2014-08-05

Epithalamium (Wedding Song)

Does it mean anything that the buckwheat blossoms have turned the color of dried blood? Or, that the tarweed is thicker than I have ever seen it and is even, in places, out-competing mustard? Or, that vinegar weed (Trichostema lanceolatum) is thick on the cattle pasture just to the east of the giant gorge that splits the old County property at the top of Koenigstein (now owned by the Rainwaters)?

Is there such a thing as a vegetative portent? Is there a mechanism by which the universal mind, human consciousness and plant ecology melds into an oracular medium? Is there, in other words, a payoff in prescience to the attention I lavish on such things?

There are, I suspect, rational reasons for the fact that the mauve Acourtia (A. microcephala) was particularly spectacular this year while the inky, native peony blossoms failed to impress and perhaps, sound meteorological cause for the other extraordinary ecological phenomena referenced above.

But being of a quasi-mystical or poetic frame of mind I want more: I want transcendence – I seek the realm beyond the quotidian. The lives of Ventura’s indigenous people, and perhaps of all the tribes of the Americas, were ruled by portents, signs and omens - the divination of which was entrusted to only the most powerful members of society. Hence the secret society of astronomers (and, I speculate, floromancers and botanomancers), known as the ‘Antap, ruled Chumash society by virtue of their occult knowledge - the prescience granted to them by the stars, flowers and plants.

So, while there is, perhaps, a pre-historical precedent to the notion that the irruption, color and idiosyncratic shape of plant material have meaning beyond the intrinsic ecological circumstances of their being, these days I simply relish the powerful ability of the flowers and shrubs in the chaparral to thrill me aesthetically while reserving the right, as it were, to believe that there are shadowy messages being projected onto the cave wall of my consciousness that I am too obtuse to understand.

Of one thing I am certain: there is a brooding solemnity in the California shrublands on even the sunniest of days. So much portent (of unrevealed import); so much occluded meaning, so many flitting shadows in an incomprehensible chiaroscuro of figure and ground, can be burdensome. A few days in Brooklyn, where the arboreal and floral arrangements that intermittently decorate these brick, stone and concrete lands are clearly empty of all but the most spurious signification, comes as a relief. It is here that I can take the measure of the urban, secure in the knowledge that these once wildlands have been almost totally stripped of their adumbrations.

Back in the day (and here I speak of, say, twelve thousand years ago), the broken lands of Breukelen, were the final resting place, in this part of America, for the great ice floes that had inched down from the north pole during the most recent Ice Age (humanity’s great surge forward being entirely predicated on our occupying a brief, interstitial warm period before the next big freeze inexorably engulfs the planet) and the mild topographical features of the City reflect the dying energy of these gelid earth-movers.

Left, was a littoral riddled with tidal creeks that flowed through swampy marshlands and meadows amidst the pleasant rises now named Vinegar, Cobble, Boerum and Clinton. I am staying in Bococa – which embraces Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens where the Gowanus Canal, the remnant of the many tentacled creek that once bore into the heart of Brookland Parish, lies fetid, a superfund site awaiting reclamation.

There are splinters of waste land that run between canal and the back yard defenses of industrial plants rendered in horizontally laid, graffitied, corrugated roofing, chain link and razor wire. Where once were manufactured gas plants, mills, tanneries, foundries and chemical plants now sit mostly derelict, nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings on brown fields of inestimable value - the mighty industrial city transformed into both a dormitory suburb and a reflection of the finance, advertising, media, real estate, drinking, dining, entertainment and retail power of Manhattan: the marshy lowlands of hardwood groves, grasses, sedges, reeds and forbs reduced to mere slivers - the unaccounted, commercially inconsequential lands between the engineered canal and the platted land; between the brown fields and the glistening, infuscated waters.

But here lies the once and future past: the biotic memory of the last ten thousand years awaiting its recall; and these waste lands spoke to me of their dreams; or, perhaps I dreamt that they spoke. These weedy patches of ground do indeed function as a vegetative portent, amplified by the desperation of their marginalization - whispering of a different future.

In a grey Brooklyn dawn, the morning after son Will’s wedding to Ellen Cantrell, Manhattan loomed across the river, its sky-scrapers wreathed in a light rain: Gehry’s Spruce Street condo tower standing slightly apart, creased like a wrung-out dish towel.

Brooklyn Bridge Park runs along a mile and a half of a defunct cargo shipping and storage facility, the long fingers of the wharves still reaching into the East River, their pier sheds left intact, and wooden piles rising out of the river. It is a park (designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh) that achieves much by doing little. The greenscape is serviceable, providing pleasant havens for city dwellers but invoking almost no wildland frisson. Cleared of cranes and, of course, ships, the park offers unobstructed views across the water. South of the park, in the still functioning Brooklyn docks, beyond Redhook, is the Gowanus estuary.

The 3rd Street draw bridge over the canal was completed in 1905, a time when there was a reasonable expectation that commercial shipping would require clear passage. Today, intrepid kayakers can comfortably pass under the closed bridge and although thoroughly restored in 1985, activation of the bridge’s opening mechanism awaits the dredging equipment which will be necessary to remove and capsulize the heavy metal sludge that sits at the canal’s bottom - a terminally toxic impediment to the revitalization of the waterway as a viable ecosystem,

Meanwhile, alongside the bridge abutments, in caged waste-lands, sugar maple, beech and birch saplings wait patiently. Underneath them, rushes, reeds and invasive grasses constitute a weedy ground cover where Queen Anne’s lace blooms prolifically.

On wedding’s eve, with cumulus building overhead, I gathered armfuls of this filigreed non-native invasive and used it to decorate the tables at Frankies Spuntino, the restaurant where Will and Ellen’s rehearsal dinner was to be held that evening. Locally grown, sustainably foraged (I walked), it stood in for the lush green and cream roses that I had previously eyed at Union Market on Court Street.

The spirit of Gowanus, sachem (head man) of the local Lenape tribe called the Canarsee, would have approved (I hope) of this deeply pragmatic act of choosing the lesser evil: non-native Queen Anne’s lace from his eponymous canal verge over roses from Colombia or Ecuador, where they are grown in large production greenhouses, harvested, sorted, and flown 3,000 odd miles to Brooklyn.

The dried blood of buckwheat blossoms presaged, it now seems, the old brick of Brooklyn: the off-white of fresh blooming California everlasting (that old reliable) was a pre-echo of the blossoming Queen Anne’s lace. Our future worlds are pre-figured by our local environments. Pay attention, be present: portent and circumstance may become fluid and the tyranny of time and space collapse into a delirium of consciousness.

The confluence of a man and a woman, bound by marriage, is similarly mutable.

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