What grows

I remember as a child being especially fond of songs with accretionary verses. You know, like the “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” or “Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.” A collection of Pennsylvania German songs in the book Pennsylvania Songs and Legends (edited by George Korson, Johns Hopkins Press, 1949), which I picked up at the same used book sale where I found Gerard’s Herball last month, includes some charming examples. Here’s one I especially liked.

I have, perhaps foolishly, mucked with the rather stilted translation a bit, despite my complete ignorance of the source language. According to the modern German-English dictionary I consulted, the verb wachs-en (wachst) means grow, sprout, come up, extend, increase, thrive. This verb is dropped in the middle verses (in favor of is), then reappears in the last two. Though in the latter case I have elected to go with “lies (with),” the choice of the original (and possibly prudish) translators, I think the shared meaning-element of growth and extension is a key to the whole song. Complimenting this verb, the noun Hecke also occupies a pivotal position, and seems to mean copse, thicket, hedge, underbrush, and also branch or twig by synecdoche, as with the English wood (a cognate of wild) coming to mean lumber. This simple song speaks volumes about the pre-modern European way of seeing the forest. I’ll give the German for the first and last verses and for each new noun as it crops up.

Was wachst in diesem Wald? (What Grows in This Wood?)

Sung by Emma Diehl at Freiburg, Snyder County, Pennsylvania, 1938. Recorded by Thomas R. Brendle and William S. Troxell.

Was wachst in diesem Wald?
En wunderscheener Bí¢m.
Bí¢m in di Hecke,
Zwishich Lí¢b un Schtecke.
Was wachst in diesem Wald?
Hecke schtandee,
Das wachst im grienen Waldee.

What grows in this wood?
A very beautiful tree.
Tree in the thicket,
Among sticks and leaves.
What grows in this wood? A dense thicket.
That’s what grows in the greenwood.

What grows on this tree?
A very beautiful limb (Nascht).
Limb on the tree, tree in the thicket,
Among sticks and leaves.
What grows in this wood? A dense thicket.
That’s what grows in the greenwood.

What grows on this limb?
A very beautiful branch (Heck).
Branch on the limb, limb on the tree . . .

What grows on this branch?
Very beautiful leaves (Lí¢b).
Leaves on the branch, branch on the limb . . .

What is in these leaves?
A very beautiful nest (Nescht).
Nest in the leaves, leaves on the branch . . .

What is in this nest?
A very beautiful egg (Oi).
Egg in the nest, nest in the leaves . . .

What is in this egg?
A very beautiful bird (Vojjel).
Bird in the egg, egg in the nest . . .

What is on this bird?
A very beautiful feather (Fedder).
Feather on the bird, bird in the egg . . .

What is in this feather?
A very beautiful bed (Bett).
Bed in the feather, feather on the bird . . .

What lies in this bed?
A very beautiful woman (Dí¢m).
Woman in the bed, bed in the feather . . .

Was wachst in diesem Dí¢m?
En wunderscheener Schatz.
Schatz im Dí¢m, Dí¢m im Bett,
Bett im Fedder, Fedder am Vojjel,
Vojjel im Oi, Oi im Nescht,
Nescht im Lí¢b, Lí¢b am Hecke,
Hecke am Nascht, Nascht am Bí¢m,
Bí¢m in di Hecke, zwischich Lí¢b un Schtecke.
Was wachst in diesem Wald?
Hecke schtandee,
Das wachst im grienen Waldee.

Who lies with this woman?
A very beautiful lover.
Lover in the woman, woman in the bed,
Bed in the feather, feather on the bird,
Bird in the egg, egg in the nest,
Nest in the leaves, leaves on the branch,
Branch on the limb, limb on the tree,
Tree in the thicket, among sticks and leaves.
What grows in the wood? A dense thicket.
That’s what grows in the greenwood.

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