Monday, March 12, 2012

`Bless the Wonders Underfoot'

To spend time with field biologists or gifted amateur naturalists is a language lesson and a lesson in paying attention. Such people know things. We see green fronds and say: “Ferns.” They see ferns and say: “Adiantum capillus-veneris – Southern maidenhair.” Once I associated the effortless use of binomial nomenclature with textbook pedantry or linguistic vanity, and sometimes that is the case, but people who can name things with precision often know things precisely. For them, the world is a less disorderly place than for the rest of us. They see patterns and linkages, and come to recognize that everything is linked, nothing is solitary, if only we know enough. In Oaxaca Journal (2002), his account of a fern-collecting expedition to southern Mexico, Oliver Sacks writes:

“I get talking with Scott about our primordial need to identify, to categorize, to organize. He himself, he says, rather than spotting species, immediately goes to a wider category—the family—and then homes in to genus and species. How much, we wonder, is such categorizing hardwired in the brain? How much learned?”

The Louisiana poet Gail White’s “I Come to the Garden” appears in the April issue of First Things:

“I can name so few flowers. This is why
I’m not a better poet. Shakespeare knew
oxlip and gillyvor and eglantine,
while I, beyond camellia, violet, rose,
and lily, am reduced to saying, `There,
those crinkly yellow things!’ Out on a walk
with mad John Clare, I’d learn a dozen names
for plants, and bless the wonders underfoot.
`More servants wait on man,’ George Herbert said,
`than he’ll take notice of.’ I know it’s true,
although I’ve never had observant eyes.
Would I care more if my heart’s soil were deep
enough for herbs and loves to take firm root?
Mine is a gravel garden, where the rake
Does all the cultivation I can take.”

White knows her Shakespeare if not her flowers, just as Shakespeare, a country boy, knew his flora and its associated folklore. Oberon says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.”

Arviragus says in Cymbeline:

“With fairest flowers
Whilst summer lasts and I live here, Fidele,
I'll sweeten thy sad grave: thou shalt not lack
The flower that's like thy face, pale primrose, nor
The azured harebell, like thy veins, no, nor
The leaf of eglantine whom not to slander,
Out-sweeten'd not thy breath.”

Perdita says in The Winter’s Tale:

“Sir, the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer's death, nor on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest
flowers o' the season
Are our carnations and streak'd gillyvors,
Which some call nature's bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden's barren; and I care not
To get slips of them.”

And a few lines later, Polixenes replies:

“Then make your garden rich in gillyvors,
And do not call them bastards.”

The last is better known as a “pink” or “gilliflower,” almost a synonym for carnation, but Leo H. Grindon writes in a footnote in The Shakepeare Flora (1883):

“No botanical name ever experienced so many mutations. In the literature of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries may be found gyroflee, giroflee, gilofer, galofer, gylofre, girofle, gelofer, gyllofer, gelouer, gillyvor, gelyfloure, gilyfoure, gilofloure, gillofloure, gelliflower, gilloflower, no fewer than seventeen different spellings, and probably others not observed.”

My spell-check software recognizes only “gillyflower,” not even Shakespeare’s “gillyvor.” The George Herbert allusion is to his poem “Man.” I like White’s refusal to sentimentalize flowers and their traditional association with poetry. Her gift is satirical, thorny like a rose. I like the way she likens her heart to a “gravel garden.” She’s right to defer to the botanical/linguistic genius of John Clare, the mad, unschooled English poet. The contemporary nature writer Richard Mabey refers to Clare as “the great champion and hedge-theorist of vernacular [botanical] names.” Mabey tells us Clare referred to froghoppers by the dialect name he knew, “woodseers,” and his publisher objected. Clare replied:

“Whether it be the proper name I don't know tis what we call them & that you know is sufficient for us – they lye in little white notts of spittle on the backs of leaves & flowers. How they come I don't know but they are always seen plentiful in moist weather – & are one of the shepherds weather glasses.”

How fitting that a rose has been named after Clare, and that it's described as hardy, light and good.

1 comment:

Buce said...

Gillyflowers get a cameo in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, I believe.