Wednesday, September 05, 2012

`Farewell to August, to Burning Days'

Our job sometimes is to report what is there, and do it without flourish, keeping it simple and direct, and letting the interconnectedness speak for itself. Edgar Bowers was not a naturalist but a poet, and he paid attention to the world’s particulars even when his aim was something deeper and more general. Reading him again over the weekend, I found Georgia-born Bowers describing a Southern summer in “Variations on an Elizabethan Theme” (Collected Poems, 1997): 

“Once I endured such gentle season.
Blood-root, trillium, sweet flag, and swamp aster—
In their mild urgency, the reason
Knew each and kept each chosen from disaster.” 

In the North, asters are the emblematic wildflower of autumn, taking over when the goldenrod has turned brown. In Ohio and New York, I’ve seen asters blooming in the season’s early snowfalls, bending under the weight. On Monday I took out Donald Culross Peattie’s second book, An Almanac for Moderns (1935), with an entry rooted in the natural world for each day of the year, starting March 21 (the first day of spring) and concluding March 20 (the last day of winter). Peattie and his family were living in Glenview, Ill., on the prairie near Chicago. In his entry for today, Sept. 5, he writes of asters and the botanical family Asteraceae: 

“First in the summer woods they begin with the lady aster, a dainty lavender, its leaves heart shaped. Then on the marsh the rush asters bloom, and so, species by species, they fill up the forests and fields and swamps, New England aster and brown-eyed wood aster with petals like curling lashes. The asters number thirty kinds in the blue hills and green river valleys that I can see from the top of the ridge above my house. The country over, there are hundreds of species.” 

With some 25,000 species, the Asteraceae are the beetles of the plant world, beautiful and plentiful. I remember a country cemetery in Schoharie County, New York, surrounded by two walls – one of field stones, the other of densely packed wild asters. Peattie continues: 

“In England they call them Michaelmas daisies—but Europe has no aster at which an American would look twice. In this our Western world the asters stand all through autumn, shoulder to shoulder in forest, on prairie, from the Atlantic to California, climbing up to the snows of Shasta, creeping out upon the salt marshes of Delaware. Here some call the white one frostflower, for they come as the frost comes, as a breath upon the landscape, a silver rime of chill flowering in the old age of the year. In the southern mountains they are hailed as `farewell-summer.’ Farewell to August, to burning days. Farewell to corn weather. Farewell to swallows, and to red Antares angry as venom in the Scorpion.” 

The reference to Antares in the Scorpius constellation, the sixteenth brightest object in the sky, suggests Peattie knows the etymology of “aster.”  In his fifth stanza, Bowers creates a complicated image: “Now even dusk destroys; the bright / LeucothoĆ« dissolves before the eyes / And poised upon the reach of light / Leaves only what no reasoning dare surmise.” LeucothoĆ«, known as coastal doghobble, is a white-blossomed shrub native to Georgia and the Southeastern U.S. To the Greeks she was the White Goddess who appears as a gannet to the shipwrecked Odysseus, and saves his life. The world of flowers and stars can seem like a small, densely connected place. Peattie’s papers are stored at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Bowers taught for thirty-three years.

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