I have a dog with cancer and it’s taking up a lot of my mental energy. And although people come by every day to like posts, except for Jack nobody is bothering to comment. I do this for the comments, which are my only payment. In their absence, I’m going to take some time off. Thanks to everybody who posted.
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I want to talk about three plants, two of which are strongly related to the supernatural landscape and one which is just weird. All of them are well known within certain circles but virtually unknown elsewhere, so they occupy a funny spot in our groupmind. I don’t see any reason why someone should group all three together, but I’m not going to let that stop me. I think they are interesting.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
If you only heard the title and never heard all the lyrics, you could be forgiven for thinking that Billie Holiday’s song Strange Fruit was about medlars. Instead, it is about black corpses hanging from trees in the South, but medlars are right up there for strangeness, all right.
Medlars really are pretty odd. The trees, while pretty, have a comparatively short life, so they don’t produce as much fruit over their lives as many other fruit trees, and the fruit they do produce is…well, like I said, strange. Medlars are a fruit that you don’t eat right away; they have to blet, which is tantamount to saying they have to rot. After they are picked green, they are left to sit while they decompose from the inside out, their flesh turning from a whitish, solid texture to a brown, pulpy substance that looks and tastes something like grainy apple butter. They are about the same size as small figs, or ping-pong balls. Oh, and there are giant hard inedible seeds in the fruit, so you don’t get much you can actually eat out of a medlar, and I haven’t yet told you that it’s covered with a skin that resembles (and is about as tasty as) wrinkled gray paper that cannot be peeled off without taking huge chunks of the “flesh” with it. To me, the inside of a ripe medlar has always seemed like what a spider must expect after its digestive juices have finished softening up something it snared a few weeks ago. All and all, medlars are not preposessing. Unlike the fruit in the song, they are not particularly bitter although they are not especially sweet, either.
They are a fruit you eat in the winter, which probably helped their appeal. They must have been a food for desperate folk; the tree goes back a long time but it’s hard to imagine anybody, even in the Middle Ages, dreaming of a medlar-filled paradise up above where they might retire when they die. No, these are fruits for the hard luck people, the scrabblers, the ones with no other good options.
As a result, while medlars are not going to be anybody’s favorite fruit, they make for a great metaphor. In fact, it’s hard for a cynical person to look around and not see them everywhere. Whether you think the glass is either half full or half empty, a half a glass of medlars…let’s not even go there.
As far as I know, medlars don’t have any ties to the occult, but I have a couple of other plants for you that most definitely do. Mandrake and John the Conqueror roots have a very strong presence in supernatural lore; the former, in tales from Europe and the Dark and Middle ages and the latter, in the black culture of the American South.
The list of roots with “magical” properties would probably be enough for several posts, but I picked those two because of their popularity in culture and media throughout the ages – and if you thought the mandrake root was something JK Rowling invented for Harry Potter, boy were you wrong! Like many of the extraordinary items in her series of books, the mandrake is something she got from the real world (just like Nicholas Flamel, for instance) and it’s a good reason why the Potter books can work well for teaching children about a variety of things you would not expect at first glance.
The mandrake root appears in folklore much the way JK Rowling describes it. But its appearances go back to the time of the Bible and continue up through today’s pop music. Lookie here:
And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son’s mandrakes. And he lay with her that night.
—The Bible, King James Version, Genesis 30:14–16
Or what about Shakespeare?
Shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth.
–Romeo and Juliet IV.iii
Would curses kill, as doth the mandrake’s groan
–Henry VI part II III.ii
Or John Steinbeck?
We even had a mandrake root – a perfect little man, sprouted from the death-ejected sperm of a hanged man.
–The Winter of Our Discontent
More recently, Deep Purple had a tune about them:
I’ve got a mandrake root, and it’s a fever in my heart
-Deep Purple, Mandrake Root (on Shades of Deep Purple, 1968)
Other than Harry Potter, the most recent appearance that I am aware of is in Guillermo Del Toro’s fascinating movie Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, 2006), which is set in the Spanish Civil War:
From the strange fruit in Billie Holiday’s song to American slavery is not a big jump, given its subject matter. And that’s where most of the references to the third plant originate; finally, the big kahuna of American Rhythm & Blues culture, the John the Conqueror Root. Here is a short summary of the background on this root and its users:
Hoodoo originates from the magical practices of the Congolese slaves that were abducted and brought to America. While the original tribal religious practices were subjugated by the slave masters and the slaves were forced to convert to Christianity, the original magical practices were preserved and adjusted for the flora and fauna of the new world.
Back in Africa, the rootworkers and conjurers there used one root that conferred upon its bearer strength, prowess, luck and fertility. This root was even edible, and often used in magical talismans and workings. This root doesn’t grow in the temperate climate of the United States, so they sought out the magical knowledge and wisdom of the local Native Americans for similar local herbs.
Note that this site also sells the root, and apparently the root is useful just by reason of its presence, as nobody eats it or makes tea from it. In other words, it is magic. Or placebo, if you believe in western medicinal explanations for things.
John the Conqueror supposedly was an American slave who never submitted to his white masters, and who went on to become part of the cultural landscape in the black world of the time, his reputation growing over the years until now he is regarded as a legendary figure with magical attributes and, as is often the case with such figures, whimsical and/or arbitrary actions to those who rely on him. He seems to serve the same function in that society as Iktomi, the Lakota Trickster. All of the American Indians recognize the Trickster, although he is not aways a coyote; he might be a spider or even a rock. In any case, the Trickster is a figure to watch out for, because you might just get what you ask for, but with a sting in it. Or maybe just the sting. This also has a great deal in common with the old European tales of fairies, brownies, and such – and I am explicitly not including Walt Disney in this comment. His influence has done so much to pollute the waters when it comes to these creatures that it’s a real shame. Anyway, back to the Conqueror root.
There are innumerable references to the root, which is often pronounced John the Conqueroot, in literature (notably, James Lee Burke’s novels set in Louisiana), blues music, R&B, and of course, Cajun music. One of the best known is the Willie Dixon song recorded by Muddy Waters and everybody’s brother:
Oh, I can get in a game, don’t have a dime,
All I have to do is rub my root, I win every time
When I rub my root, my John the Conquer root
Aww, you know there ain’t nothin’ she can do, Lord,
I rub my John the Conquer root
-Muddy Waters, My John the Conqueror Root (written by Willie Dixon)
My own personal favorite mention of the root is from Mason Ruffner’s vastly underrated and largely forgotten album from the 80s, Gypsy Blood, which was produced by Jimmy Page.
In the bridge of the song Under Your Spell (starting at 1:47 in) Ruffner sings
I’m goin’ down to the station,
Ride that train to New Orleans.
I ain’t gonna be your fool no more
Goin’ back to New Orleans,
Gonna see a voodoo queen and a hoodoo man,
Get a mojo hand, have a John the Conqueror root
Danglin’ from my boot
And a gris-gris charm, just like Doctor John.
Doctor John, of course, is the Cajun/R&B roots guy who sings about all the Louisiana hoodoo tropes, so Ruffner is referring to a referral here. I always like that.
So there you have three plants, two of them with purported magic qualities and one which really seems like it should have them, given its multiple foibles. But at least you can eat medlars without getting sick even if you won’t get a lot of nutrition from them. All three are interesting, though for different reasons and sometimes you just have to learn a new thing, right? I’ll bet for most people here, medlars are a new thing.
Stay young and monstrous.
Also…Välkommen till alla mina nya besökare från Sverige! Mina farföräldrar kom från Sverige i slutet av 1800-talet, men tyvärr talar jag inte svenska. Jag hoppas att du tycker om min webbplats. (Thanks to Risto of Rikstone Amps for translating that for me.)
This is a break from all the snark, but I think it’s worthwhile. Sullivan Ballou was a Union soldier in the Civil War. If you’ve never heard of him, take the time to read this letter he wrote to his wife; it is one of the most moving things I’ve ever read, and the man’s feeling cuts like steel as he speaks to her. Better yet, slow down and read it aloud.
July the 14th, 1861
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure—and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.
But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows—when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children—is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar—that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again.
As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.
Sullivan Ballou died in the first battle of Bull Run a week later. I wonder how many of us today would write so eloquently. My guess: none.
This was probably someone’s pet. I found it on the lawn in front of a house I walk by early every morning when I walk my dogs. (I live in a fairly big city; I’m not in rural Americana.) My first thought was that a coyote had caught this cat, although a Fish & Wildlife person I spoke with offered up the idea that some owls are also capable of this – I have to say, that one had not occurred to me. I rule out dogs for the simple reason that very few of them will actually eat what they kill unless they are truly feral. I suppose it’s not impossible, but I’ve never seen one in the neighborhood, while I’ve run into coyotes many times, some of them rather large (45 pounds or so).
The coyotes don’t bother me or my dogs because the coyotes are too smart to mess with me. If they caught the dogs it might be a different story, but coyotes are not stupid and it would take something pretty dramatic to get one to take on a full grown human. But it’s been interesting to see them because one of my dogs looks a lot like a coyote in some ways and so far, my dogs and the coyotes have simply looked at each other. One big coyote stopped and stared at us so we did the same thing. I found it interesting to watch him from 30 feet; he wasn’t frightened and I wasn’t disturbed because if I had to, I could kill him. My dog must have picked up on my lack of worry because she just watched him, too. Eventually we all got tired of this and just went our own ways.
People who let their cats go out on their own are opening the door to this pictured outcome, of course, but most cat owners simply don’t want to think about it. It never seems to bother most of them when the cat brings home a bird or a mouse, though. Cats are carnivores, they are not omnivores like we are; while we can subsist on a meatless diet, we don’t do well on it (sorry to offend any vegans dropping by, but I doubt there are any) but cats can’t do that, and they like to hunt. But turnabout is fair play; coyotes, too, are carnivores, just as are owls.
It’s all a circle.
And we are part of the circle too, even the vegans, LOL. Although they are responsible for more animal deaths than most of us who actually bother to find out anything about how our food is sourced and try to do something about it. Lierre Keith’s book The Vegetarian Myth has probably been the biggest stumbling block for the vegans and vegetarians of the world, although most can’t get past the fact that the title calls their lifestyle a myth so they tend to dismiss it out of hand reflexively. Too bad, because Keith is the poster child for veganism and what it can do for you; that’s why she wrote the book. I would think that vegetarians would want to read it if for no other reason than to familiarize themselves with some of the arguments that can be used against them, many of which are devastating. That the vegetable people have somehow taken on for themselves the moral high ground is both understandable and preposterous; it shows how people want to do good but are unwilling to think through the consequences of their actions. Thus, without thinking very deeply about the subject, a lot of people tend to agree that “not eating animals” is the best thing to do, and if not eating them meant that animals would not die than I’d agree with them, too. But it doesn’t. Keith phrases all of this better than I could do it, so if you want to disagree with me I’d suggest you go to the source and find out what she says and then disagree with her directly and not by proxy.
When I was younger I hunted, so I’m not squeamish about the fact that animals must die for me to eat. I’m too old for that now, but we buy our beef and lamb from a farmer we know and we see the animals grow up in their pasture and we see the lives they lead. I don’t think there’s any comparison to the life of a feedlot steer at all and the animals’ food does not require huge amounts of oil to grow; once again, it’s a circle. Likewise, while we don’t have chickens ourselves, we do the best we can to get eggs from birds that do not live in battery farms, and who (we hope) actually eat insects. I saw a posting on a paleo blog the other day by a reader who said “chickens that eat bugs? What a peculiar thought!” Yet this commenter presumably has done at least some thinking about the subject; obviously a ways to go yet. It’s harder to get pork that comes from a good source, but there are ways to do it without buying half a pig; it takes some effort to find the sources, but you can do it if you really want to. Most of us don’t really want to, I think. It’s just easier to get in line for the shrink-wrapped packages that grow on pork trees somewhere. Damn, we are a thoughtless people!
Here in Oregon it is easier to do a so-called “green burial” than it is in some other states, something that pleases me because that’s what I would want. And maybe those bugs can get a little payback. Like I said, turnabout is fair play. Circles, you know?
It’s all a circle.
*Wamni omni is the Lakota word for whirlwind. It’s pronounced (very approximately) “wah-many oh-many”, a nice piece of onomatopoeia.
Note: this is a guest editorial by Pirate Ben, who we find somewhat bemused by his grandmother.
Th’other day me old grammer been a-watchin’ th’ movin’ image where the politicos their lies do spout like the blowfish they ape wi’ such shoutin’ out success. Belike she were listenin’ to our own local pile o’ color-changin’ ineptitude for she begun to steam about the ears and the imprecations come thick and fast. Have I not told ye she’s got a tongue on her? A smart man’d do well to steer clear when the fire be upon her but I’d not give warnin’ to this partickilar fish crotty, me not bein’ me brother’s kipper and all.
Harken to th’ conversation, only the one side o’ which I be givin’ ye:
“Feculous rat bait! Down, down into the bilge!
“Take yer teleprompter and [CRASH]
“Cheese farts! Naught but cheese farts, I tell ye! Ill-favored petomane!”
“Say that again and ye’ll be leakin’ rheumy snot out the backside o’ yer skellinton’s cracktured pate, ye four-pounds-in-a-sack-o-three mountain o’ steamin’ squid johnny!”
“I’ll remind ye that the only difference ‘twixt guest and gust be the letter E, a component ye be sorely lackin’, so blow yer stinkin’ ass ashore, ye poxy fart of a gossoon!”
(more mutterin’ still)
“Ye be naught but a slack-knackered malcontent! A peculatin’ whoreson of a man! A louse-infested scab on the shinin’ face o’ Piratude! Go peddle yer wares to the French, for only a Froggy’d be assheaded enough to cock an open ear to the tune o’ yer stumpy clangorband! Why man, the juice’d be runnin’ sideways into his nose from the sheer gravity o’ the situation! Can ye not see the world laughin’ at the state o’ yer sheer ineptitude? Are ye not knowin’ they call ye squbtubbler, wiggletoper, squibberjibber and wuggletump to yer face and them keepin’ the nasty words for the pimply backside o’ ye? That be bound to change, and soon, I warrant! I call upon the nine syphilitic gods o’ the tarry Marianas Trench to send ye down to the lowest slit in the black ‘n’ loftless abyss o’ iniquity, ye bleatin’, sheepy pustule of a rotten peckertip! Alaunt, now move!”
Update: And he did, too, by God! Give you joy, mates!
I mentioned that I was the only baby I know of whose birth announcement was done as a product release. That is still true, but I think it says more about how many people I don’t know than the number of such releases. At any rate, I found it, and here it is, cleaned up a bit so as to keep some details (such as my full name and place of birth) out of the public eye. It’s me, so I am certainly biased, but I think it’s kind of charming in a naïve way; such a thing would be much slicker today, of course.
My father’s ad agency had the Darigold dairy account, so I grew up with Darigold around the house, especially the butter and milk. Darigold has gotten big in order to compete with the rest of industrialized dairy in the USA and today I wouldn’t drink it, but in those days nobody had any thoughts about “grass-fed”, rBST, or CAFOs.
I think the dairy was pretty small back then (this was a long time ago), but Dad always seemed to have a new brochure mockup like this one lying around on the kitchen table, and I was interested in them. I asked a lot of questions, and one thing about my father was that he always treated me as an equal whenever possible, so he would have answered them to the extent that he could while talking to a child. We discussed why people might be attracted to an ad or why they might be repelled by it, and all of the other subtleties that I could comprehend at the time; this led to a lifelong fascination with the process of how ads are created, and I suppose was indirectly responsible (in a small way, anyway) for my decision to become a photographer when I found I couldn’t support myself with my music while playing the music I liked.
I even appeared in an ad or two, looking like a typical dumb-cute 50s little boy eating ice cream, although I don’t know where the proof of that claim is. I know I have it somewhere, but I have a lot of old stuff lying around. I suspect I will eventually come across it just as I did this flyer, but I think this is enough to make my point – namely, that I started out “in the business” very young and have been involved with it ever since, even if it wasn’t on a professional level. The decisions we make unconsiously are very important ones, but by their very nature we are not aware of making them. And everybody claims they are not affected by advertisements. Bullshit. Heck, *I* am affected by them if the ad concerns something that I am interested in or which I already buy – and I know more about this whole process than most of you do. Show me a magazine with a Fender ad in it and I guarantee that I will read the ad every time. So just because Heinz Baked Beans ads don’t move me I can’t say “Ads don’t work on me,” which is what most people do – they think of an ad that doesn’t have any effect on them and then proclaim their imperviousness to ads in general.
That is a big, big mistake.
They work, and they work on you. The trick is to realize that and then work to control it. They are most dangerous when you are not aware of their power, which means that they can be pretty potent as far as most unbelievers are concerned.
As far as recognizing this power, we had a game we played in the family that really helped develop this analytical faculty and I think I will write a post about it, but that is a different story for another time. Let’s just say that the more you think about this and look into the motives that you see pushed by ads and the more aware you are as a manipulable consumer, the better off you and your family are.
Stay young and monstrous.
The paper boy is quitting.
Boy, does that conjure up all the wrong images. Makes you think of a 13 year old Leave-It-To-Beaver kid who rides his bike around the neighborhood, throwing papers into people’s flowerbeds and saving up to buy a better bike for the summer. Instead, what we got here is a former pro baseball player, now a talent scout and coach, with two giant pit bulls in the back of a huge Ford pickup truck. And he’s been on this route for at least the last fifteen years, although I’ve only been meeting him on our morning walks for ten or eleven.
And he doesn’t need the job so we won’t be seeing him any more after a month or two. Meet Darold Ellison, and meet his two dogs Titan and Troy; we’ll miss them all.