Tuesday, January 31, 2012

`This More Delicate Belle of the Swamp'

Spring arrived in Houston shortly after 8 o’clock Monday morning, when the sky was blue and almost free of clouds, and the air warm enough to turn my thoughts to germinating seeds. I had an appointment with a post-doc in bioengineering but I was early, so I took off my jacket and took my time.

On the far side of campus, literally in the shadow of the Texas Medical Center, I passed through a low, marshy pocket I had never visited before, where shade has kept it moist even through the drought. Thousands of cars pass daily, as do students, patients and joggers. Nearby are the soccer stadium, tennis courts and baseball diamond, but here is one of those in-between places left over when we've finished paving everything else. Misleadingly, it’s judged “vacant.”

Two rabbits retreated into the tall grass as I approached. A pigeon working the bare patch along the sidewalk stayed put. A Northern mockingbird perched in a newly planted sapling, and below, near the wettest spot, grew a patch of lanceleaf tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata). The yellow, daisy-like flowers reminded me of the “fringed orchis” (probably Platanthera psycodes) Thoreau jealously savored in his journal on June 9, 1854:

“It is remarkable that this, one of the fairest of all our flowers, should be one of the rarest,--for the most part not seen at all. I think that no other but myself in Concord annually find it. That so queenly a flower should annually bloom so rarely and in such withdrawn and secret places as to be rarely seen by man! The village belle never sees this more delicate belle of the swamp.”

Coreopsis is not so rare as Thoreau’s orchid, except when we choose not to see it. I mentioned my discovery of the flower blooming in January to the bioengineer, a recent transplant from Cambridge, Mass., where Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1839, and she was polite. Spring, after all, is almost two months away. Thoreau carries on about his fringed orchis:

“How little relation between our life and its. Most of us never see it or hear of it. The seasons go by to us as if it were not. A beauty reared in the shade of a convent, who has never strayed beyond the convent bell. Only the skunk or owl or other inhabitant of the swamp beholds it. In the damp twilight of the swamp, where it is wet to the feet. How little anxious to display its attractions! It does not pine because man does not admire it. How independent on our race! It lifts its delicate spike amid the hellebore and ferns in the deep shade of the swamp. I am inclined to think of it as a relic of the past as much as the arrowhead, or the tomahawk I found on the 7th.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

The great Alaskan poet John Haines took this sense of wilderness and ran with it:

“In this world we think we know,
something will always
be hidden, whether a fern-rib
traced in the oldest rock,

or a force behind our face,
like the pulse of a reptile,
dim and electric…” (“Yeti”)

Nature (in the sense of Thoreau’s orchid or Aquinas’ fly) conveys humility for a reason. As Haines puts it, referring to poetry but it could be any kind of writing or thinking: “There is a form that exists, independent of our will and invention, and one need not believe in either God or Plato to acknowledge a truth in this claim. To the extent that a poem corresponds in some degree to this living, timeless, but never more than partly revealed form, the poem will justify itself and outlive its moment of conception. We will call it apt, or fitting, or beautiful, like a house to be lived in.”