STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
Or All About Adventitious Roots
Recently did another interview for a web site, where it was question of roots.
Which question, of course, immediately got me thinking about issues cultural and how one defines the things when they are what attaches you to home. So, of course, I looked up roots in Wikipedia. (Don’t ask, that’s just how my mind works.)
There were all kinds: adventitious, aerating, aerial, contractile, coarse, fine, haustorial, propagative, proteoid, stilt, storage, structural, surface and tuberous. This was followed by rooting depths, root architecture, evolutionary history, economic importance and more. Now of course I know the article was about plants, but it doesn’t take much to transpose the list to human experience. And to wonder what kind of roots attach us each to what we either deem or hold dear.
Outside considerations of family, friends, profession or lifestyle, I’ve always been fascinated by what attaches people to what they call “home”, and subject chance acquaintances to merciless impromptu interrogations about their feelings on the subject.
Because we humans are certainly attached to roots. Mountains have roots, which, in geological terms, makes no sense, but is rich in idioms mythological, as the World-Mountain and the World-Tree share the same origin. In many creation myths, Earth and Sky are pushed apart (or Sky and Ocean, who given birth to Earth before being separated) to create the fragile world humans will inhabit. The World Tree serves a threefold purpose: to keep the two from crashing back together, to keep them from from drawing further apart and tearing the world asunder (both prompting a return to chaos, the time when there was no time), and to provide a bridge between the two and a centre around which to turn. Axis Mundi.
Yggdrasil, the Ash that holds up Ymir’s sky-dome skull, has three roots. One reaches the Urðarbrunnr, where the three Norns, Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld, go about their business, shaping the lives of mortals. They also draw water from the well, to sprinkle in the roots of Yggdrasil, to protect it from decay. The two swans that feed from the well are the ancestors of all swans.
There is another well under the second root, which extends to Jötunheimr, realm of the Frost Giants. The Mimirsbrunnr is where Odin leaves and eye in exchange for wisdom, though he comes away knowing the future, which was perhaps not so wise after all.
The third root goes the deepest, down through Niflheimr to yet another well: Hvergelmir, the wellspring of cold, source of the eleven rivers, including the Gjöll, which forms the necessary running-river barrier between the lands of the living and those of the dead. Below that, the wyrm Níðhöggr, Malice-Striker, Corpse-Tearer, Shadow-Lurker, busily gnaws and worries the bark of Yggdrasil’s roots. He will of course eventually bring it crashing down at Ragnarok, when the Nine Worlds will be destroyed. (A trinity of roots, for a triple trinity of worlds. The Norse universe is nothing if not complex.)
In the crown of Yggdrasil roosts the eagle, whose high perch lets him see all things. Between his eyes perches in turn the hawk Veðrfölnir . The four stags Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór clatter along the wide limbs of Yggdrasil, nibbling buds and new leaves. The squirrel Ratatösk scampers up and down the trunk, carrying insults from the eagle to Níðhöggr and back. No love lost between those two.
And Ratatösk is more than just an agile messenger, he symbolizes, in Edna Kenton’s words*, “the spirit of heaven, the great Energiser, passing ever to and fro, guiding, controlling al lthe universe, from the first world to the ninth; at home everywhere, abiding nowhere, stirless when moving and moving when still; that without which there would be nothing - here shown as merely a tiny timid nimble squirrel.”
Type “roots” into amazon.com and 714,187 books will come up. That’s a lot of witnesses to our obsession with roots and proof that it is indeed a handy term to anchor concepts in and grow stories on.
While we are rather more preoccupied with branches than roots in family trees, we nevertheless place a couple of ancestors at the base of the trunk, though in all logic, they are perched on as ramified a branch as we. However, it’s as close to the roots as we can put them, usually on a graphically pleasing grassy knoll, the kind one dreams of sitting on, under the shady canopy of the tree.
The two mad twins, Cora and Clarice Groan, have a room of roots, where they have painted each root a separate tint down to the finest tendrils in a mad medley of colour. Not only is it an attempt to bring stability and meaning they cannot have, for their madness is as much within as without, their myopic effort to fix a rainbow in paint is equally doomed. No pot of gold in Gormenghast.
While Irminsul eventually diminished into a sacred tree hidden deep in the forest to escape evangelization, it is likely it once upheld the sky. (To no avail, though; Charlemagne found it and cut it down.)
Pre-Columbian Meso-American culture has several axes mundi that keep earth and sky in their places, providing a necessary bridge between heaven and the underworld. Not surprisingly, the Egyptian sky is the arched back of the Sky Goddess Nut. Not a lot of forests in Egypt, and imported timbers do not a cosmology uphold. Living rafters are needed for that.
“Root” has its own roots in late Old English. rot, from Old Norse rot “root,” from Proto-Germanic wrot, or vrot shedding the v and w en route. The Saxon words for “root” were wyrttruma and wyrtwala. Most other words associated with trees are of Germanic origin in English: bough, limb, bark, seed, leaf et al. Branch, flower and trunk are from Latin via French, Romance terms grafted onto foreign stock. Tree can be traced farther back, to an Indo-European root. But of course. Roots again.
While a firmly-rooted World Tree is absent from classical Greek mythology, Greek folklore speaks of a tree that holds up the heavens. The Kallikantzaroi fulfill the role of Nidhoggr, gnawing at the bark and sawing at the trunk.
Roots go down better in country than city. All that concrete, most likely, and a sub-terrain filled with hurtling metros and sewers is no place to set down roots. Urban dwellers achor their roots in concepts of “country”, meaning nation, not “country” signifying land, the kind that gets under your fingernails. Visceral roots are a thing of wider landscapes, where the only things underground are life-providing: rivers and springs and patient seeds, or life-accepting: our burial places.
The Égig érő fa, or Sky-reaching Tree, holds up the Hungarian sky. Heroes must first travel to the end of the world and then scale the tree. There are perilous creatures in the branches, but the hardy can reach the heavens and speak with the souls therein. As for its roots, they delve deep into the ancient shamanic past of Hungarian tribes before the 1st millennium, likely sharing a root or two with the Turkic and Mongolian peoples. The Baltic nations also have a sky sustained by World-Trees. Celtic mythology is curiously barren of such trees; the lofty stature of the Gaelic Bilé probably owing more to neopagan syncretism than to ancient roots.
Even such an ubiquitous tale as Jack and the Beanstalk contains a germ of columna cerului, though much reduced in stature. Rereading the story as myth and not fairy tale is a most worthwhile exercise. (Genetically modified plants are a common thing in the reduction of myth to folklore.)
In a similar devolution**, a popular Hungarian folktale places the tree in the garden of a king’s daughter. Among its branches lives a three (sometimes seven or nine) -headed dragon. When the princess suddenly disappears, a dream reveals that the dragon has invoked turbulent winds to lift up the princess into its castle, hidden high in the tree. The castle could be on any leaf: the search is made more difficult by the fact that a whole country fits on each and every one of them. No prince or duke could climb the tree; but for a poor shepherd boy who took his axe and climbed for seven days among the lands to find a land identical to the world below, the princess would have been forever lost.
Yielding to his captive’s request, dragon took the young shepherd in as a servant, commanding him to care for his emaciated horse. The skin-and-bone horse revealed that its forage is burning embers, but since the horse is the only creature who knows how to destroy the beast, the dragon has starved it almost to death. When the poor boy feeds it, the horse regains its shape and the boy sees that it has five legs (!). They escape and the horse tells him that in the woods there is a boar: in its head there is a hare, in the head of the hare there is a little box, in the box five bumblebees, and in them lies the strength of the dragon. The boy smashes the box between two stones, cuts off the nine heads of the weakened wyrm, and flies down on horseback with his bride.
In other versions the tree grows on infinitely and has no top. In others, the fruit rejuvenates whoever eats of it, or gives them immortality. In some folk tales there is a direct reference to roots in hell, crown in heaven, and the hero has to go into both places on his quest. In some striking versions the tree grows out of a stag or horse. Sometimes the Sun, the Moon and the Wind live inside the tree and aid or delay the hero in his quest.
In Hungary, the earliest “record” of the tree is a clay roof tile into which the maker pressed the image of a tree. A rune pressed in the top branches represents the concept of “Ur-God”, thus the tree is a personification of a guardian God or spirit. Other nomadic tribes, notably the Huns & Hittites, also utilized the same symbol for their god. (The rune is identical to the 4000 year old Hittite hieroglyph of “God”.) The tree is often represented as a “tulip tree”, with tulip motifs recurring not only in oral lore but also in depictions found on carved gates, painted crafts, or embroidered into vests and pillowcases. Hence the tulip has a special meaning & magical powers in Hungarian folklore, and often incorporates the “Ur-God” rune in it. The sky-reaching tree myth is a representation of the belief that world shall be held together and preserved against all odds.
Which naturally brings me to my own roots, which I, like my luckless victims, am unable to clearly describe. After toying with haustorial, but only briefly, I’ve settled on adventitious for my root system. Wikipedia again: “Adventitious roots arise out-of-sequence from the more usual root formation of branches of a primary root, and instead originate from the stem, branches, leaves, or old woody roots.” I can’t say that they are anchored in Canada, though they did certainly form there, but are rooted rather in a soil undefined by borders, the eclectic, syncretic land of my own humble reckoning, but firmly so, for a place you can’t delineate on any map. My roots get their nourishment from those things that hold a fascination for me at any and every level, which means home is everywhere else and nowhere special, stranger in a strange land. Underneath ordinance maps is a richer, deeper, transtemporal strata that does not divide, because it cannot be coveted or disputed, fenced off or fought over.
Utopist? Idealist? I did say that my thoughts on the matter were no clearer than most. (It’s a land where questions thrive more readily than answers. Don’t ask, that’s just how my mind works.)
Lastly, and speaking of answers, apologies for not linking to the site for which I hurried to do the interview, it seems to not yet be on line. I’ll provide a link when it appears.
A modest gallery of Yggdrasils
From left to right: The Tree of Yggdrasil by W. G. Collingwood, frontispiece by Arthur Rackham, The Nine Worlds by Oluf Olufsen Bagge, Odin’s Self-sacrifice by Collingwood, Yggdrasil by Franz Von Stassen, Asgard by Hermann Hendrich, Odin by Emil Doepler, the World-Tree from the 17th century Icelandic manuscript AM 738 4to (detail)
Author John Fowles is far better known for his novels - the Magus, the French Lieutenant’s Woman, Daniel Martin - than his non-fiction, but while we’re talking about roots, I’d recommend his book “The Tree”. A slim volume at less than one hundred pages, it is a finely written collection of thoughts on trees and their meaning (and rather less heavy going than Robert Graves). Though-provoking and highly personal, it is a John Fowles that largely unrevealed by his novels (with the possible exception of “A Maggot”, about which, more another time).
Ecco Pr (October 1983)
Hardcover, 91 pages
Laurie Battle and I go way back, as the saying goes, and have worked together off and on over the last two decades. She has just launched her new web site, American Muse. Bookmark it. I’m certain you’ll find it worthwhile. Here’s Laurie’s introduction:
“I hope this finds you well. I’m writing to announce my recently
launched website, [url=http://www.americanmuse.net]http://www.americanmuse.net[/url] It’s a combination blog and
online scrapbook, designed to explore (through a filter of personal
experience) how culture, politics, myth and history inspire thought
and action in a diverse society. It has been fun to put together, and
I hope you will enjoy reading it. Any comments you care to share,
whether directly to me or through the site, will be most welcome!”
Some people are hard to pin down long enough to stick a label on them. Many squirm energetically, others are just to slippery to catch, and some are just so prolific it’s like trying to decide on just one label for a full wall of drawers in a wunderkammer. Wayne Barlowe is one of those.
With Wayne, it’s not easy to decide decide whether he is an author or an illustrator, since choosing either would insinuate that the other is done less well. Perhaps a neologism is needed, for expression indifferent of medium, since he does his storytelling and world-building in both word and image with equal intensity and clarity of vision.
While he might acknowledge a passing nod to Dante and Milton, his unique version of Hell owes nothing to anyone. (It’s easy to imagine Wayne Barlowe, accompanied by Virgil, Dante and Milton, queuing up at Acheron Departures with Kharon exclaiming “What, you lot again? Four of you this time? I expect you’ll be wanting a group rate next.”)
His fallen angels are like none you’ve ever experienced, and the denizens and landscapes are unsettling, sobering and wildly and frighteningly beautiful. The descriptions of the Fall are fabulous.) Wayne uses disproportion on a scale and in a manner that renders it almost impossible to visualize but recalls the horizontal vertigo of paintings by John Martin or screenshots from Eisenstein. (He also knows a thing or two about the Roman Empire, which doesn’t hurt, and exposes the obviously deeply considered logistics of the Inferno without expounding on them, woven seamlessly as they are into the narrative.)
All in all, it’s a unique book in a genre all its own. Buy it. Read it, even if you don’t expect it’s your cup of tea (or pint of brimstone, depending), you may well be quite surprised.
Wayne Douglas Barlowe
Tor Fantasy; Reprint edition (December 30, 2008)
Paperback: 432 pages
*Edna Kenton, the Book of Earths, 1928
**The word “devolution” is overly dismissive in many cases. Folklore is simultaneously an impoverishment and an enrichment of original myth. While much of the sacred sense of myth may be lost or disguised, other elements are added to the complexity of the story, and while they do not always make sense or fit, they are most revealing in themselves.
Special thanks to Imola Unger for the Hungarian folk tale and accompanying information.
Posted by John on 01/02/10 | 04:00 AM | Chronicles
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