The Marshes of My Mind

Emergent vegetation in Night-Heron Shallows - 2

I’ve been working on an article on Layamon’s Brut for a while, and I keep hitting figurative walls. Some of my difficulty is due, no doubt, to the numerous demands on my time—I’m teaching two online classes, I’m packing my house, and I have a young child. At some point, I need to start thinking about the upcoming semester. But having started this blog, I’ve come to an important realization: I really don’t like academic writing.

In my experience, academic writing requires a firm hand and lots of structure, and I can do it. I just would prefer not to. My mind is constantly meandering despite my best efforts, and I keep discovering interesting threads in a text that threaten to draw me off course.

Like this morning: I was suddenly struck by the use of marshes in Layamon’s Brut, particularly in the Arthurian section. There are two notable instances. First, when Arthur is fighting against the invading Saxons, he drives his enemies to a deep river and manages to deny them the ford. As the Saxons drown by the thousands, the narrator interrupts the battle scene with this lovely simile:

Summe heo gunnen wondrien swa doð þe wilde cron
i þan mor-uenne þenne his floc is awemmed
and him haldeð after hauekes swifte,
hundes in þan reode mid reouðe hine imeteð.
þenne nis him neouðer god, no þat lond no þat flod:
hauekes hine smiteð, hundes hine biteð.
þenne bið þe kinewurðe foȝel fæie on his siðe. (10061-67)

Here’s the translation by W. R. J. Barron and S. C. Weinberg:

Some went wandering as does the wild crane in the moorland fen when his flock is scattered and swift hawks pursue him, hounds ruthlessly attack him in the reeds. Neither the land nor the water is safe for him then: hawks strike him, hounds bite him. Then the royal bird is doomed in his tracks. (43-45)

Here, the fens are presented as a threatening place, one devoid of sanctuary of any sort and filled with predators. Consisting of neither land nor water, it is not a place to enter on one’s own.

Later in the Brut, Arthur hosts a feast and invites the nobles from the various countries he has conquered. Not surprisingly, a fight breaks out. Arthur’s response? Kill the instigators and mutilate their female kin. I’m going to ignore the second part of Arthur’s command here (my article addresses it to some extent) and focus just on the first part. Arthur is quite specific in how the instigators shall be put to death:

[D]oð wiððe an his sweore; and draȝeð hine to ane more,
and doð hine in an ley uen þer he scal liggen. (11394-95)

And Barron and Weinberg’s translation:

[P]ut a cord about his neck and drag him to a marsh, and thrust him into the bog where he shall lie. (111)

I’m intrigued by Arthur’s choice of wetlands as an instrument of death. What does it mean to be bound and thrown into a bog? Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment” immediately comes to mind. Heaney addresses one of the “bog people” (bodies preserved in Danish marshes from 2-3 thousand years ago; you can learn more about them here), imagining a backstory for how she came to be entombed in that marsh (and the link above offers a new understanding of that particular bog body, one which contradicts much of what Heaney imagined).

Why a marsh? Why not death by fire or beheading? Why not death by dismemberment? These men have violated Arthur’s court, and their actions could be seen as treasonous, and dismemberment was the usual punishment for such crimes.

I imagine death by bog to be a slow process. Whereas decapitation offers a fast release, a marshy death might allow more time for reflection. Dismemberment and death by fire would be painful experiences (I’m guessing–absolutely no firsthand experience with any of this), which might prevent any kind of meditation while conscious.

Many people in Layamon’s Brut are drowned, especially women and children, but Arthur’s enemies as well, but perhaps the type of drowning that takes place in a marsh would be worse. The weight of the water-sodden mud pressing down upon one’s chest. The mouth open to scream, only to be silenced by an influx of sludge. And bodies that drown ultimately float back up, don’t they? Entombment in a marsh might have struck those living in the Middle Ages as a more permanent location. After all, the bog people were only discovered thousands of years later, often by people in search of other things (like peat, for example). Long before death, though, those doomed to die might endure a worse suffering–the mental anguish of isolation from human society, or the verbal assaults of demonic creatures believed to dwell in such spaces (Guthlac’s demons, for example, in Guthlac A).

My personal experiences with marshes have been, on the whole, fairly positive (I hedge only because, you guessed it, I’ve come across a lot of snakes in these venues). My undergraduate university owned several hundred acres of wetlands, and we would often spend a few hours each week, weather permitting, exploring or managing them in my science courses. I still vividly recall watching what seemed like thousands of swallows swooping through the air to feast on insects. We found a young owl in one of the duck houses one time, its feathers incredibly soft. We waded through shallow ponds to catch minnows in our nets to  determine the diversity and quantity of the fish in the spring.

A few years back, I taught a course on J. R. R. Tolkien, and so when it came time to talk about the Dead Marshes, I was excited. We started out talking about World War I and the experience of trench warfare. I showed them photographs of the trenches, of the injuries, of the massive scarring upon the landscape and the eternal mud. It was easy for the students to find connections with Tolkien’s marshes, especially given the dreary depiction brought so vividly to life by Peter Jackson.

The Dead Marshes in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, from

Then I asked my students to look at the marshes in a different way. We talked about the terminology used to describe these particular habitats, and we learned that there is a lot of diversity between words such as “bog” or “marsh.” “Wetlands” seems to the the umbrella term for what is in reality several different landscapes. Here are a few examples, taken from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Slide12We talked about the ecological functions of wetlands. Here’s a handy chart that we looked at:

urlWetlands are such a vital part of our world. Some people view them as “wastelands”–that is, “waste” in the sense that they are not useful to humans, and therefore should be drained and turned into something more productive, such as arable land (and this is a long-held perspective, going back at least to the tenth-century Benedictine Reform in England, if not further). During my time as an undergraduate, my university’s wetlands were threatened by the city’s desire to build a highway right through the middle (yeah, it happened). Wetlands are easily dismissed, and they shouldn’t be.

We then turned back to Tolkien’s The Two Towers to re-examine Chapter II, “The Passage of the Marshes.” Tolkien did not settle on one term, but rather uses a variety: “bog,” “fens,” “mires,” “marshes.” Such a place is, I think, difficult to describe, and this is reflected in Tolkien’s language. What seems to be a uniform landscape (particularly in the cinematic depictions) is really quite diverse. Of course, there is little color (the “only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters”), and the sun fails to give any hint of warmth. There is an absence of birds (often a marker of ecological problems), but there is the movement of air, movement in the water. There is life.

So must we read the passage through the Dead Marshes as a funereal experience? The presence of dead grasses and rotting reeds might lead us to answer, “yes,” but it’s winter. Might the fact that the plants are “rotting” suggest that new life can be restored? That this remains a place of change? There is so much activity in these pages. The present participle of “rotting” reveals ongoing activity and change; the water becomes personified–it is “sullen”; and the weeds are “livid.” After all, the name “The Dead Marshes” is merely a mortal interpretation of natural landscape.

To return to Layamon and his marshes–in a sense, death by marsh may have been seen as a sort of obliteration in the literal sense–an erasure of one’s identity. Given that by mutilating the men’s female kin, Arthur intends to prevent future generations from being created (“‘swa ich wulle al for-don; þat cun þat he of com'” (11400)), so it may be that by condemning the men to a burial in the marshes–a place of constant change–he removes them from the pages of history, their tombs never to be found (at least, not until centuries later). Marshes were seen by some during the medieval period as places that either had never felt the touch of civilization or had overcome it to return to a purer state, so they seem an appropriate place for those who threatened Arthur’s rule to be swallowed up by them.

But at the same time, as threatening as these wetlands may have been to some during the medieval period, their presence in Layamon’s Brut shows that not all viewed marshes as places to avoid. For Arthur, these places were merely an extension of his power, his ability to dominate all that he looks upon. And from an ecological viewpoint, the use of the marshes as a repository for the dead would ultimately benefit the land–not only by removing obstacles from Arthur’s power (and thus potentially avoiding or shortening conflicts), but by capturing nutrients from decaying bodies and recycling them though uptake by plants and insects.


Bring the Dinosaurs Back!

No, not really.

Although I’ve not seen the most recent Jurassic World film, I still find the idea intriguing. Years ago, my husband and I became instant fans of the short-lived TV show Terra Nova (2011) in which humans from the polluted future travel to the distant past to establish new communities side-by-side with the dinosaurs. It was a cool concept, and the dinosaurs looked pretty awesome. Yet to co-exist alongside dinosaurs proved incredibly difficult for the colonists despite their technology, and as a result, they constructed large walls to separate themselves from large predators. Some things never change.

Last year, I taught Alan Weisman’s The World without Us for a section of my university’s introductory Life of the Mind class, and we had a lot of great conversations about ecological issues and humanity’s relationship with the rest of the world. We analyzed arguments for and against deforestation and learned about the Bialowieza Puszcza in Poland. We spent a few class periods talking about Chernobyl and watching clips on its present inhabitants. We watched Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982), directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass, and then we talked about how technology impacts our lives and how technology has the potential to benefit the environment.

A side note on Chernobyl: I found it especially intriguing that several of the documentaries on the disaster emphasized the idea that “life is much more resilient than we thought,” and only a few really got into the emerging aberrations on the local animal populations. Several documentaries (and Weisman’s book) opened by focusing on the return of song birds to the area, and I initially was surprised by this emphasis across sources. But the more that I think about it, it makes sense. Why did early miners bring canaries? To test the air down in the shafts. If birds, with their much more fragile bodies and faster metabolism, can survive and even flourish in an area such as Chernobyl, so too can humans in the perhaps-not-so-distant future. Why do Snow White and Cinderella talk with birds? Because they resemble us in a variety of ways. As Claude Lévi-Strauss notes, birds:

form a community which is independent of our own but, precisely because of this independence, appears to us like another society, homologous to that in which we live: birds love freedom; they build themselves homes in which they live a family life and nurture their young; they often engage in social relations with other members of their species; and they communicate with them by acoustic means recalling articulated language. (qtd. in Dorothy Yamamoto, The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature 34)

In other words, the birds are a microcosm of human society. Perhaps we seek assurance that the disaster at Chernobyl was not as horrific as we first thought (and several documentaries attest to the initial opinion that life would never return to the area), that we as human caretakers are not complete failures. While I understand the benefits of positive thinking, I worry that too much focus on the fact that animals and plants are returning to the area will cause too many to turn a blind eye to the reality of the nuclear aftermath. For example, the Washington Post offered the headline “Chernobyl Area Becomes Wildlife Haven” in 2007 (see here) and in 2013, the Wildlife News reported that “Chernobyl nuclear disaster site becomes a wildlife area, including over a hundred wolves” (see here)–although they did acknowledge the presence of mutations (and elsewhere I’ve read about shortened lifespans among birds, the lack of biodiversity, etc.). I doubt that our nuclear footprint will ever disappear from that Chernobyl.

But back to dinosaurs. Weisman introduced our class to the idea of “re-wilding,” a practice which would re-introduce large predators and other animals to areas where their relatives had become extinct. For example, Paul Martin discusses whether  African or Asian elephants could thrive in the American Southwest (Weisman 100-101), and Dave Foreman, the director of The Rewilding Institute, works to establish “megalinkages” that would reconnect habitats for wide-ranging species such as wolves (Weisman 348; see more here).

There are some who advocate for Pleistocene re-wilding, which allows for the restoration of “animals that disappeared 13,000 years ago from Pleistocene North America” (see here). I readily admit that I was absolutely ecstatic to learn that “dire wolves” were once real, existing outside of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice on the North American continent. I was also intrigued by the arguments surrounding the decimation of these species. Some argue that natural phenomena such as ice sheets stranded wildlife populations, causing species to either evolve or die out. How is this different from the impact of human expansion on wildlife populations today? Does it matter who or what (that is, humans or ice sheets) is creating the new, challenging environments?

Another intriguing idea comes from Paul Martin, who argues that the extinction of Pleistocene creatures was caused when humans arrived on new continents such as North America (Weisman 72). Humans had the necessary technology to hunt large native animals. As these animals had not developed fear of humans or survival strategies, unlike those animals in Africa who evolved alongside humans, they were easily hunted to oblivion (there are many counterarguments to Martin’s theories, but I won’t go into them here).

Of course, some see this as part of a larger divine plan. According to Thomas Jefferson,

Such is the economy of nature that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct.” (Weisman 67)

To what extent might our current—and popular—perception of extinction be influenced by this Deist / Christian concept? That we are the sole cause of extinction, and thus violating the laws of Nature (or of God, et cetera)? Or that we have been empowered to do so (“Might makes right”), that Nature has given us her blessing (that Nature would not allow us to cause a species to go extinct unless it were part of a larger plan)? As Weisman notes, “Charles Darwin would describe how these extinctions were part of nature itself” (67). Does this mean we should sit idly by as animals die out as a result of our expansion and excessive consumption of natural resources?

What prompted this post was a segment on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS that aired this morning. Normally, Fareed is background noise for me, but this morning, he asked this intriguing question:

Could we bring back the woolly mammoth? And if so, should we?

His guest was Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary (paleo)biologist at UC Santa Cruz and author of the book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (you can follow her on Twitter here).

Shapiro started out by debunking the idea of extracting viable dinosaur DNA from amber (sorry, Jurassic Park!). DNA deteriorates quickly, and amber is too porous, allowing bacteria to enter and consume the genetic matter. But bringing back mammoths? That’s an entirely different matter. Their DNA, much younger than that of dinosaurs, has been preserved in ice, and even better, they have close relatives–the Asian elephant–still existing today. We could bring back mammoths.

But I think what I appreciated most about her commentary was her response to Fareed‘s second question: “And if so, should we?” “If we do this,” she explained, “we couldn’t create just one mammoth.” Elephants are social creatures, as were mammoths, and to create just one would be cruel (just think about the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and his drive to find–or create–another like him). In addition, elephants do not do well in captivity, Shapiro pointed out, and they are cruel to their offspring in such environments. We don’t know enough about how to take care of them; how, then, can we expect to be able to accommodate herds of mammoths?

Fareed and Shapiro also discussed bringing back other animals–such as the Tasmanian tiger or the Passenger pigeon. This would be different from bringing back the mammoth largely because these more recent extinctions resulted from direct human action. For example, Tasmanian tigers were hunted to extinction because they were thought to prey on farmers’ livestock; the Tasmanian government offered bounties for the carcasses of these creatures. As Shapiro pointed out, an ecological vacuum is created. These animals existed in a biosphere that had evolved alongside them. When we remove this one species, what happens? How many animals can we eliminate from our world before we initiate a massive ecological collapse?

In the case of wolves in the US, we know what happens when an animal is driven from its natural environment by humans:

I was blown away the first time that I saw this video. I knew that wolves were important in nature, but it was fascinating to see the diverse and widespread impact that they had on the ecology of Yellowstone–the “trophic cascade” that they created.

And so, I agree with Shapiro that although we can bring back the mammoth, we shouldn’t. Not yet, anyway. If research can ever conclusively show that humans were the primary cause of their extinction and we learn more about the social needs of mammoths and elephants, then I’d be okay with resurrecting this particular species. I have no need to see dinosaurs tromping down the street in my neighborhood, though.

In the meanwhile, I hope scientists (and the politicians who fund them) continue to find ways to bring back species that have been made extinct more recently through the actions of humanity. While I recognize that change is a constant–in language as well as in ecology–I’m not sure that I agree with Jefferson or Darwin that extinction is a part of nature or the implication that we should accept the loss of such creatures. If we are “above” nature, as some argue, then we have an obligation to protect nature. Augustine and others constantly sought ways to rise above the mortal, fleshy world, to find, in Augustine’s words, a “City of God,” but I don’t believe we can (or should) seek to separate the mind and the body, so to speak.

And if we are just another facet of nature, we are attacking ourselves through our predations on other species. We are the Ouroboros, the snake eternally devouring its own tail.

Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in a 1478 copy of a lost alchemical tract by Synesius (

Forest Management

We’re moving in less than a week, and I find myself wondering how on earth I’m going to get everything packed.

But at the same time, it’s nice to be able to go through everything and purge the household of a lot of things we no longer use. That stuffed cat massager that’s been hiding at the back of the hall closet? Goodwill. That metallic shoe rack? Goodwill. That beautiful yellow prom dress that my grandmother gave me when I was in college (come on–there’s no way I could pull off yellow with my complexion)? Goodwill. The husband’s made several trips already.

When we first moved here, it was in stages. I moved out first, with just the essentials (read: the cats) while my husband stayed with his job until he found a new one here in Colorado. Later, the rental house that we had lived in previously sold, so the husband lived in his mom’s basement for a few months until he moved out here with me permanently. That meant that the husband packed up everything in the rental house. And I mean everything, even if we no longer used it. I wasn’t there to supervise or help pack, so rather than wonder if we really needed something, he (and my parents, who helped him pack up the house) put it on the truck. I was pregnant and exhausted, so I didn’t go through all of the boxes. And I learned what “packing” meant to him. He would take a large box–say, three feet high by two feet wide and long–take one of his desk drawers, and dump it into the box. With a layer of about 4-5 inches of stuff, he would then tape the box shut. Needless to say, once we decided to move this time, I told him to leave all the packing to me, and he graciously accepted (he gets the bulk of the cleaning in return; a fair trade to my mind).

So today, as I was weeding through a pile of dresses, I found myself thinking back to the various weddings at which several were worn (a favorite was a spaghetti-strap black floor-length one–it had a long and wispy cape-thing in the back, perfect for the “I’m Batman” look). Many of these dresses only saw the light of day once, and they’re too fancy to teach in. So which box do they go in? Goodwill or new house? The husband wandered in and began looking through the donation pile. “How can you get rid of your sunflower dress?” he teased. “You’re denying your Kansas roots.” The sunflower dress went, but many more stayed. Even if I never wear them again, they still remind me of friends I no longer see, of the joy of sharing momentous occasions with loved ones. Of being younger and healthier and skinnier.

It’s hard to declutter.

When I was an undergraduate, I majored in both Biology and English, and one of my favorite science classes was Wildlife Ecology. Not only did we learn about best practices for forest management at the time. We also learned some of the history of forest management practices and how they evolved over time. It’s always fun to think about how the classes I took as an undergraduate still influence what I do today. My love of Celtic mythology came from a class in which we read A. S. Byatt’s Possession, and a recent academic project deals with medieval forest management in the Robin Hood ballads.

Not only is it difficult to declutter a house–there’s a lot of junk in my mind (clearly).

But back to my point. Forest management has changed drastically over the years. During the Middle Ages, coppicing was a common treatment of trees to ensure faster and plentiful growth.

People still coppice trees today (I accidentally did this to a tree in my front yard before I learned what coppicing was) but not as frequently (there’s mixed feelings as to its sustainability and efficacy). Here’s what a forest that has been heavily coppiced looks like:

During the Middle Ages, the forests belonged to the king, and from the time of William the Conqueror and on, several laws–the “Forest Laws” were established to protect forested areas and its wild inhabitants. Not out of any sense of ecological sustainability or love of nature, mind you–rather, the kings of England loved to hunt, and they wanted to be sure to have plenty of game when the desire arose. This is the main offense of Robin Hood and other medieval outlaws–he hunted the king’s deer. In A Gest of Robyn Hode, the king arrives in Northern England, and he retires to one of his reserves to hunt:

All the compasse of Lancasshyre
He went both ferre and nere,
Tyll he came to Plomton Parke;
He faylyd many of his dere.

There our kynge was wont to se
Herdes many one,
He coud unneth fynde one dere,
That bare ony good horne. (1425-32)

Now, I have my own ideas as to why the king does not find any deer, but I’m not going to go into that here.

I’ve been to a few of these royal parks–one just this last summer–and I was very fortunate each time to not have the king’s luck. Years ago, I saw two stags fighting, and this last summer, at Fountains Abbey, I saw a herd of fallow and red deer:

Fallow and red deer at Fountains Abbey, UK

Fallow and red deer at Fountains Abbey, UK

Notice that it’s not a heavily forested area in the sense that there are not a lot of trees. Rather, medieval “forests” often encompassed quite a range of landscapes (after all, the word “forest” is from the Latin forīs, “out of doors.” Wood, in addition to venison, was always a highly-sought after commodity during the Middle Ages. Thus, not only did the Forest Laws restrict locals from harvesting the deer; as Jean Birrell notes, “it was forbidden even to remove a branch from a tree” (“The Medieval English Forest” 78). Collecting downed wood was okay, but it was illegal to sell the wood. Of course, many people broke these laws (and the Crown was often okay with it because the fines that were developed to deal with vert and venison offenses brought in significant amounts of revenue). People still used forested areas for livestock such as pigs, horses, and cattle, and the landscape would benefit from the droppings left behind by the grazing animals. The collection of branches on the ground would help prevent clutter that could result in large wildfires.

Later periods saw carefully cultivated forest areas, where human senses of order were imposed on landscapes. Any undergrowth was considered “clutter” and removed, trees were shaped and spaced neatly in lines (sorry that I can’t remember the specifics, and my wildlife ecology book is packed away!). These highly artificial forest management trends were quite harmful in that they discouraged the biodiversity that a healthy landscape needed. Fallen trees and branches were removed, with the result that small creatures could not use them for homes, and any nutrients and minerals that had been locked inside of the wood could not then return to the soil through the process of decomposition.

Fortunately, our senses of forest management have evolved to the point where we understand that the “clutter” is necessary. We do controlled burns here and there, which help to decrease the intensity of naturally-occurring wildfires and which also benefit the local ecology by returning nutrients back to the soil.

But are we really necessary to the process, or is this yet more evidence of our anthropocentric perspective, our need to master nature? I remember hiking through a section of the Appalachian Trail after Hurricane Hugo hit. Thanks to many crews–paid and volunteer–the trail had been cleared of major debris (someone wrote “Hugo was here” on one of the tree trunks along the trail), but even so, the damage was extensive. Massive trees had been uprooted, and trunks were splintered. But the only real reason why the crews were so hard at work was for the human element–so that hikers could get through. The forest would survive. It would regrow. Hurricanes–like the wildfires in Yellowstone–had hit that region before, and they would do so again. We weren’t needed.

Too bad my clutter is not so self-sufficient. So, back to packing and decluttering. As I manage the urban forest around me, I hope that I’m not adding to the waste but rather contributing to the cycle of exchange, at least in some small part.

What’s Up, Cicadas?

We’ve all heard them. Every warm summer afternoon, they’re there. We may not see them, but we definitely hear them. Morning, afternoon, evening, night. But how many of you have ever really looked at a cicada? Not the husk that we often find clinging to a tree, but the insect–full of life–itself. They’re quite beautiful. Look at those wings–fragile panes of glass, yet strong enough for flight. The rich shades of color, varying from blue, green, brown, yellow, and orange.

Not that I spend much time looking at cicadas, mind you. I’ve seen many over the years, but I’ve heard so many more that I tend to automatically block them out (like the crickets chirping outside of my childhood bedroom). That intense, constant, pulsing noise.

But yesterday afternoon, as I left campus, the cicadas were in full song. This morning, the droning of an overhead airplane was suddenly replaced by their monotonous symphony.

Which reminds me of my daughter’s favorite joke, taught to her by my husband:

Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Philip Glass.

(It usually goes on for quite longer, but I’m sure you get the idea.)

But it got me thinking about noise–white or otherwise.

One of my favorite authors is James Joyce, particularly his Finnegan’s Wake. The best way to experience it, I’ve found, is to just randomly open the book to any page and read it (preferably aloud and in the company of literary friends). There’s so much noise–rich noise–on each page. Of course, this is part of the joke–Joyce apparently used to wake his wife, Nora, late at night with his laughter, for he was busy putting random and bizarre things into the text to keep scholars busy for eternity. But at the same time, reading the Wake is much like experiencing life.

Every second of our lives, we are bombarded with sensory detail. Every second. But we learn to filter out the data which is not meaningful to us. We look for patterns. We look for “meaning.” I’ll look at a page of the Wake and find a thread pertaining to the medieval Grail legend, or the romance of Tristan and Isolde. Another friend, looking at the same page, will see something different. I might even see different things on the same page at a later date because when I come back to the text, I am a different person. (Joyce’s metaphors of water and writing–incredible!)

So the cicadas tend to be an easy noise to block out. It’s repetitive, and since I’m not a cicada, it’s meaningless. I’m not their intended audience.

But today, I’m curious. Why do the cicadas make so much noise? Especially for such long periods of time?

What I learned is that, not surprisingly, the noise is produced by males looking to attract mates. One male can produce a sound as loud as 100 decibels (roughly equivalent to the noise produced by a lawn mower). What was surprising, though, is that there is another purpose to the high-pitched sound. The song is painful for birds–a major predator of cicadas–and so it also acts as a defense mechanism (Source: Luo, C., & Wei, C. (2015). “Stridulatory sound-production and its function in females of the cicada Subpsaltria yangi.” PLoS One, 10[2]). The cicadas tend to cluster together to make their song even louder. According to National Geographic, some can even be heard from a mile away!

Yet why is it such a constant sound? Why so little variation?

I can’t really think of many depictions of insect noise in literature. One that immediately comes to mind is a moment early in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

The air was full of the smell of flowers, and the buzzing of insects, and the twittering of birds, and there were no people, no wagons, there was no stir of life, nothing going on. (Chapter 1)

I love the onomatopoeia of “buzzing” and “twittering,” and the use of gerunds to convey the action, but still–even for a master wordsmith such as Twain, this description of insect sounds falls a bit flat. Later (Chapter 36), Twain compares the inhabitants of London to insects, but here, with the possible exception of the sheer sound of “swarm,” he focuses largely on the movements:

The populace was an ever flocking and drifting swarm of rags, and splendors, of nodding plumes and shining armor.

Bird song, on the other hand, is richly depicted in the arts. Growing up, I was enamored of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, particularly “Spring” with its evocation of birds. Check out the strings around 00:53 in the clip below.

Not surprisingly, birdsong is a common feature in medieval literature. In the Old English The Seafarer, for example, each bird makes a different sound, and they are pleasing to the narrator (not that they need to be–my point is that medieval people paid attention to and described bird song, but not that of insects–that I’m aware of). I’ve bolded the words that correspond to the sounds made by each type of bird:

                                    Hwilum ylfete song
dyde ic me to gomene,          ganotes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg          fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende          fore medodrince. (19b-22b)

[At times the swan’s song
I took to myself as pleasure,          the gannet’s noise
and the voice of the curlew          instead of the laughter of men,
the singing gull          instead of the drinking of mead.] (trans. Sean Miller)

The word “hleoþor” can also be translated as “melody,” but given the pure sound of this word and its aural similarity to “hleahtor” (“laughter”) in the next line, “noise” strikes me as more appropriate.

Of course, if you get too many birds in one place, chaos is the result, as depicted in Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century poem Parliament of Fowls:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make,
Of every kynde that men thynke may,
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake
So ful was that unethe was there space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place. (309-15)

One of my favorite depictions of bird song in Middle English literature, though, is the twelfth- or thirteenth-century poem The Owl and the Nightingale.

Harley MS 4751 f47r

iherde ich holde grete tale
an hule and one niȝtingale.
Þat plait was stif & starc & strong,
sum wile softe & lud among;
an aiþer aȝen oþer sval,
& let þat [vue]le mod ut al.
& eiþer seide of oþeres custe
þat alre-worste þat hi wuste:
& hure & hure of oþere[s] songe
hi holde plaiding suþe stronge. (3-12)

The narrator comes across two birds–the aforementioned owl (“hule”) and nightingale, and imagines a prolonged quarrel between the two. Of course, it’s all allegorical and very anthropocentric, but I can see how someone, coming unexpectedly across two loud species of birds, could imagine that they were quarreling.

But still, no insects. No cree-cree-cree (or however you would imagine a cicada to sound). To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the cicada’s song was considered beautiful and is often referenced in their literature. One example comes from the Dictionary of Literary Symbols (ed. Michael Ferber, 2000):

Socrates in the Phaedrus praises the setting of his conversation for its fresh air and “the shrill summery music of the cicada choir” (230c). He later warns that he and Phaedrus must beware of “their bewitching siren song” and tells the legend that cicadas were once human: they are descendants of humans who were so enchanted with music when they first heard it that they sang continually, without stopping to eat and drink, until they died.

Given the prevalence of insects worldwide, it’s certain that medieval people experienced insects. So why no mention to them in the literature? Why did the positive associations of the ancients shift? (Plagues and insect-induced famines may be part of the answer. The spread of Christianity might be another.)

The song of the cicada is not actually as repetitive and monotonous as we might think. Our ears are not sophisticated enough to hear the distinctions. While I’m quite sure that I’m not missing out on any hidden fluctuations in the noise from the fluorescent lights in my office, I wonder what melodies I miss out on in the cicada song?

Foggy Mornings

I woke up to a wall of white outside of my window this morning–dense fog as far as the eye could see (admittedly, not far). And as I walked to my building on campus, the aromas brought out by the moisture of the fog from the trees and shrubs along the sidewalk brought me back to foggy mornings in North Carolina. My father’s dream was to hike the Appalachian Trail (which he did), and so I spent several weeks during the summer hiking parts with him as a teenager. Although my dad had begun at the traditional southern terminus of Springer Mountain in Georgia, I met up with him at Sam’s Gap near Mars Hill, North Carolina, where we spent that first night together huddled with two dogs in a small tent on a ridge during a massive thunderstorm.

My trail name, by the way, was “Copperhead.” Not for the reddish tint of my hair, but rather for the copperhead snake that I nearly stepped on while doing a warm-up hike through a rhododendron forest with my family in South Carolina. I screamed, so my father yelled at me for freaking out and startling him. Then he saw the snake. He had been hiking for several weeks by that point and had yet to see anything other than the occasional garter snake. That day, I found a speckled kingsnake in addition to the copperhead, and the next summer, while hiking in New England, I found a timber rattler coiled up in a patch of sunshine my first morning on the trail.

Rhododendrons are lovely, but their fallen leaves provide the perfect camouflage for copperhead snakes. My heart still races any time I’m in a rhododendron forest–most recently in northern England, which has no poisonous snakes!

That’s my curse–if there’s a snake in the area, I will find it. This was the case in my Wildlife Ecology class in college; I was tearing through a forested area one early spring to get to a bird sanctuary–fearless because my professor had assured me that it was still too cold out for snakes–when I met a narrow reddish fellow, probably a kingsnake, moving lightly across the fallen leaves.

I love hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park because there are no poisonous snakes (due to the elevation). I want to check out Devil’s Backbone, but I’ve heard that rattlesnakes are often seen there. The first time I hiked in Colorado outside of RMNP, guess what? My hiking partner and I found a western rattlesnake–gorgeous and gigantic–along the path. We saw her in plenty of time–she was hanging out at the side of the trail, waiting her turn to cross and trying to blend into the dusty shrubbery, and once she realized we had stopped, she cautiously slid across the trail and on her way. We stood there for a few minutes, watching her move among the vegetation and over rocks. She was lovely, and I’m so glad that we saw her (especially since we saw her without startling her), but I was jittery the rest of the hike.

Yes, I have many, many more anecdotes about encounters with a variety of snakes. I even had a pet garter snake as a child (my poor mother is terrified of snakes, and this particular pet was an adept escape artist) in an attempt to overcome my fear of snakes. It didn’t work.

But that’s not what I started out to write about today. Welcome to my mind–it’s like a pinball machine in here.

Not only did I meet a lot of snakes while hiking portions of the Appalachian Trail. I’ve never been a morning person, and so those early mornings in North Carolina and Tennessee were brutal, even with a belly full of warm oatmeal. It was cold, there were spider webs across the trail, and everything was damp. It had been a rainy spring, and as a result, the trails were overgrown with brambles, reaching out to embrace me with their dewy thorns. So I did not hurry much.

Instead, I explored. And my favorite thing to do? Flip over rocks on the trail to find these little fellows:

An eft, also known as a teenage newt

And they were everywhere that summer in North Carolina and Tennessee. My father used to get so angry with me–he’d get up, eat, pack up his gear, and hit the trail, focused only on getting to the next shelter for the evening–because he would realize that I was not just behind him. He’d stop and wait, and a few times, even backtracked to find me. And here I’d come, strolling along the trail without a care in the world, flipping over a rock here with my foot, bending down to move aside a fallen branch there, always looking for efts. Eventually we established a call-and-response system so that my father would be able to know that I was still behind him–however far–and he trusted that I would get to the next shelter eventually. And I did try to stop looking for efts . . . most of the time.

Now as an adult, I find myself in my father’s shoes. My daughter has the same inquisitive nature that I had as a young girl, and when we go to the mountains for the day, she loves climbing on rocks, picking up sticks, and taking it all in. And I find myself getting annoyed with her. “Come on, just a little bit further, kiddo,” I tell her. “Please, can we just walk for a while?” We clearly have two different agendas on these hikes. I want exercise to offset the time I spend sitting in my office, and she wants to enjoy life. I, like my father, can only see the destination, and she only knows to live in the now. And I need to recapture that. But how?

Invasive Species and Medieval Literature

In Layamon’s Brut, a thirteenth-century early Middle English chronicle, based on the earlier accounts by Wace and Geoffrey of Monmouth, England is a land that is constantly under siege. The section that I work with the most–known as the “Arthurian Section”–documents the invasion of the Saxons and their depredations against the English people.

According to Wace:

Fors de lur nés a terre eissierent,
Par tut le päis s’espandirent,
Armes quistrent e robes pristrent,
Maisuns arstrent, humes ocistrent

[They swarmed off their ships onto land and spread through the region, seeking weapons, taking clothes, burning houses, killing men] (from Judith E. Weiss’s 2002 edition and translation, Wace’s Roman de Brut: A History of the British).

Layamon expands significantly on this moment:
Sone swa heo a lond comen; þat folc heo a-sloȝen.
þa cheorles heo uloȝen; þa tileden þa eorðen.
heo hengen þa cnihtes; þa biwusten þa londes.
alle þa gode wiues; heo stikeden mid cnifes.
alle þa maidene; heo mid morðe aqualden. (10457-61)

The violence enacted by the Saxons is much more explicit and detailed than in Layamon’s sources. The people are broken down into their tripartite functions–those who work the earth (the “cheorles”), those who protect the physical bodies of the citizens (the “cnihtes,” or knights), and later, those who protect the souls of the people–the priests (not in the excerpt above)–and all are slaughtered. What interests me here is the relation between the people and the land, especially since Layamon explicitly references the land (“eorðen” and “londes”) more than Wace does. The land becomes inert–there are no longer people to till it or to protect it, and the females capable of birthing future generations are destroyed in a violent parody of the agricultural process.

And that led me to wonder: to what extent do medieval texts include descriptions of the land and the impact of invasions on it?

In the Middle English 13th-century King Horn, Horn’s father encounters “Saracens” (a vague term often applied to non-Christian groups in medieval literature) while riding along the shores of his land. The invaders tell the king,

“Thy lond folk we schulle slon,
And alle that Crist luveth upon
And the selve right anon.
Ne shaltu todai henne gon.” (47-50)
The Saracens kill the king and proceed to slaughter the inhabitants–those who refuse to give up their religion–but there is no mention of the people’s relationship with the land, and while the churches are destroyed, the land seems to remain fairly intact. Interestingly, Horn’s mother retreats into a “roche of stone” (77) until her son matures and avenges his father.

While the 14th-century Fouke Fitz Waryn is not necessarily an invasion story (it’s often classified alongside the Robin Hood ballads as an “outlaw” tale), it offers an interesting picture of the impact of local skirmishes between the Normans and the Welsh upon the Marcher landscape. Throughout the text, towns and castles are constantly constructed, and these same towns and castles are constantly destroyed. Keep in mind that at this time, castles were large fortifications, often surrounded by earthen ramparts and wooden palisades. Construction required massive amounts of rock from quarries and timber from forests, and the creation of moats and ramparts would significantly disturb the soil. The sieges themselves could last for entire summers (this was the prime time because the invading armies could find adequate supplies). Just as in Layamon’s Brut, the rural populations were either destroyed or displaced–which would prevent opportunities to plant new trees (and other crops). The Marcher areas were largely mountainous, which means that the thin layers of soil would easily be eroded away once the trees and other natural vegetation would be harvested.

But all of these details are absent from the text; at no point does the narrator draw attention to the depredations on the land or express concern about the ecology. Of course, this is due to the purpose of the text–it is an “ancestral” romance, designed to highlight the struggles and victories of an aristocratic family.Another 14th-century outlaw tale, the Norse Saga of Án Bow-Bender, recounts a feud between Án Bow-Bender and King Ingjald. What is interesting is that whereas there seemed to be no concern for the land in Fouke Fitz Waryn, it is implicitly present here. This is, I think, due to the significantly different ecology of Norway as compared to England. The Norse relied heavily on both animal husbandry and agriculture, but because they did not use crop rotation techniques until late in the medieval period, they relied heavily on manure to ensure adequate crops. Therefore, livestock and plants–including fields that provided fodder for livestock–were valued highly. Although the king’s men do burn down a farm at which Án sought refuge (and Án subsequently rebuilds the structure), they only do so once (as opposed to the repeated cycles of destruction and rebuilding in Fouke Fitz Waryn). Rather than seek protection in a large man-made fortification (as Fouke and his relatives do), Án is more likely to turn to natural strongholds, such as caves, forests, etc. (and Grettir follows a similar pattern in Grettis Saga).

I can’t help but think that if Án’s story took place in England, either he would deplete the surrounding landscape to build castles, or if he retreated to the natural landscape, his enemies would subsequently raze his land to the point where it could no longer sustain human life (at least not for a while). From what I’ve read in Middle English literature (and there are several other texts that I could reference aside from the few mentioned here), there seems to be an indifference to the extent of natural resources at hand. While the medieval Norse texts do contain destruction of man-made structures, they do not occur with the frequency that they occur in the Middle English works. Perhaps this is due to the smaller scale of conflicts in Norway. Or perhaps it is an implicit recognition that in Norway (and Iceland), resources were much more limited and therefore could not be destroyed as willfully as in England.

Right now, the forests in Colorado are under siege. In part by humans–Colorado is a destination location, so new houses will always require timber. But there is another invasive species that has resulted in many dead and diseased trees that not only do not serve the local ecology (human or otherwise), but they also have added to the number and intensity of wildfires in the state. Not much, if anything, can be done to stop the spread of the Mountain Pine Beetle. Here are two pictures that I took a few years ago which show some of the damaged trees; the top picture shows trees after a wildfire swept through the area, and the second shows several trees killed by the Pine Beetle.

Foothills outside of Boulder, July 2013

Foothills outside of Boulder, July 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park, June 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park, June 2013

What’s the connection between invading forces in medieval literature and the Pine Beetle? Both seem to be unstoppable. Neither seem cognizant of the harm being done. Both are driven, at least to some extent, by the need for survival. The Pine Beetle does not maliciously kill these trees, after all–as it bores through the bark of pine trees, the side effect is the death of the tree. The “Saracens” were in search–historically and in the literature–of resources–treasure as well as natural resources–to ensure their survival (and their ability to flourish). And of course, one of the conditions that has allowed the Pine Beetle to spread so quickly is global warming–that is, higher temperatures which, through our continued drive to use resources with little thought to how they will be replenished, is also due to human activities. How different are we, then, from the Pine Beetle?

Copses and Cathedrals

I work on a beautiful campus. You don’t believe me? Take a look:

P07-17-15_11-11Lots of trees and green open spaces. The buildings . . . well, they’re buildings. To be honest, I don’t really pay much attention to a building unless it has medieval connections. So much for American architecture.

I’ve enjoyed walking around campus this summer, taking much needed breaks from my window-less office to get some sun and fresh air. I tend to follow the same route each time, and I enjoy noticing things that I’ve missed on previous passes. This is my favorite part of my walk:

P07-17-15_10-47It’s not particularly beautiful, but what I love about it is the smell. See that pine tree along the path? It’s one of many, and they’re up on a hill, which means that each time I walk by, the breeze fills my nostrils with the scent of pine. And each time, I’m reminded of hiking in Vermont years ago.

When I graduated from college, my parents’ gift to me was a summer-long hiking trip with my father. We chose to do the Long Trail, which runs the vertical length of the state of Vermont, beginning near Williamstown, Massachusetts, and ending at the Canadian border, for a total of 273 miles.

I had spent previous summers hiking in Wyoming, Tennessee, Virginia, New Hampshire, New York, and a variety of other areas within the continental US, but this would be my longest continuous hike. I still vividly remember that first day. We had parked near the trailhead–the shelter where we would stay that night was just a few miles in–and once we set up camp, my dad hiked back down to move the car to a more permanent spot. That left me in the forest for a few hours. What do I remember from that first day? Lots of noises. Strange rustlings, eerie creakings. I knew it was just chipmunks and squirrels foraging and the wind blowing through the trees, but it was still spooky, and I found myself wondering what I had gotten myself into that summer.

But the uneasiness quickly passed, and the summer progressed. And I’m glad that I persisted. The view from Mount Mansfield (Vermont’s highest peak at 4,393 feet–yeah, I know, it’s just a baby compared to the Colorado 14ers) was spectacular, and once we had finished the trail, we stopped at Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire, and from its summit, we could see the entire line of peaks we had just spent the summer climbing (and the blueberries along the trail were ripe and plentiful–yum!).

Not my picture (from, but this is definitely similar to what I remember seeing at the summit of Mount Mansfield!

My favorite parts of the trail that summer, though, were not the spectacular vistas (of which there were many), but rather the deep forests through which we walked. I don’t have any pictures of these places, but they are etched in my memory. Thick, rugged trees holding up dense canopies, and underfoot, layers upon layers of pine needles and velvety moss. Thin rays of light illuminate the surroundings just enough that you have no real sense of what time it is. And the air. So still, yet so . . . pungent. Full of life. And the intoxicating smell of pine. Not the oppressive, menacing forest of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Mirkwood. Far from it. But rather, a step back in time, as cliched as that may be. A timeless place.

A religious place.

I love cathedrals. Whenever I manage to travel to Europe, I have two objectives: visit a castle and visit a cathedral (or other old church). I love the history, and I love the stillness. The vertical lines of the architecture. This summer, I visited Fountains Abbey, founded in 1132 by Cistercian monks:

P07-03-15_06-22The abbey was abandoned in 1539 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, but the ruins and the surrounding landscape were stunning. Had I not been pressed for time, I would have lay beneath those monumental beams for hours. Yet these masterpieces of human artifice, which seek to reach to the heavens themselves, are nothing compared to those ancient forests just below the treeline in Vermont (I’ve stumbled across a few places in Colorado that reminded me of Vermont, but just a few–the mountains here are called the Rockies with good reason!).

I think some of my preference for copses over cathedrals stems from my childhood. I have a distant memory of a church service held in the woods–whether it is real or due to a painting by my grandfather, I’m not sure. Summers were spent in the mountains whenever possible, and like my father before me, my idea of getting away from it all is to go to the mountains.

As a result, I find myself drawn to descriptions of forests in medieval literature. Two that immediately come to mind are the following:

The Awntyrs Off Arthur (late 14th – early 15th century)

Then durken the dere in the dymme skuwes,
That for drede of the deth droupes the do.
And by the stremys so strange that swftly swoghes
Thai werray the wilde and worchen hem wo.
The huntes thei halowe, in hurstes and huwes,
And till thaire riste raches relyes on the ro. (53-58)

Whenever I teach this poem, I’m always struck by the sound in these lines. The hard stops of /d/ that evoke the deer as they are driven into the depths of the forest (King Arthur and his hunting party in pursuit), interrupted by the fricatives /s/ that accompany the stream of water that suddenly splashes across the page.

Or this excerpt from the fifteenth-century ballad “Robin Hood and the Monk”:

In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,
And leves be large and long,
Hit is full mery in feyre foreste
To here the foulys song,

To se the dere draw to the dale,
And leve the hilles hee,
And shadow hem in the leves grene,
Under the grene wode tre. (1-8)

This is a much more peaceful moment, one where the forest is bursting with fertility and bird song. When Robin and his men appear, they are not threatening or disruptive; they are as much at home in the forest as are the deer that they illegally hunt.

But in neither text does the forest take on any religious dimension. For that, we’d need to turn to another favorite, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain must find the Green Knight, in the mysterious Green Chapel, within a year to meet the demands of a contest. Gawain must travel through treacherous landscapes:

Þay bo3en bi bonkkez þer bo3ez ar bare,
Þay clomben bi clyffez þer clengez þe colde.
Þe heuen watz vphalt, bot vgly þer-vnder;
Mist muged on þe mor, malt on þe mountez,
Vch hille hade a hatte, a myst-hakel huge.
Brokez byled and breke bi bonkkez aboute,
Schyre schaterande on schorez, þer þay doun schowued.
Wela wylle watz þe way þer þay bi wod schulden (2078-84)
Here’s Tolkien’s translation of these lines:
They go by banks and by braes where branches are bare,
they climb along cliffs where clingeth the cold;
the heavens are lifted high, but under them evilly
mist hangs moist on the moor, melts on the mountains;
every hill has a hat, a mist-mantle huge.
Brooks break and boil on braes all about,
bright bubbling on their banks where they bustle downwards.
Very wild through the wood is the way they must take . . .
Again, there’s a lot of emphasis on the sounds as well as the visual imagery. When Gawain arrives at the Green Chapel, it is nothing like what he expected:
And þenne he wayted hym aboute, and wylde hit hym þo3t,
And se3e no syngne of resette bisydez nowhere,
Bot hy3e bonkkez and brent vpon boþe halue,
And ru3e knokled knarrez with knorned stonez;
Þe skwez of þe scowtes skayned hym þo3t.
Þenne he houed, and wythhylde his hors at þat tyde,
And ofte chaunged his cher þe chapel to seche:
He se3 non suche in no syde, and selly hym þo3t,
Saue, a lyttel on a launde, a lawe as hit were;
A bal3 ber3 bi a bonke þe brymme bysyde,
Bi a for3 of a flode þat ferked þare;
Þe borne blubred þerinne as hit boyled hade. (2163-2174)

Tolkien’s translation:

And then he gazed all about; a grim place he thought it,
and saw no sign of shelter on any side at all,
only high hillsides sheer upon either hand,
and notched knuckled crags with gnarled boulders;
the very skies by the peaks were scraped, it appeared.
Then he halted and held in his horse for the time,
and changed oft his front the Chapel to find.
Such on no side he saw, as seemed to him strange,
save a mound as it might be near the marge of a green,
a worn barrow on a brae by the brink of a water,
beside falls in a flood that was flowing down;
the burn bubbled therein, as if boiling it were.

There’s a lot of scholarship on this grassy mound as the Green Chapel, so I won’t go into that, but consider this harsh landscape. Just as cathedrals sought to raise their walls to the heavens, so too do the hillsides here. This chapel even has its own baptismal font. But like the other two passages I’ve offered above, while there is much to take in aurally, from the onomatopoeia in Awntyrs to the explicit presence of birdsong in “Robin Hood and the Monk,” there’s no indication of smell. That sense which evokes distant memories for me of my time in Vermont is absent in these medieval accounts. Why?

I’ve been reading through Paul Freedman’s book Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (2009) this summer, and one of the many things that I’m taking away from it is the emphasis on smell. Freedman writes, “Medieval people were impressed by wonderful smells rather than the absence of any scent . . . . a panoply of unpleasant smells was no doubt unavoidable in everyday life . . . [such as] excrement, animals, sickness, sweat, dirt, the effects of such noxious enterprises as tanneries or smelters. It is precisely because of this inevitable familiarity with awful odors that people in premodern societies were entranced with beautiful smells” (81). As a result, spices were in great demand in part due to their aromas, and one of the markers of sainthood was a pleasant smell emanating from the corpse after death. If you travel to the city of York, you can partake in the Jorvik experience in which a Viking town is recreated–down to the very smell! Several Old English poems–The Panther, The Whale, The Phoenix–describe fantastical creatures with strong smells.

But why don’t the forests of Middle English literature smell? Why is there no commentary on the crispness of the air? The earthy aroma wafting up when the leaves are disturbed underfoot? Did medieval people ever experience the forest as a cathedral? Earlier religions–especially those practiced by Germanic and Celtic peoples–worshiped trees, but with the arrival of Christianity, many, if not all, of the sacred groves would have been destroyed. Perhaps, given the prevalence of incense used in medieval church services, they were so accustomed to associating the aroma of incense with a religious experience, and so they would have no call to link the forests with such. But since medieval people appreciated pleasant smells, was it just that the forest odor did not appeal to them? I know one thing for sure–I’m going to keep an eye out for any olfactory details in the next Middle English romance that I read.

Weeds are the World

My yard is a mess. A few weeks ago, I spent several hours pulling out thistles as tall as I am from one of the flower beds, and yesterday, my daughter squealed with delight when she found a nearly-one-foot-tall dandelion (one of many) about to bloom. Crabgrass, purslane, and foxtail are attempting to colonize our driveway. Wild violets are everywhere.

There are many reasons why my yard has so many varieties of weeds. Or so I tell myself. The neighborhood rabbits, for example, benefit from the diversity and the absence of pesticides (especially since most of our neighbors are quite vigilant in maintaining their yards). The groundwater is cleaner as a result of the absence of pesticides (particularly important given the large amount of fracking that goes on in our county). This has been an unusually rainy spring and summer, so chances are that as soon as I sprayed the yard, the rain would wash away the pesticides and the effort would be waster. And it takes time and money to maintain a weed-free yard–time and money that honestly, I’d rather spend elsewhere–in the mountains, at museums, on books, et cetera. And besides, the violets are very pretty in the spring; I’ve always loved those delicate bursts of purple. But is my reluctance to weed my yard merely a product of laziness (or an attempt to get back at the neighbors who constantly allow their dog to use my yard as a bathroom?), or might there be more to it?

A placeholder image from the web . . .

There’s a bit in my lease that indicates we are obligated to maintain a weed-free yard. And so the weeds must go. But why?

Right now, I’ve been working through Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) in preparation to finish an article on ecofeminism in Layamon’s thirteenth-century Brut, and the third chapter discusses the ways in which we as humans tend to “background” nature–a process that she calls a “common kind of insensitivity to the incredible diversity and richness of nature, treating beings in nature as all alike in their defectiveness, their lack of human qualities” (70). And this is what I (and others) do to my yard.

Weed is a word that has been around in English for a long time. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded usage came from Alfred the Great’s translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy in the late 9th century. The Old English is given below the definition:


Here’s the modern English translation:

“Whoever would sow fertile land, must first pluck up the thorns,
and furze, and fern, and all the weeds that he seeth infesting the field,
so that the wheat may grow the better.” (trans. Walter John Sedgefield)

Per Boethius (via Alfred), weeds clearly have no use–they “infest” and prevent more valuable plants, such as wheat, from flourishing. Yet this is a very anthropocentric view. I think I prefer Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”

I do not directly have any use for the weeds in my yard; in fact, I’m sure the dandelions contribute greatly to my seasonal allergies. The crabgrass and the dandelions do not strike me as particularly beautiful (although the violets do). But at the same time, my sense of beauty is socially constructed. My daughter finds dandelions to be some of the most lovely flowers (sometimes I recruit her to help weed–she thinks she’s picking dandelions to decorate the house, but I know better). I dimly recall a meadow behind a childhood home. The hours I spent as a child making chains from the stems, weaving them together to make golden crowns. The hours I spent blowing on seed heads, delighting in watching each seed dance upon the wind.

What virtues do weeds have?

This last semester, my university hosted Ava Chin, author of Eating Wildly. You can check out her website here:


Chin shared her experiences foraging in New York City, finding edible plants nearly everywhere she went–plants that others viewed as weeds, if they saw them at all. I picked up a copy of her book, although I’ve not looked through it yet–but I’m intrigued by the idea. After all, I did discover earlier this summer that the rhubarb growing in my backyard was great for making jams and pies. What other virtues might these “weeds” have?

But of course, it’s not truly my yard, is it? A yard full of weeds–edible or flowering or not–does not attract potential buyers or renters, and we’ll be leaving this home for another soon enough. In our consumer-driven world, foxtail and purslane and other weeds are the inferior, the other. Why do we insist on such carefully manicured lawns? Why do weeds threaten us so? Do we yearn for conformity and shy away from the individuality that weeds can offer? Are we driven to exert (however futilely) our domination over those plants labelled as weeds? Do we fear that unweeded yards will attract more of nature’s inhabitants, thus reminding us of our close affinity to the rabbits and foxes that often dwell alongside us?

I don’t know. But in the meanwhile, the weeds will go. Sorry, rabbits.

Raccoons in the Attic

In late spring, my daughter and I were playing in the back room. The sun was beginning to set when a sudden movement outside caught my eye. A raccoon froze from its casual stroll across our backyard as our eyes met. Excitedly, I called my daughter’s attention to the raccoon, and we rushed to the screen door to watch.

P05-25-15_20-08Unfortunately, the raccoon was camera shy and quickly disappeared from our view.

But she made another appearance a few days later, so we knew she was still around.

A few weeks later, my husband and I were awakened by the sound of animals fighting. We have cats, so at first we thought they were the culprits, but we soon realized that the scuffling and squeals of pain were coming from the attic. The next morning confirmed that a large animal had gotten into the attic via some missing and torn soffits from the eaves. It became apparent that the raccoon had chosen our humble attic as the birthplace of her brood.

I didn’t really mind much. The nocturnal noise was annoying, but given that we’ve had a lot of rain this summer in Colorado, I couldn’t begrudge the raccoon her desire to find a dry place for her family (and our landlord had neglected to fix the missing soffit in the eave for years). Even my husband was won over by the cuteness of raccoons when one of the babies scampered down a tree outside our dining room. But we knew that eventually, they would have to go.

Fortunately, the landlord chose a pest removal company that specialized in live traps (and release in the woods at least an hour’s drive away). Two traps were set, and we waited.

And we waited.

I was beginning to wonder if the raccoons had moved out on their own. We had been running the attic fan a lot lately due to the heat, and I had read that loud noises could dissuade raccoons from urban areas. But then this morning, it happened.

P07-15-15_07-13“We got one,” my husband announced this morning.

After he left for work, I cautiously went outside. And sure enough, there she was. At first, she was motionless; only a slight breeze ruffled her luxurious fur. As I walked around the trap, though, she raised her head and watched me warily. And I cried.

Later, when I calmed down, I woke up my daughter and took her outside to see the raccoon. I was very careful to use masculine pronouns to refer to the raccoon; movies which featured the death or separation of mothers from their children tend to devastate her. She was intrigued (although disappointed that the raccoon’s tail was hidden from view), happy to finally see the raccoon up close.

I came back home to work for the day; the pest removal person had indicated he would pick up the raccoon sometime today and I wanted to be there. So I went back out, and I apologized to the raccoon.


She has soulful eyes. Yes, I realize that I am personifying this creature, projecting my feelings of guilt and inadequacy as a mother onto her, but I’m really torn. I called my husband. “I just want to let her out,” I told him. “She just wanted a safe place to raise a family.” “That’s not a good idea,” he responded.

But why isn’t it?

Yes, I know raccoons carry disease. Everything carries disease these days, it seems. But I’m probably exposed to way more pathogens as a mother and as a teacher. And we never go up into the attic. Yes, the raccoons do damage to the insulation and siding, etc. (This page outlines the possibilities thoroughly: Yes, they’re noisy at night–but so is my daughter. Over her brief lifetime, she has woken me countless times, and I never once considered calling a pest removal company (well . . . almost never).

This raccoon just wanted a safe place to raise a family. I understand that drive, that compulsion, that need.

I was okay with getting rid of the raccoons until I saw her up close. Until I looked in her eyes. Perhaps if the other trap–still empty–held her children, I would be okay with all this because then at least I would know that they would be released together.

I don’t know how old her babies are (I haven’t seen them). A page on National Geographic‘s website tells me that “Females have one to seven cubs in early summer. The young raccoons often spend the first two months or so of their lives high in a tree hole. Later, mother and children move to the ground when the cubs begin to explore on their own” ( Are the babies self-sufficient enough to live on their own? Might they find their way into the other trap soon? Will the pest removal person release them in the same place as their mother once (if) they are caught? Is the cost of insulation and siding greater than that of the lives of her babies?

Rattling from outside caught my attention, so I went back out to check on the raccoon while I waited for the pest removal person to arrive. Sure enough, the raccoon was trying to raise up the trap’s door, but she immediately cowered as I approached. My neighbor happened to be outside as well: turns out that they have frequently seen two large raccoons on our roof for a few months now. Maybe the raccoon in the trap is the male. Needless to say, I’m not getting close enough to find out.
P07-15-15_09-10But look at those eyes.

It’s my hope that when the pest removal person arrives, he will be able to give me some assurances. If this is the female (or when we trap the female), will he venture into the attic to remove the babies? Or is the cost of insulation and siding the separation and likely death of the babies?

Update: The pest removal person has collected the raccoon and is in the process of transporting it to a wilderness area. He was pretty sure that the raccoon was a male, and he indicated that if we had seen the mother out with her babies (which my husband had), then they probably were not in the attic any more (especially given how warm it has been lately). So that is a huge relief.

But at the same time, this experience only makes me more aware of the lengths to which we go to separate ourselves from the natural world. When I spoke with my neighbor about the raccoon, they only focused on how much damage the raccoon was most likely doing to the attic. Yeah, I get that to some extent . . . but couldn’t we try to find better ways to co-exist with our local wildlife? One of the articles my medieval ecocriticism class read last spring dealt with finding nature in our backyards (rather than traveling great lengths to get to national parks and wildlife reserves, etc.). We’ve had foxes hang out in our backyard, and we’ve watched several litters of rabbits come and go over the years. Recently there has been a pair of gorgeous woodpeckers hanging out. One morning this past spring, a raptor was messily finishing its breakfast in the tree in my front yard. Another morning, about a year ago, as the kiddo and I left for school, a mother duck and her three ducklings casually meandered down the street. Of course, I’m perfectly fine not having a mountain lion show up in my backyard, or a rattlesnake, but I love these little close encounters. Although it will be nice not being woken in the middle of the night by the raccoons.

What do I take away from all of this? I’m not really sure. I’m relieved that I’m not condemning baby raccoons to an early death. I’m sad that I’m depriving an animal of its home, although I’m hopeful that it will quickly adjust to its new one (and raccoons are smart, hardy creatures). I’m thankful for the opportunity to look into that raccoon’s eyes and, I think, to understand some of its fear. After all, how safe are we in these houses that we build–literal and metaphorical?

Goodbye, sleepy raccoon. Best wishes on the next stage of your life.