Hop-picking is over! Thank God, it is done!
I’ve wished myself dead ever since it begun.
—Henry H. Johnson, “Hop-Picking Time” (1902)
September marks the beginning of the end of the summer and all the open-air activities that attend it. Yet a century or two ago the arrival of September signaled, to England’s downtrodden and overworked souls, the beginning of an exhilarating and exhausting variety of rustic vacation. Wire- and shoemakers, match girls and costermongers alike marshaled their families and tramped off to Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, or one of the other English hop-growing regions. They came in such numbers the railways ran special lines, and the roadways were thick with their rough-hewn carts.
“It was not exactly a story,” said the Elder-mother; “but the story is coming now, and it is a true one. For out of the truth grow the most wonderful stories, just as my beautiful elder-bush has sprung out of the teapot.”
—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Elder-Tree Mother”
For people of millennia past everything crackled with meaning. The fire that burned in the soul was “of the same essential nature as the stars,” the twentieth-century Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács wrote, for the world was for those living then “new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own.” Even plants were rich in significance. The humblest weeds had indwelling spirits both familiar and strange.
“Nature, thou ever budding one,
Thou formats each for life’s enjoyments,
And, like a mother, all thy children dear,
Blessed with that sweet heritage, — a home!”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Wanderer”
There are sometimes born into this world people of singular goodness. American naturalist William Bartram was one such person. (Kaspar Hauser, I would argue, is another.) I came across Bartram while researching staghorn sumac. From the tree’s crimson seed clusters — or drupes, more accurately — comes the lemony seasoning often used in Mediterranean cuisine. Sumac grows just as readily along the Eastern seaboard, as well, and it was one of the many plants Bartram painstakingly classified. He had a great love for plants and animals, a love which he worked tirelessly to impart to the wider world.