When Attila the Hun was besieging Milan, the city council opened the gates to him after he declared he was the Flagellum Dei. The city was thus subjected to the customary three days of pillage etc.. Urtica dioica, stinging nettle, is my scourge. It lurks within the crowns of other plants and punishes me for my lack of observance. The fingers of my left hand are tingling now from one I encountered earlier. I am not overly interested in the narrative of sin, however, with its infantilising blame – I have always been more interested in responsibility, and adulthood: Nietzsche, for all his faults, did have a point.
I prefer to think of the presence of nettles in the garden – and the presence of its friends – those that we call weeds, but which are really just plants which do not suit us – as the stone I must push to the brow of the hill, only to do it again tomorrow. Unlike Sisyphus, I do not consider it a punishment. I mean, what is the alternative to work – the interminable boredom and purposelessness of effortless pleasure? I’ve witnessed that firsthand and it isn’t attractive. I am happy to see weeds, including nettles, in the garden as then I know I have something to do tomorrow. And, when the day’s work is done, I can pour myself a glass of whiskey and find comfort in the memory of the work completed and the thought of tomorrow’s labour, sleeping sweetly with anticipation.
At school I was told that the Romans introduced nettles to Britain and the soldiers used to flagellate themselves or each other – it was never explained clearly – in order to stimulate their circulation in the cold climate. This seemed improbable to my eight year-old self. I was also taught that the Roman Empire fell in 410AD and that was never true. I would have thought that nettles more probably arrived in a shipment of hay for the cavalry horses. However the nettles arrived, they remain a sign of the presence of human activity. Nettles love nitrogen. They thrive on old middens, along fence lines where stock have been corralled, or next to walls where builders have been working. And they seem to invite nitrogen. My hound cannot pass a clump without blessing it.
I try to find a place for nettles in a garden. I don’t pick them to make into beer, tea or soup, although they are high in calcium, iron, and Vitamin K. I avoid consuming them on the grounds of the previously observed benediction. I take no pleasure from the stings, unlike the eccentric Sir Charles V. Boys, the author of Weeds, Weeds, Weeds [Wightman and Co., London, 1937]. No, I leave nettles their own space in a garden, as opposed to the places they usurp, for the many creatures which benefit from them. One of the greatest pleasures of summer is to see Red Admiral butterflies on the buddleias. But first Red Admiral caterpillars must engorge on Urtica dioica. They are the poets of the garden, metamorphosing pain to beauty.