Saturday, September 25, 2021

Pod people of the prairie

In the category of unpopular opinions, here’s one of my favorites: Beautiful is boring. If you want to watch my irises completely disappear into my eye sockets, tell me how someone is beautiful on the inside. If a word is so subjective as to be meaningless, why bother? Say instead that they are kind or strong or wise, or else get verby with them: love them, admire them, respect the hell out of them. Don’t bland them with the faint praise of their beauty, internal or otherwise, unless of course you’re buying what I’m selling, in which case, yes, you’re beautiful and you’re worth it.

I suppose this goes for objects as well as people, yet I’m far less troubled by calling things beautiful. Flowers, with their vivid hues and graceful curves, possess a visual aesthetic appeal: beauty. An interesting question is why we find them beautiful, since we’re not their intended pollinators and it does them no good at all to be attractive to us, but that’s a subject for a different blog post (and probably a different blogger). In this case, beautiful is not a value judgment or a character assessment, and it certainly isn’t a measure of worth. Flowers that win popularity contests are frequently invasive, lovely little murderers choking the life out of struggling native plants whose blossoms just aren’t sexy enough for us to care. Case in point, pretty much all the native flowering plants of the prairies where I live. Bergamot gives Earl Grey tea its bewitching aroma, but wild bergamot flowers of the Midwest seem unlikely to move their beholders to entranced reverie in the way of Wordsworth’s daffodils. They look a little bedraggled, frankly, like they’ve slept through their alarm again.

The same goes for wild senna, a plant I had never heard of until I had to spend two hours searching for it. A friend had told me about volunteer work she was doing at a nearby county park, involving collection of native plant seeds, and asked if I was interested in participating. I was, very. An earlier version of myself would have cringed at the idea of spending two precious Saturday hours outdoors wading through tall itchy grasses. Today’s version enjoyed every minute.

“Choose a plant and stick with it,” the park worker told the assembled volunteers after showing samples of the half-dozen species of interest. “Don’t mix different plants in your bag. Pick one you can easily identify and focus on just that. And work with at least one buddy so you don’t get lost.”

I might have chortled at the warning about getting lost; I once spent 14 hours running circles through this very prairie—I know this prairie—but then again I’ve also gotten lost in mall parking lots, so I held my chortles in check. My friend Lorrie, her friend Dawn, and I were buddies, and we mutually agreed upon wild senna as our plant of focus. There’s a writer named Danzy Senna whose work I quite admire, but otherwise the name senna was entirely unfamiliar to me. Wild senna seeds come in dry, black pods, unlike any of the other plants, and I figured I must have run by this stuff hundreds of times out here—how difficult could it be to locate it again?

By asking that question, I have of course tipped you off that it was very difficult. After a quarter mile on the hiking trail without spotting anything even remotely resembling senna pods, Lorrie decided it was time to get serious. She veered off the path and waded into the grasses and goldenrods, and I, ecstatic that I’d remembered to take Zyrtek that morning, soon followed. This was what we’d been sanctioned to do, after all, though it still felt daring, even a little dangerous. I dodged bees, ducked spiderwebs, stumbled into small clearings where deer had snoozed. Every now and then a monarch butterfly appeared, a small orange burst of joy. But where was the senna? There seemed a ridiculous abundance of every other plant they’d described to us, or at least that’s how I felt after an hour had passed and none of us had anything to show for it.

With 40 minutes left, we finally found a small cluster of pods in a location another volunteer had told us about. The park workers had said we should only take about 50% of a given plant’s pods, and these had already been about 30% picked over. I took a single pod from each plant, three whole pods, and dropped the wee things in my big empty bag. They looked pitiful in there, and I felt like Charlie Brown with rocks instead of candy at Halloween.

With only a final quarter-mile of the path to go, Lorrie spotted something intriguing. “Probably just more dried leaves, but I’m going in.” Paydirt: she’d found an unpicked senna plant. I waded after her and looked around the area; where there was one, mightn’t there be others nearby? Wasn’t that how it worked with plants? Could I be any more ignorant about how a simple thing like a prairie works? Not when I started that morning.

But not anymore. About twenty yards from Lorrie’s plant, I gave a yelp of delight. Senna! I’d found it! And it was unpicked, all the pods still there. I picked and picked, and as I wandered a little farther, I hit the senna motherlode. This was not like the scene in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View when Lucy Honeychurch stumbles into a field of violets and experiences a surge of joy amidst all that beauty. Once senna plants have gone to seed, they are unattractive things. No one would film them. Yet despite their homeliness, they did manage to provoke, if not a surge of joy, at least a flash of victory. I quickly filled my bag.

The seed collection activity was part of the efforts to boost endangered species. There are a lot of those right now, as anyone who isn’t willfully stupid knows, though animals tend to get more of the general public’s attention. Yet of course endangered plants beget endangered animals—milkweeds and monarchs, for example—and one extinction can trigger many others. Senna appears to be having a particularly tough time—“we’re delighted to see it in the park right now,” one park worker told us. I’m not going to break my arm patting myself on the back for saving the prairies; two hours and a Schnuck’s grocery bag full of pods doesn’t a superhero make. But I learned quite a bit today, not the least of which is that boring is beautiful, too. Senna wins no beauty contests. Wading through thick grasses searching for it isn’t a heart-pounding thrill-ride of adventure. Not everything has to be. Some things manage to be plain and exquisite at once.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Weight of This Sad Time

We started reading King Lear in my English classes this week. It’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and also one of his darkest, and the overlap in those categories shouldn’t be a surprise. Like most pessimists, I don’t enjoy being miserable, but I’m deeply suspicious of anything too cheerful, any message that tells me exactly what I want to hear to make me feel good about the world. Lear is perfection in that regard. People suffer, and they make others suffer even more because of it, and then everyone suffers even more than that for no reason at all. And what’s even worse—yes! it gets worse!—is that while most Shakespearean tragedies end with a lesson learned (Ambition is deadly! Jealousy is poison! Quit it with the silly family feud already!), Lear ends with the survivors broken by the weight of the devastation around them. Surrounded by bodies, Edgar utters the play’s last lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey.

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

The oldest hath borne most. We that are young

Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

I hate to be the even-darker lining on an already-dark cloud, Edgar, but you got it wrong. The oldest hath borne much, indeed, but unless humanity takes a radically different turn, you who are young shall likely see so much more.

The great thing about working with high schoolers is that very few texts you teach in an English class are too dark for their tastes. We’re constantly giving trigger warnings and trying to set up safe spaces and worrying that they’ll be traumatized by reading a book where bad things happen, but come on, they live in the world; they already know. When we started reading Lear and I warned them of the play’s relentless bleakness, I swear they sat up a bit more in their chairs and leaned forward. These are the moments you cherish as a teacher.

I write this on the twentieth anniversary of an actual tragic event because it’s often easier to deal with fictional tragedy. All the feels, none of the loss. That’s cynical me speaking, of course; less flippant me wonders what this play has to do with this day and why I keep coming back to those sad last lines.

I imagine that twenty years from now, maybe one of the students I taught from the Class of 2021 will think back to this time and reminisce about The Year We Missed Out On Everything. Perhaps they’ll even broaden it to The Four Years Everyone Was Angry And Depressed All The Time. Their kids, if they have any, may try to nod politely at first but eventually sigh and eyeroll because they’ve heard this too many times to muster good manners yet again. They won’t understand. How could they? They didn’t go through it.

Except that their kids do understand, just as they themselves understand right now what the whole 9-11-01 business is about even though they had not yet been born. Because as much as I wish it weren’t true, by 2041 there will be something else we feel we can’t forget. Maybe the reason not to forget isn’t because of what happened itself but in the hopes that it remains shockingly singular. Most days, even good days, are forgotten. To forget a day deemed tragic could mean not that we don’t care but that we can’t care—because something else has demanded that place in our memory.

And so, ironically, Edgar’s words may yet be the most optimistic way this play can end. We can only hope we have borne more than our share.