Monday, June 20, 2011

`What They Have a Word For'

One hundred fifty-three years ago today, after reporting on the bird nests and eggs he found in Holden Swamp, and on the sound a pickerel makes striking the underside of a lily pad, Thoreau notes in his journal:

“Walking in the white pine woods there, I find that my shoes and, indeed, my hat are covered with the greenish-yellow pollen of the white pines, which is now being shed abundantly and covers like a fine meal all the plants and shrubs of the forest floor. I never noticed it in such abundance before. My shoes are green-yellow, or yellow-green, even the next day with it.”

Our chief pollen-shedder is the Western red cedar. Two stand in the yard, and the one beside the driveway sifts greenish-yellow powder on our cars each spring. My wife’s Toyota is parked closer, so the body is also textured with bumps of sun-baked pitch, hundreds of them. Pollen, pitch and the cedar’s scale-like leaves have given her car a Pacific Northwest camouflage finish, though the pollen is nothing compared to the post oak’s in Houston. Imagine half an inch of finely milled flour on your windshield each morning, kneaded into a doughy mess by the wipers after you spray the window cleaner.

Now the cedar’s reddish pollen cones are falling, covering the driveway and lawn with rust-colored drifts. They stick to our shoes and end up in every room, even in the beds. I sweep them out of the gutter so the sewer isn’t plugged. I enjoy the spectacle of natives and transplants lauding the region’s natural beauty and complaining about how filthy the trees are.

A typical woods or fringe of trees along a road here includes Western red cedar, Douglas fir, alder and big-leaf maple – a lovely bouquet of mixed colors, shapes and sizes. Thoreau writes later in the same June 20, 1858, passage:

“I see that the French have a convenient word, aunaie, also spelt aulnaie and aulnage, etc., signifying a grove of alders. It reminds me of their other convenient word used by Rasle, cabanage.”

I can’t think of a collective noun in English referring to groves of any specific species of tree, only generic words -- “grove,” “copse,” “spinney,” “orchard,” “stand,” “thicket.” Cabanage means hut, campsite or slave quarters. “Rasle” is S├ębastien Rasles (1657-1724), a French Jesuit missionary who compiled a dictionary of the Abenaki language. In his journal for March 5, 1858, Thoreau writes:

“Father Rasle’s dictionary of the Abenaki language amounts to a very concentrated and trustworthy natural history of that people, though it was not completed. What they have a word for, they have a thing for. A traveller may tell us that he thinks they used a pavement, or built their cabins in a certain form, or soaked their seed corn in water, or had no beard, etc., etc.; but when one gives us the word for these things, the question is settled,--that is a clincher.”

Few things are so deeply satisfying – so pleasurably a clincher – as fitting a new word to an old thing, and filling in yet another hole in the world.

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...

While you are on the subject, I'll note only that the pollen from ponderosa pine here in Grass Valley is pure pale yellow--no green in it-- and averages about a quarter of an inch on everything in the vicinity from geranium leaves to car surfaces. I doubt that Thoreau ever saw a ponderosa in Concord.