Tuesday, July 16, 2013

`Give Me No High-Flown Fangled Things'

A friend in Dallas is reading Edward Seidensticker’s Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake (1983). I haven’t yet read the book and know Seidensticker only as the translator of Kawabata, Mishima and Tanizaki, but my friend sent me a passage by the Japanese writer Nagai Kafū (1879-1959) he thought I might enjoy. It’s from Kafū’s Hiyori-geta (Good-weather Footgear, also translated as Fairweather Clogs), a collection of essays about his walks around Tokyo, published in 1914: 

“I love weeds.  I have the same fondness for them as for the violets and dandelions of spring, the bell flowers and maiden flowers of autumn. I love the weeds that flourish in vacant lots, the weeds that grow on roofs, the weeds beside the road and beside the ditch. A vacant lot is a garden of weeds. The plumes of the mosquito-net grass, as delicate as glossed silk; the plumes of foxtail, soft as fur; the warm rose-pink of knotgrass blossoms; the fresh blue-white of the plantain; chickweed in flower, finer and whiter than sand: having come upon them does one not linger over them and find them difficult to give up?” 

As Seidensticker notes, “Kafū could be lyrical on the subject of vacant lots.” One is tempted at first to see something distinctly Japanese in the appeal of scorned plants, except similar sentiments can be found in Western writers as various as John Clare, Thoreau, Chesterton and Richard Mabey. Weeds possess the qualities we admire in paintings and poems – eloquent humility, enduring toughness, an absence of pretention and overreaching for significance, a mingling of plainness and complexity too often mistaken for simplicity. Weeds are elemental, nature distilled. Give me a mullein over a hothouse orchid any day. In “The Flitting,” Clare defines an aesthetic by way of nature: “Give me no high-flown fangled things, / No haughty pomp in marching chime,” and says of weeds: 

“Een here my simple feelings nurse
   A love for every simple weed,
 And een this little shepherd's purse
   Grieves me to cut it up; indeed
 I feel at times a love and joy
   For every weed and every thing.” 

Shepherd’s purse is Capsella bursa-pastoris, a member of the mustard family. In Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants (HarperCollins, 2010), Mabey writes: 

“The common garden weed shepherd’s purse is named for its seed heads, which resemble the little pouches or skrips worn by medieval peasants (there’s a typical skrip in Brueghel’s painting The Peasant Dance). Open up a purse and the seeds spill out like tiny golden coins. They’re cover with a thin layer of gum, which becomes stickier still when it’s moistened -- as for instance by contact with the soil – so that it can cling to the feet of birds.” 

Getting back to Japan, the Festival of Seven Herbs or Seven Grasses Day (Nanakusa no sekku) is observed on Jan. 7 by eating seven-herb rice porridge, including nazuna, or shepherd’s purse.

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