Wednesday, July 25, 2012

`A Very Beautiful Object'

In the front yard stand three water oaks and a loblolly pine, the latter about eighty feet tall and densely limbed only near the top. Sunday I was kneeling in the driveway beneath the pine, weeding the flower bed, when something hit me on the shoulder – a pine cone stripped bare like a fried-chicken drumstick. I’d already picked up a dozen gnawed-at cones, sticky with pitch, and swept drifts of discarded cone scales (strictly speaking, bracts) off the pavement. High above me, two squirrels chewed at cones like picnickers eating corn on the cob, relishing the oil-rich seeds under the scales. They ate them the way Faulkner, in “Red Leaves,” describes an escaped slave eating ants: “slowly, with a kind of detachment, like that of a dinner guest eating salted nuts from a dish.” 

Intact, before the squirrels tear them apart and before the scales relax and open to release the seeds, the greenish cones are bumpy and rock-like. When Marianne Moore describes the title creature in “The Pangolin,” she notices its skin with “scale / lapping scale with spruce-cone regularity.” In fact, the scales on cones are arranged in alternating spirals, with the number of spirals always representing two adjoining numbers in the Fibonacci sequence – say, three and five, or eight and thirteen. Because Fibonacci numbers approximate irrational numbers, the scales do not line up precisely and weaken the arrangement. There’s structural integrity in regular irregularity. On March 3, 1855, Thoreau notes in his journal that he found a pitch pine cone on the ground after the snow melts. He sees the teeth marks where a squirrel had gnawed it off the branch: 

“…it has apparently just opened, and I shake its seeds out. Not only is this cone, resting upright on the ground, fully blossomed, a very beautiful object, but the winged seeds which half fill my hand, small triangular black seeds, with thin and delicate flesh-colored wings, remind me of fishes,--alewives, perchance,--their tails more or less curved….I see, in another place under a pitch pine, many cores of cones which the squirrels have completely stripped of their scales.” 

Thoreau includes a drawing of a cone stripped of its scales and seeds, and I swear it looks like a dressed chicken leg.

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