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.
“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.