Old poem

Stop me if you’ve read this one before.


What a quaint notion–that life
could be anything but kinetic,
frenetic, in full
swing! But let’s have a galvanized steel
bucket of ice sent up & see
what happens. Something
to shine, to gleam.
And a wooden bowl of felt-
&-plastic fruit on
a low table. And for
the proper contrast, for corners
appropriately dark, Japan’s
the place: the traditional-style
half of a hotel suite, say,
in a seaside resort just
beginning to fall
on hard times. The once-full
register showing
alarming gaps, the heat
turned off in the hall . . .
but still not a speck of dust.
Simply an air of genteel poverty
essential to the timeless equipoise
of things in their rightful places
from the imitation paper windows
to the Zen-inspired alcove
with scroll & spray of blossoms
to the thrumming of some distant
power source–a drone
as melancholy as any chorus
of autumn crickets.
Let the uncorked chardonnay
take what it needs of oxygen & light.
Let nothing discompose
this most exotic
of guests: the saxophone
resting in the corner
like a golden carp. See
how at home it looks?
ready for the oddly missing shoe
to begin tapping.


The peculiar thing about these woods is their power to turn melodies into something else entirely. Yesterday afternoon, for instance: the sun hangs low in the treetops and gazing into it my mouth drops open, the tune I am whistling under my breath escapes and goes muttering off through the laurel. Two or three dried leaves turn over in their sleep. A dog barks in the distance.

No music can ever be stopped, because time can’t be stopped. Or so it seems to me at the moment. I am standing with the brow of the hill behind me, watching as the silhouettes of trees grow darker by the minute within their shining outlines. I have it within my power to freeze this moment forever in a poem, I say to myself. But it isn’t true.

I listen for a while to the footsteps of a deer that seems to be in no particular hurry. At one point I hear the high, keening sound of a cedar waxwing up in the treetops, followed a moment later by a chickadee. From this bend in the trail I can travel in imagination on through the stand of large old oaks, past the clump of sapling beeches, above the wild grape tangles where the whirring arrows of ruffed grouse stirred up from the laurel so often lodge.

It doesn’t seem necessary to keep walking, though. I have the strong impression all of a sudden that everything is in its place. I remember the title of an early book by Gary Snyder, Earth House Hold, which I like better than any other line or poem he’s ever come up with. A house held is a house kept clean – but what does cleanness mean, any more, in a world full of man-made chemicals with no analogue in nature?

Let’s talk about neatness, then, about straightening up. Each natural community, each portion of the land has its own ideas about keeping house: right here, for example, it says both fire and ice, trees and deer and steaming gutpiles. The top carnivores are missing, so we humans have to do the best we can without them.

The previous day’s high winds brought down numerous dead snags and rotten limbs. It amazes me how often a large tree can crash down without major injury to any of the trees around it. I remember years ago the reaction of one of our visitors – a very urbane intellectual from Lima, Peru – to the sight of a line of broken-down locust trees left by a recent ice storm: How are you going to fix them? he wanted to know. And some time before that, our elderly neighbor, who had grown up with an even-aged forest, told my father that the growing number of logs on the forest floor didn’t look right, especially if they happened to span the stream. The woods are so messy now, she complained, a few years after the gypsy moth caterpillars came through and sped things up a bit. Yes. And the stream would never again flow as quietly as it did through the monotonous pole-timber of her youth.

Out in Ohio, a dear friend of the family, a life-long nature lover, rails at the way her daughter insists on tidying up the woods behind her suburban home, picking up all the fallen branches, cleaning out the brush. The irony is that they have a big bird feeder and enjoy watching wildlife. The same daughter goes on periodic shopping sprees for clothes, then gives almost everything she buys to Goodwill or the Salvation Army because it would make her closets too messy if she tried to keep it all. Ah, charity.

To me, the messier the woods get, the more inviting they become. A young, even-aged forest has little to offer in terms of habitat, either for wildlife or for the imagination. Songs die somewhere down in the throat. On a late afternoon in early winter, with the clean outlines of aging trees against a sky blue to the horizon, I am reminded of water spilling over fallen logs or waves on a lake lapping against half-submerged hulks along a ragged shore. The impeded stream is the one that sings, Wendell Berry once pointed out.

Back up and along the edge of the spruce grove I go, admiring the three-inch-high forest of ground cedar that covers close to half an acre there. The eastern ridge and the mountains beyond glow orange-red in the setting sun. I find one of our hunter friends sitting against a tree, his rifle resting on his lap, at the edge of an area where my father cleared out the trees two years ago to preserve the view. Charlie’s younger son, who died in a automobile accident at the age of 17, used to still-hunt in this very spot.

I return his wave but am careful to keep silent. It strikes me that all the while I stood facing west he had been sitting here on the other side of the hill, facing east and seeing things he will probably never speak of to anyone. If and when Charlie gets a deer and has it butchered and stacked neatly in labeled packages in the freezer, every time he fries up a steak it will remind him of this afternoon and others like it: the quiet, the moving light, the thoughts that came and went of their own accord. Between the two of us, I think, we kept a pretty careful watch over things. If there were any motes of dust, I would have seen them.

A contribution to the Ecotone wiki topic Housekeeping and Place.

Screw the cats, it’s Friday blog blogging

If Via Negativa is the only blog of its kind you read, this week you missed some real gems. Three posts in particular stand out in my mind. I’ll give the opening sentence for each; please click on the links. (The one thing they have in common is that they are all SHORT.)

I knew a woman once, a long time ago, who had murdered her children.


The summit ridge of Mount Diablo bears a couple of radio transmitters, relics of the days when the best and highest use of an isolated mountaintop was to use it as an antenna.


Simply offer a jar of grubs.

And in case someone hasn’t already forwarded this to you, check out The Ten Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time. (Thanks, Fred!)

“By nature wild”: gleanings from Gerard’s Herball

Helleborine is like unto white Hellebor, and for that cause we have given it the name of Helleborine. It hath a straight stalke of a foot high, set from the bottome to the tuft of floures, with faire leaves, ribbed and chamfered like those of white Hellebor, but nothing neere so large, of a dark greene colour. The floures be orderly placed from the middle to the top of the stalke, hollow within, and white of colour, straked here and there with a dash of purple, in shape like the floures of Satyrion. The seed is small like dust or motes in the Sun.


Comfrey joyeth in watery ditches, in fat and fruitful meadows; they grow all in my Garden.


The stalke of Clot-burre before the burres come forth, the rind pilled off, being eaten raw with salt and pepper, or boyled in the broth of fat meate, is pleasant to be eaten: being taken in that manner it increaseth seed and stirreth up lust.


The root and seed of the great water Lillie is good against venery or fleshly desire, if one do drink a decoction thereof, or use the seed or root in powder in his meates, for it drieth up the seed of generation, and so causeth a man to be chast, especially used in broth with flesh.


There groweth in Aegypt a kinde of Aron or Cuckow pint which is found also in Africa, and likewise in certain places in Portingale neere unto rivers and streames, that differeth from those of our countries growing, which the people of Castile call Manta de nuestra senora: most would have it to be called Colocasia; but Dioscorides saith that Colocasia is the root of Faba Aegyptia, or the Beane of Aegypt.

The common Cuckow pint is called in Latin, Arum: in Greeke, [aron]: in shops, Iarus, and Barba-Aron: of others, Per-vituli: of the Syrians, Lupha: of the men of Cyprus, Colocasia, as we find among the bastard names. Pliny in his 24. booke, 16. chapter, doth witnesse, that there is a great difference between Aron and Dracontium, although there hath been some controversie about the same among the old writers, affirming them to be all one: in high Dutch it is called , Passen pint: in Italian, Gigora: in Spanish, Yaro: in low Dutch, Calfsuoet: in French, Pied d’veau: in English, Cuckow pint, and Cuckow pintle, wake-Robin, Priests pintle, Aron; Calfes foote, and Rampe; and of some Stratchwoort.


The Caper groweth in Italy, Spaine, and other hot Regions without manuring, in a leane soyle, in rough places among rubbish, and upon old walls, as Dioscorides reporteth.

Theophrastus writeth, that it is by nature wild, and refuseth to be husbanded, yet in these our daies divers use to cherish the same, and to set it in dry and stony places: my selfe at the impression hereof, planted some seeds in the bricke walls of my garden, which as yet do spring and grow green, the successe I expect.


There be found two Aglaophotides, described by Aelianus in his 14.booke; one of the sea, in the 24.Chapter: the other of the earth, in the 27.chapter. That of the sea is a kind of Fucus, or sea mosse, which groweth upon high rocks, of the bigness of Tamarisk, with the head of Poppy; which opening in the Summer Solstice doth yeeld in the night time a certain fierie, and as it were sparkling brightnesse or light.

That of the earth, saith he, which by another name is called Cynospastus, lieth hid in the day time among other herbes, and is not knowne at all, and in the night time it is easily seene: for it shineth like a star, and glittereth with a fierie brightnesse.

And this Aglaophotis of the earth, or Cynospastus, is Paeonia; for Apuleius saith, that the seedes or graines of Peionie shine in the night time like a candle, and that plenty of it is in the night season found out and gathered by the shepheards….

Aelianus saith, that Cynospastus is not plucked up without danger; and that it is reported how he that first touched it, not knowing the nature thereof, perished. Therefore a string must be fastened to it in the night, and a hungrie dog tied thereto, who being allured by the smell of rotting flesh set towards him, may plucke it up by the rootes. Iosephus also writeth, that Baara doth shine in the evening like the day star, and that they who come neere, and would plucke it up, can hardly do that, save that either a woman’s urine, or her menses be poured upon it, and that so it may be plucked up at the length….

But all these things be most vaine and frivolous: for the roote of Peionie, as also of Mandrake, may be removed at any time of the yeare, day or houre whatsoever.


[Peony root] is also given, saith Pliny, against the disease of the minde. The root of the male Peionie is preferred in this cure.

Ten or twelve of the red berries or seeds drunke in wine that is something harsh or sower, and red, do stay the inordinate flux, and are good for the stone in the beginning.

The blacke graines (that is the seed) to the number of fifteen taken in wine or mead, helpes the strangling and paines of the matrix or mother, and is a speciall remedie for those that are troubled in the night with the disease called Ephialtes or night Mare, which is as though a heavy burthen were laid upon them, and they oppressed therewith, as if they were overcome by their enemies, or overprest with some great weight or burthen; and they are also good against melancholicke dreams.

“Such a harmlesse treasure”

Would you pay $20.00 for a plagiarized book? You might if it were over 350 years old, 1650 pages long, and weighed in at over half a stone.

I’m talking about the Dover reprint of the complete 1633 edition of The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard, as revised and amended by Thomas Johnson. Ever since I picked it up at a natural history book sale two weekends ago, I’ve spent at least an hour a day poring over it.

Part of its charm lies in the illustrations, which are engravings accurate enough to use for identification in most cases. This was crucial, because a standard descriptive language for botany had yet to emerge. Another consequence of that lack is a vividness in the plant descriptions, made all the more interesting by the expressive language and idiosyncratic spelling of the Elizabethan era. Gerard’s description of the wild cucumber, for example, conveys a sense of earthiness and grotesque sexuality:

The wilde Cucumber hath many fat hairie branches, very rough and full of juice, creeping or trailing upon the ground, wherupon are set very rough leaves, hairy, sharp pointed, & of an overworne grayish greene colour: from the bosome of which come forth long tender foot-stalks: on the ends of which doe grow small floures composed of five small leaves of a pale yellow colour: after which commeth forth the fruit, of the bignes of the smallest pullets egge, but somewhat longer, verie rough and hairy on the outside, and of the colour and substance of the stalkes, wherin is contained very much water and smalhard blackish seeds also, of the bignesse of tares; which being come to maturitie and ripenesse, it casteth or squirteth forth his water with the seeds, either of it owne accord, or being touched with the most tender or delicate hand never so gently, and oftentimes striketh so hard against those that touch it (especially if it chance to hit against the face) that the place smarteth long after: whereupon by some it hath been called Noli me tangere, Touch me not. The root is thicke, white and long lasting.

Much of the text was lifted from other sources, as were almost all of the illustrations. As Johnson put it, Gerard “accommodated” virtually the entire English translation, by one Dr. Priest, of the magisterial 1583 Latin herbal by Rembert Dodoens. The illustrations for Gerard’s original (1597) edition were taken from a Frankfurt herbal, whose engraver had copied at least six earlier works, mostly Dutch. The chain of copies of copies of copies extends well back before the age of printing. At least one illustration in the 1633 edition of Gerard’s herbal has been traced as far back as a sixth century manuscript copy of the Codex Vindobonensis by Dioscorides, which is presumed to follow the original, first century work fairly closely. Thus Gerard’s Herball preserves a link, however tenuous, with Hellenistic botany.

Histories of the Renaissance tend to emphasize the rediscovery of classical authors, but what really distinguished the age in my view was the unprecedented privileging of vernacular knowledge, after centuries in which allegory and abstraction reigned supreme. One sees this quite clearly in the evolution of herbals. Many of the woodcut illustrations from the earliest printed herbals reflect a sophisticated sense of design, but betray little familiarity with the plants they supposedly represent. Less than fifty years later, in Otto Brunsel’s Herbarum Vivae Eicones, the influence of the Renaissance painters and engravers, combined with the stimulation of new discoveries from overseas, resulted in woodcuts more naturalistic and finely detailed than the illustrations in some modern field guides.

Gerard was faithful to his continental models also in the attention he paid to philology, giving not just the Greek, Latin and English names but also Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian and others. Medieval scholasticism persists in the form of a brief attempt in each chapter to describe the plant or plants in terms of “Temperature”: i.e., its place in the (to us) bizarre doctrine of the four temperaments or humors. This, along with the Doctrine of Signatures, was the Medieval Christian’s way of coming to terms with the seemingly chaotic diversity of nature. (And in fact, Gerard’s alternate title for this section is “The Nature.”)

By the end of the 17th century, the growing influence of the modern, mechanistic worldview, with its emphasis on the primacy of human reason, would leave little room for the particularistic knowledge of herbals and herbalists. It was simply too unflattering to the Western European mind to contemplate a universe in which an anthropomorphic deity would make the well-being of his favorite creations dependent on something so base as the idiosyncratic qualities of disparate plants. And, of course, the growing centralization of power put village-level herbal practitioners at increasing risk of persecution. For the sake of so-called science, with nothing tangible to replace this suddenly discredited tradition, Western medicine took a great leap backwards, not to recover for close to 300 years.

Gerard and Johnson were intersted in more than just medicine. They aimed at nothing less than a complete British botany, including naturalized plants, plus whatever could be grown in gardens or was then imported for medicinal or other purposes. Although most people value the work for its insights into Elizabethan botanical folklore, I am finding the incidental descriptions of the English countryside included in the “Place” section of many chapters almost as engaging. This passage is not at all atypical in its specificity:

The Vervaine Mallow groweth not everie where: it growes on the ditch sides on the left hand of the place of execution by London, called Tyborn: also in a field neere unto a village fourteene miles from London called Bushey, on the backe-side of a Gentlemans house named Mr. Robert Wylbraham: likewise among the bushes and hedges as you go from London to a place called the Old Foord; and in the bushes as you go to Hackny a village by London, in the closes next the town, and in divers other places, as at Bassingburn in Hartfordshire, three miles from Roiston.

[Addition by Johnson:] Mr. Goodyer found the Vervain Mallow with white floures growing plentifully in a close neere Maple-durham in Hampshire, called Aldercrofts.

Nevertheless, the final sections of each chapter, where the authors discuss “The Vertues,” remain the most entertaining parts of the text. They often convey a sense of wonder and intense engagement with the natural world on its own terms, even if much of the natural history seems archaic. For example:

Beares after they have lien in their dens forty dayes without any manner of sustenance, but what they get with licking and sucking their owne feet, do as soone as they come forth eate the herbe Cuckowpint, through the windie nature whereof the hungry gut is opened and made fit again to receive sustenance: for by abstaining from food so long a time, the gut is shrunke or drawne so close together, that in a manner it is quite shut up, as Aristotle, Aebianus, Plutarch, Pliny, and others do write.

As a homebrewer with a particular interest in herbs other than hops, I am keeping a sharp eye out for any mention of the medicinal benefits of herbal beers. Chapter 314, Of Ground-Ivy, or Ale-hoofe, contains a brief reference to the then-flourishing tradition of brewsters, or female brewers – already much-maligned figures, along with midwives, “neighbor ladies,” and of course the proverbial, tale-telling “old wives.”

The women of our Northern parts, especially about Wales and Cheshire, do tunne the herb Ale-hoofe into their Ale, but the reason thereof I know not: notwithstanding it is most singular against the griefs aforesaid [i.e., “the humming noyse and ringing sounde of the eares . . . Sciatica, or ache in the huckle bone . . . the yellow jaundice . . . stoppings out of the liver . . . all manner of inflamation, spots, webs, itch, smarting, or any grief whatsoever in the eyes, yea although the sight were nigh hand gone”]: being tunned up in ale and drunke, it also purgeth the head from rhumaticke humors flowing from the braine.

About another brewing herb, Gerard writes:

Sage is singular good for the head and braine; it quickeneth the senses and memory, strengtheneth the sinews, restoreth health to those that have the palsie upon a moist cause, takes away shaking or trembling of the members; and being put up in the nostrils, it draweth thin flegme out of the head.

It is likewise commended against the spitting of blood, the cough, and paines of the sides, and biting of Serpents….

No man needs to doubt of the wholesomness of Sage Ale, being brewed as it should be, with Sage, Scabious, Betony, Spikenard, Squinanth, and Fennell seeds.

Gerard himself, plagiarist though he might be, comes across as an earnest and enthusiastic lover of plants in his preface “To the courteous and well willing Readers.” He begins by contrasting his own search for “such a harmlesse treasure of herbes, trees, and plants, as the earth frankely without violence offereth unto our most necessarie uses,” with prospectors for gold and silver.

Harmelesse I call them, because they were such delights as man in the perfectest state of his innocencie did erst injoy: and treasure I may well terme them, seeing both Kings and Princes have esteemed them as Jewels; sith wise men have made their whole life as a pilgrimage to attain the knowledge of them: by the which they have gained the hearts of all, and opened the mouths of many, in commendation of those rare vertues which are contained in these terrestriall creatures. I confesse blind Pluto is now adayes more sought after than quick sighted Phoebus: and yet this dusty metall, or excrement of the earth (which was first deeply buried least it should be an eye-sore to grieve the corrupt heart of man) by forcible entry into the bowels of the earth, is rather snatched at of man to his owne destruction, than directly sent of God, to the comfort of this life.

Gerard did not stint in portrayals of plants for which the only “vertues” were aesthetic. He devotes many pages to detailing varieties of daffodils, tulips and sweet-williams. Of the last, he concludes that “These plants are not used either in meat or medicine, but esteemed for their beauty to deck up gardens, the bosomes of the beautiful, garlands and crownes for pleasure.” Gerard ends another chapter, on a group of orchids called fox stones, by saying that “notwithstanding there is no great use of them in physicke, but they are chiefly regarded for the pleasant and beautifull floures, wherewith Nature hath seemed to play and disport herself.” Such statements capture as well as any the generous spirit of Renaissance humanism, all too soon swept away by tides of religious intolerance, revolutionary violence and the rise of monopoly capitalism.