Beautiful Fragments: A Walk With John Muir

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‘Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.’ 
John Muir

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Today I went on a wilderness walk and took John Muir –– in the form of his Wilderness Essays –– with me. As I couldn’t travel in his exact footsteps of a hundred (plus) years ago, scrambling up and down the lofty peaks of the Sierra Madre mountains like a nimble mountain goat, I hoped he wouldn’t mind traveling in mine. IMG_7776

One could dream of possessing the wild and ardent heart of an explorer like Muir, but not everyone has his sturdy limbs and vigorous constitution.

Or, for that matter, his taste for epic perambulations.

Remember, this is the man who walked from Indiana to Florida in 1867; a journey that he chronicled in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf:

‘My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction, by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.’

As I prefer an even simpler plan— to find the ‘leafiest’ route by slightly more trodden paths and shorter distances—this walk with John Muir is more of a meander through the curated specimens and well delineated paths of my favorite arboretum and botanical garden.

Still, those curated specimens are magnificent; the ground, though slightly more cultivated than Muir’s wild travels, is still dank and rich with the exquisite perfumes of decay.

Even as the old year passes on, the signs of renewal are everywhere.

‘Every leaf seems to speak.’

Because of the seeds, and only because of the seeds—such fascinating art forms—can we take pleasure in these broken, decaying, crumbling fragments of beauty in nature. No other season offers us this thrilling dichotomy of experience; the mix of keenest pleasure tinged with melancholy.

‘How little note is taken of the deeds of Nature! What paper publishes her reports? …. Who publishes the sheet-music of the winds, or the written music of water written in river-lines? Who reports the works and ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains? And what record is kept of Nature’s colors – – the clothes she wears – of her birds, her beasts – her live-stock?’

[- John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)]

Musically, I find this dichotomy is best expressed in the lush harmonies of the Russian composers. Rimsky-Korsakov is particularly exciting… His Scheherazade suite is music composed to story; it is completely, utterly dramatic in scope. The folk tales he drew from are likely well known by most, but at its heart the suite also tells the story of autumn: exotic color, drama, tireless but brilliantly cunning artistry, and finally, after the frenetic winds of sturm und drang, a long, peaceful night where beauty can at last sleep. Survival assured.

It is difficult—no, impossible—to imagine John Muir wandering his philosophical pathways attached to any sort of earbuds or mp3 players, as he would certainly want to be tuned in to the rhythms of the forest, the reverberant songs of birds in lofty branches, and the delicately nuanced rustles from the undergrowth. Therefore, I kept Rimsky at home on this trip.

“Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.” 

As a Pacific Northwest native, when I think of John Muir, I think of the west coast, and his efforts to conserve the natural beauty of our rugged wilderness areas. Names like the Sierra Club, John Muir Trail, Muir Woods National Monument, Muir Beach, John Muir College, Mount Muir, Camp Muir and Muir Glacier; all suggest the story of his many successes.

But John Muir’s youth had been spent on a farm in Wisconsin, now a historic landmark. Through the visionary camera lens of Charley Makray-Rice, on her blog The Road Less Paved, I was recently reminded of this earlier, and very important, legacy of John Muir in Wisconsin. I hope you can visit her lovely blog and enjoy her photos, as well as the Sierra Club link to more information that describes Muir’s boyhood home, and the early influences that helped to shape his passionate love of nature.

John Muir could linger in the mountains for days, weeks, even months, and often packed no more food than a few chunks of bread. He knew how to survive on little, and where that little was to be found. Therefore it is interesting to note what precious articles he did pack along with him, if it was not to be food. On his ‘thousand mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico’, Muir carried in his pack small volumes of the poems of Robert Burns, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the New Testament, and a blank journal for recording his own thoughts. (Oh, and a plant press.) This was certainly not traveling light in the literary sense. Muir would find that, in the resonant chambers of the deep woods, one is better able to listen for the deep soundings of thinkers through time. Later he would write of his discovery that

the poetry of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton was a source of inspiring, exhilarating, uplifting pleasure.’

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He was also an enthusiastic reader of Emerson and Thoreau, and was keenly in heart harmony with Thoreau when the latter wrote….“Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath.”

When John Muir wrote of ‘beautiful fragments’ that he encountered in his nature wanderings he waxed particularly enthusiastic about the majestic evergreens and conifers. It was something he wrote about Pinus lambertiana that got my full attention:

‘No lover of trees will ever forget his first meeting with a sugar pine.’

That, my friends, struck me as a call to action. I love trees. I have been raised in the deeply wooded Pacific Northwest, yet cannot remember if I have ever ‘met’ a sugar pine. Certainly not in the way Muir did. If I had, how could I have forgotten it? Not to mention that, when it comes to seed pods, sugar pines produce the longest cones of any pine. Their native habitat is also higher, quite a bit higher, than my usual route encompasses.

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Clearly, my seed pod journey must continue. I’ll just have to pack a few slices of bread, a plant press, and a little light reading.

‘Strange Dissonances': Reading Margaret Kennedy

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….’They crept slowly northward, while new songs like little birds flew out into the world….’ (Margaret Kennedy)

There are clear images etched in my mind that the prose of Margaret Kennedy has bequeathed to me. My thoughts still linger over some of the more dynamic moments from my recent read of her novel The Fool of the Family. IMG_7557 Described as ‘hauntingly beautiful’, described as ‘light and charming‘, it is an unusual story that continues the fortunes of the brilliant Sanger family, a saga that was begun with Kennedy’s wildly successful novel The Constant Nymph.

Who? What? It’s Margaret Kennedy week! Find out more about this enigmatic author here, where Jane of fleurfisher blog is hosting this reading event. I enjoy discovering new writers, and new ways of creating the fascinating world of fiction. (Kennedy  has written several works of non-fiction, as well, see below.)

The Fool of the Family takes place in 1920’s Europe, and delivers to the reader a rich tapestry of experience; everything from Venetian gondolas to luxury spas in the Italian alps to a Bohemian ghetto in London.

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Some of my lingering images?…picture yourself in a gondola on a starlit canal in Venice…shouting, operatic gondoliers on boats laden with colorful vegetables go punting wildly past….no, now we are in the towering Dolomites…the bleating of sheep and the tinkling of shepherd’s bells in the valley below…threatening ‘blackshirts’ roam the narrow roads like thugs, rich people bask unawares in luxury mountain villas….an overburdened gypsy’s donkey dies on the long trek up the mountain carrying the gear for a theatrical puppet show…while careening around hairpin bends in a little sporty Lancia comes the lovely blond Fenella driving too fast because risking her life is all she has left to do….now we are in a London ghetto, where the fog and soot mingle thickly with the stench, where the haunting strains of an opera are hurriedly pencilled out on scraps of paper…in the same cold room a baby has just died….

There is handsome, conflicted, talented Caryl Sanger. ‘The Fool of the Family’, he feverishly writes second rate operas then tears them up in bitter despair.

There is the charismatic younger brother Sebastian Sanger making eyes at Fenella, whenever he has a chance—which is oftener than it should have been, because Fenella and Caryl are in love. Or–Caryl is in love; Fenella is young and suffused with the ambition to ‘live dangerously‘.

There is scrappy, world-weary Gemma, making eyes at both Sebastian and Caryl as they all sleep outside under the stars in the thickly wooded Italian alps.

There is a bag of hand painted marionettes tossed ruthlessly over a steep cliff….heartbreaking.

The richest imagery was a scene close to the beginning of the novel, when we meet Madame Giulietta Rovere….and when the true difference between the two Sanger brothers is artfully played out in the most dramatic of settings.

’She was old, and miserably poor, and half paralyzed. Many years had passed since she had left the stage. But a glory still lingered about her name. The legend of her beauty, her misfortunes, and her “golden voice” lived on.’

I was intrigued at once by this description, as the grande dames of the theater in the Edwardian era brings a few famous names to mind. These women were all opulent, lush, lovely, and could be counted on to leave a trail of scandalous amours in their wake. Madame Giuletta Rovere, in her heyday, might have looked like one of these lovelies, when, as she so boldly expressed it to the Sanger brothers; “Your father loved me.”

[A side note: writer Angela Thirkell (of the same era as Margaret Kennedy) also wrote with a near reverence of actresses of this period, as though, as a class, they had become their own sort of royalty. The name of Mrs. Patrick Campbell is particularly linked with the Thirkell family. ’Mrs. Pat’, as she was called, was romantically and scandalously linked with Thirkell’s grandfather Edward Burne-Jones, resulting in this famous painting.]

Margaret Kennedy gives us rich visuals as we enter the house of Madame Rovere.

‘Going into La Rovere’s house was rather like the first scene in a play. ‘

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‘An intrinsic aroma of the theatre hung about the dark Canal and the high garden walls and the creepers that looked so like property creepers. A very small door led into a dim, ruined courtyard full of ilex, cyprus, and rose hedges run wild. They shut in the crumbling house, accosting an eternal shade most fitting for the vanished glories of its mistress.’

‘She lived always in one room, a vast chilly salon, looking out upon a terrace and a fountain that never played. Everything in it was old, and broken, and dusty, and everything had once been magnificent. The tarnished gilding, the moth-eaten tapestries, the stained brocade were all relics of the past, of the days when La Rovere had herself been magnificent.’

‘Now she sat, like an old spider in the midst of her dusty web,… a mummy swathed in ragged, priceless shawls, tags and ends of dirty lace, with here and there the gleam of incredible, sham jewelry. Only the eyes remained alive, enormous, flashing, stored with all the power of greatness. They looked out, undefeated, over her ruined domain, and when she spoke the faded room heard once more that voice at which kings had wept.’

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‘Her parties were dim and magical, as though each guest, as he stepped through the little door in the wall, had stepped back into the past.’

In spite of this lush description of shabby grandeur, it was when Sebastian entered the room that things became really interesting for me. Sebastian is clearly a favorite character with the author. He is flawed, certainly–but brilliant, mercurial, and as charismatic in appeal as she could make him.

In the two Sanger brothers, she has created a kind of Mozart/Salieri conflict; the genius who is careless with the lives, hearts, and money of those around him, contrasted with the tormented impotent (musically speaking) whose destiny is to hunger after a muse who is indifferent to him. Caryl’s inability to fan the flames of his passion for music into a spark of genius is a personal agony. Worse, Sebastian is searingly critical, mocking, even, of his older brother’s efforts at composition. Yet Caryl knows that Sebastian is a genius, and for his admiration of that genius, his love for the music Sebastian creates, and the love, at times hostile, for his brother, he allows himself to be used again and again.

There is heartbreak in the character of Caryl—he is ‘the fool of the family‘.

Meanwhile, Sebastian has entered the room at Madame Rovere’s and has immediately secured the attention of everyone there, including, most importantly, that of ‘La Rovere’, herself. Caryl had arrived much earlier and, far from being noticed, was wishing he hadn’t come, and was hoping no one would ask him to perform on the dusty old relic of a piano.

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‘Sebastian’s way of getting into a room was infinitely more successful. He did not slink in at the heels of an introducer. He simply made an entrance, with an air of such pleasant gravity, such, composure, that nobody could have guessed that he had not been invited. Without pausing to stare he took in the whole circle instantly, and advanced at once to make his bow to La Rovere. Everybody surveyed him with a quickened interest.

“But who are you, then?” she demanded.

“Sebastian Sanger, madame. Permit me to kiss your hand.”

“Aha…” The old eyes fairly blazed.’

Sebastian is eager to perform music for his rapt audience. When he is in a mood to captivate, he does it well.

‘And then, when he had made sure of his audience, he left off playing Sanger. He gave them instead something quite new, quite strange. It was smooth and gay and oddly formal, so that it wooed its hearers into accepting strange dissonances which, being old, they ought to have resented. It gave them all the shock of a new pleasure, that shock which becomes so rare and so treasured as we advance through life.’

It was that paragraph made me more forgiving of Sebastian, as the story continues and his insensitivities begin to mount. I would have loved to have been there to hear his ‘strange dissonances’. I’m sure I would have fallen under his spell, too, at least for that moment.

Fenella, on the other hand, never did charm me as a character. It was difficult to reconcile the ending for this reason. She, of course, is the ‘Inconstant nymph’.

There were unrealized hopes for me from this novel, in terms of character, and where the narrative took me. The various pendulum swings of emotion were exasperating, at times. It was interesting to me that all of Kennedy’s female characters were shallow, unstable, or driven by pure emotion. But there were some brilliant characterizations, as well. The intense bursts of lucid, fresh prose often kept me thinking about what I had just read. As a musician, there were many elements of the novel that resonated with my own perspective.

If I had written the ending? Since my sympathies were with Caryl, I hoped he would realize that Fenella’s vacillating heart was not worthy of him. The tragedy of lost love has ever enriched the cause of art! For Caryl, I had hoped it to be the catalyst, that spark he so longed for. I would have had him writing a masterpiece, finding his true voice.

But perhaps in the end, he was actually happier than my little future I had all laid out for him of noble loneliness, and soul-cleansing brilliance, sending ‘new songs like little birds out into the world’. You think?

Perhaps he was not a ‘fool’ at all.

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Additional notes: As mentioned, Margaret Kennedy has written some non-fiction on a variety of topics. From Jane’s blog we find the following list:

Non Fiction

A Century of Revolution 1789-1920 (1922), history.
Where Stands a Winged Sentry (1941), wartime memoir.
The Mechanized Muse. P. E. N. series (1942), on the cinema.
Jane Austen. Novelists Series No. 1 (1950), biography/literary criticism.
The Outlaws on Parnassus. On the art of the novel (1958), literary criticism.

The book by Kennedy on Jane Austen’s life and work has been reviewed here. Her perceptions regarding Jane Austen’s ‘troubled child of a novel’ Mansfield Park are quite astute and differ from other writers of her time:

… ‘the most important of the novels, the most ambitious in theme, and the best example of her powers’.

This alone makes me want to find a copy of her work on Jane Austen and read what she has to say about the rest of the novels. For a fascinating series from other authors who would agree with Margaret Kennedy’s assessment of Mansfield Park, visit Sarah Emsley’s blog where she is hosting Your Invitation to Mansfield Park. The discussions featured here have opened up entirely new vistas with which to view this complex novel.

Margaret Kennedy’s The Outlaws on Parnassus, described here as ‘lively, provocative, and original‘, is a critical approach to the art of writing a novel. Highly recommended.

Faber and Faber is in the process of re-issuing several of Margaret Kennedy’s novels.

Clearly, my Margaret Kennedy reading ‘week’ is going to extend through the long winter!

‘Drink Me’

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 ‘Alice found a little bottle on it…and round the neck of the bottle was a paper label, with the words ‘DRINK ME’ beautifully printed on it in large letters.’

‘However, this bottle was not marked ‘poison,’ so Alice ventured to taste it, and finding it very nice, (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast,) she very soon finished it off.’ ….Lewis Carroll

Signs–as Alice in Wonderland found out, can be friendly, curt, creative, suspicious, quirky, or downright bossy.

I love signs! They have a personality of their own, and often suggest the friendly smile of a human being behind the product.

Here are a few of my favorites from recent outings. As you can see, they are rather thematic. My ‘drink me’ adventures, like Alice, are always followed by ‘eat me’–cake, or something like. Fall is a wonderful time to go exploring the local bounty. Farmer’s markets, harvest festivals, apple cider tastings, pumpkin bread bake-offs, there are so many regional and tasty ways to enjoy this season. (Be careful of nibbling on just any mushroom, but do try the plum pie!)

Some other interesting signs from photographers around the world are over at the WordPress photo challenge. Enjoy!

 

The Twilight of Our Year

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IMG_6346 ‘Awake, O north wind, and come, thou south;

Blow upon my garden that the spices may flow forth.’ [Song of Solomon]

Autumn is a season of nuance, subtle ambiguity, blazing contradiction, and ultimately, simple nostalgia. What if you could distill all of the complexity of our beloved penultimate season into a fragrance? A fragrance that might linger beyond us, as if to say:

“I was here.”

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Some claim it has been done; perfumeries tout their autumn inspired creations as heady with ‘floral and wood notes, base notes of diamond dust and melancholy’;  Jo Malone’s Wood Sage & Sea Salt Cologne smells of ‘brisk windswept walks along the coast, trees and cinnamon’, and DKNY City Lights promises ‘a dry down of warm musk and spicy cardamom’.

If autumn was a perfume that I might devise from personal experience, it would open with a fresh burst of vibrant top notes, spiced with sharp, zinnia-like warmth, followed by a wistful sub-text of aromas that bring to mind Aunt Flo’s dill pickles and Grandma’s sweet chow chow. Subtle dark notes would then follow at their leisure; they hint of melancholy, rise slowly in the heart in old Tennysonian rhythms, and linger long in shadow as do the deep perfumes of ancient forests.

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If autumn was a perfume that was also a poem, we would surely choose to lose ourselves in Paradise Lost, the most lushly evocative poetic imagery to come from the pen of John Milton.

‘Now gentle gales,  

Fanning their odoriferous wings, dispense  

Native perfumes, and whisper whence they stole  

Those balmy spoils.’ (Paradise Lost; Book IV)

The actual word ‘fragrance’ was created by Milton. Yes, really. Even the description of Milton’s linguistic prowess brings a new word to our vocabulary: neologist.

According to John Crace of ‘The Guardian’ :

‘Milton is responsible for introducing some 630 words to the English language, making him the country’s greatest neologist, ahead of Ben Jonson with 558, John Donne with 342 and Shakespeare with 229.’

[For further on this, see The Curious Word for one of his creations that didn’t stand the test of time]

Besides the necessity of creating new words that could express the power of his genius, Milton infused animate life into words that were already in existence but languishing in obscurity—words such as odoriferous and ambrosial. He also coined the evocative phrase ‘roseate dews’, used in tandem with ‘breath of morn’.

For Milton, all parts of the day in Paradise emitted fragrance. When he wrote Paradise Lost, he was blind, and therefore his other senses became heightened. From those aforementioned roseate dews of morning to the ambrosial night of wafting scents, his prose has so many allusions to fragrance that the effect is thrillingly sensuous. By the way, that is another word creation of Milton: sensuous.

Scholars have debated what, exactly, Milton meant by ‘roseate dews’, but we are closer to understanding what he meant by ‘ambrosial night’. It is a curious fact that many varieties of blooms reserve their fragrance to themselves during the day, then during the growing twilight, slowly open to emit a fragrance that is sometimes delicate, but can quite often be rich and heady. These night-fragrant varieties are called vespertine flowers, and in years long past they used to provide a gentle way of marking time.

Mirabilis jalapa…commonly known in this country as four o’clocks, would be just one example. In France they are called belle de nuit, ‘beauty of the night’. This plant opens its flowers in early twilight—for some just at tea-time—emits a rich fragrance through the night, then closes up again in the morning.

Today it is the digital sterility of square numbers on clocks without hands or faces that mark our passing moments, whereas in days of yore a flower could gently suggest that it was time to go to bed. Or in China, a certain scent wafting through the kitchen window might be the signal to begin making the rice. History is full of such stories. Other blooms give off scent the whole night long, to perfume our dreams, then discreetly disappear with the rise of the sun.

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In her classic book The Fragrant Garden, Louise Beebe Wilder writes:

‘The true vesper flowers, those that withhold their sweetness from the day and give it freely to the night, are rather a curious company. Few have any daytime attractions, being either sad of hue, brownish, grayish or dull violet, or if white, as many of them are, seeming to lose countenance before the searching eye of the day, to drop and become dull and lusterless. But with twilight comes an extraordinary change. As if touched by a magic wand they lift their heads and become lovely, flooding the night breezes with a message of irresistible sweetness to the night moths whose visits they must experience…’

Wilder mentions the other intriguing aspect of the vespertine flowers: most of them are white. What might appear lackluster by day transforms into surreal beauty by moonlight. Vita-Sackville West was the first to popularize the idea of planting a ‘moon garden’—white flowers only, and foliage chosen in silvery, gray green tones—one that would convey an aspect of quiet luminosity under the light of a full moon. So many of the plants that are perfect for this are, not surprisingly, ones that also enrich our olfactory senses only as the sun sets and the moon rises.

One does not need to be a scientist to understand a fascinating truth regarding our sense of smell:

When you breath in a fragrance—whether sweet or putrid—the smell enters deeply and directly into the nexus of the brain. Like an arrow shot from the hand of an expert marksman, it is sure of the bullseye every time.

Why is this significant? In the case of the other senses, the information that we take in through the eye or ear, must pass through various check points and time delays before making it to the command center of the brain.

Thus people who learn something, or experience something, while fragrance is consciously or unconsciously present, are more likely to remember the accompanying emotional context, because of the immediacy of the experience. Your brain forges a link. You remember, because of the emotion.

The neurons in the nose are directly responsible for this vivid firing of impulses shooting through to the emotional command center of the brain. Did you even know you have neurons in your nose? (“No,” you respond faintly, suddenly remembering you have an appointment for a root canal that you are anxious to get to on time. Like not. Never. Stay with me, here…)

So how important are these neurons? They are replaced about every thirty days! This is what makes our olfactory neurons unique. I was amazed when I learned this.

“Yes, Virginia, this really is a significant factoid.”

If you destroy a neuron in the brain, that’s it. Poof. Gone. It is not coming back. (and believe me, I know–I’ve destroyed a few.)

If you damage neurons in your eyes or ears, both organs are irreparably damaged.

Yet the neurons responsible for our olfactory senses, our impressions…our memories…are replaced every thirty days.

Clearly, we were meant to smell, and remember.

According to the BBC article on ‘Why Smells Can Unlock Memories‘:

‘Memory research has shown that describing things in words can aid memory, but it also reduces the emotion we feel about the subject.’

Hmmm. Interesting. That is why the days of autumn are so often described as bittersweet. They evoke a feeling we cannot put into words. But perhaps that is just as well. Perhaps this twilight of our year is best remembered in fragrance.

Autumn, whether poem or perfume, gives us one breathless pause ‘in diamond dust’ before rushing us onward. In that one celestial moment of synchronization—when day and night are balanced in perfect cadence—our internal clocks are reset. We are ready to keep time with the vespertine flowers. Ready for the long, slow drift into a freefall of fading color. The strange angles of slanted light capture us with a kind of optic poetry, altering our view of ordinary life.

The zinnias and blazing maples are soon muted; the base notes of the forest floor are calling.

Underneath our feet we feel the diminishing crunch of fallen leaves, and experience the wonder of a universal memory shared by all children who are old in experience.

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The twilight of autumn is upon us.

‘I was there.’

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(This is the final segment of my series on fragrance; the first two were here and here. I hope you enjoyed it!)

Days of Pith and Marrow

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“I beg of you a thousand pardons, but these vegetable marrows, they have driven me to the edges of barbarity!” (Hercule Poirot, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

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Perhaps it is the generous abundance of zucchini in circulation at this time of year that reminded me that the fastidious detective Hercule Poirot was once driven to madness by ‘these vegetable marrows’.

If your kitchen has been taken over by things that resemble large green gunboats, if your refrigerator door can’t quite close without oozing vegetable drippings, giantzrunif you’re afraid of clowns, dolls, and monstrous life forms, if you can’t enter your garden without hacking through groves of giant zucchinis, if you see your neighbor approaching with a suspicious paper bag that surely contains yet more of the fibrous offerings, you might feel like escaping into a good book for relief.

But I warn you, the zucchini is lurking there, too.

Skeptical? For starters, this lowly garden vegetable has aroused scorn, revulsion, fear, outright reverence, become a catalyst for romance, harrowing revenge, towering rage, is dismissed with contempt, and was finally championed by a British culinary maven who rescued it from obscurity, treated it like an eggplant and dusted it with cheese.

The earthy, dank underworld of the Giant Cucurbita pepo takes us everywhere from love scenes in literature, to fear and loathing amongst authors, and to the real truth behind why we hate Mrs. McGregor.

Tough, tasteless, pithy–yes. But this denizen of the late summer garden is anything but dull.

Agatha Christie must have had a fine distaste for marrows. Readers of Agatha Christie’s novels will remember that Hercule Poirot was at one time happily planning his retirement from solving crimes. His new hobby was to put his considerable ‘little gray cells’ to the matter of how to make the vegetable marrow taste, well–good. The response of his friend Dr. Burton?

“Vegetable marrows? What d’yer mean? Those great swollen green things that taste of water?”

The plan, however, went horribly awry, and in the mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Poirot is forced to concede defeat. The marrows have won. They are still watery and tasteless. He, the incomparable Hercule Poirot, is powerless against them.

Poirot hurls them from his garden in a fit of rage.

“Now I give up on you…!” he screams in fury. “You shall torment me no longer. I will KILL you!”

The unsuspecting Dr Sheppard is out in his garden next door, and becomes an innocent bystander to this episode.

‘I am rather fond of gardening. I was busily exterminating dandelion roots when a shout of warning sounded from close by and a heavy body whizzed by my ear and fell at my feet with a repellent squelch. It was a vegetable marrow!’

One simply has to be fond of a writer that uses phrases such as ‘repellent squelch’.

The garden marrow is pondered with a similar sense of horror by UK garden writer Alex Mitchell:

‘I’m haunted by a giant cucurbit. It was a courgette when we went away, but the next three weeks saw all three helpful holiday waterers casually sidestep it in favour of plums, runner beans, raspberries and tomatoes (yet more ammunition for my dossier “No one really likes courgettes that much, if they are honest”).

‘As anyone with even the merest passing knowledge of vegetable-growing knows, a courgette that is ignored will get its revenge. It does this by transmogrifying into a marrow monster, a bloated green airship of vegetable matter that laughs in the face of culinary invention and lurks sinisterly in the undergrowth, giving you a little shock when you do the watering.’ What does one do with this beast?’

Read more of Mitchell’s wonderful article, and his time honored solution to his problem.

In this statement— ‘no one really likes [them] that much, if they are honest’— Mitchell echoes the sentiments of renowned food writer, M.F.K. Fisher. That lovely wordsmith of the kitchen writes, in An Alphabet for Gourmets:

‘[The] zucchini, the nearest decent gastronomical counterpart to those overgrown pithy garden monsters called vegetable marrows in England.’ 

Fisher does offer a recipe for a zucchini frittata, but with this interesting sidebar comment:

‘… which will be honestly but very indelicately loathed by anyone honest enough to confess to a basic loathing for zucchini.’

Hmmm. What an interesting array of adjectives we are accumulating for a humble garden vegetable. Loathsome? Repellent?  Monstrous? Haunted? Sinister? Watery? Swollen? Tasteless? Transmogrified? (I particularly love this last creative choice).

At the very least we have here a complex and contradictory cucurbita. It’s a vegetable that is actually a fruit. A fruit that is treated like a vegetable. And we’re just getting started.

Charles Dickens has been known to employ the use of marrow throwing in his literature. Only this time it is for romance and we are, along with the cucumbers, marrows and other vegetables, ‘wafting mellifluously’ over garden walls.

Yes, it is true love that calls to the curious cucurbit and gives it immortality in literature, in Nicholas Nickleby

‘where the most divine charms’–here he kissed his hand and bowed again–‘waft mellifluousness over the neighbours’ gardens, and force the fruit and vegetables into premature existence….’

At any rate, the impassioned elderly suitor to Mrs. Nickleby begins hurling his overwrought projectiles into the Nickleby’s garden as a maddened declaration of love…

‘…..when a shouting and scuffling noise, as of an elderly gentleman whooping, and kicking up his legs on loose gravel, with great violence, was heard to proceed from the same direction as the former sounds; and before they had subsided, a large cucumber was seen to shoot up in the air with the velocity of a sky-rocket, whence it descended, tumbling over and over, until it fell at Mrs Nickleby’s feet.

This remarkable appearance was succeeded by another of a precisely similar description; then a fine vegetable marrow, of unusually large dimensions, was seen to whirl aloft, and come toppling down; then, several cucumbers shot up together; and, finally, the air was darkened by a shower of…..vegetables, which fell rolling and scattering, and bumping about, in all directions…..

“It seems designed to attract our attention, mama,” said Kate.’

Like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Dickens creates a scene of madcap mayhem with a cannonade of marrows. Curious, is it not?

While on the subject of marrows as projectiles–and apparently a favorite one with British writers–we have the misadventures of the Flopsy bunnies in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. This story, in which the youngest baby bunny, the very picture of innocent curiosity, is knocked almost unconscious by an airborne rotten marrow, could stand up to any of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales for sheer horror.Flopsy Bunny

To be presented with such a contradictory admixture of warm and fuzzy narrative, poisoned with the shrilly evil invectives of Mrs. McGregor, along with threats of being skinned alive and made into a coat— this was pretty harrowing stuff.

But we’re all adults now, and, while hurling them at innocent bystanders with fury—or lovestruck passion—is clearly an option, we know that the time honored solution to an over-abundance of the vexing cucurbit is that of quietly and furtively giving them away.

This seasonal social phenomenon is commented on by Miss Read, the author of many books that chronicle English village life. Here, in Village Diary, she writes

‘Marrows, alas, are arriving in a steady stream at the back door….

I can see that I shall have to start digging, under cover of darkness, and inter the unwieldy monsters.’

There is a baffling sort of etiquette implied here; a passive-aggressive generosity that Miss Read ponders, as do we. One can give away their ‘unwieldy monsters’, but the recipient of this gift would be considered quite rude if they passed their bestowal on to someone else, leaving them with no other alternative but to bury them ‘under cover of darkness.’ In this the humble vegetable marrow begins to resemble the strangely enduring, logic-defying, quasi-popularity of fruitcakes.

What a world of social impropriety this vegetable-that-is-a-fruit thrusts upon us.

Both writers Miss Read and Angela Thirkell introduce a unique component into the War Between the Sexes in their novels: marrow carving.carvedzucchini

Miss Read wrote, in the story of Emily Davis, of the tyrant Mansfield Back —‘not bad looking in a florid, massive fashion’—and how the daring little Miss Emily got her revenge by carving the word ‘Bully’ into Manny Back’s prize marrow. (He was devastated, and justice was done.)

Angela Thirkell, in her popular novel The Brandons, heats things up nicely in the tranquil garden at Stories whereby Mr. Turpin’s prize-winning marrow provides a coy metaphor for young love:

‘[Mr. Turpin] led the way towards the rich bed of manure where sprawled his beloved vegetable marrows. With a threatening gesture he jabbed his fork into the ground, stooped, and with infinite reverence turned the fattest marrow gently on one side. On its under surface, in mis-shapen letters, was too plainly visible the word HILARY.

“That’s my name!” said Mr. Grant.’

“I thought it would be nice for you to have your name on a prize marrow,” confessed young Delia Brandon…rather ingenuously.

Cucurbita pepo strikes again.

In Barbara Pym’s novel Jane and Prudence–where even the title conjures up the sound of tea cups clattering and the faint odor of mothballs clinging to the table linens–we have a safe flirtation made ever so slightly dangerous by the introduction of a ‘magnificent’ marrow.

“What a fine marrow, Mr. Driver,” said Miss Doggett in a bright tone. “It is the biggest one we have so far, isn’t it, Miss Morrow?”

Miss Morrow, who was scrabbling on the floor among the vegetables, mumbled something inaudible.

“It is magnificent,” said Mrs. Mayhew reverently.

Mr. Driver moved forward and presented the marrow to Miss Doggett with something of a flourish.

Jane felt as if she were assisting at some primitive kind of ritual whose significance she hardly dared to guess.’

Matronly romance at its sizzling best. And the iconic symbol of a giant marrow to thank for it. Did you notice— in these last two examples— that some form of the word reverence is used?

Not so with A.A. Milne. The creator of Winnie the Pooh loved his vegetables, and even thrills to the subject of celery:

“There is a crispness about celery that is of the essence of October. It is as fresh and clean as a rainy day after a spell of heat.   It crackles pleasantly in the mouth.”

No such plaudits for the lowly marrow, however, for he goes on:

Vegetable marrows are vegetables pour rire (for laughs) and have no place in any serious consideration of the seasons.’

Before we leave the topic of literature and the marrow as a completely mixed up metaphor, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Robert Plumer Ward. Someone should mention him. He was a nineteenth century novelist who has been forgotten, and for good reason.

A reviewer dismissed his novel Tremaine as ‘extremely dull’, and ‘a sort of literary equivalent of a vegetable marrow’.

The marrow as dull? This reviewer obviously hadn’t read Jane and Prudence.

Returning Cucurbita pepo to the culinary world, where some, like M.F.K. Fisher, doubt they belong, we have the considerable talents of Mrs. Beeton and Elizabeth David to consider. If the garden marrow was considered hopelessly watery, the resourceful Mrs. Beeton took the approach, in her recipe book of 1860, of fighting fire with fire. Or water with water, in this case.

 

MrsBeetonMarrowsHer recipe tells us to serve them up…”Dished on toast“? Oh, dear. Fast forward to 1885, and a certain ‘Wyvern’(aka The Eminently Hyphenated Colonel Arthur Robert Kennedy-Herbert) responds, in his cookery book ‘Culinary Jottings’:

‘Carefully avoid the awful English custom of serving marrows on sodden toast.’

Sorry, Mrs. Beeton. You are obviously of the English culinary school of thought that considers anything would taste good if served on buttered toast. While you won us over with your impressive chapter ‘General Observations on Quadrupeds’, you have failed us miserably as a guide in navigating the wild world of marrows. We leave you then, and move on to Elizabeth David.

Ah, Elizabeth David. That culinary diva did her own sort of heave-ho to the zucchini when she launched it–not over a garden wall, but into the popular consciousness of the sixties-era British cooking public with the publication of her book Italian Cooking. She became a hero in a culinary revolution, for

‘Elizabeth David liberated us from the tyranny of watery, stringy, rank tasting boiled marrow by writing enthusiastically about this expensive unknown Italian vegetable’…. The Oxford Companion to Italian Food

(It appears we can now add ‘tyranny’ to the list of marrow woes. The vision of Manny Back’s bloated prizewinner with the name ‘Bully’ inscribed into it suddenly rolls and tumbles into view.)

Yet what Elizabeth David did for the marrow was quite an accomplishment, first by cooking it small and calling it a courgette. Second, by insisting it be prepared as an aubergine, gratined, and sprinkled with cheese. What was she up against? A cooking and eating populace whose memories of the rationing of WWII and after were still fresh in their minds. No doubt it was considered wasteful and unpatriotic to the thrifty-minded Victory Gardeners to eat a vegetable before it had been allowed to grow to ten times bigger than its edible size. Why feed only two people from a vegetable when you could allow it to grow to the dimensions of a small Hindenburg and feed an army?

Elizabeth David is something of a rock star in my kitchen. But even she would have become impatient with too much ado about zucchini. I appreciate your patience in indulging my whim. As a thank you, I offer up a nice glass of wine and one of my favorite chilled salads with zucchini carpaccio. And please take that brown paper bag on your way out….

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(This is a revised and updated version of an article written previously by yours truly.)

The Smoke of Opinion: Another Look at Thoreau

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“No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.” – Walden

You asked: When was the last time a movie, a book, or a television show left you cold despite all your friends (and/or all the critics) raving about it? What was it that made you go against the critical consensus?

To go against popular opinion brings Henry David Thoreau readily to mind. He was a man who thrived on going against critical consensus. Yet it was Thoreau who gave me my first major reading disappointment. Yes, you, Thoreau. You who said, (and I remember it well):

‘Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.’ 

My reading tastes, and naturally, by extension, writing style, lean toward the older genre of literature. The previous generations had so much of interest to say, and in a way, they are still speaking. The Great Conversation is still ongoing if we but want to tune in. I learned this from my parents and grandparents, and grew up surrounded by old books.

My great grandfather, solitary farmer. Not sure if he would have been approved by Thoreau, or not...Thoreau said some pretty scathing things about farmers.

My great grandfather, solitary farmer. Not sure if he would have been approved by Thoreau, or not…Thoreau said some pretty scathing things about farmers. Grandpa Duncan is alone with his thoughts, though, which I’m sure Thoreau would have praised.

I enjoy many highlights from Thoreau today, but that was not always the case. It has been a long time since I picked up one of his books for a serious read.

‘For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of men? They are the only oracles which are not decayed…We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.
To read well—that is, to read true books in a true spirit—is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.’ [Walden]

However, years ago, when I first took my mom’s beloved copy of Walden off the bookshelf and sat down to read, I was crushingly disappointed with this man—this self appointed lifestyle coach of the nineteenth century so often spoken of in reverential tones. He seemed to me to be pompous, cranky, smug, and terribly irresponsible.

His self-satisfied musings rang shrill in their efforts to convince. He contradicted himself. The old ways are best one day, then thumb your nose at ancient traditions as valueless the next day. On the third day, spend time with yourself as the best company in the world. But know this, he intones—at heart man is a social animal. ‘Believe me today for tomorrow I will have changed my mind’ he appeared to be saying.

What Thoreau had indulged in was luxury—taking time out from the rest of the world to read, write, think. ‘For I was rich, if not in luxury, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly. Nor did I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop…’

And ‘procreation’ i.e. sex? ‘It dissipates, and makes one unclean…’ ‘Far better to be invigorated and inspired by nature.

Hmmm. This was beginning to sound like the ravings of a mad man indulged by his mommy.

And don’t even get him started on the reading of popular fiction. He likens it to a sort of daily baked gingerbread, fresh from the oven, read eagerly

with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard‘.

Yes, Thoreau, you disappointed me. And I don’t even know what an unwearied gizzard is.

Even E.B. White, an enthusiastic Thoreauvian, admitted that Thoreau sometimes wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected”.

What did people see in this book?

‘How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world—how deep the the ruts of tradition and conformity!’

My reaction, in some part, had less to do with my teenage spunk and umbrage than it did that I took exception to Thoreau’s dismissive comments about the working man. We all know the quote; ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

Thoreau crafted well, in pious prose, an image of the poor dullard slogging away in his intellectually deprived life while he put food on the table. Food that his slack jawed wife then slopped into the waiting mouths of his many children who swallowed it greedily like nestlings given a worm. Or words to that effect. Something like the literary equivalent of ‘The Potato Eaters’—only Van Gogh had a more respectful approach, if you can call it that, in his troglodytic rendering of the common herd.

The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh

I thought about my father—how deeply intelligent he was, how enthusiastic about life. He was a natural woodsman and fisherman, and how he would have loved to live in a little cabin in the woods, tend a garden, read, and fish. Especially fish. There was never a man more at peace than when he was standing hip deep in a stream, casting out.

But inner peace as a laudatory pursuit, self-fulfillment as an object in itself, being self-aware as though this somehow brought one in touch with an inner god—? Not sure Dad gave those ideas a lot of thought. Six children, and his own sense of responsibility kept him in a job and a lifestyle of domesticity and workaday worries. He made sacrifices.

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I remember putting Walden firmly back on the shelf, feeling protective of my father, and a bit angry with Thoreau. Thoreau with his hand built cabin and his peaceful fishing and his studies of ice and lazy pondering of a water bug from a quarter mile away; ‘Thoreau the Great’  who had been able to indulge himself in simple luxuries that my father would have loved.

Well, now it is time to forgive the young man. For that is what he was—Thoreau was young and idealistic, both foolish and incredibly wise. We forget that fact at times, when we read the writers from a long ago age. They were often younger than we are now. But still we look to them for wisdom. In the case of Thoreau, when he lived the experiences at Walden Pond, he was only 27. He was just trying to ‘find himself’, as the saying goes. He hadn’t learned to temper his deep understanding, his ‘knowingness’ with empathy, as yet, but how much better off people would be if they lived by a few of his dreams.

For he also said, “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed…?”

Now that is something to strive for. A deeply felt happiness that not just a few, but all could enjoy. In that case, ‘the mass of men’ could lead lives of quiet inspiration. That, I believe, is what Thoreau dreamed of.

I have my mom’s old prized copy of Walden in my own collection. It has beautifully rendered engravings and thick, creamy paper that give a bit of resistance when you try to turn the page. Very nice.

I’m giving Thoreau another go.

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”   ―  Thoreau