The Owl and the Pussycat
My wife’s new weed bucket reminds me of Edward Lear’s immortal nonsense poem, “The Owl and the Pussycat.” These two intrepid travelers “went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat.” In my collection of Lear’s writings, the boat looks just like Susan’s weed bucket. It appears to be what’s called a coracle, a round craft made of willow branches and animal skins, traditionally used in Wales and Ireland. Susan had worn out innumerable plastic buckets, filling them with weeds in her endless battle against invasive, inimical plants. But the new bucket is made out of some fabric that looks indestructible and it’s enormous, easily capable of accommodating an owl and a pussycat – not to mention a pair of good-sized human beings.
The owl and the pussycat sailed away for a year and a day to the land where the Bong-Tree grows. There, they encountered a “Piggy-wig” with a ring in the end of his nose. They purchased the ring and were married the next day by the “turkey who lives on the hill.” It’s a happy, silly story but when I think about what our species has done to the planet and to one another, it fills me with a little sadness.
“The world is too much with us,” wrote Wordsworth. Wallace Stevens went a step further: “The world is ugly and the people are sad.” The blind poet Jorge Borges outdid them both: “Our days are a web of petty miseries, and is there a greater blessing than to be the ashes of which oblivion is made?” (Thanks, Jorge. Have a nice rest of your day.)
Such thoughts inspire escapist fantasies. But if I told my wife I was tempted to “sail away,” she’d scream. She’s outside just now working in a 50 mile an hour wind doing stoop labor, tearing rogue weeds from the scalp of the earth, building up callouses on her dainty hands.
“Why don’t you get out here and do some honest work,” she’d scream. I’d remind her of my “bad back.” Then out of a sense of guilt I’d arise from my easy chair and start up the garden tractor. (Sitting on a garden tractor is the male idea of “work.”)
But in spite of my daydreams, I’m not about to “sail away.” I’m rooted here on Spider Hill in unincorporated Vinland Valley, Kansas like a blade of Big Blue Stem grass that sends its roots 18 feet down into the drought-stricken soil in search of moisture. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.
We’re immersed in the immortal rhythms of nature here. No matter what we do to it, Nature abides. Even the annual return of familiar weeds has a kind of comforting reassurance in view of our own finitude.
In May, musk thistles appear along with moth mullein, daisy fleabane and others. Some weeds are well-behaved, like curly dock. They take up as little space as possible like timid guests at the fringes of the party, not sure how to behave, not sure if they’re welcome. There’s a single example of wild indigo that blossoms in the same spot every year, like a bride in a gown of delicate flowers, waiting for a groom that never shows up. Nearby is a modest stand of gnarly rattlesnake master, like a nonconformist sect that never trespasses beyond its designated pew. Others like iron weed, buck brush, broom sedge and crown vetch are like obnoxious party crashers having little positive value but a fierce will to spread. They roar in like a gang of ruffians mounted on Harleys and try to take over. A few warmongers have virtues. Milk weed is aggressive, but we tolerate it because it attracts butterflies. Illinois bundleflower travels in mobs but is beloved by wild birds and is a strong nitrogen “fixer.”
But War remains the dominant reality of life in the country. The gardener is doomed to defeat. Leaving the garden untended for a week, she returns to a scene of devastation. The biblical sage was mistaken when he said, “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil or spin.” Verily, I say unto you: the lilies not only toil. They go into combat like the Scythian hordes. The land is a battlefield where every delicate blade of grass, every lovely forb fights for an inch of space. We live surrounded by almost frightening fecundity. A university botanist found over 150 native plants on our farm.
Driving around our neighborhood, I often note the way migrants to the countryside obsessively mow their yards. Their small demesnes are bulwarks against an indomitable enemy. Beyond those fragile kingdoms is the barbaric empire of Nature, forever probing, searching for weaknesses, poised to attack and vanquish.
Sometimes, I’m tempted to console my wife with philosophical words from my weed book: “Any plant is a weed if it insists upon growing where the husbandman wants another plant to grow. It is a plant out of place in the eye of man; in the nice eye of nature it is very much in place. In the struggle for existence a bad weed is a prince.” Again, I suspect that if I read that passage to her, she’d scream and go after me with her terrible shears. I admire her refusal to give up and admit defeat.
Just now, looking out the window, I can see a majestic tom turkey, fanned out, strutting his stuff. His paramour waits patiently for the show to be over so that the two of them can get down to the important business of procreation. The last thing on their minds is “sailing away.” And I feel a quiver of shame for waving a mental white flag as I seek refuge in the world of Edward Lear’s “Nonsense Botany,” where fantasy weeds such as “Many Peeplia Upsidownia, “Tigerlilia Terribilis,” “Phatfaccia Stupenda,” or “Piggiawiggia Pyramidalis” flourish...
I enjoy reciting “The Owl and the Pussycat” to my grandchildren. Somehow, it fails to enchant them. They roll their eyes and yawn. They’re into Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and Captain Underpants. One of Lear’s limerick’s comes to mind.
There was an Old Person of Ischia
Whose conduct grew friskier and friskier;
He danced hornpipes and jigs
And ate thousands of figs,
That lively Old Person of Ischia.
Could I perhaps win my grandchildren’s favor by reciting that limerick? Probably not.