Thursday, May 21, 2009

Death by Transcendentalism: The Poison Garden

At right: hellebore in Amy Stewart's backyard. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

Nature is pretty, but it can also kill you. In fact, whether by man-eating lions or microbes or cellular decay, it probably will.

This doesn't jive well with the modern environmental movement. How can someone revere and dote on their inevitable murderer? The idea would baffle the Puritans, who used the the word "wilderness" almost as a dirty word, synonymous with death, torment, and terror. For Boston's founders, anything west of modern-day Copley Square was the domain of Satan.

But two hundred years later, their descendants embraced the wilderness and established the philosophical underpinnings of modern environmentalism. When nature wasn't threatening to starve or maim you, they found, it could make you feel pretty great: like a transparent eyeball, or a "part or particle of God," to use phrases from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Nature."

The wilderness became a spiritually and morally uplifting place as soon as humans tamed the wilderness.

I understand the transcendentalist point of view. I've had chills run down my spine from the freedom of being outside, have been struck dumb at spectacles of nature among craggy mountaintops and on the sidewalk of Broadway in Manhattan, and understand perfectly what Emerson means when he talks about a transparent eyeball.

Even though most of us can't experience the howling wilderness as the Puritans experienced it - park rangers, cellphones, and rescue helicopters having replaced large predators in the woods - I'd argue that getting us closer to death is still a pretty important part of nature's spiritual and moral value. Really understanding nature requires that you understand how insignificant you are, and how tenuous your life is, in the grand scheme of things. Being reminded of those facts constantly and violently - say, as a settler in the New World - probably would feel hellish. But it wouldn't hurt our well-fed, post-industrial, economically-panicked society to confront these facts more often.

Which is why I'm so jazzed about author Amy Stewart's poison garden, which is profiled in the decidedly un-wild "Home and Garden" section of the New York Times today. While working on a book about common poisonous plants, Stewart planted a garden of them in her backyard. Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities is "a fine gift for owners of country houses who have become altogether too smug about country life," according to the Times article.

Here is an impeccably cultivated garden in a suburban backyard. By all appearances, it seems to be the Puritan ideal of what nature should be: thoroughly civilized and under control.

But in fact, many of these plants are capable of killing you: digitalis, or foxglove, which can cause anorexia, nausea, and vomiting; castor beans, which, when raw, contain toxic ricin; and datura, a hallucinogen that can cause fatal cardiac and respiratory distress.

Eat any of them, and nature will violently express its callous indifference to your existence. It's a backyard botanist's version of extreme rock-climbing: a garden designed to put you ill-at-ease with nature. Honestly, I wouldn't want a garden like this for myself. But I love that it's out there, and I believe that I'll read the gardener's book as well.


Neil said...

It's interesting that all of the plants you mentioned are also medicinal--well maybe calling Datura medicinal is stretch but it does have a long history of ceremonial use. This underscores that old saying about the difference between a medicine and a poison being a matter of dosage.

Turboglacier said...

I hope she has a good fence, or a good attorney.