Archive for ‘gardening’


“It seems the music keeps them quiet, there is no other way…”

No matter the ground that’s granted to you,
Whether sand-rotten or silt-riddled,
Whether shoots ripen in rich, sopping earth
To give their full and fattened yield,
Whether high hillsides or handily worked
Lowlands beckon, a level plain,
Or a valley roughened with veering slopes,
It cannot refuse to bring forth for you
Its native plants, provided that you
Don’t louse your labors with laziness…

Walahfrid Strabo (d.849), De Cultura Hortorum (my translation)

Someday I may do what the ninth-century abbot of Reichenau wouldn’t have recommended: cultivate a garden full of medieval European plants. Until then, I’ll revel in my 169 square feet of New World fecundity, a bee-friendly spider-riot of corn, peppers, cucumbers, collards, squash, and beans. I try to be the largest creature on my tenancy; narrow paths and high, uneven fences keep the deer far hence, and I banish chipmunks and mice with a clemency that would put St. Francis to shame.

Even so, my garden cried out for a medieval beastie—and a certain clever loved one of mine decided to oblige.

That’s the tarasque, a marvelous and horrifying creature from the folklore of medieval Provence. With the head of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, six bear’s legs, and a turtle shell, the tarasque ravaged the countryside, until St. Martha—the biblical Martha—lulled it with prayers and hymns and lured it into town. Terrified locals killed it, after which they regretted attacking a tame monster, converted to Christianity, and renamed their town in the monster’s honor.

That’s the story in the 13th-century Legenda Aurea, anyway, and it sure did last: I had a vague memory of encountering this critter in another context long ago, so I went back to the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual II from 1983 (don’t judge me) and found this fearsome fellow:

My tarasque is likewise domesticated—or at least domestic. Back in February, when the aforementioned loved one and I were in Memphis, an ice storm shut down the city. We were lucky to be stuck indoors with an assortment of local beer, including the Tarasque Saison from Wiseacre Brewing Company. I liked the can design, she’s got an inventive mind, and three months later, when we saw a garden store shamefully asking 20 bucks for whirligigs made out of nothing more than two beer cans, a wire hanger, and plastic straws, I heard a claim I’ve come not to doubt: “I could totally make that.”

And so a couple weeks ago, having mostly forgotten the matter, I opened a box to find a terrific surprise: a trace of modern medievalism, a souvenir from a recent adventure, and a thoughtful, handmade present all rigged up into one.

After we calibrate the spinning blades a little, the wind vane at the tail should inspire optimal whirling. My garden is now a bit more medieval, if not more dignified. So be it. Such is a blog post befitting July, when the weather is languid, the wind is lazy, and writerly ambition is as tame as a tarasque.

 

“Dust you down from tip to toe…”

[Matters of health and wealth—or, to be clearer, a pronounced lack of both—have kept this blog silent for longer than I’d like, so here’s a timely but updated post from 2012.]

For seven years, this blog has argued that medievalism is durably American. From Gothic synagogues in the South to killer queens in New Jersey, from Cajun jousters and the saints of New Orleans to the gargoyles of Perth Amboy, from rivalries on the Potomac to dragons and Vikings at seaside resorts, from late-blooming scholars on postage stamps to courtly love on General Hospital, American medievalism is rooted in an unresolvable clash of classical and medieval aesthetics, the persistence of religious traditions, and complex nostalgia for Europes that never were.

But did it have to take root in my garden?

Meet Glechoma hederacea, the mint-like ground ivy called “creeping Charlie” in the United States and known, at least around my place, as “existence’s bane.” Rampant, sinister, nigh-unstoppable, this weed was brought to North America by early European settlers, who presumably appreciated its value as ground cover and its not-unpleasant scent.

Medieval people found Glechoma hederacea medicinally useful, as shown by a drawing of the stuff in a tenth-century manuscript from Constantinople. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can buy a watch and other jewelry based on its depiction in a 15th-century woodcut, gifts apparently intended for people who’ve never torn intractable fistfuls of the stuff from the contumacious earth.

More interesting is its etymology in England, where it’s known as Gill-on-the-ground or, intriguingly, alehoof. Britten and Holland’s 1886 A Dictionary of English Plant-Names claims the word comes from “‘Ale-hoove,’ meaning that which will cause ale to heave, or work,” because in an era sans hops, the Anglo-Saxons used the plant to give their ale its bitterness. (The 2007 Dictionary of Plant Lore quips, too defensively, that “there have been other attempts at its etymology which may safely be ignored.”) The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary finds the plant simply called “hófe,” with references to mersc-hófe, “marsh-hove,” túnhófe, “yard-hove,” brúnhofe, “brown-hove,” and phrases in medicinal texts such as genim hófan, “take hove.” If *ealu-hófe was an Old English word, no written trace of it survives.

The word may be gone, but the plant endures, creeping just beneath the soil, breeding pernicious new nodes as it roams. You can slow its advance, but smother it in mulch and it summons demonic strength and pushes ever upward. Like a neglected chip of pure evil smoldering in a toaster oven, alehoof is almost impossible to eliminate. “[P]ut every scrap of the plant in a bag and throw it away,” one site advises, “or it will reroot and take over again.” Other sites suggest tracing the runners several feet to their origin and, like Beowulf before you, destroying the monster’s mother, even if doing so leaves craters in your lawn.

Whatever medicinal purposes medieval people found in alehoof, it’s now thought to be toxic in large amounts. And don’t be fooled by those dainty, bumblebee-pleasing flowers; when alehoof goes berserk, as it did in a neighboring plot, it can help bring down an unsturdy fence.

It’s enough to make a despondent gardener fall back on an Old English plea to the forgotten goddess Erce:

Geunne him,
ece drihten,
(and his halige
þe on heofonum synt),
þaet hys yrþ si gefriþod
wið ealra feonda gehwaene,
and heo si geborgen,
wið ealr bealwa gehwylc,
þara lyblaca geond land sawen.

[“Grant to him, eternal ruler (and his holy ones, who in heaven are), that his ploughing be protected against any and all enemies and it be guarded against each and every evil, against those spells sown through the land.” trans. K.A. Laity]

Or maybe, in the proper spirit of the Anglo-Saxons, magic needs to surrender to stoicism. “Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,” shrugged a poet who put words in the mouth of a king. Like medievalism, alehoof has taken perennial root; from gift shops to gardens, it’s fated not to fade.

“Funny how my memory slips while looking over manuscripts…”

March, enfeebled, limps to its grave—for some of us, not a snowflake too soon. I’ve been digging through medieval sources in search of poetry that expresses frustration with overdue spring, but the poets of the early Middle Ages apparently didn’t see much promise in that complaint. They hailed the coming of spring, but they knew that the seasons advanced and retreated with little regard for our whims.

That said, I did take a fresh look at “The Debate Between Spring and Winter,” a derivative bit of Vergilian pastoralism attributed to Alcuin, the eighth-century abbot of Tours and one of Charlemagne’s most influential advisers. At a gathering of shepherds on a sunny spring day, the personifications of cheerful Spring and misanthropic Winter snipe at each other—until two shepherds, young Daphnis and old Palaemon, decide they’ve had enough:

Desine plura, Hiems; rerum tu prodigus atrox.
Et veniet cuculus, pastorum dulcis amicus!
Collibus in nostris erumpant germina laeta,
Pascua sit pecori, requies et dulcis in arvis,
Et virides rami praestent umbracula fessis,
Uberibus plenis veniuntque ad mulctra capellae
Et volucres varia Phoebum sub voce salutent!
Quapropter citius cuculus nunc ecce venito!
Tu iam dulcis amor, cunctis gratissimus hospes:
Omnia te expectant — pelagus tellusque polusque —
Salve, dulce decus, cuculus, per saecula salve!
(MGH Poetae I, 272, 45–55)

Here it is, rendered into alliterative, Anglo-Saxon-style half-lines that Alcuin might have recognized, though he’d disavow the diction:

Zip it, Winter, you wasteful shit,
And hey, cuckoo! Come be the shepherd’s
Number-one pal. Let’s popcorn the hillsides
With giddy seeds and grazing sheep!
Let’s find us fields fit for siestas!
Let the bone-weary dream under drooping green leaves
While queued at the pail, the pap-swollen goats
Just beg us to milk them. Let all beaks warble
Their mashed-up salvēs to sunny Phoebus!
Faster, cuckoo, flap thy ass hither!
Luv, you’re the greatest guest of ’em all
And everyone’s waiting, Earth, Sea, and Sky,
So welcome, sweet cuckoo-grace! Welcome forever!

That’s hardly a translation for the ages, but its restlessness is sincere, and it’s the poetic equivalent of something else I did today: scrape the snow from an exhausted garden, hoping to find that something green was budding underneath.

“When I’ve walked in the garden, when I’m walking offstage…”

Spring is a time to remember Walahfrid Strabo: abbot, scholar, tutor to Charlemagne’s grandson, and the best known gardener of the Carolingian age. He’s memorialized at the National Cathedral garden (and got a poem of his own in Looking Up), and his 444-line poem De Cultura Hortorum, “On the Cultivation of Gardens,” intermingles plant lore, political allegory, practical advice, and philosophical musings with an exhortation to get out there and work:

For whatever the land you possess, whether it be where sand
And gravel lie barren and dead, or where fruits grow heavy
In rich moist ground; whether high on a steep hillside,
Easy ground in the plain or rough among sloping valleys—
Wherever it is, your land cannot fail to produce
Its native plants. If you do not let laziness clog
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
The gardener’s multifarious wealth, and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil—
then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.
(trans. Payne)

In the March and April dankness, I followed Walahfrid’s example—and today I reaped the year’s first harvest from my little realm of dirt.

 

I checked to see if Walahfrid had anything to say about radishes. Indeed he did:

RAFANUM

Hic rafanum radice potens latoque comarum
Tegmine sublatum extremus facit ordo videri
Cuius amara satis quatientem viscera tussim
Mansa premit radix, triti quoque seminis haustus
Eiusdem vitio pestis persaepe medetur.

Here’s a loose and hasty translation into pseudo-Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse:

THE RADISH

Powerfully rooted,   it raises the vaults
Of its broadening leaves    and lies waiting,
The radish you find   in the final row.
Its flesh-root shortens    that shattering cough,
Or grind up a draught    and drink the seeds:
That dose often    will do the trick too.

Walahfrid died in A.D. 849 while trying to cross the Loire. He was only in his early thirties, but he seems to have grown to prefer plants to politics—an insight rare in places of power, then and now.

(The garden in June 2012.)

“Merciless, the magistrate turns ’round…”

This pair of grotesques has always struck me as eerie. Is their fecundity enough, or are we meant to wonder what they smother under stony vegetation?

EMAIL FROM THE COMMUNITY GARDEN RULES COMMITTEE

No worm discerns the robin; we dispense
With blazing wing to herald your offense.
The slug secretes his shadow under chard
Where you malinger, lest your way be barred
By negligence that chokes your bolting plants.
We yet may cast you out, beyond the ants
That vainly pray for peonies to burst.
The mess you fell today you raised up first
In indolence. For fear of flaming brand
You hide with mites; we pluck you out. Now stand
As wordless witness wild around you breeds.
The wages of our mortal sin is weeds.


(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)

“Dust you down from tip to toe…”

For five years, this blog has argued that medievalism is durably American. From Gothic synagogues in the South to killer queens in New Jersey, from Cajun jousters and the saints of New Orleans to the gargoyles of Perth Amboy, from rivalries on the Potomac to dragons and Vikings at seaside resorts, from late-blooming scholars on postage stamps to courtly love on General Hospital, American medievalism is rooted in an unresolvable clash of classical and medieval aesthetics, the persistence of religious traditions, and complex nostalgia for Europes that never were.

But did it have to take root in my garden?

Meet Glechoma hederacea, the mint-like ground ivy called “creeping Charlie” in the United States and known, at least around my place, as “existence’s bane.” Rampant, sinister, nigh-unstoppable, this weed was brought to North America by early European settlers, who presumably appreciated its value as ground cover and its not-unpleasant scent.

Medieval people found Glechoma hederacea medicinally useful, as shown by a drawing of the stuff in a tenth-century manuscript from Constantinople. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can buy a watch and other jewelry based on its depiction in a 15th-century woodcut, gifts apparently intended for people who’ve never torn intractable fistfuls of the stuff from the temperamental earth.

More interesting is its etymology in England, where it’s known as Gill-on-the-ground or, intriguingly, alehoof. Britten and Holland’s 1886 A Dictionary of English Plant-Names claims the word comes from “‘Ale-hoove,’ meaning that which will cause ale to heave, or work,” because in an era sans hops, the Anglo-Saxons used the plant to give their ale its bitterness. (The 2007 Dictionary of Plant Lore quips, too defensively, that “there have been other attempts at its etymology which may safely be ignored.”) The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary finds the plant simply called “hófe,” with references to mersc-hófe, “marsh-hove,” túnhófe, “yard-hove,” brúnhofe, “brown-hove,” and phrases in medicinal texts such as genim hófan, “take hove.” If *ealu-hófe was an Old English word, no written trace of it survives.

The word may be gone, but the plant endures, creeping just beneath the soil, breeding pernicious new nodes as it roams. You can slow its advance, but smother it in mulch and it summons demonic strength and pushes ever upward. Like a neglected chip of pure evil smoldering in a toaster oven, alehoof is almost impossible to eliminate. “[P]ut every scrap of the plant in a bag and throw it away,” one site advises, “or it will reroot and take over again.” Other sites suggest tracing the runners several feet to their origin and, like Beowulf before you, destroying the monster’s mother, even if doing so leaves craters in your lawn.

Whatever medicinal purposes medieval people found in alehoof, it’s now thought to be toxic in large amounts. And don’t be fooled by those dainty, bumblebee-pleasing flowers; when alehoof goes berserk, as it did in a neighboring plot, it can help bring down an unsturdy fence.

It’s enough to make a despondent gardener fall back on an Old English plea to the forgotten goddess Erce:

Geunne him,
ece drihten,
(and his halige
þe on heofonum synt),
þaet hys yrþ si gefriþod
wið ealra feonda gehwaene,
and heo si geborgen,
wið ealr bealwa gehwylc,
þara lyblaca geond land sawen.

[“Grant to him, eternal ruler (and his holy ones, who in heaven are), that his ploughing be protected against any and all enemies and it be guarded against each and every evil, against those spells sown through the land.” trans. K.A. Laity]

Or maybe, in the proper spirit of the Anglo-Saxons, magic needs to surrender to stoicism: hófe bið ful araed. Like medievalism, alehoof has taken perennial root; from gift shops to gardens, it isn’t fated to fade.

“You can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m goin’ back to my plough…”

It’s a sluggish season for blogging, but here at “Quid Plura?,” we’ve been called away from things online by the ageless yawp of agriculture.

Two weeks ago, I inherited a local garden plot. Although abandoned by humanity, this desperate parody of circumcrescence was dearly beloved of weeds, roots, seashells, rotten bamboo, and countless plastic shards. The very sight, especially so late in the summer, was dispiriting; even Gerard Manley Hopkins might have let fly a guilty dream or two about the glorious symmetry of the lawnmower.

So I turned for inspiration to Walahfrid Strabo, the 9th-century abbot and scholar memorialized at the National Cathedral garden (and remembered there by at least one gargoyle). In De Cultura Hortorum, his famous gardening poem, Walahfrid recounts the nettled disaster he faces each spring, then calmly resolves to tame it:

So I put it off no longer. I set to with my mattock
And dug up the sluggish ground. From their embraces
I tore those nettles though they grew and grew again,
I destroyed the tunnels of the moles that haunt dark places,
And back to the realms of light I summoned the worms.
(trans. Raef Payne)

And so, ten days ago, buoyed by the spirit of Walahfrid, I set about turning this…

…into this.

In his little garden, Walahfrid raised bountiful herbs alongside vegetables, flowers, and fruit. While cautioning that hard work trumps book-learning in these sorts of labors, he offers, across twelve centuries, a mote of hope:

If you do not let laziness clog
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
The gardener’s multifarious wealth, and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil—
Then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.

We’ll soon see if this modern hortulus can bring forth plants that a sensible human will want to smell, admire, or eat. If so, I’ll be thankful for Walahfrid, and grateful, too, for the promise of applied medievalism.

“I need him now to meet me face to face…”

From April to June, a local thief took advantage of dawn twilight to help himself to flowers from private yards, community gardens, and the cathedral grounds. In mid-June, the police nabbed him, and although he wasn’t arrested, his crime spree witheredbut not before a gargoyle on the north nave barked a bit of doggerel.

NOTEBOOK: FRAGMENTS FOR A FLOWER THIEF

They paced the plot for hours, as mothers would,
But understood: “His arms were full of flowers.”

      * * *

CHORUS
  The cruelest month: a cusp’d cliché
  That pricks the wisp of guilty May
  And breeds the thief of blameless June.
   Summer, unsurprise us soon.

      * * *

“In April it was lilacs.” (Listen how
she hates to blame the deer.) “Hydrangeas now!
Four times this spring.” (Of course it could be deer.)
My peonies at least were spared this year.

      * * *

The Lilack speaketh late of early Love.
The bolder Peon prospereth a-red.
The Seede abundant unifies the Figge.
We love thee numb, O Koriandrum, come—
Fragaria, redeem the injur’d Maid.

      * * *

“He sold us flowers first a year ago.
We called him—Shantih?” Shantih does not know.

      * * *

We conquer by the weapons we desert.
By dawn the dogs will bound ahead to find
The efflorescent errand you resigned,
The arrow shafts unwagoned in the dirt.

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)