Thursday, 6 June 2013

A literary riff on Duranta erecta (Plant Portrait I*)


This post is not about the senseless vandalism of our cacti collection on Tuesday night but its theme may have some relevance to the motives behind such behaviours. 

Ten years ago I became obsessed with the writing of the Czech/French author Milan Kundera. I read as much as I could, borrowing books from the library and buying the odd novel or two. The obsession passed, as it does for me with books and music.

Still, I have fond memories and when I saw a book of his essays called Encounter I decided it was time to renew the relationship. I even bought a hard copy, not just the electronic words for my Kindle or Nexus 7.

What I rediscovered was his precise and penetrating prose, and generally compatible philosophy (we all like authors who agree with us or better still, say what we think better). I also discovered (no 're' here) an interesting prose form: the 700-word essay, riffing, and that's the best descriptor I can come up with, around a particular book.

Perhaps they were written as book reviews. They certainly have a consistent length and approach, as though they were commissioned by someone.

One of the most compelling of these is about Juan Goytisolo's The Curtain Falls, a book I haven't read but now must. The book and Kundera's essay are about memory and existence. Goytisolo's narrator has conversations with a god, 'manufactured out of speculation and doctrinal Councils', who reminds him after he had visited Chechnya that Leon Tolstoy's Haji Murat describes a war between Russia and Chechnya 150 years earlier than the one just finished. The scandal of the recent war, according to Kundera, is not the massacre (or at least not only the massacre) but that the massacre was a repetition.

Tough stuff. But what has this to do with plants? Well nothing directly but I like the format and style of Kundera's essay. I like the way the book under review (if that's what it's under) provides a platform to reflect on life. I'd like to write a few posts along these lines, or at least inspired by those lines. A few plant portraits.

The easy link with Kundera's essay on Goytisolo (and I know this is becoming a meta-essay now) would be to riff on how we continue to destroy plants and animals, continue to pollute the world with carbon dioxide, and continue to pay little regard to keeping as much plant diversity in our world as we can.

All true but you don't need me to tell you this. Instead I'll make mention of a plant Lynda and I found in the park opposite our house this morning. It's a common species. In fact it's a weedy species, although not (yet) a problem in Victoria I don't think (and I gather there may be cultivars, such as 'Geisha Girl', that are less invasive).

Native to middle and southern America, Duranta erecta (also referred to as Duranta repens), is one of those hardy garden shrubs you see every now and then in an old park or garden, particularly in northern Australia. I don't think anyone buys it much these days and nurseries probably shouldn't sell it.

We were attracted to it by the orange berries that look like tiny pomegranates, and the smug little purple flowers with their two divergent stripes providing a slightly angular handle-bar moustache. I like plants that have flowers and fruits at the same time, particularly when they are quite different colours.

Duranta erecta is sometimes called Sky Flower and the common name of the species in Tonga (Mavaetangi) translates as Tears of Departure.

We learn, after handling the plant quite freely while we check our identification, that the leaves and fruits are poisonous and have killed children, dogs and cats.

Duranta erecta is pretty. It has romantic common names. But decisively, you would think, it's weedy and toxic. It is one of the top 50 most invasive weeds in northern Australia and considered a 'sleeper' in the south. So of course I'd wouldn't advocate growing it or planting it in my garden. I mean Ferdinand Mueller gets justifiably pilloried for encouraging and personally spreading blackberries and rabbits throughout Victoria.

Milan Kundera would never be so crass and lazy as to end his essay with a quote such as this from Terry Brookes: "We are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, and no amount of education gleaned from our propensity for self-destruction and misguided thinking ever teaches us anything. Not anything that we remember for more than a generation or two."

*Occasional posts are called Plant Portraits (in brackets after the blog title and marked with an asterisk). These are usually about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (very loosely and with due deference) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed.

3 comments:

Brad Connors said...

Finally I now know what this is. Mum has for in her yard and I trim them into hedge shapes. I was planning to try and grow the seeds as a barrier hedge but if they're a post I won't bother. They're everywhere in Mackay and do make a good hedge plant but I'll look for something native.

Brad Connors said...

Damn the phone keyboards.

Tim Entwisle said...

Yes shame it's a pest/post up your way. Best to seek an alternative unfortunately.
Tim