Thoreau's Cream Pitcher Is My Meadow Beauty
Samuel Hill Road in the south of Delaware • August 20, 2009
Posted by Ebenezer Bowles on March 15, 2010, from Fayetteville, Arkansas
Perception yields the mystery. What do we see with open eyes? The first look, the second, and then a third reveal different aspects of a thing. The parade of the moment is a constant, dependable, moveable scene of simple joys and connected revelations.
Yes, it is a cream pitcher, that glorious little wildflower, seen a' swayin' in the warm breeze beside a backcountry lane in the south of Delaware. But when I encountered it, I was caught up in the graceful swirls of the petals, the sweeping cylinders of the golden anthers, and didn't see the domestic metaphor embedded in the picture. Not until this evening in the solitude of Crow's Cottage did the cream pitcher reveal its form, and even then it required the intervention of Henry David Thoreau to open my drowsy eyes.
"The scarlet leaves and stem of the rhexia, some time out of flower, make almost as bright a patch in the meadow now as the flowers did. Its seed vessels are perfect little cream pitchers of graceful form," Thoreau wrote on October 2, 1856.
Cream pitcher? Focused on the bloom, I missed the seed vessel. The striking purple petals of the Meadow Beauty drew my gaze like a beacon in the eyes of a ship's captain on the waters of nearby Chesapeake Bay. Too, the act of field photography — especially when the subject is a tiny flower, dancing in the wind and refusing to stay still for her portrait — demands intense attention to mechanical detail and aesthetic intent.
My zen oft fails me in these situations, where the possibilities of the moment must be filtered by necessity into a finite set of intended positive outcomes. It is way easy to mess up, or miss something on location that later appears as a fuzzy lost opportunity, painfully obvious in retrospect, after the image is opened and studied on a computer screen far, far away from the place of origin.
The philosopher Thoreau was contemplating his field of flowers at season's end, when the petals had fallen to fodder, and the yellow and carmine of the maturing pods had darkened into olive and scarlet vessels, ripe for the release of seeds. In the image below, the cream-pitcher metaphor is visible in two aspects — one sharply focused and peering from above into an open mouth, the other just clear enough to show the tuber handle and elongated vegetable body of the receptacle. That's the best I can muster, given the lateness of the hour, and the thousand miles and two seasons between me and the remembered moment.
Rhexia, Thoreau's first-mention for the Meadow Beauty, alludes to the genus of the flower and by inference to the practice of employing the Latin language to formally identify plants and animals. The macrocosmic downward spiral from kingdom through phylum, class, order, family, and genus carries us, ultimately and singularly, to the name of the species, signifying the end of a charted journey of scientific precision and intellectual beauty.
Plante → Magnoliophyta → Magnoliopside → Myrtales →
Then we have the common name of the thing, the fun part of the naming game, where local color and casual imprecision replace the rigor of taxonomy. My Meadow Beauty could just as well be your Handsome Harry or Virginia Meadowbeauty. Thoreau, ever lyrical, called his "little cream pitchers" by another name, "little reddish chalices," in his journal entry of September 14, 1851, and also referred to the flower as "Deer Grass." In honor of Thoreau, I surmise, the gorgeous little perennial is also commonly known by the name Meadow Pitcher.
Follow the word rhexia along the arcane path of etymology and you'll find reference to broken asunder, rent, rupture, burst forth. By adjusting the path to follow the guideposts of inference and digression, you may arrive in ancient Greece. I did, and there I found the word rhegmymi, leading at the end to the English word earthenware. Thoreau's metaphor of meadow pitcher is confirmed in the laboratory of Crow's Cottage.
The Meadow Beauty is an old favorite of the earthen landscape, having appeared one thousand, nine hundred and thirty-three years ago (AD 77) under the name rhexia in the works of Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder, who wrote in his Natural History [Book XX, Entry XXV: William Heinemann, London; 1949-54]:
There is another plant also, the proper name of which is onochilon, called by some people anchusa, or archebion, or onochelis, or rhexia, and by many enchrysa. It has a short base, a purple flower, rough leaves and branches, a root blood-red at harvest time, though dark at other times, growing on sandy soils, an antidote to the bites of serpents, especially of vipers, both root and leaves being equally efficacious in food and in drink.
Want to avoid snake bites? Put a Meadow Beauty in your pocket whenever you venture into snake territory and you shall never be bitten, Pliny advises. Romans also applied the root of the rhexia to freckles and leprous sores, and drank its renderings with hyssop to drive out tapeworms.
My Meadow Beauty, the one pictured at the top of the page, grew on farmland among others of its kin in the southern Delaware backcountry along Samuel Hill Road, a few hundred yards from where it intersects Laurel Road, a named stretch of State Highway 24. Trap Pond State Park is close by. The diameter of the bloom from petal to petal is not much more than one inch. In its natural environment, clinging to moist and sandy soil, the Meadow Beauty appears frail and tiny. Here on the backpages of Crow's Cottage, frozen in an instant of light, motionless on a pixilated field, with the afternoon sun casting shadows of anthers on the shimmering surface of the blooms, my Meadow Beauty becomes the mystery of perception.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
An Easy Puzzle: Shade Drenched, Flat and Tidy
Foxtail ~ Setaria pumila, glauca, or viridis
Samuel Hill Road in the south of Delaware • August 20, 2009
The botanist with the Delaware Natural Heritage program was certain about the genus, but needed to see more of the plant to determine its species. Nevertheless, the botanist pointed me in the right direction. My search led to three possible conclusions: the bristlegrass pictured above is either one of two versions of the yellow foxtail (Setaria glauca or Setaria pumila), or the green foxtail (Setaria viridis).
In the final analysis, this spiky and spiraling plant is a weed. The foxtail can be valuable as forage for wilding critters, and in the eyes of some beholders it exhibits beauty of form and color, but to farmers and ranchers, the foxtail is more liability than asset. Those little golden spikelets, known in the botanist's trade as "spiked awns," can become snared in the mouth, nose, and eyes of livestock, causing infections. And to lawn meisters, the foxtail is a downright nuisance.
The purplish-red things clinging to the foxtail? "The red things are anthers," the botanist wrote in an e-mail to David Smith of Delaware Wildflowers. Ah, sweet language! Awns and anthers, panicles and ligules, glumes and lemmas, pedicels and culms. Each discipline, each subculture, each branch of inquiry reveals a special lingo, mysterious and evocative. Exploring the one, the other, and the next for meaning and connections is a fine way to wash away the psychic gray.
Our choice here at Crow's Cottage: the yellow foxtail (Setaria glauca).
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Monday, March 15, 2010