In Search of Wild Chrysanthemums

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Ever since reading Wang Chien’s hauntingly lovely poem to the wild chrysanthemum, I determined I must see this elusive treasure  for myself.

The wild chrysanthemum
Late, its enchanting color springs out from the wild hedge,
Its cool fragrance clings to the autumn water.  

Wang Chien, T’ang Dynasty

November is a time of unusual color changes, increasingly cool nights, and the complete disappearance of something so elusive as a wild chrysanthemum.

This color change, these yellowing-to-brown tones, is a condition as much as a color, and one that used to be referred to as  ‘sear‘, or archaic, ‘sere‘. I write more about this November color palette—one that I particularly love, but it is a bittersweet love—in The Seasonal Mr. Rochester. (note: it is also a color that makes a lovely wool scarf; also note that there could be a fascinating etymological link between sincere and sere but I have not had enough coffee, yet…)

This picture of one of our local wetlands is from a recent walk, in which I set out with a sincere desire of finding, and photographing, wild chrysanthemums.

Sadly, however earnest my efforts, there are no wild chrysanthemums to be found on my various treks. I did find a few straggling fall asters. Related in species, not in poetic aspect.

Autumn asters, H.E. Bates

Still, the haunting images of enchanting color, the earnest pursuit of a glimpse of wild hedge, with a cool fragrance wafting up from autumn water, was sweet in itself.

For that, I can thank the elusive wild chrysanthemum.

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Poetry reference taken from Flower Cookery–The Art of Cooking With Flowers, by Mary MacNichol; worth finding if you can…copies of this book are about as elusive as wild chrysanthemums.

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The Hairy Stairs

These days my walks around town are less bustling boulevard and more field and hedgerow.

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We love rambling around our new neighborhood, which we have dubbed ‘the Shire’, because it has so many winding, narrow lanes, charming old cottage style homes, and not a sidewalk to be seen. And, as all the neighbors resolutely attest, there will likely be no sidewalks. It might involve tree removal, or nesting sites disrupted, or a wet land deflected.

The Discover challenge appealed to me, not only because it introduced a new word into my vocabulary–flaneur–but because exploring our environs is something we enjoy. Of course, there are different shades of flaneur, no doubt…most having to do with actual people. People-watching at the airport, for example (oh the stories one can weave) or power-eavesdropping at a coffee shop, are both different in tone than listening for elusive bird calls coming from a nearby thicket.

All, however, exercise the power of curiosity and have an enlivening effect on the mind.

Oregonians love their scenic wonderland, and Portlanders get their dose of all that plus the fascination of a beautiful city. We’re less than five minutes from downtown Portland by car, but our ‘hairy staircase’ gets us to the Village in about the same time, on foot.

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What is the hairy staircase? It’s what a little neighbor girl calls the mossy and wooded path, tucked between some obliging neighbors, that gives the other neighbors a shortcut down the hill into the village. It’s somewhat secret but not, because everyone knows about it. It makes a trip into ‘the village’ only about five minutes on foot, even with a stroller.

If you’re a bit arthritic and slow, not to worry, we have a solution for you, so come along. Strollers can navigate the path, too.

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There’s even a book depot on the way. In case you run out of provisions on your journey and desperately need a book to read. (it happens) Take one, leave one. Loosely maintained by a kind neighbor who adds a sprinkling of cyclamen and daffodil bulbs on occasion.

Once in the village, oh my. There’s good coffee, a local brewpub, outdoor cafes, my favorite wool shop, a funky bead emporium, a historic tavern that has an interesting rooftop way of sending off its loyal patrons that kick the bucket…and the list of attractions goes on.

architecture, old buildings PDX, street photography, bar, dining out, tableside

Oregon is known for its friendly watering holes, and our feisty brewers.

(we take our refreshment very seriously here)

We also have the natural variety of watering hole, in this case my birdfeeder, patronized by very feisty patrons that are assuredly not birds. For now the squirrels have worked out an arrangement, but I sense the tension building.

There will be wars, and fur flying in a moment.

There’s the downtown boulevard at dusk, in beautiful colors….

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and here is one of my favorite ‘boulevards’ in the neighborhood. It cuts through a park and leads to the Hairy Stairs.

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Here we are;  be prepared to book shop on the way, in case you didn’t get to Powell’s bookstore for your fix… the ground is so springy underfoot, from years of moss drippings and wood shavings.

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Be careful; it gets a bit steep in places and you’re probably going to want to gaze at all the beautiful fall color on your way. Not that I have ever slipped, or anything, while eagerly ogling a flash of red twig against a spray of yellow…that would be so flaneur, right?

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The other distraction are these lovely blooms; quite fragrant and sweet. They would seem to herald spring, but the chill in the air tells me otherwise, and that our footsteps must hasten on to that coffee shop in the village.

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Thanks to the neighborhood app, we’ve just been alerted to the fact that One Particular Hen who shall remain nameless has escaped again. Known as ‘not actually lost but trying to find herself’ this little Russian Orloff has ambitions.

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But she’s not here, at this field. Only tiny finches in the underbrush, and the rustlings of field mice. The finches stop twittering as soon as I stray too close–which makes me feel quite left out. I wish I could get them used to my presence so they would continue to chatter on as freely as the college girls hanging out at the Powell’s coffee shop at midnight. But perhaps that sounds a little too…flaneur?

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The rain outwitted us and hit with a mighty splash before we’re home, but we’re used to it.

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One eventually dries out. And we have a warm welcome awaiting us.

Discover

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“This Weather Cramps My Genius”

The portrait of this dignified lady may not immediately bring to mind the thought of a hike.

Oh, this woman was a champion hiker. And thinker. Some time back I wrote a post on writers who were enthusiastic walkers. If you read it, you may remember the amazing Elizabeth Carter. (1717 – 1806)

She was known as ‘a very good walker’. That’s putting it mildly. I had every intention of bringing her back for an encore, as she is such a fascinating lady.

NPG 28; Elizabeth Carter by Sir Thomas Lawrence

by Sir Thomas Lawrence, pastel on vellum, 1788-1789, courtesy National Portrait gallery

Well, this isn’t her encore post, not yet, anyway…but whenever I want to take a walk but demur because it’s raining (as has been the case the last few days), I am reminded of this indefatigable walker and eighteenth-century bluestocking.

‘I walked three miles yesterday in a wind that I thought would have blown me out of this planet, and afterwards danced nine hours, and then walked back again. Did you ever see or hear of anything half so wonderful? And what is still more so, I am not dead, which I thought prior to tell you, for fear you should think this letter no sufficient proof of my being alive.’

Walking in this manner is quite different than hiking, to the modern mind. Hiking today is a sport. As a sport it comes with attendant gear that involves expensive shoes, a backpack, and little packets of odd foods that have been dehydrated down to the weight of dryer lint. (My own walks I like to call Perambulations; they might start out as a hike, but end up as a meander, and usually involve short breaks for chocolate.)

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Elizabeth Carter, had she lived today, might have been a keen hiker of ‘trackless paths’, as this excerpt from one of her letters reveals:

‘In proportion as my sister has mended, I have recovered my spirits, I am now nearly as gay and wild as ever, and want to be flying all over the face of the earth, though this weather something cramps my genius, for I cannot meet with any body here romantic enough to take moonlight walks in the snow, and travel as people do in Lapland. If I was happy enough to be a Canterbury, what excursions should you and I make through trackless paths, and enjoy a season that less whimsical folks shudder at. Certainly we odd mortals, that take delight in such things as make the rest of the world very sententiously pronounce us mad, enjoy infinitely more pleasure than the sober prudent part of mankind who sit close to a fire because they are cold. To us every season has its charms; and even the gloomy prospects of winter have a kind of dark, sullen beauty, that strikes the mind with no disagreeable sensation. Having read you this curious dissertation upon winter, I should next proceed to descant upon the spring….’

When she wrote about her genius being cramped, this was not just being witty. She actually was a genius, part of the now-famous Blue Stocking Circle; a group of eighteenth century women intellectuals. By the time of her early twenties, Carter had taught herself to be fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Portugese, Arabic, French and Italian. What she is best known for, however, is her seminal translation of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus from the Greek. (you can read this here and find reasons for wonderment that could possibly linger for days….)

As well, by the time she was twenty-one she had translated Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explained for the use of Ladies, in Six Dialogues on Light and Colours.

You’ll love her spirited style. And possibly be encouraged to walk more, in any weather.

For more about Elizabeth and famous walkers, read here.

 

 

Blue Stockings and Muddy Petticoats

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“The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Henry David Thoreau was a great walker. His walking was directly linked to his ability to think. Directly linked to his philosophy. If Thoreau did not walk, Thoreau could not write.

Thinking about this made me realize why I have been unable to finish up this post from my series that has been given the quizzical name ‘Perambulations.’ A post that was beginning to drag on as long as Ben Jonson’s epic walk to Edinburgh in 1618.

I have not been walking. The ground has been as frozen and inhospitable as a Bronte moor, and the wind has been bitter cold. There are, in this house, enough knitted and crocheted hats and scarves to clothe an army, but I am a fair weather walker.

“Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

Yesterday the sun returned with brilliant apologies and warm entreaties. The earth was still frozen, our porch and stairs still a solid pool of ice, yet something of an ambient flow was beginning to stir.

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Encouraged by the dazzling rays of light we immediately ventured out to experience the truth of writer Rebecca Solnit’s observation

‘…walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.”

What she said. And what Thoreau said. I began to think about perambulations, pedestrianism, peregrinations; all those lovely, fascinating words relating to the philosophy and exercise of walking. Like sweetmeats to the wordsmith, they animate the curiosity, savor of possibility, and my eager thoughts begin to rise like puffs of steam in warm sunlight.

“The distance is nothing when one has a motive.” Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)

This is the magic of walking; though our steps may be regular, our chosen path familiar, linear or even slightly curved, our thoughts are left free to wander far away from our feet. The same tree on our customary path looks different in all types of light, and radiates new possibilities. In elliptical, soaring patterns, our imagination makes great loops of thought in the sky, connecting philosophical dots, shooting across eons of space to create galaxies of fantastic dimensions and people it with drama, conflict, resolution. Perhaps our thoughts take us back to the past or weave us ever more tightly to the dizzying matrix of the present.

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Our eye catches sight of a beautiful bird, spiraling upward, or a flock of birds forming V patterns etched in thin silhouette, and our thoughts travel with them in after image, chasing similar shapes and spirals, or arcs in fractal waves like starlings.

Wherever we go in our mind, the beauty of it is that our feet are still on solid ground. There is comfort in that; we drop to earth with a soft thud to match our pedestrian gait and soon enough we are back to the warmth of the fireside and the well-rooted chair. Time enough to think about blue stockings and muddy petticoats, and wonder if anyone else would find such a subject interesting? And as to that, have you ever thought about the inherent contradiction in a word like pedestrianism?

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Writer Margaret Lane alluded to this dichotomy of preference. In the foreword to her lovely collection of essays Purely for Pleasure *, she writes:

‘There is no unifying theme to be found in this handful of essays. They are personal excursions indulged in purely for pleasure—perambulations, so to speak, in chosen company.’

A happy life often consists of many small moments like this—curious bursts of pleasure that no one else might understand, let alone anticipate. I was thrilled to see that she thought of ‘perambulations’ in the same way I did. [for more on the wordsmith aspect of this, I refer you to The Curious Word]

In recent months, via this blog we have strolled through several gardens with several writers, taken brisk walks with poets, pondered John Muir’s epic mountain ramblings, and explored why Mary N. Murphree didn’t walk the heights and depths of the Blue Mountains but cleverly wrote as if she did.

Most of the famous walkers from history that come to mind are usually men. But have you met The Bluestockings? As a group, they fascinate. One particular Bluestocking, however, relates more specifically to my recent perambulations. Continue reading