Lunch on the Grass (A Bite-Sized History of the Picnic)

picnic historical photo
From Michigan’s Copper Country in Early Photos (1977)

And night wears on; the village murmurs cease;
The earth seems dozing in the lap of peace;
The loiterers stroll home; with fond adieus
The lovers part as lovers fondly use;
And they that in the morning’s laughing eye
Went trooping forth, now tranced in slumber lie,
Or, gone with Mab and all her goblin band,
Partake a picnic in the faery land.
—Thomas Durfee, “The Village Picnic” (1915)

Much of what made life pleasurable is now gone. We must seek out what remains. The study of history and the arts, the cultivation of friendship and love (to the extent that the current situation permits it) — such solaces can keep despair at bay, or at least pass the hours until more normal conditions return. So too can prosaic solitary activities, like collecting wildflowers, swimming in ponds or the sea, and marking the shapes of scudding clouds. “Who do you love best,” Charles Baudelaire’s enigmatic man is asked. “I love the clouds, the clouds that pass, eternally, the marvelous clouds,” he answers. Even small pleasures fortify us against hardship ahead.

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Life Aquatic (A Brief History of Ponds and the Foods Found in Them)

Pond landscape painting ivan shiskin
Ivan Shiskin, Pond (1881)

Old pond,
leap-splash—
a frog.
—Bashō

On summer weekends I swim in a nearby pond. Its water is as dark as Darjeeling tea, the hue owing to the pond’s bed of decayed leaves and organic matter cast off from the masses of trees and plants ringing its banks. The resulting sludge teems with microbes, insects, and all the other minute creatures that feed the snakes, snapping turtles, and bluegills I see as I do my lonely laps. Plants likewise feast on the nitrogen and phosphorus present, and as they grow, flower, and die, they themselves become part of the ooze. Its this virtuous cycle of rot and rebirth that makes ponds and other bodies of water throngingly alive.

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Bitter Buttons: Tansy and Its Uses Through History

Common Tansy (<em>T. vulgare</em>)
Image from Wildflowers Worth Knowing (1917)

The scent of tansy blows this way,
The aromatic tansy which
The housewives of an elder day
Planted in dooryard coign or niche.
—Donald Lines Jacobus “A Medley of Summer” (1914)

Certain plants our ancestors ate eagerly are now best left alone. Common tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is one such plant. I often see this winsome member of the aster family growing along roads and in vacant lots. It greenish burgundy stalk stands some three or four feet tall and is adorned with clusters of canary yellow petal-less flowers. When crushed, its finely divided compound leaves smell of camphor and rosemary. It’s a lovely plant in its way — enough, anyway, to tempt me to take some of it home. But then I remind myself of its checkered past.

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