Saturday, 17 April 2010

wisteria and pine trees

I love your new post and it seems to me that there is a lot to think about here. For a start, you've reminded me of conversations we had in Minnesota about the way in which nature recolonises places long after the humans are gone, but - often - a nature changed by the passage of a human population. In the case of Rodney, the agent of nature's recolonisation is an introduced species, wisteria, and in the case of northern Minnesota (including the area round Mallard) it's the secondary growth, which is actually quite different from the primary growth that was there before. (Despite all the forests, Minnesota does not look as it did before the loggers passed through.) So our sense that nature entirely erases the traces of human habitation (and trauma) isn't quite right: if you can read 'nature's book', you can see those traces still in the way nature is changed by the 'passing through' of human populations. When nature reclaims a ghost town, it is itself changed.

I'm aways interested in how language, speech, and voices are connected with experiences of this kind and I think there is a lot of potential for thinking about that here. The plant we call wisteria must have changed its name many times as it passed from Asia into Europe and on into North America. I wonder what wisteria is called in Chinese? And does it appear in Chinese poetry? [...] Actually, I've just tried to answer my last question by doing a quick online search. And this took me to the website of James Cahill, Professor Emeritus in the History of Art at Berkeley. There he has a handout relating to a seminar on 'Poetic Painting in China'. It's a bit hard to interpret - more like a series of notes than a connected text - but it includes this:

Distant Mts. 4: "Scholars Gazing At Waterfall," 1630. Couplet (p. 37): "Pines and rocks are proper to old age; / Wisteria vines do not count the years."

I think there's something rather striking about that couplet, not least in the way it mentions both pines (the flora to be found around Mallard) and wisteria (the plant that is reclaiming Rodney), connecting both with the passing of time. It seems that, in English, the plant is named after a person, although there seems to be some doubt about which person. Having searched online, I've found that a lot of people say it was Caspar Wister (1761-1818), a physician and anatomist from Philadelphia.

As I happens, I've already assembled some material on the naming of plants in Minnesota. While I was kayaking, I was chastened a little by my total inability to recognise or name the plants that surrounded me. So, when we went to the Forest History Center near Grand Rapids, I was excited to see a big board in the exhibition space with the names of lots of the trees that you find in the area. I jotted them down in my notebook and, when I came back to Sheffield, did some research on some that seemed particularly interesting to me. I won't download a lot of information about them now - I'll save it for future postings - but a few that really caught my imagination were:

Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)
American Basswood (Tilia americana)
Tamarack (Larix laricina)
Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis)

What do you think about collecting a series of 'botanical fragments' relating to the plants that surround our ghost towns? (By 'fragments' I mean fragments of text, of course.) Kayaköy is certainly being recolonised by plant life, all of which presumably has both Greek and Turkish names. Obviously Pompeii wasn't slowly reclaimed by nature - it was buried quickly in volcanic ash. But it occurs to me that the mosaics and paintings of Pompeii include images of plants and I wonder if they are just local ones or if they represent the resources of the empire? Anyway, just a thought - I'll post some more on this later.

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