Friday, March 2, 2012

The First

Fans (er, addicts anyone?) of Downton Abbey will understand all too well the emphasis on firsts--but not just any firsts. Special firsts, as in the law or custom of primogeniture that permits the firstborn the right of complete inheritance to the exclusion of younger siblings. The French, it seems, were much more advanced than their English rivals across the Channel, for they practiced an absolute or lineal primogeniture whereby the eldest surviving child, no matter the gender, would inherit an estate. As we know with Lady Mary, being female in Britain negated the possibility of such inheritance--hence she was looked upon to wed her cousin just to keep her childhood home and money.  At least Matthew is a dashing blond. I could think of worst looking cousins with whom to produce an heir.

In this way, Vita Sackville-West lost inheritance of her family's famed estate, Knole, to her younger brother. But then we may never have gotten the splendid gardens of Sissinghurst. (I can't help but question myself: is that a gender-assaulting silver lining?)

In any case, even firsts are disaggregated, re-classified, so as to deny the privileges presumably accruing from being first.

March also falls into that class of demoted firsts. In ancient Roman times, Martius was the first month, the month of spring and the rebirth of the earth. Named after Mars, the Latin name for Ares, the Greek God of war, the month also harbored a more sinister meaning: spring weather was conducive to the launching of military campaigns, hence its nomenclature. One wonders if history might have turned out differently had the Romans launched offensives during the winter months, when invasions were not quite expected.

But as we know, March has lost its place of prime importance, for it is now the third month in the Roman-derived calendar. We owe that fall from grace to the improbably named second king of Rome (715-673 B.C.E.), Numa Pompilius, who added not one but two prefixes to the calendar: Ianuarius and Februarius. Pompous indeed, altering with social constructions of time!

Thus we might seek refuge in the Finnish, for its name for March, Maaliskuu, gets at the reality we customarily know in the pre-global warming, weather weirdness days: for Maaliskuu, derived from maallinen kuu meaning "earthy month," is named for that month during which the ground once again becomes visible as snow retreats.

Now, if I wasn't lazy or preoccupied with other obligations, I would have posted this yesterday, on 1 March.  Or, if I had a sense of irony, I would wait and post this tomorrow, the 3rd, as homage to all those firsts fallen from grace.

But as it is, possessed neither with humor nor irony, neither patience nor time, I post this today, a compromise position to make us more immediately aware of the importance of both days.

In honor of fallen firsts, I celebrate not the daffodils, the heir apparent of March, which now appear with dramatic frequency here in my fair (and in parts trashy) city of Wilmington, and which are nearing the bursting of buds in my garden,

but the flowers of Leatherleaf Mahonia, or Oregon Grape Holly, which actually are well past their prime, only the more protected strands of flowers deep into the foliage now in bloom, other strands situated at the exterior reaches of the plant having bloomed several weeks ago sans benefit of pollinators (hence we may not see the strands of berries that look like grapes later in the season to feed the birds),

and Petasites japonica, or Giant Butterbur, which proudly displays its muscular, artichoke-like flowers whether in snow or draped with frost, arriving like clockwork each late February and early March (once, of course, the snows first disappear so as to make way for their emergence).

Next year, these firsts may be displaced. I have no Snowdrops nor Crocuses, so by what only nature might know.

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