18 May 2010

deep thoughts: To Kill a Mockingbird

I just finished rereading Harper Lee's classic and wonderful book "To Kill a Mockingbird." I'm sure I was forced to read this book in high school, but I remember it was one of the few that I enjoyed. (I didn't appreciate reading much then. Now, thankfully, I'm addicted to it.)

I've been trying to reread many books that I read as a youngster, because my experience of them now is so completely different, and so much richer. The only thing I really remembered about "To Kill a Mockingbird" was Boo Radley, but I couldn't recall what that was about.

One of the things that struck me this time through the book, now that I'm a gardener and plant person, is the depth with which I understood small references that Harper Lee makes to the environment in Maycomb County, Alabama. Lee was either a gardener or did good research.

The cozy Southern characters live their lives beneath the live oaks and pecans, and prune their camelias and azaleas. But Lee also makes mention of quite a few invasive plants too.

Chinaberry makes an appearance or two. Scout and Jem Finch built their fort in a tall one in their backyard. Johnson grass grows "in abundance" in the front yard of the famous Boo Radley house, along with rabbit-tobacco (a native, I believe, that "country boys" used as a tobacco substitute).

One of my favorite references to a plant in the book is to nut grass (Cyperus rotundus) - a weedy plague to many gardeners and farmers in Central Texas and one that has obviously been pesky in the U.S. South for some time. It's one I hadn't dealt with before moving to Austin, but I've had my fair share of fun with it since.

Here's the passage, where Scout, the book's narrator, is describing Miss Maudie:
She loved everything that grew in God's earth, even the weeds. With one exception. If she found a blade of nut grass in her yard it was like the Second Battle of the Marne: she swooped down upon it with a tin tub and subjected it to blasts from beneath with a poisonous substance she said was so powerful it'd kill us all if we didn't stand out of the way.

"Why can't you just pull it up," I asked, after witnessing a prolonged campaign against a blade not three inches high.

"Pull it up, child, pull it up?" She picked up the limp sprout and squeezed her thumb up its tiny stalk. Microscopic grains oozed out. "Why, one sprig of nut grass can ruin a whole yard. Look here. When it comes fall this dries up and the wind blows it all over Maycomb County!" Miss Maudie's face likened such an occurrence unto an Old Testament pestilence.
Man, can I identify with Miss Maudie this time around.


ConsciousGardener said...

My favorite AP re-read was "Catcher in the Rye," and I loved "A Prayer for Owen Meany" much more the second time...but I didn't cry as much. Nice post, I've always loved the name Scout.

Dorothy Borders said...

Lovely. This book was always a favorite of mine. It is so evocative of both the best and the worst of the place where I grew up. And the "Miss Maudie" passage you quoted really just says it all, doesn't it?

TexasDeb said...

Amen Miss Maudie, Amen!

TKaM has always been one of my favorite books. I was devastated as a young girl not to have a tree with a hole in it where I could stash and exchange treasures.

Great idea to re-read from a different vantage point. Now....where did I put my copy....

Pam/Digging said...

I love books that have lyrical passages about the natural world. I'm reading "The Yearling" to my daughter and finding it to be the same way. The young boy in the story is currently in a rapture of delight over April's light, its misty rain, and blooming plants. How well I know that feeling. And don't forget Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," which has wonderfully descriptive passages about the local flora on the characters' journey.

The Curious Holts said...

Oh, me too! I wanted that tree with a hole in it soooo badly.