Were you to visit Presque Isle — a small peninsula on the Erie, Pennsylvania lakefront — during any mid-nineteenth-century autumn, you’d likely see marshes thick with cranberry bushes. The largest marsh of all occupied the peninsula’s middle. September’s arrival would see the berries at their reddest, a development that summoned the folks of Erie County to their harvest.
The picked cranberries would go into jellies and preserves or into stalls at public markets. And in doing so they precipitated a tragedy of the commons: greedier sorts would steal a march on their unsuspecting fellows, leaving them to find the marshes of Presque Isle bare of fruit. The phenomenon became so acute that in 1841 the state legislature of Pennsylvania intervened. It deemed such deviousness to be “contrary to the peace and dignity of the commonwealth.” To this end, it forbade the picking of cranberries on Presque Isle from “the first of July” to “the first Tuesday of October.”
Shell-entangled, bright-hued seaweed,
From what mermaid-haunted bowers
Wert thou cast? did rude waves tear thee
From thy beauteous sister flowers?
Or did glittering star-fish tempt thee?
Did the Nautilus say, Come?
Did they whisper ‘neath the crystal,
Of a fairer, brighter home?
–S.E. Tonkin, “Seaweed” (1866)
Michael Innes’s 1977 mystery novel Honeybath’s Haven sees eccentric artist Edwin Lightfoot drowned in a saline pool of cultivated seaweeds. A pet project of Lady Munden, a fellow inmate of the retirement home in which Lightfoot lived, the pool is thick with great sea tang, whose stems are “as thick as a cable,” and sinewy bull-head kelp. It was this latter plant that proved Lightfoot’s undoing. So ensnared did he become in it, a policeman at the scene noted, that “the body had to be cut out of the stuff.”
“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.