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An essay & original poem from where the unsettled and settled worlds meet in August heat…and crickets are deceived by shade and call for consorts night and day.
There is a poem following this essay. It all started with a plant with both a tragic-romantic and medicinal history. Dittany of Crete flowers brilliantly in August with blooms that decorate a terraced garden in my backyard today. Like many objects in nature, it abhors a border, especially a walled one. It has the persistence of bindweed that also files into my raised gardens, shimmying over their wooden embankments and loping through the chicken wire, then casting morning glory like flowers. The evasive weed does this as if to announce it belongs here with the forms more carefully selected. The flowering herb however is trying to get out of the walled garden. The visible natural world is filled with creations that draw their structures over and under barriers: cottonwood roots that wander the length of football fields, around and through limestone cracks to locate and drink from springs. This has been a sometime theme in this blog: the meeting at the edges of the settled and unsettled world, the inter-regions. In other cases, nature can be hyper-territorial, but in obscure places. There is an entire species of salamanders that are found solely in one underwater cave in Bull Creek, Austin. But, in the visible world there is a plum-apple tree which lives both in the earth and the air and leans over a fence and fans out into another’s yard. The natural world we see is migratory in one way or another, living in multiple worlds and realities.
I was interested in creating a botanical garden with artemisia, phlox, hyssop and primrose. I’d heard about this flowering herb which could be used as incense or flavoring which had an attractive name and a medicinal history dating back to citations by Aristotle and Hippocrates: Dittany of Crete. This compound name seems to tell you all you need to know. Dittany, Dictamos, in Cretan dialect, may refer to a goddess widely worshipped in ancient times on the island: Diktynna. She is a defender of mountains and hunters. Intensely romantic fables surround the plant, especially those about the presumed lovesick gatherers. Another name given the plant in Cretan dialect is simply: erontas (love). When I first sought to find the plant, I didn’t know this part of its story nor that it is rarely found in the U.S. and grows exclusively on the hilltops as high as 5000 feet, like those of Mt. Ida in Crete. It has a protected status which makes me wonder how I found cuttings. Most accounts suggest it is still harvested from mountain ledges. It is an ingredient in true absinthe and perfumes, but it’s unclear to me how commercial uses are supported today.
I learned more about it in Culpepper’s Complete Herbal, principally that it was known to this 17th Century botanist (and physician and astrologer). It certainly was hard to find a cutting and when I did it was in a “metaphysical store,” these days a neo-pagan supply shop, founded by Wiccan partners and exceptional gardeners in Austin, TX. I “had” to seek it out again after I moved to Colorado. I found it in a tiny Congress Park garden shop in Denver. Each time I discover it, it is like a trope in an eerie short story, found in the dark corner of a mysterious store and the purchase destined to change the life of its patron. It is the only non-native I’ve ever planted anywhere.
I had a writing instructor who said: “write about your obsessions” and that the story you’re most reluctant to tell is the one your readers want to hear. Western mythologies are full of these tales. The behaviors of gods and goddesses are often more cringeworthy than heroic and based on their follies, conceits and petty jealousies. Authors, like Ovid knew this was the story listeners wanted to hear. Love, the crux of it all, was rarely idealized and full of so much lusty trickery and shapeshifting to capture a heart, get one’s lover into bed or exact revenge on infidelity. The gods and goddesses had the power to do all these things, ingeniously. A great many of the Greek Myths are tales of obsessive love. So much so that there was a god designed to equalize the world with “love returned” who could null unrequited love, named Anteros. Many more give their names to psychological disorders, such as Narcissus, with his most extreme form of self-love.
The tellers of these myths spun their obsessions of observable behaviors in the world that were sometimes deeply disturbing. Think of Hera reacting to one of Zeus’ many infidelities by causing Lamia, Queen of Libya, to slay her children, then endowing her with eyes which would never close. Lamia would “see” and obsess over the act forever. These “love” stories were grim. To represent the rare idyllic and pure intentioned lovers, stories were often punctuated with foolish behavior and early mortality for its protagonists. This is a tradition which carries into Shakespeare to present day literature, the tropes in tv and film of destructive love. It is even in the narrative in modern psychology with a named disorder–obsessive love syndrome.
The story of the erondades is somewhat different though and is not always fatal. It reminds that human pursuits sometimes have a sad core and much is spent in the hysterical quest to fill a hole in one’s life. Often cited in folklore, the physical collection of Dittany from rocky crags in vertical cliffs of Crete was manual and was reported to be an occupation of the passionate, lovesick or, frankly, the mad. They scaled the cliffs to harvest the plant seeking perhaps the aphrodisiac properties of the plant or to craft laurels for the objects of their affections. Skilled or not, many fell to their deaths in this dangerous pursuit. The folklore is supported by hazardous modern harvesting techniques reported into the 1930’s involving repelling technique from reels of rope.
Nestled deep in the final book of the Aeneid by Virgil, there is a reference to the magical properties of Dittany of Crete. Venus harnesses its healing potential to unseal an arrow from Aeneas. The outcome of the application of ‘Th’ extracted liquor with ambrosian dews’ is to loosen and lift the arrow from his flesh, a magical property apparently known also to goats which ranged Mt. Ida and were reported to eat Dittany when wounded.
A branch of healing dittany she brought,
Which in the Cretan fields with care she sought:
Rough is the stern, which woolly leafs surround;
The leafs with flow’rs, the flow’rs with purple crown’d,
Well known to wounded goats; a sure relief
To draw the pointed steel, and ease the grief.
(John Dryden translation, http://classics.mit.edu/, Internet Classics Archive)
So here next is a poem, revisited after a year in a dusty corner and offered when the plant is in aggressive bloom to accompany this long appendix. Here is to the meeting of the settled and unsettled world and to a nature which ignores arbitrary boundaries. Here’s to the Greeks who, notwithstanding their crowd-pleasing tellings of manic love in ancient ballads and myths, had eight words to express the varieties of love. These included agape, universal and selfless love, and philia, for friendship. Moreover, as a tonic to tales of manic love, here’s to what Billy Collins calls Aimless Love, a love more fluently pursued. It is love that lives in the present and honors the small things all around: a plum-apple tree on an alpine hill in the backyard, a dog curled beneath it on the hottest day in August, and the fragrant flowers of an herb spilling over an edge of stones secreted here from a quarry.
Erondades, a poem by Vincent Hostak
Erondades © 2020 Vincent Hostak Falling light is precise in its conduct moving from subject to subject. Never clumsy, it seems to choose. Even from miles above I’d swear no cloud bends its course. Meager wind draws them loose from branches crowded with fruit. Plum-leaf apples queue to receive the sun’s explicit blessing- then fall near a sleeping hillside dog. A rare herb raised in a gardened slope: Dittany of Crete, laid by design now beautifully feral flows- its wide and leafy reach strings rose quartz bells over stones meant as borders Resembling high cracked slopes- rocky towers above the sea where she sprang to drink the light, stretch, rise, and overtake- while urgent climbers followed. None but lovers dared collect the herb- grip the shale, stretch and scale. Arms and legs like starfish cupping stones in tide pools. Erondades they were called: “love seekers,” this plant their prize. Returning home, if at all, pressed nectar from the flowers, wove crowns from leaves, agile stems. Gift a desired soul with these and hope the effort turned a head. Mostly, they failed to anchor, scraped and slid from splintered slate, until gripping only air they plunged to drape the llano’s coastal grass, their eyes drawn to the Aegean. In August heat, anointed by the sun, plum-leaf apples dot the hill. The dog settles like braided bread then stretches and unbinds. Crickets are deceived by shade and call for consorts night and day.