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Starting Point

Sharpened blade hidden in the garden


Our Lord’s Candle is the common name for a yucca plant that resembles nothing so much as a great ball of swords -- several hundred two-foot blades forming a half-globe of sharp, serrated edges. This ball of swords protects a central stalk the size of a mop handle, which is surmounted by a foamy white bloom. That stalk adds little or nothing to the plant’s startling beauty. The noteworthy fact -- or as children’s writer Margaret Wise Brown might have said, the important thing -- about Our Lord’s Candle, Yucca whipplei, is its bristling armor.

To discover a huge ball of kitchen knives in a wildflower meadow is a shock. In the Santa Ana Botanical Garden in Claremont, Calif., Our Lord’s Candle offers a philosophy of life completely different from its neighbors, wild iris and the delicate poppy. Perhaps plants do not exist to offer a philosophy of life, but I would say there’s no harm in being open to meaning in a botanical garden or wild desert just as in a church or library. Whoever named the plant was on the lookout for meaning.

At the same time, the sharp blades are an antidote to foolish mental meanderings. Say what you like, you can’t deny that this plant counters the delicate hospitality of the open poppy with a reality that would stop Don Quixote in his tracks. I touched the tip of a blade; it instantly drew blood, and in withdrawing my hand, I was scratched by the adjacent edges.

In her poem “Cut,” Sylvia Plath writes of her astonishment when a kitchen knife takes off the tip of her thumb, and “Out of a gap/A million soldiers run,/Redcoats, every one.” She is now suddenly aware that there is commerce between her inner world and the outer reality. Plath immediately bandages her wound with a dozen metaphoric interpretations. With customary boldness and even ruthlessness, she thinks of everything: war, suicide, the Ku Klux Klan. What is inside, blood, has become visible, and with it, the human history of spilling blood.

Wandering through the Botanical Garden, I caught a glimpse of the same reality, the same unity. Inside and outside are temporary divisions, temporary separations. It was suddenly obvious that humankind did not invent the sharpened blade. Nor did we invent this blood that spills. The world was here first. The green pastures contain pain-causing yucca blades: Why? Is there a clue in the man-given name, Our Lord’s Candle? Of course, it could amount to nothing more than a description of the way the plant looks, with its frothy mop head rising like a candle from the ball of swords.

The names of natural things -- plants, topographic features, beasts -- often reflect the feelings or beliefs of the donor. A name might be descriptive, whimsical, ironic -- or it might come from a dark place of fear and insecurity. Many names reflect a need to control, or reflect dissatisfaction with lack of control. Names might suggest how comfortable the donor is in his or her surroundings. Sometimes the names given to natural phenomena suggest a sense of awe, or wonder, or a pleasing simplicity of response.

Each time we begin the process of naming a thing or an experience, of telling a story, we are offered the temptation to direct someone else’s thinking. We are offered the chance to express the best of ourselves or the opposite. We have power with the words we choose each day. We can use language to separate things or to connect them.

Inuit storytellers on Alaska’s coast used a thin storyknife to cut pictures in the sand, to help the narrative along. Language itself is a storyknife, separating the foreground from the backdrop, presuming to cut the good from the evil and the pure from the impure, telling us where to look. Telling us what to see. As we separate the good from the bad, the worthy from the worthless, we are using a tool as dangerous as the atom itself. We are using the storyknife; we are using language.

How desperately, then, we need reminders that wisdom and meaning underlie our efforts. Wisdom was here first, before Adam wandered out of the clay pointing at things and giving them names. Wisdom, love, a creative spirit preceded the arrival of scholars and poets. A friend recently joined me in perusing a field guide to birds. “I love puffins,” she said passionately. “They are so well designed.” She calls herself an atheist, and she is very quick to call upon reason and hard work as her sole guides to living, but her language sometimes reflects a sense of wonder, a degree of faith that softens her opinions.

The blades of the yucca penetrate the dangerous complacency of the daydreamer, the arrogance of those who think they’ve seen it all. For that reason alone, I find the common name astonishingly apt. Its pale green blades catch and hold the light and offer a hundred gradations of color. This impressive armor, not made by human hands, allows us to be shocked. It reminds us to look for God in the details.

Even if I’m not always certain, I like to proceed on the faith that God was here first, that his creation contains clues to its meaning. This faith steadies me; it is also a useful discipline for a writer. Wake up and look outward, be open to surprise. Otherwise, as I choose descriptive language, I might be projecting meaning into the environment, blinding myself to its wonders. I’d rather not do that. I’d rather that meaning flowed both ways.

Marjorie Kowalski Cole writes from Ester, Alaska. Her e-mail address is marjoriekc@yahoo.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001