Tuesday, March 17, 2009
THE GREEN EYE
Tiz again St. Patrick’s Day. And since we Irish are a friendly, generous lot, just for today we’ll grant the rest of you—Irish wannabes, the heritage impaired, anyone who'd like to join in the fun—naturalized citizenship, and thereupon temporarily claim you for our own. You can put on a funny green hat. Eat green spaghetti. Quaff green-tinted beer. Even surprise your mate with a pair of dancing-leprechaun under-shorts—and all the while, pretend your veins contain a wee drop of Celtic blood. But should you elect to participate in the “wearin’ o’ the green,” when choosing your shamrock, I make this request…please draw the line on the side of authenticity. I say this because I stopped recently to browse a local retailer’s display of St. Patrick’s Day merchandise. The selection included everything from tee-shirts, to party hats, mugs, balloons, greeting cards, rolls of streamers and bunting, bumper stickers, pens, and metal badges with funny sayings. What suddenly had me seeing green wasn’t the fact that most items incorporated a shamrock into their design, but that many of the emblazoned shamrocks sported four leaves. Four-leafed clovers aren’t shamrocks…they’re simply a sham. No wonder banshees wail! Whether this represented a case of artistic license or botanic ignorance, I couldn’t say. But—and I emphasize—shamrocks are not four-leafed clovers. In fact, the whole point of the original shamrock was the plant's trifoliolate (three-part) leaves. According to history, sometime in the 5th century, St. Patrick—the missionary bishop who later became Ireland's beloved patron saint—paused during a sermon and plucked a shamrock from the verdant ground. The Christian church was newly arrived thereabouts, and some of its notions were puzzling to the Emerald Isle's pagans. Patrick used the shamrock to illustrate theological teachings regarding the rather puzzling Doctrine of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three separate elements existing as a single entity. Just as the shamrock had three leaflets on one stem. That’s how the shamrock came to be venerated in Ireland and by Irish people the world over. And why on St. Patrick's Day—March 17, the day St. Patrick died in A.D. 491—Irish folks celebrate and remember by the "wearin' o' the green." The identity of the actual shamrock remains something of a mystery. Plants most often cited as the "true shamrock" are the white clover (Trifolium repens), the black medic (Medicago lupulina), a hop clover (Trifolium procumbens), and wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella.) All four are trefoils—plants with leaves composed of three leaflets—and fairly similar in appearance. Any one makes a fine and arguably authentic shamrock. I favor wood sorrel, simply because there was a good stand growing beside the south-facing basement wall of my boyhood home. As a kid, come St. Paddy’s Day, my mother would send me outside to pluck a sprig for my lapel before heading off to school. Moreover, I've always liked the sour-tart taste of sorrel and often nibble on a leafy stem during walks, or add a handful to salads. How many other lapel decorations do you know that are good to eat? Here along the river, I’ve not yet found a handy patch of wood sorrel from which to pick a stem or two. No matter, I’m not in a party mood anyway—what with the fact of a funeral yesterday. I opted instead for a visit to a certain pool—a small spring hole which wells mysteriously from the earth in the middle of a nearby wood. The pool never freezes, remaining open throughout the coldest months. I go there often during the winter because the pool is filled with watercress, thus offering a vision of needed green when all the rest of the world appears otherwise bleak. I think of this place as the Green Eye. What always strikes me is how intensely green the watercress appears—not the velvety emerald green of new grass, or the electric yellow-green of the willows, but a bright, vibrant green, which even on the darkest morning, fills me with the absolute certainty of resurrection. So today—this morning—I celebrate by standing quietly beside the Green Eye, reassured in the knowledge that spring will come, that life will go on…that faith and hope are not in vain.