Saturday, September 10, 2011

`These Vile Weeds Are Sown by Vile Men'

I grew up calling it Jimson weed, though Nige knows it by the proper genus name, Datura. Just two weeks ago, walking along a freeway access road, I saw one flowering on a pile of dirt in the same empty lot where a single stalk of corn was growing. How’s that for serendipitous symbolism? The blossoms were white and probably it was Datura wrightii. Someone in Limestone County, Texas, named a town Datura in the 1880s. Population in 2000: two.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us “datura” comes from the Hindi dhatÅ«ra, referring to “common Indian species used to stupefy and poison.” The earliest citation, dated to 1662, is from John Davies’ translation of Johann Albrecht Von Mandelslo’s Voyages and Travels in the East Indies: “A drug which… stupefies his senses…The Indians call this herb Doutro, Doutry, or Datura, and the Turks and Persians, Datula.”

In 1862, Henry Beveridge writes in his Comprehensive History of India: “From Hindoos was first learned the benefit of smoking datura in asthma.”

A single plant, known variously as angel’s trumpet, devil’s trumpet, Jamestown weed, thorn apple, Indian apple, moonflower and apple of Peru, has been used as medicine and poison, and as a sacred and recreational hallucinogenic – a lot of significance packed into one plant.

On Sept. 22, 1859, Thoreau inspected the cellar of a house that had been pulled down the previous spring, to “see if any new or rare plants had sprung up in that place which had so long been covered from the light.” Among others he found Urtica urens (annual nettle), Anethum graveolens (dill) and Nicotiana tabacum (cultivated tobacco). He notes that “a curse seems to attach to any place which has long been inhabited by man.” In the newly exposed basement he finds “a crop of rank and noxious weeds, evidence of a certain unwholesome fertility.”

Thoreau works himself into quite a state and writes: “As if what was foul, baleful, grovelling, or obscene in the inhabitants had sunk into the earth and infected it.” Now in a moral tizzy, he comes to datura, Jamestown-weed as he calls it:

“You find henbane and Jamestown-weed and the like, in cellars,—such herbs as the witches are said to put into their caldron. It would fit that the tobacco plant should spring up on the housesite, aye on the grave, of almost every householder of Concord. These vile weeds are sown by vile men. When the house is gone they spring up in the corners of cellars where the cidercasks stood always on tap, for murder and all kindred vices will out. And that rank crowd which lines the gutter, where the wash of the dinner dishes flows, are but more distant parasites of the host. What obscene and poisonous weeds, think you, will mark the site of a Slave State?—what kind of Jamestown-weed?”

Less than a month after Thoreau wrote his journal entry, on Oct. 16, John Brown and his men raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va. They killed six people, including a free black man and two slaves, and 10 of Brown’s men were killed. On May 9, Thoreau and Emerson had attended a lecture given by Brown in Concord. On Dec. 2, 1859, the day he was hanged, Brown wrote:

“I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had as I now think vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

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