My old friend J.F.H.New liked to quip that he was the most distinguished Korean-born Australian historian of Tudor-Stuart England—having been brought up by Presbyterian emigrants and missionaries. But he scarcely needs the qualification; his Anglican and Puritan: The Basis of Their Opposition was an elegant contribution to a debate of fearsome complexity and range. He founded the scholarly journal which I eventually inherited as editor, he established the PhD programme in History at the University of Waterloo, and he brought Peter O’Shaughnessy to Canada, all of which had far-reaching effects.
I remember most fondly, however, a bit of whimsy. He once delivered in all solemnity, with copious references, a faculty seminar paper showing that the disappearance of fairies in the public record could be traced to mounting scepticism about their existence. This had clearly offended them and caused them to withdraw.
And a valuable piece of advice. At a time when I was undergoing a severe mental crisis, New told me the thing to do was to focus on little things, which I took literally, as I think he intended, and got myself manuals on weeds and wild flowers and took to going about bent over, guidebook in hand, identifying camomiles and plantains, distinguishing hop clovers from lesser hop clovers and least hop clovers and all three from black medic.
So it has been ever since. Walks become botanising expeditions to an internal litany of names. Heal-all, toad flax, cranesbill; yarrow, tansy; a rare moth mullein, the ubiquitous birdsfoot trefoil. When a name escapes, the thing has escaped and the world is lessened until the name is recalled, rehearsed, fixed again in place.
It has been a wet and mild summer here and the verges everywhere explode in green. Across the road from our tower mansion, a new light-rail project—cutting through parkland with insouciant brutalism as though Paris–Lyon TGV rather than Toonerville to Kitchener—left temporarily a bit of waste ground we pass every day, mounded up magnificently with chicory, wild carrot, sunflowers, bindweed and sweet clover; horsey, ditch-filling weeds.
The other day, the inevitable. A mower had been through, slashing and chewing. Only the bindweed running up the fence remained intact.
Penny feels these things as a hot iron to the flesh. No tree cut down unremarked and unmourned, no fresh vandalism or vulgarity shrugged off. I never feel more hopelessly stupid than trying to console with a fatuous remark about compensations. Nevertheless, it remains true that it is the cutting that released the full fragrance of the sweet clover, whose stems, in dying, ferment the essence of every hay-time in the world. Best not to look, I say, but to inhale.
Could it be that something like this, a trick of redirection of the senses, a feat of tact and discretion, might one day, too, coax the fairies out of hiding, so that even if we do not see them directly we will again hear a rustle and a murmur, catch a flutter in the corner of the eye, smell something like a mushroom, and know they have returned?