Saturday, October 15, 2011

`To Think, Feel, Do Just As One Pleases'

October has cooled sufficiently to permit long, non-perspiring walks around campus at lunchtime. I never walk for fitness. That’s gravy. Mostly I walk to see and hear things, to empty my head and refill it with what serendipity delivers. Hazlitt puts it like this: “The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases,” and what pleases me on a walk is the quiet non-digitalized stuff of the world.

Much of the university stands on drained, filled-in marshland, and even months of drought leave damp patches, but most of the ground is dusty enough for me to polish my shoes after a walk. As a Northerner living in Texas, I see plants that will always remain exotic to my eyes – palms, live oaks, banana trees – but also familiar species as adaptably nomadic as I have been – dandelions, white clover, plantains. This mingling of foreign and familiar keeps things interesting.

On Friday I saw two old friends. The great or common mullein, Verbascum thapsus, sinks a deep taproot in its first year, insurance against dry Texas summers. The one I saw is about five feet tall, mostly brown, probably at the end of its second year. It stands in the dusty space between a chain-link fence and the north-facing wall of a lab. The leaves are still velvety but growing brittle. The flowers on the long raceme have dried up and it looks like a wick waiting to be dipped in tallow.

Nearby, in a rare patch of tall grass, grows a cluster of Dipsacus fullonum, thistle-like teasel, also spelled “teasle,” “teazle” and “teazel.” The heads are spiky and were used to raise the nap on fabrics – that is, tease it. The genus name is from the Greek for “thirst” (as in dipsomania), a reference to the rain water that collects in the little bowls formed by the axils of the leaves along the stem. Like the mullein, the teasels I saw were gray-brown and dry like beached driftwood.

For the first time I'm reading the English naturalist Richard Jefferies, his Wild Life in a Southern County (1879). Too often, Jefferies' prose, true to his century, is flaccidly rhapsodic. Occasionally, when naturalist trumps prose-poet, he writes with the exactitude of a true poet. Here is his beautifully detailed description of a teasel collecting water, a set-piece worthy of Agassiz or Thoreau:

"The large leaves of this plant grow in pairs, one on each side of the stem, and while the plant is young are connected in a curious manner by a green membrane, or continuation of the lower part of the leaf round the stem, so as to form a cup. The stalk rises in the centre of the cup, and of these vessels there are three or four above each other in storeys. When it rains, the drops, instead of falling off as from other leaves, run down these and are collected in the cups, which thus form so many natural rain-gauges. If it is a large plant, the cup nearest the ground--the biggest--will hold as much as two or three wine glasses. This water remains there for a considerable time, for several days after a shower, and it is fatal to numbers of insects which climb up the stalk or alight on the leaves and fall in. While the grass and the earth of the bank are quite dry, therefore, the teazle often has a supply of water; and when it dries up, the drowned insects remain at the bottom like the dregs of a draught the plant has drained. Round the prickly dome-shaped head, as the summer advances, two circles of violet-hued flowers push out from cells defended by the spines, so that, seen protruding from the hedge, it resembles a tiara--a green circle at the bottom of the dome, and two circles of gems above."

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