Plant and Fungus Metaphors

By November 3, 2013

A few months ago I wrote about the Upas Tree as a metaphor for Mormonism in the nineteenth century. Today I would like to follow-up briefly with some examples of non-Upas plant or fungus metaphors.

Let?s begin our discussion of non-animal, non-Upas, biological metaphors with the following:

It is like the deadly Upas tree, it destroys all life beneath its shade. Or, like the parasite tree of Africa, which grows upon other trees where its seed is deposited by birds in the fork or any decayed place. The seed germinates and sends its roots under the bark and around the tree, or through the decayed spot to the heart of the tree, absorbing all the sap from the roots. It is often found growing vigorously upon the fig tree, the bread fruit and other fruit trees, taking all the life of the tree, and the branches withered and dead. So the Mormon priesthood finds a lodgment in some cracked cranium, or some decayed community, and takes root and grows, absorbing all religious life, all free government, all independent enterprise, drawing the life of the people into tithing and temple building, into baptizing for the dead, or being sealed to some old polygamists for time and eternity in order to be saved. Oh what a monster is this Mormon priesthood! [1]

This paragraph illustrates two phenomena common to almost all the figures of speech I have studied. First, one figure of speech just isn?t enough: Mormonism is like the Upas tree, the parasite tree, and a monster.

Second, what we might call the ?comparative arrow? is backwards. Instead of ?[less familiar] is like [more familiar]? we have ?[Mormonism—which the audience might actually have encountered] is like [a parasite tree, or a cuttlefish in the wild, or whatever—which the audience almost certainly has not experienced directly, and we know the speaker/author knows it because they proceed to give several lines of explanation of the comparison].?

I assume that ?stacked metaphors? and ?backwards comparisons? are characteristic of some strands of nineteenth-century rhetoric rather than being specific to discourse about Mormonism. Also—and this should probably be the main take-home here—there are perfectly legitimate reasons to pile metaphors and invert similes, but those reasons might not include concision or precision, and such awareness should shape how we interpret such writings.

Another factor I have to constantly remind myself about when reading nineteenth-century lit is that Euro-American authors and audiences at the time were still overwhelmingly agrarian. To an agrarian audience, assertions that ?Polygamy is a curse, a mildew that has blighted every region it has touched?? or that the ?Mormon Blight Stops Good Immigration to Utah? carry an urgency and an immediacy that I think most present-day Euro-Americans do not feel. [2] I might lose a loaf of bread to mold, but not a year?s worth of labor; to me ?a blight? is an abstraction, but to them it could mean a whole year without income. A poet?s call to ?Wipe Mormon mildew from thy shining shield? was serious business. [3]

My favorite illustration of Kingdom Fungi?s seriousness to agriculturists, however, is Brigham Young?s curse on (some) lawyers:

Men who love corruption, contention, and broils, and who seek to make them, I curse you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ; I curse you, and the fruits of your lands shall be smitten with mildew, your children shall sicken and die, your cattle shall waste away, and I pray God to root you out from the society of the Saints. [4]

The meaning of the word ?fungus? has changed in some contexts in the intervening centuries. Yeasts, molds, mildews, and fungi all belong to Kingdom Fungi, but when nineteenth-century polemicists wrote that Mormonism is a ?great fungus growth? or ?a religious fungus? or ?the fungus Haematodes of Christianity,? they might have been referring to what we would now identify as a tumor. [5]

The last thing I want to note about plant and fungus figures is their relative frequency of appearance. For the past few years I have intermittently posted on the use of biological metaphors in discourse about Mormonism. Almost all of the metaphors I have written about derive from animals, but I don?t have a good sense about whether that predominance is due to my own selection bias or if animal metaphors actually were more common. On the one hand, nineteenth-century religious polemicists were forever talking about the ?harvest of souls? and ?bringing in the sheaves? and ?fruitful boughs? and ?leavening? and ?by their fruits? and fig trees and olive trees and mustard seeds and so on and on. On the other hand, I have noticed relatively few specifically-Mormon plant/fungus metaphors like the ones I?ve cited in this post. I?m not quite sure what to make of the absence.



[1] SL Gillespie, ?The Mormon Priesthood: One of the Chief Obstacles to American and Christian Progress in Utah,? in The Situation in Utah: The Discussion of the Christian Convention Held in Salt Lake City, Utah, April, 1888 [alternate title: Christian Progress in Utah: The Discussions of the Christian Convention Held in Salt Lake City, April 3rd, 4th and 5th, 1888] (Salt Lake City: Parsons, Kendall & Co, 1888), 17 (12-17).

[2] ?The experience of ages may be trusted. Polygamy is a curse, a mildew that has blighted every region it has touched since the creation of the world. It presents no new phase, but from the first to the latest periods it has been destructive of the happiness of individuals, the peace of families, and the welfare of communities.? Unidentified male in Utah, as quoted in Austin N Ward, Male Life Among the Mormons: or, The Husband in Utah: Detailing Sights and Scenes among the Mormons; with Remarks on Their Moral and Social Economy (Philadelphia: J Edwin Potter, 1863), 304. ?Mormon Blight Stops Good Immigration to Utah,? section header in Robert M Stevenson, ?Utah Trying to Ignore Its Handicap,? The Continent [continuing The Interior and Westminster] 44.18 [whole number 2240] (1913 May 01): 596-596. See also: ?Of all the frontier fields in the United States, no parts are so difficult for the minister of the gospel as those of Utah and the surrounding regions where Mormonism has held sway and breathed its mildew.? John Fletcher Hurst, Short History of the Christian Church (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1900), 588. ?There was an attorney in Provo by the name of Mildew. If ever a man was rightly named it was he. Of all the villainous, unscrupulous beings, destitute of humanity and full of diabolical traits, that I had ever met, he was the worst. The ?Gentiles? have always called him ?Uriah Heep?—I have understood because of some despicable character of that name in a novel. [Spends next six pages discussing attorney Mildew.]? CP Lyford, The Mormon Problem: An Appeal to the American People (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1886), 238.

[3] Mrs JS Dayne, ?A Fast Day Meditation,? datelined Portland, Conn, 1880, as reprinted in The Sag-Harbor Express, Sag-Harbor, Suffolk County, New York, 1880 May 20 Thu morning, p 1, column 3, top.

[4] ?Men who love corruption, contention, and broils, and who seek to make them, I curse you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ; I curse you, and the fruits of your lands shall be smitten with mildew, your children shall sicken and die, your cattle shall waste away, and I pray God to root you out from the society of the Saints. To observe such conduct as many lawyers are guilty of, stirring up strife among peaceable men, is an outrage upon the feelings of every honest, law-abiding man. To sit among them is like sitting in the depths of hell, for they are as corrupt as the bowels of hell, and their hearts are as black as the ace of spades. I have known them for years; I know where they were begotten and by whom, and how they were brought forth, and the history of their lives. They love sin, and roll it under their tongues as a sweet morsel, and will creep around like wolves in sheep’s clothing, and fill their pockets with the fair earnings of their neighbors, and devise every artifice in their power to reach the property of the honest, and that is what has caused these courts. I say, may God Almighty curse them from this time henceforth, and let all the Saints in this house say, Amen [a unanimous Amen from 3,000 persons resounded through the house], for they are a stink in the nostrils of God and angels, and in the nostrils of every Latter-day Saint in this Territory.? Brigham Young, speech in Salt Lake City, 1856 Feb 24, reported by GD Watt, printed in Journal of Discourses 3:240 (236-241). Portions of this speech were quoted in Samuel M Smucker, The Religious, Social, and Political History of the Mormons, or Latter-day Saints, from Their Origin to the Present Time… (New York: Hurst & Co, 1881), 447.

[5] ?The present evangelistic agencies that would cope with this great fungus growth are entirely inadequate. True, many thousands have turned from Mormonism and have become as other men are; ?thousands of them,? says Dr. McMillan, ?have turned to the Savior, and become dovout [sic] and consistent Christians.? But with a system of immigration that is checked by neither contract-labor law nor Chinese exclusion act, the Mormon hierarchy are able to smile at minute defections. The Mormon population of the United States has doubled in a little more than ten years.? Henry Otis Dwight, ?The Church and the Mormons,? The Missionary Review of the World 17.2 (1904 Nov): 831 (822-832). ?The subject assigned me is to suggest some of the good ends a wise and gracious Providence may accomplish for the world, and for the cause of truth in the permission of so strange a system. Will you call it a plague spot, a troublesome concern, a religious fungus? Call it all the hard names you please, make the shadow as black and dismal and threatening as you like; the darkest cloud has a silver lining; the sun is peacefully shining on the other side of the most terriffic [sic] lightning flashes. And so, after all the dark canvas that has been painted and presented to us, it becomes my privilege and pleasure to take you over on the other side, where the sun is serenely shining, and see if we can gather out of Mormonism any beautiful flowers, or discover any valuable or hallowed fruits.? MT Lamb, ?Lessons from Mormonism,? in The Situation in Utah: The Discussion of the Christian Convention Held in Salt Lake City, Utah, April, 1888 [alternate title: Christian Progress in Utah: The Discussions of the Christian Convention Held in Salt Lake City, April 3rd, 4th and 5th, 1888] (Salt Lake City: Parsons, Kendall & Co, 1888), 86 (85-92). ?We may always look for such fruits to grow from the tree of life, but they are no more part of that tree, than the gloomy and loathsome parasite that covers the magnificent Cyprus on the banks of the Mississippi, is a part of that beautiful tree. It is the fungus Haematodes of Christianity. It mars it, as the ulcerated cancer does the human face, or as the disgusting Elephantiasis does the symmetry of the human limb. No man can be a Mormon, who is not a religious fanatic, or an adroit and consummate villain; but frequently the Mormon combines both characters in one.? No author listed, CP Krauth, WM Reynolds, and ML Stoever, editors, ?Mormonism,? Article 5, The Evangelical Review 10.37 (1858 Jul): 96 (80-100). James Wardrop, Observations on fungus haematodes or soft cancer in several of the most important organs of the human body containing also a comparative view of the structure of fungus haematodes and cancer : with cases and dissections (Edinburgh: G Ramsay / A Constable and Co, 1809). Google ?fungus haematodes? at your own risk.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Wonderful and interesting as always, Edje. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — November 4, 2013 @ 7:52 am

  2. Good work again, Edje. Thanks.

    Comment by JJohnson — November 4, 2013 @ 9:18 am

  3. Thanks, Christopher and JJohnson.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — November 4, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

  4. […] Tree, Cephalopods (Cuttlefish, Octopuses, and Squid: 1, 2, 3, 4), Hydras (1, 2), Cancer (1, 2), Plants and Fungi, and Lampreys, Mermaids, and Leviathans. Throw in the four bits about Mormon-themed aphrodisiacs […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Figurative Mormons, or Something — November 17, 2013 @ 8:27 pm


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