April 20, 2019

Of Calypsos and Quests

Today I am sharing an excerpt from a book written and illustrated by the author, naturalist and artist, Briony Penn. When I lived in Victoria, BC I got to know her work through a regular column in the local newspaper. I looked forward to each new installation because I enjoyed her words and loved the artwork that accompanied each article.

When she moved on to other projects, I desperately missed her regular nuggets of wisdom and beauty. I vowed to use what she had taught me about nature, art and writing to guide my own creative aspirations. 

The following is from Penn's book, "A Year On The Wild Side: A West Coast Naturalist's Almanac". The artwork above is also from the book.

This is a story for my two boys. They are hearty men now full of earthy wit and valour, well on in their manhood quests. Every spring before puberty, they would join me on a smaller quest to find Calypso orchids hidden in the forest. This is the lecture in comparative mythology that I delivered before they ran kicking and laughing into adolescence. Poor kids, but they turned out all right. 

There once was a shy nymph from the island of Ogygia. She was the goddess daughter of Atlas and went by the name of Calypso. One day, Odysseus, the son of the King of Ithaca, was shipwrecked on her island. Odysseus was a handsome, hearty hero and full of earthy wit and valour. He discovered Calypso concealed in the forest and she fell desperately in love with him. He was stranded and couldn’t leave the island, and she begged him to stay forever, promising him eternal youth. Odysseus was young and longed to get back to his quest, and eternal youth had no appeal. After seven years of holding Odysseus captive, Calypso finally relented and built him a raft, releasing him back to his quests and the prospect of old age. He left behind a lover, gazing out to the Adriatic after him.

In the forests of our islands in the Pacific, you might remember discovering Calypso. The name of the coast’s most beautiful and secretive wild orchid commemorates that Greek goddess. Although I usually put up quite an opposition to names that are derived from stories made up almost 20,000 kilometres away, I have to admit a certain fondness for Calypso (the Haida called them Black Cod Grease). She embodies an eternal human condition — unrequited love, and she behaved well in the end. She made him a raft, she put together some sandwiches and a Thermos flask, and she kissed him and waved him a fond farewell. And Odysseus embodied another eternal human condition — the need for quests — and he behaved well, too. He was true to his own nature and never lied. He also knew better than to trade his soul for eternal youth.

One day, you might want to go and visit those Calypso orchids. It is the kind of beauty you would expect to flourish on a magical island with nothing but the sun, wind, forest, and waves to cultivate. There are five dancing sepals and petals, the colour of which can only be described as sweet Calypso madder. They catch the droplets of dew and direct the mead and pollinators into the fecund lips of mottled sienna, white and raw ochre where all creation begins.

Remember this image of creation. In one sense, Calypso is a subtle and fragile beauty — not to be spoken about, as if in the mentioning of it, it will be lost, just like her tenuous hold to the Earth through a few spiderweb-like root filaments attached to her bulb (or corm) or her rare scent, which only hits you in the aftermath of an April shower soaking into the dark forest duff.

Like the goddess, the orchid’s real essence flourishes in association with an earthy character — like Odysseus. Calypso only germinates and grows when there is a particular species of mycorrhizal fungus whose own filaments penetrate the seed to convert unusable starches into usable sugars. That association is most intense in the first seven years, as the embryo plant develops to maturity. Pollen is the lover, but fungus is the friend — a nurturing but vital type of friend. If truth be known, it is better to pine for a good friend than grow immortal with an unwilling lover.

When you were little it was easy to spot Calypso, as you were so near to the ground and had an eye for small things concealed under the windfall of the winter storms. Odysseus showed his true heroic qualities by finding her as an adult and then leaving her. There are many who don’t. There will probably be a while that you don’t, too.

You’ll join the throng of audacious mortals who charge through the forests of our islands, tripping on the delicate filaments attached to the earth while wired to pounding tunes, throbbing wheels or pulsing chainsaws. You’ll try out manufactured scents that drown out the ephemeral perfume riding on the air. And the unmentionable subtle colours of Calypso-madder lips spotted with dew will be outshone by the fluorescent glow of your Nike Icons.

But halfway through the quest, I hope your memories of something richer will kick in, and you will notice this rare plant once again. And I hope that you will do the heroic thing and leave her, since once picked, the orchid dies forever.

You can enjoy more of Briony Penn's work at her website by clicking here.

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