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In This Place

John Milton and the Multiflora Rose

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Wikipedia / CC 3.0
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Rosa multiflora

For most of the past month, our back roads and by-ways have been lined with the massive, green and white swells of multiflora rose. They look as if they will rise and inundate the land, and in places they do. On High Toss Road, for instance, the vines climb up the trunks and limbs of wild apple and cherry trees, using them as scaffolding to spread their large white blossoms out over the road, and, in the process, smothering the trees.

The damned and magnificent multiflora rose. Few invasive plants illustrate more vividly our capacity to hold conflicting attitudes toward them. Brought into the U.S. from the Far East around 1860 as an ornamental garden plant, multiflora rose was also touted as a food source for birds and other wildlife, In the 1930s the Soil Conservation District recommended planting it for erosion control. And as late as the 1980s, some highway departments “encouraged the use of multiflora rose on highway median strips to reduce headlight glare from oncoming traffic.”

But the multiflora rose escaped from cultivation and began to take over natural areas. By the 1960s many states began to classify it as an “invasive, noxious weed,” outlawed its planting, and took steps to halt its spread.

Our divided reaction to this glorious flowering plant is typical of many alien species. It also reminds me of one of the most cogent illustrations I know of the difference between goodness and beauty. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is best known for his long poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” But in one of his essays, he tells an anecdote of a dialogue between the great 17th century poet John Milton and one of Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers. Cromwell, you may recall, was the leader of the anti-Royalist forces in the English Civil War, which began in 1642 and ended with the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. He was a zealous Puritan and hated everything connected with the Roman Catholic Church. He ordered all Catholic monasteries closed and many of the most magnificent ones were destroyed - an early example of Culture Erasure. Because Cromwell’s foot soldiers wore distinctive bowl-like helmets, they were known as “Roundheads.”

As Coleridge tells it, Milton and one of the Roundheads were standing in front of one of the abbeys slated for destruction. Milton, who was a strong supporter of Cromwell, looked at the building and said, “Isn’t it beautiful?”

The Roundhead, startled, turned to Milton and said, “What? Knowest thou not that yon building is the seat of the Anti-Christ!”

“Yes,” replied Milton,” I know, but isn’t it beautiful?”

The Roundhead, getting more agitated, pointed his sword at the monastery and said, “How canst thou call that beautiful which is abhorrent to all good Christians?”

“I know, I know,” said Milton, “but still, is it not a thing of beauty? “Beauty!” snarled the Round Head. “It is a blasphemous thing full of corruption, vile practices and perversions – yea, the foulest of abominations in the eyes of God.”

“True, true,” said Milton, “I agree with everything you say, yet withal, I cannot but hold that it is a thing of surpassing and lasting beauty.”

With that the Roundhead stomped off, perhaps knowing that Milton was becoming blind and attributing the poet’s distorted vision to that.

Just so, as a true ecological believer, I am compelled to agree with those who would rip out this “noxious, invasive weed,” though my stubborn, unrepentant eyes continue to see the multiflora rose as a thing of surpassing beauty.