Monday, September 10, 2012

`This Plant Has Its Day'

Early Sunday morning for the first time since May, the temperature dipped into the 60s. Briefly, before the sun rose and the clouds thinned, the ground felt warmer than the air. In the North, the best time of year is beginning. The smells are already different from August and soon your breath will condense. Up there I would be digging potatoes, simmering sauce and planning the first apple picking. Here, changes are subtler, not at the center but around the edges. The loblollies are dropping needles but a hummingbird still works the crepe myrtle, and flitting about the same shrub on Saturday I saw a giant swallowtail. In “Grappa in September” (Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950, translated by Geoffrey Brock), Cesare Pavese writes:

“The moment has come when everything stops
to ripen. The trees in the distance are quiet,
growing darker and darker, concealing fruit
that would fall at a touch. The scattered clouds
are pulpy and ripe. On the distant boulevards,
houses are ripening beneath the mild sky.”

Pavese’s northern Italian landscape mingles the northern temperate zone I knew for most of my life with the semi-tropical realm of Houston. When he speaks of trees “concealing fruit / that would fall at a touch,” I think of the apple orchards of my youth but later in September and even October, when ripeness turns to rot. One hundred fifty-two years ago today, on Sept. 10, 1860, Thoreau returned by train from a visit to Lowell, which had its first frost of the season that morning. In his journal he writes: 

“Leaving Lowell at 7 A. M. in the cars, I observed and admired the dew on a fine grass in the meadows, which was almost as white and silvery as frost when the rays of the newly risen sun fell on it. Some of it was probably the frost of the morning melted. I saw that this phenomenon was confined to one species of grass, which grew in narrow curving lines and small patches along the edges of the meadows or lowest ground, -- a grass with very fine stems and branches, which held the dew; in short, that it was what I had falsely called Eragrostis capillaris, but which is probably the Sporobolus serotinus, almost the only, if not the only, grass there in its prime. And thus this plant has its day. Owing to the number of its very fine branches, now in their prime, it holds the dew like a cobweb, -- a clear drop at the end and lesser drops or beads all along the fine branches and stems. It grows on the higher parts of the meadows, where other herbage is thin, and is the less apt to be cut; and, seen toward the sun not long after sunrise, it is very conspicuous and bright a quarter of a mile off, like frostwork. Call it dew-grass. I find its hyaline seed.” 

Leave it to Thoreau not only to admire a morning landscape but to anatomize it and deduce why the scene is beautiful. He cherishes what others ignore and in the privacy of his journal celebrates a grass without a common name: “And thus this plant has its day.” He concludes: 

“Almost every plant, however humble, has thus its day, and sooner or later becomes the characteristic feature of some part of the landscape or other.”

No comments: