Late morning, the day before yesterday: As I’m putting the finishing touches on my Lorca translations, I hear something moving through the cattails and rushes at the edge of the little marsh on the other side of the driveway. I go out to investigate and discover a porcupine drinking from the ditch. She rears up and faces me briefly, chattering her teeth in a hostile fashion, before turning around, exposing her backside and pushing out her quills. An admirable reaction, I think; I’ve always regarded the porcupine as something of a kindred spirit. In the strong sunlight her pale skin is visible underneath the black and dark-brown fur and the forest of spears. When I go back in, some lines I had been puzzling over suddenly make a bit more sense:
But don’t illuminate this limpid nude of yours
like some black cactus open in the bulrushes.
That evening, as we’re finishing up supper on the front porch of my parents’ house, my mother spots two pairs of blue jays moving around at the top of a tall locust tree above the driveway. “Seems a little late for mating activity,” she says, but perhaps the heat makes them frisky. The males are hopping and fluttering around the females, as if at a dance. One pair flies off to the west while the other pair continues to dance. With birds, it’s almost all foreplay: after two blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em copulations, the female takes flight with the male in pursuit – or in tow, as the case may be. It’s important to avoid letting our own preconceptions influence what we see.
I’ve been slightly obsessed with trying to get the perfect peony photograph. And why not? Almost every other year since they first flowered back in 1998, their entire blooming period has been rained out. These are the old-fashioned, off-white, double-blossomed peonies with a strong scent very much like a woman’s perfume. I transplanted them from the yard of our erstwhile neighbor’s derelict house into my herb garden (as I then considered it), for no better reason than that I liked them. But I was delighted to learn somewhat after the fact that peonies do have a well-established place in herbal tradition. Last winter I quoted a bit from Gerard, who describes a number of folk beliefs about the peony, for example that the plant
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.
The superstitious fear was not entirely misplaced. According to John Lust (The Herb Book, Bantam, 1974), “The entire plant is poisonous, the flowers especially so. A tea made from flowers can be fatal.” It’s the root one uses, of course. And while I don’t fear personal injury from digging it up – I did it once and survived – it is true that peonies very much resent being disturbed. As any nurseryman will tell you, they can take a couple of years to recover after being divided. So if I ever contract jaundice, kidney or bladder problems, or the gout, I think I might look for other remedies first. And I hope I never have occasion to treat myself for “spasms, and various nervous affections,” as King’s American Dispensatory puts it.
But I was intrigued by Gerard’s descriptions of how it appeared at night: the seeds of one variety “shine in the night time like a candle,” and another “doth shine in the evening like the day star.” So I go out after dark with my camera to try and take some flash pictures. I don’t detect any bioluminescence, but I wonder if these legends might have originated from people with synaesthesia? The fragrance is almost overpowering. The camera’s viewfinder shows nothing but blackness; I simply point the camera toward the perfume’s epicenter and click.
The flash illuminates the flowers and helps me get a better position for two subsequent shots, but I feel very much like a voyeur. Reviewing the pictures in the display window, I’m reminded of a couple we caught in the act one time down at the gate. We had driven home around 10:00 o’clock one night to find a car blocking the entrance to our driveway. Dad put the high beams on and waited while a pair of startled faces popped up and went back down, to be replaced by hands reaching frantically for articles of clothing – piles of white on the dashboard, in the back window.
Incidentally, King’s – which contemporary herbalists still regard as fairly reliable – does give credence to Gerard’s claims for the effectiveness of peony seeds in driving away nighmares: “The seeds, taken night and morning, have been successfully used in removing nightmare attendant upon dropsical persons.”
Standing outside in the dark, breathing in the mingled odors of peonies and dame’s rocket, I hear something chewing – some small rodent – in the walls of my house.
A frustrated e-mail correspondent challenged me to prove that I am still alive. I had three reactions:
1) He obviously hasn’t been reading my blog.
2) On the other hand, maybe he has been reading my blog.
3) Far greater minds than my own have foundered on this very question. For my part, I will continue to insist that Blogito, ergo sum.