Saturday, December 06, 2003


I walked to the Charles River bike path yesterday. I needed something bracing and gratuitous and palpable to counteract the internet Christmas shopping that I'd done. Plus I thought I should get in a bit of exercise before the Northeaster hit, which, as predicted, it has and still is doing no end in sight.

So I looked at the beautiful nameless grass again, probably for the last time before its burial.

I would love to know its name.

Which brings me to my confession.

One of my favorite books is Weeds of the Northeast by Richard Uva, Joseph Neal and Joseph DiTomaso. It's a sturdily clothbound book, a beautiful green, and of a satisfying but not impossible heft. For each plant there is page of essential descriptive text, and a facing page of color photos. There are charts and tables and taxonomies, too, scientific matters that I've only begun to explore.

I bought it after we gave up on having a lawn. We have some remnant lawn, to be sure, but each year whole ecosystems of interesting plants compete with it and win. The overall effect is green, and up close it's fascinating: blue field madder, poor man's pepper, spotted spurge, broadleaf plantain, yellow hawkweed, shepherd's purse, corn speedwell, nutsedge, swallow-wort, nightshade, red clover, dandelions, chicory, asters, pigweed, ailanthus, wild pansy -- and, of course, crabgrass. And, of course, there was a poem in it.

On the last page of the weed book are four black and white photos -- the three authors, and and Andrew Senesac, who gave "invaluable" "cooperation" and "counsel."

My confession ? I have a serious crush on these men.

Mr Uva, a PhD candidate at Cornell when he wrote the book, is a young, dark-haired, intense looking man. He gazes at the camera with a determined, unsmiling expression, thin lips pressed firmly shut. The book has come from his Master's thesis.

Mr Neal, also young, was a professor at Cornell; in his picture, he looks pleased, almost amused. He has thick hair, and a brush mustache. His eyes twinkle as if with secret delight.

Mr DiTomaso is older, thin, slightly furrowed, darkly handsome. He smiles formally for the camera. He seems kind, wise and fatherly.

Mr Sesenec is blond, square faced; he has a high forehead, and wears enormous, clear-frmed glasses. In the photo, he's smiling. He appears content. Well-pleased.

Significantly, recursively, Mr Senesec appears on page 147 in the photo of a "Jerusalem Artichoke habitat." This weed, also called an earth-apple or a girasole, is a "tall, rhizomatous and tuberous perrennial," with, "aggressive" tendencies. Its tubers are edible. And, in the photo, the plant, sunflower-like, towers over Mr Senesec.

Except for a few fingers holding seelings, his is the only human presence in all the weedy photos of the book.

It is shocking, and strange. Andrew in a prospect of Artichokes.

I have a thing for serious, scientific men. I have long harbored a secret passion for the Army Corp of Engineers. Against all reason and politics. In my imagination, they still use slide rules. They have brief cases, and rolls of blueprints under their arms. In my imagination, they arrive on the scene of disasters, bristling with serious competence, and make things right. Or they engineer marvelous wonders, with monk-like dedication and single-mindedness. They are austere, and probably celibate.

The same goes for the CDC. You know the ones -- the men in chinos and blue oxford shirts with sleeves partly rolled up, who deplane on the tarmac of a plague-ridden city, brief cases in hand, ready to do serious epidemiology.

And hydrologists. The custodians of water. The builders of reservoirs and aqueducts, the purifiers of drinking water, the treaters of sewage. The tenders of the pumps and the pipes. These are noble men, too, with a grave calling. Just say the word "aquifer" and you will get a hint at what I mean.

As soon as I read Weeds of the Northeast I knew Drs. Uva, Neal, DiTomaso and Senesec were members of the same fraternity: serious scientific men. I must confess that, on my riverwalks, from time to time, I have imagined a tall, serious botanist emerging from the thicket -- usually Uva or Senesec -- as I crouch gazing at the beautiful, nameless grass.

He will squat beside me, and gravely inspect the plant, peering at its ligule, auricle and efflorescence, perhaps even pulling out a magnifying lens to look for hairs on the blade and sheath, and then, knowing, he will turn to me and tell me the name of the beautiful grass.

I will thank him. Nodding gravely, he will disappear into the woods.

All in a day's work.

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