Today is Chestnut Sunday! For a relatively short time in the Victorian age, it would be a tradition for families to go to the parks and luxuriate among the horse chestnuts on the sunday before Ascension Day. And yes, luxuriate is the right word here. No tree has bigger leaves, bulkier, sweeter-smelling blooms, or a prouder stance than the horse chestnut. It’s a tree that decorates beautifully while being, like many other luxurious items, almost useless.
Every part of the horse chestnut is toxic- it is, after all, only vaguely related to the actual Castanea sativa- but its large seeds encased in beautiful pods are beautiful, shiny baubles of the richest, reddest brown. More than just beatiful, they’re the playpieces for a game of conkers; a popular game in England where you hit two “conkers” (think: conquerors) on strings together- the one that cracks is the losing piece.
The horse chestnut also played an important part in the two World Wars: the British government made a call to collect as many conkers as one could, and would pay for one to turn them in. Conkers contain acetone, a necessary ingredient for a number of weapons. But it also brought a modicum of peace: the horse chestnut in the garden of Keizersgracht 188 in the centre of Amsterdam was one of the only things Anne Frank could see from the attic window in the secret annex where she hid from persecution. She describes the tree often in her diary, and it seemed to give her some comfort. This tree may well be a luxury, but far from an unnecessary one. Go see one near you today and feel free to luxuriate.
Among School Children William Butler Yeats (from The Tower, 1928)
I I walk through the long schoolroom questioning; A kind old nun in a white hood replies; The children learn to cipher and to sing, To study reading-books and histories, To cut and sew, be neat in everything In the best modern way — the children’s eyes In momentary wonder stare upon A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
II I dream of a Ledaean body, bent Above a sinking fire, a tale that she Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event That changed some childish day to tragedy — Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent Into a sphere from youthful sympathy, Or else, to alter Plato’s parable, Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
III And thinking of that fit of grief or rage I look upon one child or t’other there And wonder if she stood so at that age — For even daughters of the swan can share Something of every paddler’s heritage — And had that colour upon cheek or hair, And thereupon my heart is driven wild: She stands before me as a living child.
IV Her present image floats into the mind — Did Quattrocento finger fashion it Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind And took a mess of shadows for its meat? And I though never of Ledaean kind Had pretty plumage once — enough of that, Better to smile on all that smile, and show There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
V What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap Honey of generation had betrayed, And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape As recollection or the drug decide, Would think her Son, did she but see that shape With sixty or more winters on its head, A compensation for the pang of his birth, Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
VI Plato thought nature but a spume that plays Upon a ghostly paradigm of things; Solider Aristotle played the taws Upon the bottom of a king of kings; World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings What a star sang and careless Muses heard: Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
VII Both nuns and mothers worship images, But those the candles light are not as those That animate a mother’s reveries, But keep a marble or a bronze repose. And yet they too break hearts — O presences That passion, piety or affection knows, And that all heavenly glory symbolise — O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;
VIII Labour is blossoming or dancing where The body is not bruised to pleasure soul. Nor beauty born out of its own despair, Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil. O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer, Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?