by Jaime Bastien
There is no particular word for the network of hollow tunnels a dead plant leaves once its roots are annihilated. Nor is there a word for the hollow cavity that marks a worm’s last passage before being lifted into oblivion by the beak of its final adversary.
I have read in Mary Beard’s The Fires Of Vesticus of ancient gardens that have been remembered, plant by plant, tree by tree, through a strange method involving the extraction of root-casts from ashen courtyards in Pompeii. The root-casts are created by removing the ash from the cavities the incinerated flora have left, carefully re-enforcing the tunnels with wire, filling the hollow spaces with cement, and, once the stuff is hardened, removing the surrounding soil until all that is left is something that resembles a stone spider. It would be difficult to tell the uninformed that the object represents the water-suckling organs of a single plant that once proudly served as a decoration in the court of a Roman bigwig.
The root-casts and soil samples (what with its odd two-thousand-year-old insect corpse, the bone fragment, the seedpod carapace and perhaps an enigmatic flake of gold) are separated and sent to respective labs to be groveled over by respective specialists. The expert botanist performs some sort of vegetable autopsy on the thing and the specimen is formally identified. Thus the ash-stuffed tunnels of the black courtyard eventually betray the identities of their long-dead vegetative creators.
Archeologist Giuseppe Fidegeghelli initially invented the casting technique to create sculptures not of roots, but of the terrified citizens of Pompeii, frozen in the final position they took before death. For all the knowledge this technique grants us, there is something of a sick necromancy in it. The most affecting image in Fires of Vesticus must be a photograph by artist Allan McCollum who in his Dogs of Pompeii captures an unnerving replica: a suffering dog cast in plaster, vainly trying to tear off his leash with his jaws.
McCollum, who calls mass production his theme, succeeds, I think, in slowly neutering the pity of his audience. What once was an object signifying a singular tragedy now becomes a hideously replicated abomination. Of course, such morbid sculptures account for Pompei’s popularity, just as the blatant hints of carnage and violence sprinkled around the colosseum largely account for its mystique.
Yet the colosseum itself had its own slew of botanists who, just like their Pompeian counterparts, eschew bone fragments for seedpods. Why the colosseum? As much as I would like to answer that some unearthly force brings forth spectacular flowers in commemoration for the unjustly slain, I cannot. Neither can I say that wild flowers feed off ectoplasm, and the most tragic places on earth are destined to eventually become the most polychromatic of gardens. The truth is the slain themselves unknowingly dispersed the ingredients that ensured that the arena’s ruins became a sort of botanical hotspot. Domenico Panaroli, 17th century herbalist, who compiled the first catalogue of Colosseum flora, Plantarum Amphytheatralium Catalogus, theorized that exotic seeds, somehow entangled in the wild hair of lions, giraffes and antelope, finally fell from the creatures shuddering bodies in or around the arena of their execution. Richard Deacon, a 19th century botanist, refuses to dwell on the cruelties of the colosseum and instead waxes poetic, borrowing Wordsworth verses to describe the regenerative power of common weeds.
Perhaps its the sight of a flower bouquet on the side of icy roadways that compel me to keep my mind on these naturalists who sought greenery in the wastes of volcanoes or in colossal theatres of cruelty. People who bent backwards the old saying about cynics who think funeral at the whiff of flowers.