony berries
gray-jointed persistent thru green
hedge ash-or-olive order white panicles
heavy with daffodil doxy red blood pale
reign paired leaves without tooth
on edge primmed private privet




Zinnia

 With prayer-plant eyes annually winter-leggy
zinnia miracles itself perennial return
blest interim strength lengthening coreopsis'-summers
actual some time whereso near
zebra-fragrant sharpened wave currents tide
new moon to full sunrise
sunset enable ships seaworth slow-rounds
rosette lancers speared-yucca's white night


(Source: Michele Legott's Zukofsky reading list, here --  http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/zukofsky/reading.html)


And here's a couple more:


STARGLOW
Starglow dwarf china rose shrubthorn
lantern fashion-fare airing car-tire crushed
young’s churning old rambler’s flown
to sky can cut back
a crown transplanted patient of
drought sun’s gold firerimmed branched
greeting thyme’s autumn sprig head
happier winter sculpt white rose
MOUNTAIN LAUREL
Known color grown mountain laurel
broadleaf of acid earth margin
entire green winter years hoarfrost
mooned pod honesty open unvoiced
May-grown acute 5-petal calicoflower cluster
10-slender rods spring seed sway
trefoil birds throat Not thyme’s
spur-flower calico clusters laurelled well


(Source: Christopher Patton's student exercise.  https://artofcompost.wordpress.com/2014/11/26/exercise-lzs-word-flowers/
His students duly wrote some poems in the manner of 80 Flowers, and they're well worth a look:
https://artofcompost.wordpress.com/2014/11/27/student-work-80-flowers-poems/ )








The poem "Privet" certainly takes a fairly focussed interest in the plant's physical appearance, as well as its names (Privet / Ligustrum) . And this poem, too, perhaps shows most clearly the way that Zukofsky is going about his work. 80 Flowers is very much a garden collection. The plants are isolated from ecological communities and treated as specimens or even as artworks. Much attention is paid to the plant's connections with a world of human culture. (Not ethnobotany so much as the literary imagination.) These are good and important topics, but the poems don't look at the plant in the wild, at the other face of nature, the one that doesn't face towards us.






















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Meadow Fescue waving in the breeze

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