“It is the roots of things that fascinate me—their bulbs, their rhizomes, etymologies.”
This is A.E. Stallings, an American poet living in Greece, in a piece she wrote for Poetry, “All the Greens Whose Names I Do Not Know.” Her prose is unusually good for a contemporary poet, not silly, earnest or pretentious. To extend her metaphor a little, her prose, like her poetry, feels rooted in the real world. Every writer ought to be so roots-minded.
A few hours before I read Stallings’ greens piece, my boss told me a story about her recent encounter with rooted greenery. Several inches of rain fell last week at the farm, enough for her drought-dried pond to accumulate a few inches of water. The fish are gone, probably consumed by passing herons, but the rain revived the shrubs growing around the pond’s edge. She and her husband call them “coffee bean plants,” which in fact is one of the common names for Sesbania drummondii, better known as rattlebox. They remind me of black locust but are classified as toxic legumes.
The shrubs block the cows’ right of way to the pond, but rattlebox roots sink eighteen inches or more into the drought-parched ground. Pulling them by hand is a waste of time, so my boss’ husband welded together a de-rooter from chain and scrap-iron and fastened it to the tractor. One of the welds broke, then the tractor got mired in the newly moistened pond, and he hooked up their second tractor, this one with four-wheel drive, to the first, which started to tip over with my boss at the helm. They righted it and spent too much time pulling too few roots from the ground. The cows seem uninterested in rattlebox as fodder, so the de-rooting can resume without urgency next weekend.
Stallings says she was browsing in a glossary of Linear B, “the pre-alphabetic system of writing used by Mycenaean Greeks,” and found
“…among the hardware of war and the tackle of trades…the flavors of daily fare and feasts, the containers of wine and oil and flour. Here I find ko-ri-ja-da-na (coriander), mi-ta (mint), pa-ko-we (sage), se-ri-no (celery), ma-ra-tu-wo (fennel)—words nearly identical to the modern Greek three millennia later. How fresh and fragrant these ancient syllables are, as if someone just harvested them this Monday morning and put them on a truck bound for the farmers’ market in Neos Kosmos, with the Cretan, Attic, and Laconic dirt still clinging to their roots. I go out with my shopping basket, to make my own anthology.”
The root of root, crusted with centuries of rich linguistic soil, is in Old English: “Nim horsellenes rota & eftgewæxen barc, & dry swyðe & mac to duste.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces this tidbit to the deliciously named Thomas Oswald Cockayne’s deliciously named three-volume Leechdoms, Wortcunning, & Starcraft (1864-66). The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says of Cockayne, famed for his researches in Anglo-Saxon:
“Although Cockayne was a gifted and productive philologist, his pugnacious personality and abrasive ad hominem attacks on influential critics closed the doors to higher academic positions. He was a well-intentioned but impolitic man whose life was driven by a love of language but whose life was ultimately ruined by the unbridled use of language.”