Where the Forest Murmers,
Vol VI, Fiona Macleod

The Gardens of the Sea


I recall a singular legend, where heard, where read, I do not remember, nor even am I sure of what race the offspring, of what land the denizen. It was to the effect that, in the ancient days of the world, flowers had voices, had song to them as the saying is: and that there were kingdoms among these populations of beauty, that in the course of ages (would they be flower-Šons, and so of a measure in time different from our longer or shorter periods?) satraps revolted against the dominion of the Rose, and tropical princes led new hosts, and scarlet forest-queens filled the jungle and the savannah with their chants of victory. And the end was a conflict so great that even the isles of the sea were shaken by it, and the pale green moss of polar rocks whispered of the great world-war of the peoples of Flowry. At last, after the shadow-flitting passage of an Šon, the gods were roused from their calm, and, looking down into the shaken mirror of the world, beheld all their dreams and visions and desires no longer children of loveliness and breaths of song. In these Šons while they had slept in peace the Empire of Flowry had come to a dissolution: race fought with race, tribe with tribe, clan with clan. Among all the nations there was a madness for supremacy, so that the weed in the grass and the flame-crowned spire of the aloe were at one in a fierce discontent and a blind lust of dominion.
Thereupon the gods pondered among themselves. Kronos, who had been the last to wake: and was already drowsy with old immemorial returning slumber, murmured: "A divine moment, O ye Brotherhood of Eternity, is a long time wherein to be disturbed by the mortal reflection of our dreams and the passions, and emotions of our enchanted hearts."
And as all the calm-eyed Immortals agreed, Kronos sighed out the mandate of silence, and turning his face to Eternity was again among the august dreams of the Everlasting Ones.
In that long moment-for, there in the other world, it was but a brief leaning on their elbows of the drowsy gods while the fans of Immortal Sleep for a second stayed the vast waves of Peace---the divine messengers, or were they the listening powers and dominions of the earth, fulfilled destiny? From every flower-nation, from every people by far waters, from every tribe in dim woods and the wilderness, from every clan habiting the most far hills beyond the ever-receding pale blue horizons, song was taken as stars are pluckt away from the Night by the grey fingers of the Dawn. The Rose breathed no more a flusht magic of sound; the Lily no more exhaled a foamwhite cadence. Silence was come upon the wild chant of orchids in old, forgotten woods; stillness upon the tinkling cymbals of the little hands of the dim, myriad, incalculable host of blossom; a hush upon the songs of, meadow-flowers; a spell upon the singing of honeysuckles in the white dews at the rising of the moon. Everywhere, from all the green tribes, from all the glowing nations of Flowry, from each and every of the wandering folk of the Reed, the Moss, and the Lichen, from all the Clans of the Grass, the added loveliness of song was taken. Silence fell upon one and all: a strange and awful stillness came upon the woods and valleys. It was then that the God of Youth, wandering through the husht world, took the last song of a single rose that in a secret place had not yet heard the common doom, and with his breath gave it a body, and a pulse to its heart, and fashioned for it a feathercovering made of down of, the bog-cotton and the soft undersides of alder-leaf and olive. Then, from a single blade of grass that still whispered in a twilight hollow, he made a like marvel, to be a mate to the first, and sent out both into the green world, to carry song to the woods and the valleys, the hills and the wildernesses, the furthest shores, the furthest isles. Thus was the nightingale created, the first bird, the herald of all the small clans of the bushes that have kept wild-song in the world, and are our delight.
But in the hearts of certain of the green tribes a sullen anger endured. So the mysterious Hand which had taken song and cadence away punished these sullen ones. From some, fragrance also was taken. There were orchid-queens of forest-loveliness from whom all fragrance suddenly passed like smoke: there were white delicate phantoms among the grasses, from whom sweet odour was lifted as summer dew: there were nomads of the hillways and gypsies of the plain to whom were given the rankness of the waste, the, smell of things evil, of corruption, of the grave. But to some, beautiful rebels of the peoples of the Reed, the Grass, and the Fern, the doom went out that henceforth their place should be in the waters . . . the running waters of streams and rivers, the quiet waters of pools and lakes, the troubled waters of the seas along the coasts of the world, the ocean depths.
And that is how amid the salt bite of the homeless wave there grew the Gardens of the Sea. That is how it came about that the weed trailed in running waters, and the sea-moss swayed in brackish estuaries, and the wrack clung or swam in tangles of olive-brown and green and soft and dusky reds.
What a long preamble to the story of how the Seaweeds were once sweet-smelling blooms of the shores and valleys! Of how the flowers of meadow and woodland, of the sun-swept plain and the shadowy hill, had once song as well as sweet odours: how, of these, many lost not only fragrance but innocent beauty: and bow out of a rose and a blade of grass and a breath of the wind the first birds were made, the souls of the green earth, winged, and voiced.
To-day I sit among deep, shelving rocks by the shore, in a desolate place where basaltic cliffs shut away the familiar world, and where, in front, the otherworld of the sea reaches beyond sight to follow the lifted wave against the grey skyline, or is it the grey lip of tile fallen horizon? Looking down I can perceive the olive-brown and green seaweed swaying in the slow movement of the tide. Like drifted hair, the long thin filaments of the Mermaid's Locks (Chorda Filum) sinuously twist, intertwine, involve, and unfold. It is as though a seawoman rose and fell, idly swam or idly swung this way and that, asleep on the tidenothing visible of her wave-grey body but only her long fatal hair, that so many a swimmer has had to cause dread, from whose embrace so many a swimmer has never risen. In the rock-set pools the flesh-hued fans of the dulse indolently stir. Wave-undulated over them are fronds of a lovely green weed, delicate, transparent: above these, two phantom fish, rock-cod or saithe, float motionless.
Idly watching, idly dreaming thus, I recall part of a forgotten poem about the woods of the sea, and the finned silent creatures that are its birds: and bow there are stags and wolves in these depths, long hounds of the sea, mermen and merwomen and seal-folk. Others, too, for whom we have no name, we being wave-blind and so unable to discern these comers and goers of the shadow. Also, how old sea-divinities lie there asleep, and perilous phantoms come out of sunken ships and ancient weed-grown towns; and bow there roams abroad, alike in the flowing wave and along the sheer green-darkening bodiless walls, an incalculable Terror that may be manifold, the cold implacable demons of the deep, or may be One, that grey timeworn Death whom men have called Poseidon and Mananan and by many names.
What a mysterious world this Tir-fo-Tuinn, this Land-Under-Wave. How little we know of it, for all that wise men have told us concerniiig the travelling tides, of currents as mysteriously steadfast in the comings and goings as the comets that from age to age loom briefly upon the stellar roads: how little, though they have put learned designations to a thousand weeds, and given names to ten thousand creatures to whom the whole world of man and all his hopes and dreams are less than a phantom, less than foam. The Gaelic poet who said that the man who goes to Tir-fo-Tuinn goes into another world, where the human soul is sand, and God is but the unloosened salt, tells us as much as the scientist who probes the ocean-mud and reveals dim crustacean life where one had believed to be only a lifeless dark. Above the weed-held palaces of Atlantis, over the soundless bells of Ys, above where Lyonesse is gathered in a foamless oblivion, the plummet may sink and lift a few broken shells, the drag-net may bring to the surface an unknown sea-snail or such a microscopic green Alga as that Halosphoera viridis which science has discovered in the great depths beyond the reach of sunlight: but who can tell, perchance how few who care to know, what Love was, long ago, when there were poets in Lyonesse: what worship was served by white-robed priests among the sunken fanes of Ys: what dreams withstayed and what passions beset the noble and the ignoble in drowned Atlantis, what empires rose and fell there, what gods were lauded and dethroned, and for how long Destiny was patient.
Even in the little pools that lie shoreward of the Gardens of the Sea what beauty there is, what obscure life, what fascinating "otherworld" association. This piece of kelp is at once Fucus vesiculosus and the long fingers of the Cailliach-Mhara, the Sea-Witch. This great smooth frond is . . . I do not know, or forget: but it is the kale of Manan, in sea-groves of which that Shepherd pastures his roves of uncouth sea-swine. This green tracery has a Greek or Latin name, but in legend it is called the Mermaid's Lace. This little flame-like crest of undulating wrack has a designation longer than itself, but in tales of faerie we know it to be that of which the caps of the pool-elves are fashioned.
In the Isles seaweed has many local names, but is always mainly divided into Yellow Tails, Dark Tails, and Red Tails (Feamainin bhuidhe, feaimainn dubh, and feamainn dearg). The first comprise all the yellowish, lightbrown, and olive-brown seaware; the second all the dark-green, and also all green wrack; the third, the red. The common seaware or kelp or tang (Fucus vesiculosus) is generally called propach, or other variant signifying tangled: and the bladder-wrack, feamainn bholgainn or builgeach, "baggy-tails," have at times collected many local names of these weeds, and not a few superstitions and legcnds. Naturally the most poetic of these are connected with the Chorda filum or Dead Man's Hair, which has a score of popular names, from "corpsy-ropes " to the occaional Gaelic gillemu lunn, which may be rendered "the wave's gillie" or "servant of the wave": with the drifted gulf-weed, whose sea-grapes are called uibhean sithein, fairy eggs, and are eagerly sought for: and with the duileasg, or dulse. Even to this day, in remote parts, an ancient seaweed-rite survives in the propitiatory offerings (now but a pastime of island children) to the Hebridean sea-god Shony at Samhain (Hallowmass). The Shony, whose favours were won by a cup of ale thrown into the sea in the dark of the night, is none other than Poseidon, Neptune, Manan; for he is the Scandinavian sea-god Sjoni, viking-brought from Lochlin in the far-off days when the Summer-sailors raided and laid waste the Gaelic Isles.
It is singular how rarely seaweed has entered into the nomenclature and symbology of peoples, how seldom it is mentioned in ancient literature. Among our Gaelic clans there is only one (the M'Neil) which has seaware as a badge. Greek art has left us a few seaweed-filleted heads of Gorgons, and to sea-wrack the Latin poets have once or twice made but passing and contemptuous allusion. In the Bible ("whaur ye'll find everything frae a bat to a unicorn," as an old man said to me once) there is one mention of it only, in Jonah's words: "The depths closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head."