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Medieval Botany

18 Sep

M took a picture of rose hips at the Cloisters

Medieval medicine and quackery has been slowly piquing my curiosity. Perhaps it started in Freiburg in 2003, where I took in an exhibit on the history of trephination, a peculiar if somehow logical cure for all manner of headaches and madness. Hieronymous Bosch, incidentally, warned against such quackery in his painting “Extraction of the Stone Folly”.  But there is a less gory and more charming side to this era in medicine. Yesterday, while visiting the Cloisters, I learned a great deal about the medicinal herbs kept in a monastery as well as general medieval beliefs about health and beauty. Should you find yourself plagued with freckles, for instance, you can rub them right out with honeysuckle. The poisonous, paralyzing belladonna plant could be used in small doses as a general anesthetic  – this  might have been what Friar Laurence gave Juliet to fake her death. Women ate figs, strawberries, pomengranates, and other many-seeded fruit to increase their chances of conception. And rose hips and other parts of the rose were believed to shrink tumors (and/or pimples); but there may have been something to this, because apparently some aspect of this plant is still used in chemotherapeutics today.

In other botanic news, I finally saw the second installment of the High Line. It certainly has a wilder look about it, with metal walkways overlooking dwarfish trees with large leaves; they seem somehow prehistoric. And there is a large abundance of some very fragrant herb. The scent actually made me a little sick, so I had to hurry away before looking into what it was, but I’m looking forward to returning in another season, when other wild plants take precedence. The closed off, still uncultivated third section of the High Line seemed more intriguing to me than the newly opened portion. That spur along 30th Street won’t be open for another five or six years.




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Northwest Spring

17 Mar

It came early this year. Earlier than the East, but also a month earlier than normal for Seattle. Cherry blossoms budding in late January and bursting in February. Then dogwoods. Then magnolias. The storm clouds were consistently inconsistent, but in them now instead of grays and blues there was also the reflected pink. On my birthday a tsunami warning. Then the fluffy white blossoms turned streets bridal. In early March, it was sunny and warm. M and I rented a canoe and paddled about Portage Bay, lightly buzzed from margaritas shared with friends earlier in the afternoon. We diligently avoided the Montlake shipping canal, the only instructions given by the boat rental place. Of course, even with my life vest on I was nervous of toppling over, every time a motor boat or yacht made waves and we bounced and I heard a faint trickling of water (was there a hole in the canoe?). Eventually I relaxed and we paddled proficiently and enjoyed the near-crisp views of the Cascades and Mount Rainier and contemplated life in Laurelhurst and Sandpoint across the water.

Driving to Portland this past weekend we caught even more spring. So much pink with occasional bursts of yellow forsythia. I couldn’t remember a time I’d seen so many blossoms along the highway. Wandering the neighborhoods of Portland, we didn’t need to stoop to smell the flowers, their fragrances wafted up to us. The friend we were visiting rasped with seasonal allergies. All the pollen, he explained, was stuck in Portland. The geography did not allow it to blow away. He told us it used to be called the sick place. Too much spring. I was relieved my own eyes weren’t bursting with stinging moisture. We saw a play there at the Imago Theater, an “opera beyond words” about an authoratarian typing school, in which the task master (a bit like a business-y, malevolent bride of Frankenstein) skewered out one eye from each typist and hung the ball from its red cords above that typist as he or she sullenly tapped away. We brunched at Screen Door, where M spotted Catherine O’Hara, and then took the streetcar from Nob Hill to the waterfront. Of course we stopped at Powell’s; M picked up Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends and I finally got Irene Nemirovksy’s Suite Francaise, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.

Now spring break is upon us. We’re heading back East to visit friends and family, where their own spring should be just emerging.

High Line’s Debut

10 Jun

Yesterday, M. took me to the High Line, which officially opened its first section to the public this week. The only entrance for now is on Gansevoort and Washington. I felt giddy ascending the steps to what had been built up and built up and talked about and photographed and anticipated.

The rain had rendered the vegetation lush: wild grasses, purple and blue conical flowers, odd green spears and larger cones of muted yellow just about to burst open to something brighter. (I’d wished there was a guide to the plants, but could find none on their website, just a picture or two of echinacea purpurea.) There were spindly plants topped with magenta spheres and moody, bluish red petalled things, everything poking out of stylized cracks in concrete and elegantly arranged rusting train tracks, just as they’d done wildly, before.

And the views! M. snatched my attention away from the architectural botany to the strange and wonderful perspective on the buildings around us. Just-above-the-rooftops of the meatpacking district on the one side with wispy grasses growing atop awnings and views of pediments and cornices you’d never see from the street level without craning your neck and getting hit by truck hauling animal carcasses or a snarling Escalade.

On the other side, remnants of what is still a manufacturing zone. Whining machinery still grates the ear. You get a marvelous close up of the rotting neglect of buildings. Gorgeous patterns of mottled brick and peeling paint and metal doors leading out to no where, fire escapes rusted away long ago. Barbed wire catching plastic bags and shuddering rooftop ventilation systems.

Thankfully, the botany seems delicately designed with the olfactory in mind, wafting over any industrial smells.

We walked further north and M. seems to salivate at the view ahead, that explosion of West Chelsea architecture. I’m staring at a honeybee burrowing into a lavender poof of something and then he pulls us forward, under the gray Standard Hotel straddling the High Line. Slabs of concrete jut out of the hotel, reaching for the High Line without touching it, amputated by glass barriers that perhaps will one day be removed and planks put across the gap so park goers can be sucked into fancy pants lounges.

Gehry’s iceberg / sail boat is moored along the northwest side, with Nouvel’s winky windows behind, continuing installation as I write. We can stare into a yoga class in the Equinox near 14th Street and the students emege groggy from their corpse pose, befuddled by the voyeurs standing on this perch, snapping pictures of everything, shamelessly.

We recline on a cedar (?) bench that rolls a short distance along a track and wondered how long it would be before names were scratched into the slats of wood. A man in an army coat, circular sunglasses, and a thick gray moustache pointed whimsically up, shoots his enormously expensive camera right at our faces. He repeats this with the man beside us, assuring him he is only taking pictures of the gallery behind us.

At the fence on 20th St., a Parks Department sentry repeats a happy spiel: “This only the end for now. Section Two is scheduled to open next year. Check out the website for updates.”

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