Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Naming

Here's another small bit from my latest manuscript--Sleep, Creep, Leap: The First Three Years of a Nebraska Garden. What will my wife say? I'll let you know after dinner.


My wife and I are walking the garden after lunch. She comments on how thick everything is, especially in contrast to the picture I emailed her that morning, which showed the garden sprouting in April. After the annual cut down in March, the place is a moonscape—you could play a football game here unimpeded by any plant, except for a shrub or two. I often forget about the change that occurs, but when I stumbled upon that photo my jaw dropped. The garden is not a miracle, but it as close to one as I’ve ever witnessed.

My wife stops and says, “I mean, look at that.” She nods toward the coneflowers and bluestem. “That was nothing just two months ago. I can’t believe it.”

I stoop to pull a weed and reply, “Yup, that’s herbaceous perennials for you. Pretty amazing.”

She looks down to me with a quizzical look, as if I’d just stammered, or started speaking in French. “What kind of perennials?”

“Herbaceous,” I say, “perennials that come from the ground up every year.” She turns back to look at the coneflowers and a moth landing on an early bloom.

“Her-bay-shus” she says slowly, as if rolling a piece of candy around in her mouth. “Her-BAY-shus,” she says again, but putting more emphasis on that stressed second syllable.

“Are you ok?” I ask.

“Yes. I just like the way it sounds. Her-BAY-shus.” She says it this time a bit more sensually, like you might say “curvaceous” as you slide your hands down your body parallel to one another, imagining the form of a perfectly sculpted supermodel.

“You’re weird.” I say, staying on my knees, reaching into plants for more weeds I’m now noticing. She ignores me, and with the delight of a new word still pulsing through her, asks what a tall plant is.

“Eupatorium,” I respond, looking up then looking back down quickly, getting lost in my work as I do too often, the garden an impossible siren song I can’t ignore.

“Yew-pa-tor-ee-ummmm,” she says, letting the last consonant hum through her and echo, ricochet through her bones. “YEEEEW-pa-TOR-eeee-uumm.” The second time is more playful, a quick “Yewpaw” and a long “toreeum.” She says it again, and it reminds me of watching Sesame Street, with the words on the bottom of the screen and a ball bouncing along on each syllable as it’s spoken. Somehow, this comforts me.

She starts walking again around the garden, on her own now, completing a circuit that often takes her no more than ten minutes, and can take me anywhere from thirty minutes to a few hours. Soon, she’s sitting on the bench, staring off into the distance, then the sky as several franklin’s gulls circle west overhead. I get up and stoop a dozen times, pulling weeds, noticing insects, calculating when something will bloom. I can see my wife on the bench mouthing the words I’ve taught her, sometimes looking at me, sometimes a plant. Each sound is a concrete thing like the perennials, but also as abstract and ephemeral as a summer afternoon seducing you to stay a while longer.

12 comments:

Casa Mariposa said...

Great post! I love Latin names. They roll like marbles off the tongue and fall, still spinning, into unsuspecting ears.
I wanted to comment on a previous post but the comments are closed. To the idiot who thinks invasive species are okay, I wish him a creek full of snakeheads and a yard full of purple loosestrife and kudzu. WHY do stupid people get published??? ARGH!

Robley H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robley H said...

I so love this post. There is in the naming of things such deep joy. Until ten days ago, I did not know the word "exuvia." Now that I have seen dragonflies emerging from their exuviae, I revel in the name and imagine the lovely creatures at one and the same time.

Canyon Girl said...

What a lovely post. I know so little about plants, not even their English names. I know most of the ones I grew up with in Sweden. Those I will never forget. Here I am surrounded by wildflowers in spring and know not a single name. But I still have the joy of looking at their beauty.--INger

scottweberpdx said...

I don't know quite what it is about this excerpt...but it's exceptional...wonderful, evocative and telling.

Elephant's Eye said...

Yes, going good. This one has magic in it! Does your wife agree with your readers?

Benjamin Vogt said...

Casa--Sometimes it's just relaxing to speak another tongue, and in so doing, reminded of the native one. As for the other post, agreed! (And I checked, it says comments ae opened--that guy was just insane.)
Robley--How charming! And yet, the teacher in me--the ecological historian--knows that in naming we cast our shadow over objects to make them familiar, safe, to own them, to allow us to do what we want with them, to possess them like property. Downer?
Inger--I bet those Swedish scientific names are suprisingly close to the American one. Still, it's ok to not know the nam and to make one up for the moment.
Scott--Wow. Thank you! I like the compression of it, like one bloom in a field. Yes.
D--I think she does. She said she did. I probably should've let her read it first before posting. :)

Corner Gardener Sue said...

LOL, I wondered if I should have had my husband read my last post before putting it up, and that post is the only one I recall him writing a comment on. He said that my husband must be a prince. ;o)

I have been wanting to read more of the excerpts from your book(s), but keep getting sidetracked. I enjoyed this one.

I asked Larry if he wanted to get in some photos for the newspaper article, but he didn't want to. I wish I would have thought of it ahead of time, to get him to be in some, since it's the house he grew up in, and I talk about him on my blog. He said the article wasn't about him, and he didn't want his picture taken. Oh, well. I'm glad the photographer was patient and took lots of photos.

Craig @ Ellis Hollow said...

Back in the day, I used Eupatorium as a screen name for all the reasons you cite.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Sue--Ha, you should know by now spousal consent is key to a happy life.
Craig--All the reasons? Hmmmm.

Corner Gardener Sue said...

Yes, we need that consent. I've been showing Larry the changing ideas I'm having for the size and shape of the new planting area. I'm figuring out he really meant it when he said I could do what I want. He's suggested having Finkes or someone "professional" come do a plan. I told him I have lots of ideas, and it will evolve over time. We'll see if we need help. I'm going to try to create a "room" but it will take time. The space is still small, and I don't think there will be a spot for a tree. Bushes take a lot of the lower space. I have trouble visualizing, but when it comes time to plant, I arrange things, and see how they look.

I have a list for tomorrow's Spring Affair. I plan on going early to stand in line so I don't have to stand in line as long with my plants. Plus, I like to get in on the best selection. Did you already go tonight?

Benjamin Vogt said...

I didn't go, Sue. I've gone every year, and my garden is full, I had a lot of work to do writerly-wise, and I'm saving money for a research trip.