The Serendipitists

Green comet milkweed buds (Asclepias viridiflora)

It wasn’t the sort of news that would entice just anyone to change their weekend plans. Still, as word began to spread that green comet milkweed had been found on the Nash prairie, and that Susan Conaty would lead a prairie walk to see both the milkweed and other late spring beauties, plans began to change.

Susan knows Nash Prairie as well as anyone, and a chance to spend time there in her company wasn’t to be missed. I arrived at the prairie to find Susan had been delayed, but eager milkweed hunters already were comparing notes, trying to pin down the plants’ location with half-remembered bits of information, a few cryptic texts, and entirely wrong assumptions about the plant’s appearance.

As we bumbled about, the search for the milkweed reminded me of my initial search for Nash Prairie itself. On that trip, a goat standing atop a shed and a utility substation served as unmistakable markers. Our flower-finding directions were more vague: turn left from the hay road; scan near the fence; look for the fallen gate; draw an imaginary line to the stand of trees.

Finally, a cry of triumph drew us to plants we had to have passed at least a dozen times, oblivious to their presence. Still in bud and unblemished, the large round clusters of flowers and trailing leaves certainly made the name “green comet” understandable.

With the day’s primary goal achieved, people spread out to explore the prairie: taking photos, identifying unusual plants, and gauging the readiness of seeds to be plucked. Among the plants still in bloom, the unfailingly cheerful black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) bobbed and nodded in the breeze.

A typical black-eyed Susan

I spent some time chasing butterflies among the Rudbeckia, hoping to photograph a black swallowtail at rest. Unsuccessful and ready for a different subject, I scanned a nearby group of flowers and realized I’d found something I never imagined I’d see: an example of fasciation.

A fasciated Black-eyed Susan 

Derived from the Latin word fascia  (“a band, bandage, swathe, ribbon”), fasciation describes an abnormal fusion or flattening of plant stems, flowers, fruit, or foliage. In the case of this black-eyed Susan, fasciation has caused both a broad, flattened stem, and a double, or “twinned” flower. The causes seem to be varied, and somewhat mysterious: viruses, genetic abnormality, insects, or physical damage all have been offered as reasons for the phenomenon.

The flattened and ribbon-like stem

I’d heard that photographing a fasciated plant can be challenging, and so it was. As I contorted myself this way and that, I heard a voice behind me ask, “What have you got there?” I untangled myself, sat up, and said, “It’s a serendipitous Susan.”

Indeed, it was: wholly unexpected, entirely delightful, and odd as odd could be.

Over time, the excitement I’d felt at the discovery abated, although I enjoyed looking back at the photos occasionally. Then Chris Helzer added a new gallery of photos to his site, “The Prairie Ecologist,” and brought the joys of serendipity back into focus.

In 2013, as he photographed a crab spider on what appears to be a sunflower, an ant unexpectedly appeared. Describing the experience, Chris wrote, “Often, [these] older photos capture a particular moment of serendipity that still evokes strong emotions for me.”

I enjoyed his reference to serendipity as much as I did the photo, and began to ponder how often these serendipitous experiences seem to occur in nature.  We should call ourselves serendipitists, I thought, since we’re always hoping to bump up against some unexpected oddity of life.”

Horace Walpole, the British art historian and man of letters who coined the word serendipity  seems to have been a bit of an oddity himself. In his introduction to Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, Thomas Christensen describes the author and critic as an exemplar of a somewhat peculiar strain of British tradition: one distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness and just plain madness.”

There’s no question Walpole had a vibrant imagination and a taste for high jinks. When he wasn’t busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote volumes of letters  One of his most famous, a 1765 letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written after Rousseau fled persecution in Geneva and took up residence in France, was a fake.

The letter, supposedly written by King Frederick of Prussia, offered Rousseau asylum-with-a-twist. Among other things, the faux King Frederick said, “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted.”

Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, he suspected his friend David Hume, and the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.

When he wasn’t stirring up trouble, Walpole amused himself by renovating Strawberry Hill, his “Gothic mousetrap” of a house.  Like most collectors, he wanted his objects to be ­admired, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase.

Walpole often “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi for a guinea a tour.”  Despite producing a guidebook to the place, Walpole eventually wearied of the numbers of guests traipsing through its halls. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court,” Walpole said. “Everyone will live in it but you.”

Still, he loved his home, with all of its “papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, Holbein chambers evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white floor tiles, modern oil paintings, china and carpets.”  It seems reasonable to assume Walpole created Strawberry Hill as a concrete analogue to his writing. As he said,

­Visions have always been my pasture. Old castles, old pictures, old histories and the babble of old ­people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint.

Michael Snodin, ­curator of the Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, suggests Walpole’s cultural legacy was “to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting,” but his  fixation on the house and its furnishings didn’t exclude other interests. Much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” was centered on language. Today, his extraordinarily useful word serendipity  has become familiar to nearly everyone, and he surely would be pleased by the increased use of the word and its derivatives.

Writing to Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole first defined the word as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.” He said he’d derived the word from the title of a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip, a story in which the heroes “always were making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

As John Barthes notes in his retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere, and lose your bearings in the process.”

In that sense, my discovery of a fasciated black-eyed Susan on a day meant to be focused on milkweed surely was serendipitous. But it’s worth noting that Walpole’s serendipity is more than accidental discovery or happy coincidence. For Walpole, sagacity — the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous or irrelevant facts — was  equally important if previously unsuspected pathways for exploration and delight were to open.

Someday, a more sagacious serendipitist may stumble across another fasciated flower and make the intuitive leap to the unrelated, innocuous, or seemingly irrelevant facts that finally explain the phenomenon. If — or perhaps when — that happens, it surely will be fascinating.

Comments always are welcome.

 

 

A Grammarian In Winter

 

Winter speaks in passive voice
conjugates brief slants of light
parses out cold stars along a tracery of oak.
Beneath the rising moon, fine participles gleam.
D
angling remnant leaves pull free
to tumble down the winds —
evocative declensions of a season raw, cold-boned.
Split by ice, the pond breathes smoke.
Split by cold, the blackened ferns release their sharded fronds.
Split by hoarfrost, fences drip, refreeze, lean out across the land.
Infinities abound.
Silent, shrouded by the pond’s slight breath
clear-eyed herons sweep the snow
as if to skry its source —
their spellbound cries declaim the day
and punctuate the  phrases  of the hills.

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Singing In the New Year

Swallow in flight ~ Susan Scheid

On October 5, 1921, the Ukrainian National Chorus performed before a sold-out audience in Carnegie Hall. A song known as Shchedryk, already popular in other parts of the world, was particularly well-received. Composed by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych, it drew on traditional folk melodies commonly heard in that country during celebrations of the Orthodox New Year (January 14 in the Gregorian calendar).

Eventually, American choir director and arranger Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovych’s work. Its bell-like ostinato inspired him to write new lyrics, attempting to capture the sound for his choir. After copyrighting and publishing the song in 1936, several choirs under Wilhousky’s direction began performing “Carol of the Bells” during the Christmas season.

Thanks in part to his Czech heritage, Wilhousky knew the old Slavic legend that, at midnight on the evening Jesus was born, bells began ringing spontaneously in his honor. His ability to capture that echo of ringing bells helped to make “Carol of the Bells” extraordinarily popular, especially in the United States and Canada. 

Though nearly two hundred instrumental and vocal arrangments exist, and despite the occasional use of “The Ukrainian Carol” for a title, neither Leontovych’s Shchedryk nor the folk tunes it drew from make any mention of bells, or of Christmas. The song we know as a Christmas carol began life as a Ukrainian New Year’s carol: one with distinctly pagan tendencies.
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La Danse de Mardi Gras

Say “Mardi Gras,” and it’s almost guaranteed: most people will think first of New Orleans. Other cities have their celebrations, but only in New Orleans has the combination of beads, bare breasts, fancy-dress balls, beer and Bourbon Street been elevated to high art.

In Cajun country, there’s no lack of beer and beads, but the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras at the center of the celebration has a slightly different emphasis: community, Capitaines, charity and chickens. (Yes, chickens. More about that later.)

In places like Iota, Church Point, Eunice and Mamou, the Mardi gras (when used as a plural for participants, it’s pronounced “grahz”) prepare for the courir, or run, under the direction of their Capitaine.  On horseback or in wagons, they visit surrounding farms, collecting ingredients for the communal gumbo that will be served later that night.

In exchange for rice, potatoes, or even a chicken, the Mardi gras frolic for the entertainment of the farmer and his family, singing a variation of a song known variously as  La Danse de Mardi Gras or La [Vieille] Chanson de Mardi Gras. A mainstay in Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations, and often heard in dance halls or concerts, the song may be the oldest in the Cajun repertoire.
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The Way of All Words

The sky lowers, and the horizon disappears. A turning wind blankets the moon with sea-born fog, shrouding the contours of its face. Impassive, harshly brilliant above the fog, it rises ever higher behind fast-scudding clouds, lighting the transition between old and new: between one year and the next.

As midnight approaches, a lingering few stand silent, shrouded in a fog of thought, tangled in life’s web, caught between the land of No-Longer and the land of Yet-to-Be. Perhaps a moonlit shard of truth reveals itself to revelers in the street: this is the way of life.  What has been passes away into forgetfulness, while that which is yet-to-be stirs toward vitality.

Armies rise. Nations fall. Children squall into existence, even as their grandparents sigh away toward death. Beyond the farthest reaches of the galaxies, unnamed stars explode with pulsating light while on our own shy, spinning globe, rotting leaves and the stench of mud evoke a season’s final turn. Continue reading

Spelling It Out

“A man must be a damned fool, who can’t spell a word more than one way.”  ~ Nyrum Reynolds **

Even tucked into a thicket of dense, interwoven phrases, the word stood out. Spotting it, I circled back for another look, surprised by what I took to be an obvious misspelling.

It was March, 2009, and the blogger known as Aubrey was considering a bit of milkweed fluff.

Walking to work, I saw a very peculiar thing on the sidewalk.  Its color was soft and meek:  a whimsical fluff, a piece of delicate detritus which had somehow lost its way and now lay defenseless on the granite causeway.

The word that captured my attention was detritus. I’d lived for several decades knowing it as detrius, so my initial inclination was to believe that Aubrey had misspelled it.  Clearly, each of us was using it properly, and our spellings were close, but the different spellings meant different pronunciations — perhaps even different words.

I’d been reading Aubrey long enough to recognize her writing skills and admire her attention to detail, so a little exploration seemed in order. I didn’t expect to be the one who was wrong, but I was open to the possibility.
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Shaping Sentences, Choosing Words

Decades ago, I learned to delight in that staple of elementary school education, the vocabulary quiz.  As kindergarten students, we were exempted from its discipline, but once we entered first grade it was expected that we would learn twenty new words each week — not only their meanings, but also their spelling, correct pronunciation, and proper use in a sentence.

As far as I was concerned, forty weekly words would have been acceptable.  Every word turned on my tongue like a key, unlocking a new and unexpected world.  Sometimes, pushing against inexplicable spellings or mysterious definitions, I found words to be like windows, opening to reveal a variety of intriguing vistas.

Words with multiple syllables were my favorites. Tumbling through sentences like grade-schoolers at play, it seemed they could go on forever.  Walking to school in the morning, I’d rehearse them in my mind.  Perspicacity.  Archetype.  Lacuna.  Paraphernalia.  Abnegate. Chrysanthemums. Continue reading