A Witch-hazel Copse
William Hamilton Gibson
Natural History, Botany, Analogy, Military Technology, Design, Theology of Nature, Nomenclature, Superstition, Supernaturalism, Ancient Authorities, Psychology, Acclimatization, Nationalism
Discovering a 'handsome specimen of a witch-hazel bush' while on 'one of my autumn walks', the narrator is forced to reconsider his 'rash conceit' of presuming to know all about the plant 'whose seeds I had eaten with the dormice and the squirrels [...] for twenty-five years' (906 and 908). In fact, by considering the 'greenish nuts' of the plant as 'a mere botanical pod' (906), they are soon 'proved to be genuine catapults' and their 'hard and polished stones' are 'missiles' which are propelled with 'sharp detonations' and form a 'perfect fusillade' comprising both 'a universal bombardment, and an intermittent fire' (907–08). Contends that this 'curious expellent mechanism is easily understood upon careful inspection, revealing an evident design in its impetuous proclivities' (908). In addition, the flower of the plant is described as 'almost supernal in its mystic beauty', with 'delicate petals [that] give no token of their materiality' (909), while the plant's 'phosphorescent aureole' means that when the narrator stands 'among the boughs' he resembles 'a mediæval saint, completely enveloped in a luminous halo' (906). Consideration of the plant's 'well-merited name', the origin of which 'Botanical writers [...] have never fully traced', leads to a discussion of witch-hazel's alleged 'complicity with the ancient and abominable deeds of superstition and witchcraft' (909–10). Indeed, the 'forked witch-hazel twig' has long been used as a 'divining-rod' and 'a belief in its peculiar efficacy has by no means ceased even at the present time', with the 'Central Pacific Railway Company [...] said to have located a number of Artesian wells by its aid' (910). Citing the accounts of Georgius Agricola and Rossiter W Raymond, insists, however, that 'ample explanation of many strange phenomena in connection with divination' can be found in an 'extreme sympathetic sensitiveness of the nervous system [...] or an extensive and intimate knowledge of material nature through the sense of sight alone' (912). Proclaims the witch-hazel to be 'America's own flower', and explains that although it is found in various parts of Europe 'it has remained true to its native soil in spite of coaxing, and refuses to become naturalized', never showing 'so bright a face as in its natural habitat' (915).
© Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Project, Universities of Leeds and Sheffield, 2005 - 2020
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