Wednesday, April 13, 2011

`A Walk in the Dogwood Swamp'

While we were in Houston our neighborhood’s color scheme shifted from the near-monochrome of a Pacific Northwest winter -- gray/brown/dark green -- to a broad band of greens mottled with the pastels of spring. Dandelions flourish, like mushrooms after a summer rain. Cedars have yellowed, maples reddened. Other trees and shrubs bloom and bud – forsythias and magnolias, cherries and East-Asian species with flowers of pink and white. More muted is my favorite flowering tree, the dogwood, with vellum-colored petals ribbed in green, and stick-like, crooked, sparsely leafed branches, solitary and eccentrically beautiful.

Chaucer knew the dogwood as the “whippelttree.” Describing a funeral pyre in “The Knight’s Tale,” he revels in a catalog of English trees:

“But how the fyr was maked upon highte,
Ne eek the names that the trees highte,
As, ook, firre, birch, aspe, alder, holm, popeler,
Wylugh, elm, plane, assh, box, chasteyn, lynde, laurer,
Mapul, thorn, bech, hasel, ew, whippeltree -
How they weren fild shal nat be toold for me.”

In modern English: oak, fir, birch, aspen or white poplar, alder, holm, poplar, willow, elm, plane, ash, box, chestnut, linden, laurel, thorn, maple, beech, yew, dogwood. He needed the rhyme but I like to think Chaucer gave the dogwood pride of place, a culmination of English treeness.

Given its frequency of appearance in his journals, Thoreau seems also to have prized the dogwood. In a journal passage from Dec. 21, 1851, his acute powers of observation and description seem at first to fail him. Rather, what we see is a writer thinking as he writes, honing his vision, not relying on a first glimpse, rejecting the visual/verbal cliché:

“The dogwood and its berries in the swamp by the railroad, just above the red house, pendent on long stems, which hang short down as if broken, betwixt yellowish (?) and greenish (?), white, ovoid, pearly (?) or waxen (?), berries. What is the color of them? Ah, give me to walk in the dogwood swamp, with its few coarse branches! Beautiful as Satan.”

In Christian legend, the cross on which Jesus was crucified was built of dogwood, which may explain the shock of the final sentence.

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