Borage, from the Voynich Manuscript, 15th century
This will be a peculiar post for this site, but for a while I’ve been wanting to relate a literary something about borage, that most peculiar plant, about which I have developed my own peculiar obsession. A couple of years ago, I’d been immersed in Giuseppe Bonaviri’s 1969 novel La Divina Foresta (The Divine Forest), which features a chapter related to the plant, when, by sheer coincidence, European visitors pointed out some borage growing wild in San Francisco. They spoke of its various uses in France and Italy: in making medicinal tea from its leaves, a refreshing wine from its flowers, a ravioli from both. The next day, I spotted the plant’s distinctive star-like blue flowers in an “edible bouquet” being sold at a farmer’s market and inquired about the possibility of acquiring more borage, which resulted in a wonderful person showing up at my door a few days later with a great, beautiful plant, which I stuck in vase. For a full eight days the borage produced scores of new flowers each day, which I culled to make vin de borrache, and also picked the leaves to make a borage pesto for a pasta recipe I’ve included at the end of this post.
But first, a little more about Bonaviri’s The Divine Forest, followed by some amateur translations of excerpts from the third chapter of the novel. Fair warning: these translated passages are my own, based not on the original Italian, but on a 1975 French translation by E. E. Torrignani. I only hope to give a flavor of the work; the translations are for non-commercial, educational purposes only.
Like most of Bonaviri’s works, The Divine Forest is emphatically and profoundly Sicilian, but it also borrows from Primo Levi’s chapter in The Periodic Table detailing the story of a carbon atom’s eternal journey and frolics in the same space as Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. The first two chapters of the novel might have been grafted from one of Calvino’s tales: they are told from the point of view of a particle floating in space, beginning at what is presumably the birth of the universe. As becomes quickly clear to the reader, the action of The Divine Forest spans billions of years. In the second chapter the unnamed particle-narrator experiences an elective affinity with another particle, Grumina, and the two find themselves pulled by gravity to one of the coalescing spheres of fire in the process of cooling and hardening into planets. The narrator and Grumina split apart upon landing on this new planet’s surface, along the slope of a ravine in what will one day come to be known as the Camuti mountains near Bonaviri’s hometown of Mineo, Sicily – the center of the author’s literary universe – and the narrator soon finds himselfundergoing a new and unexpected transformation.
I came to as a borage plant, my will having had no say in the matter.
It just happened.
I shoved up through sharp, black outcrops on which the first lichens had already begun their assault. I devoted my full attention to cultivating those moods most propitious for swelling, to just the right limit, certain burgeons that, according me no respite, were already pushing out along my now bristle-covered flesh. I longed to know something about how I’d managed to pass from one inception to another, some understanding of this new sphere of my existence, but it was impossible to make sense of the past given my complete engagement with my new and urgent tasks.
One day, while a profound calm extended over everything, I heard someone calling.
I didn’t turn around, as I had of course no reason to think the call had anything to do with me. I remained bent over my new blossoms, counting them even – one, two, three, four, etc. – conducting a fairly serious calculation of myself, when I heard the same voice call again.
Looking over to the point from which the sound seemed to be emanating, I saw the rocks entirely carpeted by an overwhelming infinity of little plants and bushes, among which scattered flowers, alone or in bouquets, had spread out – I kid you not - over the whole vast expanse reaching all the way to the gorge from which poured forth the torrent’s waters, replenished and multiplied.
Perplexed, I asked myself, “Who could be calling me?”
Nearby stood a plant of the type I would soon come to know as a lily of the valley, and which leaned towards me, carefully presenting its corolla.
“What is it you want?” I asked.
“Hey! Senapo, hey! Senapo!” it called once again.
This was a joyous call without the least variation in tone, and only afterwards did I discover that this tentative effort at conversation had not stemmed from some amorous inclination, but found its inspiration simply in the pleasure, senseless or stupid perhaps, of feeling alive.
“I’m Fiordimaggio, you know.”
I felt a bit put out, being little disposed to conversation due to all the inner work I’d been giving my blossoms, so I responded, “Sure, sure.”
In fact, I looked rather disapprovingly over the irregular patchwork of plants and flowers that for the most part were sprouting from the mountain before me, henceforth to be called Mineo. Perhaps I was being eaten up by an excessive and destructive pride in feeling myself surrounded by this teeming swarm of inferior forms, multiplying and diminishing in succession, and of which I was, after all, but a simple variant.
But whatever the case, I made do. We were alright down there. We started to get to know one another, in a discreet manner, of course. We chatted a bit, mimicked one another as the occasion allowed or exchanged observations about things that had happened during the day. I mostly kept to myself, at all times a bit aloof, perhaps due to my vice of thinking.
Of course, we did not speak in the way one commonly conceives of speaking, I mean to say the way you do it. We communicated in another, certainly more primitive manner, perhaps owing to the narrowness of the space we occupied. Our dialogues consisted of nothing but vague babblings or changing displays of simple colors that only a practiced eye could decipher with any precision.
The tide of little plants remained unchanging, awash in the light, overwhelming to look at, traversed by murmurings and little buffetings of one stem against another, all caught up in a joyous vibration of leaves and nothing else, as though some self-contained world composed of an immutable substance of color and mood was stretching itself.
[Time passes; the plants survive a terrible heatwave that dries up the plants and ruptures their sense of community, leading the narrator to experience the first fear of a cataclysm that could end the world. The wind arrives, creating swirls of pollen.]
…a new chapter began for us. There where we had stood, other plants came up, though apparently we were still ourselves, only multiplied in many ways, despite the exhausting and painful ravages we had been through. During these transformations, I continued to recognize myself easily: I was me, with my leaves, my buds, my stamens, etc., without much alteration.
At the same time, one had to admit that something had changed in the way we felt, as though in that society an elementary form of consciousness had begun to develop.
Now there appeared the first bees and butterflies, and the first flying beetles with their chitinous shells. For me, just before my “borage” phase ended, this was the most beautiful of times.
Everywhere was movement, not just empty air resonating with the blowing wind.
I especially loved certain solitary bees who, in whizzing about, frightened the butterflies. These would move away in enigmatic flights like piteous winged bugs.
Absorbed in these games, I forgot about my own problems – was I not in the midst of a decline in my basic material state? – and little by little these bees no longer appeared to me like tiny little pinpoints, very far away and lost in the air, but like curious beings whom I’d have liked to get to know.
And in fact, one day, a bee (whom I called Irrumina), weary of the solar dust and the comings-and-goings in the valley of Fiumecaldo, alighted on me.
Establishing an amical relationship was no easy thing, because as you know I was spiny and urticant, and Irrumina was obliged to push aside one leaf after another before being able to attain the violet well of one of my flowers.
I felt that a new frontier had been crossed. Around me there were no longer just plants and flowers, among whom my own daily regeneration operated along more or less equivalent equations; I now sensed a hitherto unknown zone being activated.
To me at that time an object was an object, consisting of a mass of color from which luminous rays emanated, always in the same way; these reflected onto me through upper, lower and central zones such that I could apprehend them in their entirety. Thanks to the motionlessness of plants, this had been easy. But now that bees and other insects had appeared on the scene, I perceived that their radiant vibrations spread around me in a very soft and concentric manner, like circles of waves. I thus turned from my common occupations with other plants, and I can’t deny that I amused myself with this ample oscillation of waves that gently tickled me and lulled me into a pleasant sleep.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “This is new.” Winged creatures, as everyone knows, move about ceaselessly, and their displacements from one point to another created bands of light and dark. My leaves became quite invested in this medley of varying colors.
Simultaneously, my astonishment grew as my field of vision became null - that is to say, empty space.
Within the limitations consigned me by my nature, I attempted to engage with these quite distinct fringes which, to put it another way, were nothing but the result of the beating wings of the butterflies and other flying insects and the traces of their sinuous flights.
Out of this surfeit – but didn’t I already mention this? – I felt drawn to concentrate my attention on Irrumina, whom I perceived as the source of a most lively and penetrating light, and who from time to time wheeled around me.
One morning, after having buzzed about, she entered into my hole – what better way could I put it? – where she danced about, probed me within and sucked at me to the point of giving me a singular pleasure of the sort that only a sweet, illusory adventure could engender.
That first time, I think that she fertilized me.
As soon as she flew off, disappearing from my view, there remained with me a sort of astonishment, and it’s from that moment, I believe, that I’ve come to see the necessity of knowing the world in another way, by accepting colors, lines and tones as repeating variants of ourselves.
Our relations continued.
I learned to recognize Irrumina, even from a long way off, from the particular way she had of furrowing the air; to be more specific, rather than descend by tracing little spirals, she swept down upon me a quite joyous vibration of her antennae, and, after having established a kind of parallelogram of her forces, she entered me, filled her wings and her little body with pollen, then rooted about within my flower.
What was this sensation I experienced? I wouldn’t know how to express it. I remained astonished, and at that moment ceased to be conscious of the sun, the torrent, even of the butterflies.
This was an extremely pleasurable encounter that the passage of time has done nothing to erase or diminish.
One time Irrumina even fell asleep inside me, tuckered out perhaps from all of the constant trouble she took over me, and rested stretched out in my innermost parts, her wings folded by her sides. I rocked her gently, anxious all the while that the parietaria, the valerians, the nettles, etc., were spying on us – whether perplexed or horrified, I don’t know. Meanwhile, evening had fallen, and the darkness, extending over everything, was invaded by a wave of clarity.
Irrumina awoke and asked, “Senapo, what’s going on?”
I told her that I’d enclosed her inside my flower, embracing some elementary rapport with life, and my friend replied that she’d like to stay with me, where no one would ever think to look for her, since borage was a bizarre plant, solitary and covered in bristles.
Unfortunately, I soon realized that Irrumina knew nothing other than how to fly and love, knew no means to try another adventure, nor even how to alter her ways over time.
During the night, while the bushes, plants, and even the frogs were resting, abandoned to their deep sleep, I followed their thoughts. What I mean to say is that I tried to make the case that each living thing, rather than going through a banal death, must perish according to its own law of metamorphosis. How could I possibly convey this to my friend, who knew nothing but brief flights and buzzing?
For this reason I felt contemptuous towards the idiocy of preferring the ephemeral to the truth that I was pursuing – later, quite a bit later, I would come to view everything as false or vain.
I had decided to destroy myself in silence, without drawing attention to those I could have called my neighbors, who, seeing my state, might have tried to console me.
There would be no point in that, I muttered.
I wanted at all costs to end my time in order to take on a new nature.
I could not bring myself to accept that everything could simply be reduced to these reflections of light, these particles activated by very compact movements and to this vacuous dialogue with the shrubs, the bees, the waterfall, the boulders and the tumult of the wind.
“I’m going to do it,” I told myself.
I began by drawing in my leaves more, such that the wind struck them with less force and that no gas exchange could occur; by this method I was able to reduce my exterior body by half. This was by no means easy, and I could not control the form that I would assume as a result. I required very numerous hours to secretly prepare these traps - studied in minute detail - against myself.
“Be strong,” I whispered to myself.
This made for a quite difficult enterprise, as it meant retracting my roots from the particles of earth, which I could not do other than with an extreme slowness, a good deal of pain and a corruption of my soul.
I proceeded as follows: as soon as the moisture tried to give me drink, I would render a filament of root impermeable and twist it in a direction contrary to that of the little vein of water. This caused me great suffering, a mortal sickness. At times I became discouraged and thought that my efforts would go nowhere. My lymphatic vessels retracted, then ended up becoming blocked by a gelatinous material. I becalmed myself and concentrated all of my forces, always increasingly oblivious to the thousand appearances of reality and to the vast expanse of plants tortured by the heat.
I believed that the intensity of the air would diminish and soften from day to day, but clearly my senses had deceived me, as I began to be liberated from the burdens of my body. Whatever else was happening, my tumescence was weakening minute by minute. In sum, I’d discovered the right path.
Deep down, I had succeeded in isolating myself from the earth by secreting certain viscous liquids, and managed in this way to reduce myself, not without great fatigue, to a brittle and somber tangle.
From time to time, from the slopes of the ravine, I’d hear someone call my name. Attentive only to my total destruction, however, I barely heard these voices.
Irrumina went away, but a little while later she returned with a fleet of companions who swarmed all around me.
I perceived a new development in myself, that is to say of the impossibility of making sense of my chronological rhythm; it seemed to me that the flowers, the bees, the air and the heat were nothing more than phenomena emptied of all meaning.
“What’s happening to you?” I asked myself.
Now my first leaves began to drop freely, prostrating themselves on the ground or turning about ceaselessly in the ravine.
As I’ve intimated, I was neither contented nor discontented; I was simply closed up within an immutable index of luminous refractions and in a centrifugal movement of myself.
If anyone had viewed me from outside, he would have believed that I was shrinking in volume more and more, as it was true that little remained in the way of petals, spines or leafstalks. Actually, though, I felt dilated, inside a new gravitational field. Something was accelerating within me, in my very substance; perhaps this amounted to nothing more than a simple deformation of the space that I determined.
Whatever was happening, the others perceived me as reduced to a tiny semblance of dying stems and leaves.
I could no longer call to mind the humming of Irrumina, nor her flights all about me, but only sensed a thin, hued trajectory where she had passed, like a perturbation of the air in this ravine where I’d been born. At times I perceived a susurration, possibly coming from Irrumina or the others, and I could not tell whether it was a kind of music, of strange tintinnabulations, or just a droning; I remember only confused or barely perceptible sounds.
This was the culmination of a soft-sad-flatulent dirge that came and went, but I was too caught up in my search for an ideal structure that could upend my past and all the relations that had governed it to follow it with any attention.
Near the end, I might have been able to take advantage of a thin vein of water which had managed, I don’t know how, to trickle its way beneath me, between two fissures, but I avoided it to the ends of my utmost roots, thus rejecting forever the loveliness of the flowers that had been so much a part of me.
I was at the end, down to my last ragged roots, razed to the ground, distinguishing nothing but an abstraction of forms and, rarely, some incomprehensible voices.
I don’t know whether, in my final tatters, I’d been carried off by some gust of wind, but I do know that for a long time I remained emptied of all thought. At the same time I believed that I was destined to become something else, maybe even just some thickening of a material, or a movement of pure air.
I continued in this state for a long time. Then, bit by bit, falteringly, I began to recognize myself and was pleased, as something was resonating within me in a new way.
“Oh! Oh, oh, oh!” I cried out.
And in this way I found myself transformed into a bird, and I began to move through a very high, very white space.
La Divine Fôret, French translation by U. E. Torrignani, 1975, éditions Denoël, Paris; excerpted and translated here for non-commercial, educational purposes only)
There is obviously some question as to the narrator’s gender, though the French translation and presumably the Italian original use the gendered pronouns I have employed in the present translation.
Borage, from the kitchen counter
Before the recipe, a warning: The verdict seems to be out on whether occasional consumption of borage products can adversely affect one’s health; to be on the safe side, pregnant or nursing women and those with liver disease should probably avoid it. Parts of borage contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can be toxic to the liver and may be carcinogenic. At the same time, borage has been used for centuries to treat a variety of disorders including depression, arthritis, psoriasis, sexual dysfunction and relief of stress, and has even been used in infant formula to promote development of fatty acids in pre-term infants. Those contemplating culinary or medicinal use of borage products (includingin the recipe below) should do their own research and determine whether to consume or not. In any event, moderation seems well-advised – especially with regard to that borage wine.
Bucatini di borragine
12 ounces bucatini pasta
Fresh borage leaves – about two fistfuls of the youngest and most tender you can get off the plant.
1 small glove garlic, minced
A bit of a small dried red chile pepper, seeded and chopped
¼-1/3 cup shelled raw or roasted pistachios (pine nuts would be good too, but I chose pistachios in homage to Bonaviri, as they’re such a staple in Sicilian cooking)
A piece of country bread small enough to fit in your closed hand, with crust removed
1 tablespoon breadcrumbs
~1/3 cup olive oil
Zest of one lemon (or more – I really liked the lemon flavor)
2 tablespoons fresh ricotta cheese
6 mint leaves, chopped
~10 borage flowers
Salt and pepper
Pick two fistfuls of borage leaves, discarding any that are too large/rough. Wash thoroughly in cold water and drain. Add to boiling salted water and cook for three minutes, then drain and rinse under cold water. With your hands, squeeze out as much water as possible. You should end up with about 3-4 tablespoons of borage, all in a lump (I found that you could probably get by with two big tablespoons for the recipe, so you might reserve some for another purpose). Chop the borage roughly and put aside while preparing the other ingredients. If you like, open a bottle of dry white wine. Pour yourself a glass.
In a couple tablespoons of olive oil, briefly sauté the clove of garlic and add the chile pepper. Remove from heat and allow garlic and chile to infuse the oil.
Add to the bowl of a food processor the pistachios, the bread (torn into small pieces, soaked in water and squeezed dry), the tablespoon of breadcrumbs, the infused oil along with the garlic & chile, a half-teaspoon or more of salt depending upon taste, the drained, chopped borage leaves and the rest of the olive oil (about a quarter cup or so, which you can add slowly while mixing the ingredients in the food processor). The result should be not too homogenous, and not too liquid-y. You should end up with a paste of about one half to two-thirds cup of borage pesto.
Cook bucatini as directed on package until al dente. Drain (reserving at least one cup of the pasta water), then serve in bowls, adding some pasta water to moisten. Quickly, add a good dollop of the pesto on top of the hot pasta, and on top of that, put a tablespoon of fresh ricotta cheese, then on top of that the zest of the lemon, on top of that the mint, and finally a few lovely borage flowers sprinkled about.
Buccatini di borragine
Vin de borrache (Borage wine), in preparation