The Flower With Flaxen Flair

Winged flax (Linum alatum) ~ Brazoria County, Texas

In his poem “The Wreck of the Hesperus,”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describes the young daughter of the prideful captain: 

Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax,
Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,
That ope in the month of May.

It’s unlikely Longfellow was comparing the child’s eyes to any of our native blue flaxes (such as Linum lewisii ), since none are found in the northeast. He may have been familiar with the introduced, blue-flowered species cultivated for food and fiber, L. usitatissimum, or even with L. perenne, another introduced species sometimes included in gardens for the blue accents it provides.

Whatever the source of his analogy, the comparison is apt — at least, for eyes. In extolling the flaxen-haired beauties of myth and history, poets obviously are referencing a different sort of flax. When I discovered the yellow-orange flaxes native to Texas, I thought they might have given rise to the expression.

Berlandier’s yellow flax (Linum berlandieri) ~ Gillespie County, Texas

As it happens, neither flower is the source of the expression ‘flaxen-haired.’ During processing, fiber from the plant’s stalks becomes soft, lustrous, and flexible, and takes on the appearance of blonde hair. The use of ‘flaxen’ to mean “the pale yellow colour of dressed flax” appeared in the mid-15th century, and literary references to flaxen hair appear as early as the 1520s.

Published in 1852, Leconte de Lisle’s Chansons écossaises, or Scottish Songs, included the poem La fille aux cheveux de lin, or “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair.”

Sur la luzerne en fleur assise,
Qui chante dès le frais matin?
C’est la fille aux cheveux de lin,
La belle aux lèvres de cerise.
L’amour, au clair soleil d’été,
Avec l’alouette a chanté.
Sitting amidst the alfalfa in flower,
Who sings in the cool morning hour?
It is the girl with the flaxen hair,
The beauty with cherry lips so fair.
Love, in the summer sun so bright,
Sang with the lark for sheer delight
Berlandier’s yellow flax (Linum berlandieri) ~ Bandera County, Texas

Between late 1909 and early 1910, French composer Claude Debussy included his composition “La fille aux cheveux de lin”  in a first book of Préludes. A simple, glowing composition inspired by the poem, it suits our flaxen-petaled flax perfectly. You may recognize Debussy’s piece; you’ll surely enjoy it.

La fille aux cheveux de lin

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Shadow Play

Blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis)

 

Although written for children, Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem titled “My Shadow” would be nearly as appropriate for this dragonfly. Dragonflies may or may not recite poetry, but they’re able to cast remarkably large shadows.

 

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.
The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.
He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!
One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.
                                              

Comments always are welcome.

 

 

Marsh Babies

 

On July 14, 2017, I found a family of common gallinules (Gallinula galeata) settling in for the night among broken reeds at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.  Their chosen spot may appear uncomfortable to our eyes, but at least four chicks seemed happy enough to disappear under their mother’s protective feathers.  

For the rest of that summer and throughout 2018, I hoped for another glimpse of the young birds (sometimes called moorhens, or marsh hens). Adults were plentiful, but any babies remained well hidden within the ponds’ vegetation.  Finally, last Sunday, I discovered a mother and seven chicks busily feeding and exploring the world.

At first glance, I thought the chicks were contortionists, and that the bits of red near their wings were feet or legs. Instead, newly hatched gallinule chicks have ‘spurs’ on their wings that help them climb into the nest or capture vegetation. Able to swim within a day of hatching, they still need a little help with life on the land, and the spurs function admirably.

The floating vegetation may not seem appetizing to us, but it clearly appealed to the birds, who spent the better part of an hour cruising the buffet table.

With chicks swimming every which way, it wasn’t easy to get a photo of the group, but this pair came fairly close, and stopped their foraging long enough for a portrait.

Eventually, the mother had enough, and began leading her brood toward the other side of the pond. During the crossing, only six of her seven stayed close.

It’s common for every group of young mallards to have one straggler in the group: a baby who’s always too busy exploring to keep up with the family. At least in this instance, it was the same with the gallinules. This little one dawdled, until its mother began calling from the other side of the pond.

After some enthusiastic paddling, the straggler made the passage safely and, almost beyond reach of my camera, mother and chicks disappeared into the sheltering grasses. With luck, I’ll see them again before they’re teenagers.

 

Comments always are welcome.