Least Favorite Plant: Bidens

14856148_1192325424191374_6246555258212959974_oBeware the Bidens! Kelly and I were naive when it came to this common plant. It looked innocuous so we let a few grow. We’ve never seen it before in our yard and had to post a picture to Facebook’s only useful group, Plant Identification, in order to identify it.

Bidens is in the Asteraceae family which includes sunflowers, daisies and asters. There are many different varieties of Bidens and an equal number of popular names, according to Wikipedia: “beggarticks, black jack, burr marigolds, cobbler’s pegs, Spanish needles, stickseeds, tickseeds and tickseed sunflowers.”

Those popular names should give some clues as to the plant’s behavior. Brush up against it and this happens:

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It turns out that nature has brilliantly designed these seeds to hitch a ride on mammals. Just touch or lightly brush up against the seed pods, which resemble mid-century chandeliers, and you’ll be picking out seeds for the next hour. Plants can’t move on their own so they’ve got to enlist helpers. In the case of Bidens, we’re the Uber.

Do you have Bidens in your garden?

Saturday Tweets: Post Halloween Edition

Tiny House Dweller as Contemporary Hermit in the Garden

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One of the difficult to comprehend landscape trends of an earlier era was the garden hermitage. Real hermits disappeared with the Reformation, but the idea of a fake, picturesque hermitage lived on in English style gardens. Some just had a hermitage structure with the suggestion that someone lived there: an open book sitting on a table or sometimes even a dummy dressed as a hermit. But more wealthy land owners took the idea a step further and went so far as to pay people to act as hermits. Gordon Campbell’s book The Hermit in the Garden From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome contains the following story,

At one great house in England the accounts disclose a half-yearly payment £300 to a hermit, who had, for this commensurate salary, to remain bearded and in a state of picturesque dirtiness for six months in the year in an artificial cave at a suitable distance from the house–just far enough (but not too far) for the fashionable house-party, with its court of subservient poets and painters, to visit, walking there in the afternoon, peering into the semi-darkness with a little thrill of wonder and excitement.

The Craigslists of an earlier era sometimes carried garden hermit help wanted ads,

Mr Hamilton, once the proprietor of Payne’s Hill, near Cobham, Surrey, advertised for a person who was willing to become a hermit in that beautiful retreat of his. The conditions were, that he had to continue the hermitage seven years, where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his bed, a hassock for his pillow, an hour-glass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, food from the house, but never to exchange a word with the servant. He was to wear a camlet robe, never to cut his beard or nails, nor even to stay beyond the limits of the grounds. If he lived there, under all these restrictions, till the end of the term, he was to receive seven hundred guineas. But on breach of any of them, or if he quitted the place any time previous to that term, the whole was to be forfeited. One person attempted it, but a three weeks’ trial cured him.

I was giggling my way through Cambell’s hermit book until I realized the idea is still, very much, alive. We don’t have hermits anymore. We have tiny house dwellers. Tell me how this reality show ad is any different than the garden hermit appeals of an earlier era:

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I’ve long thought the tiny house movement to be less about practicalities than about about a reaction to the spiritual malaise caused by consumer culture. The greatest expense in building a house are the kitchen and bathroom. Walls are cheap so you might as well make some extra space. Thus, in economic terms, a small house rather than a tiny house makes more sense.

But the tiny house movement is not about economics. It is, in part, an attempt to, in the words of the Joni Mitchell song to get “back to the garden.” In this way, the contemporary tiny house aspires to Adam and Eve’s pre-fall tiny house described in John Milton’s poem, The First Love of Adam and Eve,

the roof
Of thickest covert was inwoven shade,
Laurel and myrtle, and what higher grew
Of firm and fragrant leaf; on either side
Acanthus, and each odorous bushy shrub,
Fenced up the verdant wall; each beauteous flower,
Iris all hues, roses, and jessamine,
Rear’d high their flourished heads between, and wrought
Mosaic; under foot the violet,
Crocus, and hyacinth, with rich inlay
Broidered the ground, more coloured than the stone
Of costliest emblem

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But the tiny house also resembles a full embrace of melancholy that’s been unfashionable for at least 150 years. There’s a whole genre of now nearly forgotten “dark” poetry that Cambell quotes from, such as Thomas Parnell’s ‘The Hermit,’

Far in a wild, unknown to public view,
From youth to age a reverend hermit grew
The moss his bed, the cave his humble cell,
His food the fruits, his drink the crystal well.

It’s not too great a step from this picturesque melancholy to full desert father style escape from the consumer matrix. Right now we’re riding high on an economic boom. Inevitably there will be another bust. No sane person knows when that bust will happen again, but when it does I predict we’ll see more garden hermits and fewer tech bros.

Full credit must go to Gordon Campbell for the quotes in this post and to Fr. Mark Kowalewski for the Joni Mitchell reference. You can also listen to a Futility Closet Podcast episode about garden hermits.

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Julian the Apostate’s Sleeping Advice: Sleep on the Ground and Your Mattress is Freeeeeeeeeee

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Ever since meeting Michael Garcia and Stephanie Wing-Garcia, inventors of the sand mattress that we profiled in a blog post and podcast, I’ve been thinking about the terrible mattress that Kelly and I sleep on and the possibility that the way we sleep contributes to aches and pains later in life. It’s possible that the softness of our mattresses are making our muscles and bones weak, just like the terrible running shoes and orthotics that ruin our feet and collapse our arches.

It turns out that the last pagan Roman emperor has ideas about how we should sleep. Ammianus Marcellinus’ Roman History Book I, contains a description of emperor Julian the Apostate’s austere sleeping habits:

And when the night was half over, he always got up, not from a downy couch or silken coverlets glittering with varied hues, but from a rough blanket and rug, which the simple common folk call susurna.

The Loeb edition of Marcellinus’ Roman History defines susurna as, “A coarse blanket made from the fur or hide of an animal.” 

Julian slept this way so as to stay in a state of readiness during his Gaul campaign and as way to prevent falling into the trap of luxury and flattery that consumed so many of his predecessors. His habits remind me of a couple I met who, despite being well into their 70s and living in a fashionable downtown apartment, slept on the floor so as to be always prepared for their beloved hobby: hiking the Pacific Coast Trail.

Bonus idea: clothes as mattress

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In researching the susurna, I discovered another ancient Roman sleeping hack. A cloak made from a square piece of cloth that succeeded the toga in the late Roman period, called the pallium (Ancient Greek ἱμάτιον) could also double as a blanket or bedding. Isn’t it time to revive this idea?

Our neighborhood is fashion forward enough to allow folks to strut around in a pallium without much blowback particularly if you’re a young hipster. I predict that soon after I spot the first pallium wearer at our local Trader Joes, REI will come out with “tech” palliums suitable for hiking, urban philosophizing and sleeping.

Addendum: Kelly pointed out to me that fantasy literature is full of examples of cloaks doubling as bedding. 

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A Halloween Mouth of Truth

We are lucky to live on a block with a lot of friendly, creative people. Last year on Halloween, two of our neighbors did an elaborate Mount Olympus/Hades themed candy giveaway, while another, a professional DJ, turned on all his professional lighting equipment and smoke machines in addition to a full laser light show. This year all of these attractions returned with the addition of a new contribution from Kelly: a candy dispensing Mouth of Truth.

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The original Mouth of Truth (La Bocca della Verità) is a first century fountain or manhole cover on display in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, Italy. A folk tradition holds that if you stick your hand in the mouth you have to tell the truth or else your hand will be bitten off. The Mouth of Truth had its fifteen minutes of fame back in 1953 when it was featured in the Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck movie Roman Holiday.

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Kelly’s Mouth of Truth remix featured a puppet tongue that alternately gave candy and tugged on kid’s hands. It was a big hit. We had huge crowds and gave up around 9 pm after serving approximately 300 delighted customers (and two completely terrified toddlers).

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Zeus put down his cardboard thunderbolt and took a break from handing out candy two doors down at Mount Olympus to visit the Mouth of Truth.

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Our friend John donned his cat suit and acted as Mouth of Truth interpreter, explaining the the concept to the many hundreds of costumed kids.

img_1842Kelly donned a witch’s hat, in spite of the fact that she was out of view the whole evening performing the arduous task of tongue puppetry for three hours. I dispensed cheese, crackers and cocktails to visiting adults in the adjoining garage.

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John suggested that, next year, we create a giant candy dispensing Zardoz head as a tribute to this nearly unwatchable “so bad it’s good” 1974 Sean Connery science fiction vehicle.

zardoz-21No, I will not to wear Sean Connery’s Zardoz costume.

Zardoz costume aside, the fun that Halloween provides really helps get to know neighbors. We need more festivals in our lives like this, where we take a break from day to day concerns and work together, on the neighborhood level, to create space for joy and unity.

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