The traveling exhibition Pompeii and the Roman Villa, currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has a few nice tchotchkes worth considering for those of us attempting to garden in Mediterranean places. One of the centerpieces of the show, a large fresco depicting a garden, includes many familiar plants: chamomile, oleander (who knew oleander existed before freeways!), strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and date palms.
But what kept capturing my eye in multiple pieces, was a ceremonial stick carried in Bacchic processions called a thyrsus. Consisting of a stalk of giant fennel topped with a pine cone, occasionally accessorized with a grape or ivy vine, I realized that, here in Los Angeles thanks to our similar climate, I could step out the back door and make my own thyrsus, which I promptly did. For my modern thyrsus I drilled a hole in the pine cone and fennel stalk and inserted a metal pin to hold the pine cone to the stalk.
The combination of a pine cone and fennel stalk symbolizes the unity of farm and forest, of the cultivated and the wild. And you don’t need to be a Freudian to grasp, shall we say, the meaning of a long shaft topped by a bunch of seeds. Roman homes and gardens were, in fact, full of phallic fertility symbols that seem crass to our modern eyes. Exhibitions like Pompeii and the Roman Villa, sadly, censor this imagery. You’ve got to visit the secret cabinet in Naples to see this stuff (way not safe for work!).
Censorship of these ancient fertility symbols is related in my mind to modern fears of the fecundity of nature. It’s these fears that lead landlords to pour copious amounts of concrete and gravel to smother every living thing. It’s what causes neighbors to launch irrational tree and bush killing rampages over the property line lest any bit of foliage fall and mar their precious SUVs.
As rampaging forest fires send Vesuvian plumes of smoke over Los Angeles, it’s time to wave our freak thyrsi high to counter the naturefobic forces out there! As Euripides says, “To raise my Bacchic shout, and clothe all who respond/ In fawnskin habits, and put my thyrsus in their hands–/ The weapon wreathed with ivy-shoots.”