blue spuds, spiral scapes, & golden dragonflies

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Scape: from the Greek for scepter; the shaft of a column; the tongue of a balance. In garden usage, scapes are the graceful stalks of garlic plants that rise directly from the bulb. In old English usage as a verb, it can mean anything from a mistake of no consequence to a grave error, from "breaking wind" to a "breach of chastity." So be clear, please, that we're talking here about garlic because it's coming up for harvest in my garden—more on that later.

Words are fascinating to some of us because of their fluidity over time. It's not the meaning of a word, alone, that captivates. Rather, it's the way a word means different things over time and space. A word's dynamism is something that must be sought after and studied to grasp its story. Most of the time the world works to denote a word; our very ability to communicate congruently with others depends on a shared ability to recognize a fixed meaning for a word. So fixing a word's meaning lasts a while, but not forever and never completely. Words keep changing because they are used, and only stop changing when they are discarded or forgotten.

As language moves it also spirals off into art. The poets of any era come to depend on its connotations and sound, working the alchemical ambiguity of words embedded into a larger text, all of it correlative, all of it marking the moment of its composition.

But to the lexicographer, or at least a person intrigued by language's dynamism, a word's travels comprise a unique and fluid graph of meaning. Take wing, for example. In fact, do take wing if you get the chance but otherwise, just consider the word. In Middle English, it first appears as wenge, pronounced WENG-a. The Oxford Unabridged English Dictionary, from which I am drawing my references today, goes on to provide 38 different spellings, including the elegant hwingen, plus nearly four pages of variant definitions and uses for the word. There is also a note that it replaced the Old English fepre, which flicks an aural echo toward feather and therefore may have Greek roots. How much time have you got?

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Don't answer that because all you need is an instant to fully experience wings, as I did when I saw this gold & black dragonfly alight on a garden post this morning and once it had a grip, throw forward a flight of four gossamer wings to dry in the sun and light breeze.

Having placed yourself here, consider this question. Who was the first person to breathe the word wing? Was he or she standing in awe of a creature like this, witnessing the intricate structure of the appendages that give it that power of flight? In the moment of apprehension, that human being was fully present in the now, in a pre-lingual instant where the object had no name. Then came the word as utterance, and who can say how many years, how many millennia passed, before it was ever codified in symbols and written down as these shapes: wing. Or wenge. Or hwingen.

I find words terribly interesting, but there are moments where they are inadequate, an understanding that is not news. If I get close enough to the blossom of a borage plant, above, there is no adequate language for what's happening—and it is happening. This photo merely gives the illusion that this bloom is a thing thus fixed while in reality, we are seeing a moment in a process. The beautiful, finely-haired, pendulant blossoms yet to open reveal the dynamic process happening here. Words come later—I'm reflecting hours later—and as we've noted already, language is dynamic and so are gardens.

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I find words terribly interesting, but there are moments where they are inadequate, an understanding that is not news. If I get close enough to the blossom of a borage plant, above, there is no adequate language for what's happening—and it is happening. This photo merely gives the illusion that this bloom is a thing thus fixed while in reality, we are seeing a moment in a process. The beautiful, finely-haired, pendulant blossoms yet to open reveal the dynamic process happening here. Words come later—I'm reflecting hours later—and as we've noted already, language is dynamic and so are gardens.

The gardener who slows down enough, quiets and refines the senses enough to witness the dynamism all around, is sharing something with the poet—the working of a process that begins with understanding how the process works.

And anyway, what good does it do to observe that stunning architecture of the bloom and call the parts by their Latin names, to say purple claw as a metaphor, to describe the petals as pink-ribbed fading to blue and lavender? I, for one, go into my garden to forget words for a while, so that I might better remember them and wield when I return.

Yarrow blossoms. Yellow. The words aren't adequate, but they are what we have to work with, the language that is given us, having been invented by other, long-gone gardeners—to strain the point, people who no longer work the soil because they are themselves soil. The language of dead gardeners, if you like. And what did they call this particular bee, gorging on fleabane nectar?

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Yarrow blossoms. Yellow. The words aren't adequate, but they are what we have to work with, the language that is given us, having been invented by other, long-gone gardeners—to strain the point, people who no longer work the soil because they are themselves soil. The language of dead gardeners, if you like. And what did they call this particular bee, gorging on fleabane nectar?

Whatever the answer to that, the bee will never know or care. Most people won't care, either, but the few who do care because it's language that gives them a marker in the moment, a communication to the future. The word spud, of obscure origin, first shows up in text in 1440 to describe a short and poor knife, which leads then to use by 1667 to describe a specific digging instrument used in fields. Now, in 2012, we use it for the very thing dug up—spuds, such as these Adirondack Blue potatoes, which I served as hash browns this morning to my wife and daughter.

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Whatever the answer to that, the bee will never know or care. Most people won't care, either, but the few who do care because it's language that gives them a marker in the moment, a communication to the future. The word spud, of obscure origin, first shows up in text in 1440 to describe a short and poor knife, which leads then to use by 1667 to describe a specific digging instrument used in fields. Now, in 2012, we use it for the very thing dug up—spuds, such as these Adirondack Blue potatoes, which I served as hash browns this morning to my wife and daughter.

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And so we come full circle, back to scape. After years of misunderstanding garlic (not a phrase you are likely to hear often), I've learned the key to a good patch: when the scapes emerge, snap most of them off, since they can inhibit the formation of good garlic bulbs underground. Leave just a few scapes, such as those first pictured above, and wait for them to uncoil—and they do, straightenting their stems until they stand out, perpendicular to the soil. These are your indicator scapes, and they're telling you the right moment to harvest. Grab a hand-spade or fork and being careful not to puncture the bulb, dig down beneath it and pry it easily forth.

Don't bruise the bulb; gently brush or shake off the biggest dirt clods but don't worry about really cleaning it. Just braid the whole plant with others, 8-10 in a bundle, and hang it in a shaded, dry, well-ventilated place for 5 weeks or so to cure. At that point, you will have another experience for which there are no words— pungent flavors that defy description.

And that's enough to make anybody smile.

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