Monday, 22 August 2011

Mary Webb (25/3/89 - 8/10/27) - Roots


Now is the time when gardeners begin to 'delve and dyke, toil and sweat, turn the earth upside down and seek the deepnesse.' Now they begin to know their plants, not as summer acquaintances, but as friends. For the root is the plant. Into it is gathered the whole personality of the creature that slips up into the illuminated air every spring, and withdraws at the fall of the leaf, folding her beauty once more into that humble shelter where she subtly contrives her own creation. There lie, in tiniest miniature, in vaquest embryo, in secret recesses of nerve and fibre, the brittle or sappy stalks; the eager tendrils; the leaves of velvet or of silk, like fans or swords, hearted, pennoned, tented; petals ethereal or empurpled; nectary and filament and anther; golden bees' meat; mysterious ripening calyx and painted fruit. Therin is locked the very heart of spring, the scent that can enchant a summer night, the bread and wine of life's sacrament. A small seed rooted beneath the winter keeps in its silence, the stir and murmour, the rustling music; the golden welter of harvest, with its heavy waggons, its shouts from the sacked field to the fragrant rickyard.
If there was one thing more than others in which the old herbalists had faith it was in the medicinal properties of roots. With the relentless thouroughness of the medieval mind they preferred things in essence, and they liked their drugs as strong as possible. Though so many roots are still used medicinally, some have fallen into disrepute, and all are used more  mercifully. The modern chemist would not entirely approve of either method in the following recipe for using the roots of the crimson penny. This was a sovereign cure for several diseases. You simply cut the root into thin slices and hung it round the patient's neck. ' If this fails, ' adds the herbalist, with a scepticism that must have been deprecated by the religious people of his day, 'if this fails, reduce it to powder and make the patient swallow a dram thrice daily, until he is cured of his fits.' How well one can hear him say this- between clenched teeth, as it were, with the furious materialism of those who fall from the heights of spiritualism! How well one can see the relentless scene of dosing that occurred thrice daily - worthy of Hogarth's painting- and how one can sympathise with the patient, who must have so greatly preferrred faith-healing! Lily-roots  were boiled in milk and were emmolient; wild lettuce was for dropsy, colhicum were for nervous disorders. Nerves were very much discouraged in old days, and the roots of half the plants in England seem to have been called to their aid. With a belief in the efficacy of pain to heal and cure, the herbalists chose for their medicaments such roots as that of the purple pasque flower, which cured blindness, but gave 'a severe, lacinating pain', And surely they were wise.l


The roots of life are nourished on pain, and whoever participates in this love-feast of reality must suffer. The butterfly knows nothing of the conflict, the grief of the root struggling with earth in darkness, yet only through the bravery of the root, its determination to suffer rather than die, does the flowr dance in the light. It is the love of the root, dumbly struggling, that creates splendours the root will never see, splendours which it dreams, all alone in the dark.
In a dim alley somewhere near Paternoster Row is a small window artlessly piled with bulbs and roots of those strange tints and textures in which these beings of the underworld love to wrap themselves. The owner of the shop has forsworn flowers. Instead, he sets forth mottled beans like jewels, ruby-tinted; many coloured bulbs; the reserved but all-promising dahlia. And he is wise. A flower we see; we can touch its silk and smell its fragrance. But a root! A root is the unknown; it holds the future; it shares the allure of the horizon, where anything wonderful may haunt; it gives nothing, but it hints of untold gifts. The  bulbs glow with a dim, rich lustre. There are brown tulip bulbs, dapper and well-found; straw-coloured crocuses that will send up, naked and brave, their flowers to fill the September meadows with magic; tiger-lilies, wherin is caged savage color, hyacinths, prophesising of their future tints by the red and rose and primrose of their crinkled tissue wrappings which are like the luminous paper of Christmas cards, that sheds on angels or Holy Families mysterious coloured lights; white lilies their pale and flaking bulbs heavy with the June glories of great chalices and golden pollen, recalling in their stately promise a herd of white milch kine. There are the anemones, with tubers utterly removed, unlovely shrivelled; yet; like those unfortunate ladies of the old dangerous years,  who were turned into hags by perverse wizards, they keep surprises of beauty hidden for him that has faith and gives them leave to bloom.

No wonder that dusty window in the roar of the City traffic takes away ones breath with its ' whence?' and 'whither?' its secrecy, its conserved  swetness! Looking at these silent beings that have come out of the earth, that will return to the earth that hold their gifts of beauty within invisible treasuries, keeping somewhere between minute-saprunnels and sad-coloured layers of fibrous substance the riddle of the universe in Little, we are confronted with a miracle as heart stirring, as tear compelling as any in the sweet Galician story. Dead and cold as a pebble seems the crocus bulb, yet come the white points, the bursting green of young leaves, the folded  golden flag, the chalice, superbly frail, drawing to itself the music of bees, cool dews, sunlight.
Looking at its triumph, the imagination is fired; we hear a voice, stern with the wonder of its own power, speaking across centuries of time and masses of dead matter, from furthest space or from our own hearts, calling low, but with a compelling sweetness -
'Talitha cumi!
There is a more vital joy in dealing with the roots of plants that can ever be found in communion with the flower alone. What summer  nosegay has the good smell of primrose roots or violet roots torn asunder for replanting of bruised lilies, of ploughman's spikenard? It is not only the roots of the cedar that 'give a good smell'; dig up any root and you will have an earthy fragrance which is neither that of earth nor rain nor of the flower nor the leaf, but the wholly individual. The marvellous sweetnes in the air of an autumn day is not cheifly of late summer flowers, nor of wet earth, nor of fruits and fading leaves, nor of corn - though ripe corn does often steep the whole countryside in golden fragrance.

It is the roots, delved for and bruised and subjected to the shock of air and sunlight, and pouring out their strange, heady fragrances on these autumn days.only. It is a lesson in reality to see, when you have known all summer the ethereal beauty of white clematis or honeysuckle, the roots clutching with a hindred tiny hands the dark soil. Not the whitest rose, not the frailest lily can ignore the earth. There are curious plants that have a whims eye to  deny earth, to touch it only at second-hand - the mistletoe, that prefers to touch earth only when it is transformed into apple woodor apricot wood; the broomrap, that goes to the broom and clover and ivy and says, 'Nourish me; I am too dainty for the crude earth.' But what are they? The mistletoe is a poor, colourless thing; the broomrape has not a leaf on it, and is as near ugliness as a plant can be. Even that most unearthly of flowers, the white water-lily, floating on deep water, is anchored far below in the black river bed. Every one of those wide spreading leaves, those pure blossoms, has its long, swaying root going down into darkness.

 Whether tose algae that cause the 'Braking of the Meres' every year in Shropshire should be called plants or not the writer does not know; but these do seem to root in the water itself, rising suddenly to the surface, flinging out filaments like roots, and thus causing a  boiling in the lake which has been compared to the scriptural ' troubling of the waters.' But such things are the exception. The rule is that the more delicate and beautiful the flower and fruit the closer must be the union with earth. And the point of contact is the root. There colour and scent are made; there the 100 foot tree lies , there the petal that a dewdrop almost destroys is held safe under the ponderous earth. In the root, when April comes, Someone awakes, rubs drowsy eyes, stretches drowsy hands, remembers a dream of light that troubled its sleep. and begins, with infinite precautions, finesse and courage, to work the miracle of which it has knowledge, 'eagerly watching for its flower and fruit, anxious its little souls look out.'
Surely no idea of God could so well hint of Him as this idea of the root - of the great root of a forest tree, hawsered in the heart of matter; upholding matter; transforming matter by a secret alchemy into beauty that goes out from mystery - lives its day- returns, weary, into mystery, and is again  renewed.
'None can tell how from so small a centre come such sweets.'


reprinted from
 poems   of spring and joy
Jonathan Cape
1928