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.

12 comments:

Lynne said...

Another beautiful post that made me smile, sigh and wipe a tear from my eye. Spring is all about resurrection and renewal.
Thanks for sharing the Green Eye.
Happy St. Patrick's day from a wannabe!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Lynne…

It is, indeed. And for today, you're NOT a wannabe.

Val said...

Beautiful post, Grizzled. Thank you for the history lesson (I'm a tad bit ashamed that as a History major in History [with a concentration in religion]I did not know the story behind the shamrock.) Cheers to you for enlightening me!

Rowan said...

Happy St Patrick's Day! I knew the story about the shamrock but didn't realise that no-one knows exactly which plant it is - actually, I assumed a shamrock was a plant in its own right. Live and learn!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Val…

No shame necessary. I'd been "wearin' green" for years before I knew the story behind the custom. Not being a Catholic, I knew nothing of St. Patrick, either, except that he was somehow connected to Ireland and the shamrock.

I really enjoy learning the history around plants and animals in religion, their naming, medicine, surrounding customs, folklore, superstitions, myths, etc.—from Groundhog's Day to the origin of the jack-o'-lantern, the employment of goose bones to predict the severity of a coming winter, or the fact that "lilac" is an Old English word with roots in Arabic and the Persian word for blue.

I like to place the natural world—and natural history—in the context of this much richer, wider-ranging history. I'll try to not get carried away with it, though.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…(A good tree name, BTW, with a fine and fascinating lineage!)

Nope, the debate continues. I've actually picked up several small books over years on this single subject. In addition, there are chapters in several of my Irish histories and biographies of Patrick, and I probably have a dozen articles and monographs on the true shamrock in my files.

I, too, originally thought the matter was long ago settled—after all, go online and there are plenty of nurseries and plant retailers offering "shamrock" plants for sale. And even as a kid, I remembered you could go the "variety" store on this day and buy a sprig of something to stick in your lapel. But the truth is, the identity of the exact plant Patrick used—if, of course, the event even happened—is, and likely always will be, unknown.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Brilliant St Patrick's day post, Scribe - and a happy one to you. Funerals are always sad - but maybe being so close to SPDay has made you a tad more philosophical about it. As you say - the world goes on.
We have watercress in our beck and I agree, it is intensely green in winter.
Have you tried sorrel soup - delicious.
Enjoy the rest of your special day - and get spotting the wildlife ready for tomorrow's post - I look forward to it.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

Pensive yesterday, though honestly not sad. However we view mortality and its aftermath, we must come to terms with the fact. I'm comfortable with that, and my old friend was, too.

Today I want to simply remember—and remember with pleasure—the blessing and shared adventures of friendship. That it falls on St. Patrick's Day is simply so much the better.

You know, I've never tried sorrel soup. But I really do love nibbling on sorrel, and as I mentioned, I've used it in salads. I like anything sour—from green apples to lemons to gummy bears (a sour gum candy).

And I will be on the lookout for upcoming blog tidbits. Wouldn't want to disappoint!

giggles said...

Did not St Pat chase the snakes out of Ireland, too?? Or am I confusing saints and stories?

My oldest daughter would be a tad disappointed....she has a true knack for finding 4 leafed clovers... She's got a dozen or more stashed between the pages of some big books!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Giggles…

You have your stories straight. St. Patrick did, it is said, drive all the snakes from Ireland…though I wouldn't give such a tale quite the credence as the one re. shamrocks, and even that one's only shakily corroborated.

I can state the following for a fact, though—and I must say you're the first person with whom I've ever shared this secret bit of history regarding St. Patrick's critter-banishment capabilities. So please keep this to yourself.

The fact is that once upon a fine spring day, Patrick, busy amid his preaching and peregrinations about the island, found himself hungry and without food. Being a man of Scriptural scholarship, he had an idea—he would emulate Jesus, who, finding his disciples in similar circumstances, bid them cast their nets into the Sea of Galilee—whereupon the nets came back filled to overflowing with tasty fish.

A fish dinner sounded like a pretty good meal to Patrick. Unfortunately, the man who would become Ireland's patron saint lacked both disciples and a net, plus the nearest water was only a lough and not the sea. Nevertheless, being a man of considerable faith, the good preacher used his walking stick to give the aforementioned lough several good wallops. Nothing happened. He smacked the water with redoubled vigor. No miracle was forthcoming. No fish turned belly up and washed ashore. So Patrick had to go on his way hungry and puzzled.

What he didn't know—in fact never learned—was that up until that very moment, Ireland's loughs were fairly stiff with alligators. While nets are fine for fish, walking staffs are the tool for gators. Except that dead gators sink rather than float. Unfortunately, Patrick never realized he'd inadvertently killed every alligator in Ireland with his excessive wallops and whacks.

Yet even unto this day, not a single green Irish gator is to be found—from Derry to Cork, Galway to Dublin. And that's no blarney!

giggles said...

You don't say!!???

Sssshhhh... I won't tell a soul! Promise! (Thanks for sharing with me!)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Giggles…

You heard it here first. Tis the gospel truth.