Saturday, November 12, 2011

`Airy, Rounded Masses of Light Green'

I love the poetry of botanical language, the Latinate specificities and richness of useful metaphor. In “Olives,” A.E. Stallings refers to “A rich and dark and indehiscent meat / Clinging tightly to the pit.” The rare word, “indehiscent,” refers to “fruits that do not split open when mature, but retain the seed till they decay.” Olives, like other indehiscent plants, do not open when ripe. The word's root is the present participle of dehiscere, “to open in chinks, gape, yawn.”

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of “indehiscent” to 1832, when John Lindley (1799-1865) writes in An Introduction to Botany: “Cells one-seeded, indehiscent, dry, perfectly close at all times.” Logically, “dehiscent” showed up much earlier, in 1649. Think of the distinction in human terms. A dehiscent person, when mature, opens to the world and gives something. One who is indehiscent first must rot or otherwise be compelled to open and deliver his gift.

Take the botanically related word “caducous,” from cadere, “to fall.” The OED defines it as “Applied to organs or parts that fall off naturally when they have served their purpose [in both plants and animals]; fugacious, deciduous,” Examples are the calyx of the poppy and gills of a tadpole.

Early in 1842, Emerson’s oldest son, Waldo, died of scarlet fever. In his essay “Experience,” published two years later, Emerson says his son’s death “falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caduceus.” When I first wrote about this passage more than four years ago, I was more forgiving than I am today. Judging the grief of another, especially at the loss of a child, is probably indecent, but Emerson’s blithe Yankee coolness is creepy, as is the use of a precise but clinical word.

A final example from botany: “falcate.” This means sickle-shaped, usually referring to leaves, from the Latin falx for scythe or sickle. I know it from Quercus falcata, the Southern red oak, but I can’t help thinking of the Grim Reaper. In a journal passage from Aug. 5, 1858, about a boating excursion along the Assabet River, Thoreau writes:

“The black willows are perhaps in their best condition, - airy, rounded masses of light green rising one above another, with a few slender black stems, like umbrella handles, seen here and there in their midst, low spreading cumuli of slender falcate leaves, buttressed by smaller sallows, button-bushes, cornels, and pontederias, -- like long green clouds or wreaths of vapor resting on the riverside. They scarcely leave the impression of leaves, but rather of a low, swelling, rounded bank, even as the heaviest particles of alluvium are deposited nearest the channel. It is a peculiarity of this, which I think is our most interesting willow, that you rarely see the trunk and yet the foliage is never dense.”

Leave it to Thoreau to precisely observe the phenomenon of seeing something he can’t see or not seeing something he can.

[Go here for a “Dictionary of Botanical Epithets” and here for a “Dictionary of Botany.”]

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