Monday, February 24, 2014

Snowdrops jostling in the breeze

Finally,  things are starting to happen in the garden! Today we had winter aconites, tommies and several sorts of snowdrops. The snowdrops were so pretty as they moved in response to light breezes. If you look carefully, you will briefly see a fly visiting the blooms.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Spit on your smallage

One more yard

The Pacific Bulb Society had a discussion this week about the meaning of the word "yard". Because that list serve draws its contributors from all over the world, and because the meaning of English words sometimes varies from country to country, we frequently find ourselves reliving the old quip about the United States and other English-speaking countries being countries separated by the same language. 
That on-line discussion covered several usages of the word "yard". But until I brought it up today, the discussion had  omitted one yard which intrigues me, one which has long filled me with a sense of queasiness or downright revulsion. John Parkinson, in his account of celery (which he knew as sweet parsley or sweet smallage) in his  Paradisus of 1629, mentions that the first place he saw it was in a Venetian ambassador’s garden near Bishop’s Gate Street in London. So far, so good – but Parkinson also states that the celery grew in the spittle yard of that establishment. If you’ve ever grown celery, you know that it needs lots of water; was the celery planted in the spittle yard to take advantage of the abundant, moist sputum expectorated by loitering Jacobean dandies?

I first read that passage decades ago, and to this day I can’t look at celery without remembering it – and then washing my celery very carefully.   

Public expectoration – spitting –   is not nearly as common now as it once was.  Those who spit in public now are apt to get the “keep your dirty germs to yourself” look.

And it isn’t just spitting which is now generally eschewed. A few summers ago I was walking Biscuit down near the local park. We were heading home, and as we approached the traffic intersection there, I noticed a group of four young men approaching. Something about them gave me the impression that they did not belong, that they were somehow out of place. It may have been their clothing. As I got closer, I could hear them and realized that they were speaking French. As I passed them, one of the group broke away, walked over to a nearby bush and began to relieve himself. How very French.  Had my French been better, I would have told him that the park down the street had a Porta Potty. I don’t even know the French word for Porta Potty. The bush was a big viburnum, and since then I’ve thought of it as the pissoir bush. Up until then I had been ambivalent about the odor of the flowers of that plant; now it resides firmly in the “smelly” category.

What’s the sociological significance of this: as public urination has now become relatively infrequent among  American men, breast feeding in public has become more frequent among some American women?       

The discussion of yards on the PBS list serve hardly exhausted the possibilities. This sort of preoccupation with classifying things always reminds me of early nineteenth century taxonomist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz. Here are some highlights of his life, drawn mostly from the Wikipedia account. He was born in a suburb of Constantinople to a French father and German mother.  He died in, of all places,  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA!  He never attended a university and was largely self-taught, yet at one point he was on the faculty of Transylvania University in Kentucky. The Wikipedia account claims that he taught himself “perfect Greek and Latin”, yet the etymology of some of the names of genera he established defy  explanation. Unlike modern taxonomists who generally have a well-defined and narrow field of study, Rafinesque classified everything in sight: plants, animals, fungi, minerals and so on. The author of an article in American Heritage magazine years ago  gave his classification for the various grades of thunder.

Where is he now that we need him: did he have a classification of yards? If he did, it’s now sadly lost.

In addition to the Wikipedia entry, here is a link with more information about him:

Some of the pronunciations given in the footnotes to this article are in the best
Rrafinesquian tradition and  strike me as bizarre.

Update: after posting a small part of this to the Pacific Bulb Society list serve, I got a quick response from Paige Woodward of Pacific Rim Nurseries. She pointed out that the word spittle yard is probably an alternate spelling for spital yard, as in hospital yard. And she provided this link:

Now to chill a bit and listen to some music composed by Vivaldi for the occupants of the Ospedale della Pietà.