Thursday, March 20, 2014

`To the Earnest Eye'

Judged against what’s to come in another month, it’s the drab season at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center near Austin. The fields are almost monochromatic, which attunes an attentive visitor to gradations of gray and brown, even mauve and yellow if you look closely. I wasn’t as I approached the visitor’s center. A man with a camera mounted on a monopod was peering at a patch of nimblewill growing on a ledge near the roofline of the building. I asked what he was shooting and he pointed – the head of a screech owl gazing Kilroy-fashion over the edge. For six years straight, the retired engineer from Texas Instruments has photographed the owl on her nest. Like most seasoned birders and photographers, he’s taught himself to see diminutive changes in the physical world across time. As I looked, the owl suddenly looked conspicuous. How did I miss her? 

The only conspicuously blooming flower at the nature center was golden groundsel. My middle son was curious about the word’s etymology. The root is Old English and dates from the early eighth century. Its history is complicated and uncertain. Among its possible meaning are “pus-absorber” (the flower is commonly used in poltices for reducing abscesses) and “ground-swallower.” The word morphs delightfully across the centuries – gundaesuelgiae, grunswel, groundie-swallow, grundy-swallow, groundis walle, and so on. The OED’s most recent citation is 1893. In “July” (“the month of Summer’s prime”) from “The Shepherd’s Calendar” sequence, John Clare writes of the seeming lethargy of mid-summer: 

“Hawkweed and groundsel’s fanning downs
Unruffled keep their seedy crowns;
And in the oven-heated air,
Not one light thing is floating there,
Save that to the earnest eye,
The restless heat seems twittering by.” 

Richard Mabey finds much to admire in groundsel. In Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants (2011), he writes: “Groundsel can go through an entire life cycle from seed to flower to seed in just six weeks. 

1 comment:

Don said...

Makes me think of the word "gunsel" that Dashiell Hammett used, and wonder about the "sel" suffix.