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Week 2: Pray

Butterflies, God bless them, are deeply attracted to the smell of human urine. That is not, of course, the first word in the sciences of the botany and/or biology of the Lepidoptera order, as the sceptics might insist, and it’s not the last word, either, as the savants might exclaim. But it is a fact among many other facts, and therefore the seed of a fiction or a figure of speech to the intermediate mystics we call ordinary, down-to-earth people. Certainly it reprimands our reflex assumption that science is clinical. Instead, it reminds us that science, same as all the other fields of vision that converge in the individual iris, in the dilating and excited pupil, is rife with the wildfire of divine mischief. If Woody Allen can conceive of comedy as tragedy plus time, which is a Biblical epitome, we can conceive of tragedy as comedy minus the fullness of time, which is, in its way, scriptural shorthand too.

In that spirit, let me say a kind word about weeds.

Even mimosa – or mimosa pudica, to give it its Confirmation name, and one that suggests it should be ashamed of itself – has its therapeutic properties, just as the micro-climate created by clover, the despised country cousin of cabbage and cauliflower, marvellously moistens the humus. Chickweed and horsetail, burdock, wild mustard, and the poor, proletarian nettle are equally edible, while the confessedly less appetizing crow-garlic grapples with invasive aphids. Queen Anne’s lace, apart altogether from being as pretty as cowpea and goldenrod (the source, incidentally, of the latex in the first pneumatic tyres designed by Dunlop, a fellow Donnybrooker here in Dublin), is a not entirely unreliable herbal contraceptive, so called, I suppose, because the last of the Stuart monarchs had twenty miscarriages between menarche and menopause. Milkweed ameliorates warts, the emerald watercress quenches thirst (we know this from Spenser’s comment in a letter that the mouths of the starving Irish were “green with shamrock”), and even nightshade, with its problematic pharmaceutical reputation, softens and sifts the crusted hardpan in the topsoil. Foxgloves, finally, provide the digitalis that neutralizes the caffeine in my cardiovascular system, though not in the raw form, as I discovered half a century ago, when I nibbled their bells on my four fingertips.

Long story short: even my sins have been, on occasion, salvific, in the wry economy of a God I cannot pretend to understand but am prepared, however intermittently, to undergo, and not in a roundabout way, like the long curve of the earth, but on the spot, if somewhat later, in an altered season. My most mortal acts have directly fertilized my flourishing. It is the venial ones that have desiccated me; yet even they in turn have produced the desert spaces in which I sometimes pray.