In kindergarten, we were overwhelmed. In first grade, we forged alliances. By second grade, we were in the middle of the fray, taunting fourth, fifth and even sixth-graders with impunity. “So’s your old man!” “Your mother wears combat boots!” “Cheater, cheater, pumpkin-eater!”
As our vocabularies developed we grew bolder and moved on to true insults. “When they were giving out brains, you thought they said canes and said, ‘I don’t need one!’”
Even at that age, the ability to give and fend off a good insult became the measure of our mettle. We enjoyed participating in a tradition reaching back to Shakespeare and beyond, a tradition marvelously and creatively maintained by sharp-tongued repartee artists closer to our time.
“He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” (Oscar Wilde)
“If you have nothing nice to say about someone, then come sit by me.” (Dorothy Parker)
“He has all the characteristics of a dog except loyalty.” (Sam Houston)
“His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” (Mae West)
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.” (Groucho Marx)
When Lady Astor remarked to Winston Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” Churchill famously replied, “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” At the top of the insulters’ class, Churchill spared no one, as George Bernard Shaw learned when he telegraphed Churchill to say, “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play. Bring a friend – if you have one.” Completely unfazed, Churchill sent a message of his own. “Cannot possibly attend first night. Will attend second – if there is one.”
Artful as politicians and celebrities may be with their words, perhaps no group has produced more snide, clever, memorable and flat-nasty insults than the literary sorts. My beloved T.S. Eliot once said, “Henry James has a mind – a sensibility -so fine that no mere idea could ever penetrate it.” Poor Robert Browning had to put up with Gerard Manley Hopkins saying, “[Browning's] verse is the beads without the string.” Mark Twain always had something to say, of course, and Austenites no doubt still quiver to recall his words. “Jane Austen’s books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.“
Today, given the scourge called political correctness, our general loss of vocabulary, the promotion of crude and vulgar language by celebrities and the limitations of Twitter, an artful insult is hard to find. Nature, on the other hand, is unconstrained by such concerns. She continues to provide a yearly insult no one seems able to adequately counter – an impertinence called pollen.
In Texas, the spring pollen season begins early – in winter. Come December or January, the tree variously called Mountain Cedar, Ashe Juniper or Post Cedar begins to develop tiny, amber-colored male cones. In particularly “good” years, the pollen-covered cones blanket the trees, drooping the limbs with their weight and making the hills glow an unearthly orange.
When the wind rises, great clouds of pollen are released to drift down a broad swath of Texas, sometimes reaching as far as the Rio Grande. If conditions are right, you can hear the sound of the trees releasing their burden to the wind.
Still new to Texas, I once assumed references to cedars “popping” were hyperbole, nothing more than a folksy figure of speech. Soon enough I learned the “pop” of the cones can be audible, “cedar smoke” is a perfect description of particularly nasty pollen clouds and the ghastly allergy called “cedar fever” is nothing to sneeze at.
In his passionate and humorous Texas Monthly harangue on all things cedar, Joe Patoski writes,
I hate cedar. Especially this time of year, when central Texas cedars—one of the most prolifically pollinating plants in North America—dramatically release copious airborne pollens in explosive puffs of orange-red smoke whenever cold winds blow from the north. Like gnarly little fishhooks, the pollens invade my nostrils and sinuses. Before long I’m sniffling and vacant, sick and tired. I hate cedar fever.
As do we all. Some barricade themselves in their homes. Others buy stock in antihistamine manufacturers. The writer J.Frank Dobie famously left Austin every year when the pollen began to fly. As his biographer, Steven L. Davis, recalls,
Dobie suffered terribly from Cedar Fever, the winter allergy outbreak that afflicts many Austinites. For years he had made himself scarce during pollen’s peak months [and] had long arranged his university schedule so he could teach his “Life and Literature of the Southwest” course in the spring, after the pollen had died down.
Now that it’s April, the cedar pollen is gone. In Texas, we’ve moved into the season of oak, elm, ash and willow, hackberry, pine and pecan. Around the country, in locations as far removed as South Carolina and Oregon, the sneezing and grumpiness have commenced. But if the thin greenish-yellow veil covering patio tables, mailboxes, sidewalks and cars is Nature’s insult, there’s a certain compelling artfulness to her production as well.
Heavier than usual, this season’s gauzy green was remarkable for its pervasiveness and even distribution. In between sneezes, I amused myself by wondering if Wolfgang Laib, an artist who works in natural substances, might have had an easier time of it if he’d done his pollen-gathering in Texas.
From January 23 to March 11 of this year, Mr. Laib’s installation titled Pollen from Hazelnut graced the second floor Atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His largest pollen installation to date, it measured approximately 18 x 21 feet and no doubt required a good bit of patience to complete.
Why someone would want to do this, I can’t say. Still, according to Ken Johnson, who provided a just-slightly-tongue-in-cheek review for The New York Times, “the sculptor and conceptualist Wolfgang Laib is the honeybee of the international art world”.
Since the 1970s, his trademark activity has been gathering pollen from trees and plants in the countryside near his home in southern Germany. He puts the pollen in bottles and flies to distant places around the world to create ephemeral installations of yellow dust on museum and gallery floors and inseminate the minds of viewers with thoughts of harmony between human civilization and nature.
While I don’t believe I’d fly off to New York to visit Mr. Laib’s installation, the interesting relationship between the layers of green and yellow pollen blanketing our world and his blanket of yellow pollen on a museum floor can’t be denied.
Other relationships seem equally obvious. The pendulous, pollen-bearing catkins of the White Oak evoke the marvelous chandeliers of Dale Chihuly.
A catkin caught on a thorn of the paloverde tree recalls the angular constructions of sculptor Louise Nevelson.
Even the slightest spring rain can be enough to wash streams of pollen from pavement and grass into the waters of a marina, where their swirls could as easily conjure a topographic map as a pen and ink study for a Van Gogh masterpiece.
In time, when the pollen has flown and the catkins have fallen, when the dessicated husks of nature’s revelry drift away and the world settles into summer, we may call ourselves relieved, eager for an end to the season of our distress, ready to let go of Spring’s art in order to be rid of Spring’s insults.
But we are human, and we are forgetful. When the flowers of summer fade away, when the harvested fields lie fallow and the chaste, silent winter descends, there will be another inquisitive someone who will be the first to turn to a beloved companion – or even a perfect stranger, for all that – and ask that most human of questions.
“How long until Spring?”