Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Friday, July 17, 2020

The stories behind everything

The yucca plants along my driveway are in bloom. This year, 51 spikes, creamy white columns of glory, rise above their clusters of sword-like leaves,

            I don’t know what kind of yucca plants I have. There are, Wikipedia tells me, 49 species of yucca, and another 24 sub-species. Some grow over 30 feet (10 m) tall. Some are used for food. Some grow only in deserts. Some have fleshy leaves that store water like aloes; some have leaves as hard and dry as old shoe leather.

            All I know is that my yucca border began with just two plants. The man who built our house was doing some work in his mother’s yard. He dug up some yuccas, and said to himself, “Jim Taylor needs something to grow along his driveway.”

            His mother is long gone, but her yuccas live on, and delight people walking by when they burst into their annual celebration of summer.


The back-story

            Those yuccas got me thinking -- almost every plant in my yard has a story attached to it.

            Granted, some of them Joan and I chose at local nurseries, just because we wanted a catalpa tree, or a hawthorn.  But that in itself may be a story – how do you stuff a ten-foot golden locust home inside a Honda Accord?

            The mountain ash whose fermenting berries attract swooping clouds of Waxwings every spring was the first tree we planted. It made a bare lot feel more like a home.

            Other plants have longer histories.

            A deep red peony, the first peony to bloom every spring, came from Joan’s mother. So did our  raspberries and rhubarb.

            The black currant bush came from a neighbour down the road. He saw me out walking, and handed me a scrawny shoot with a bare root. I didn’t think it would survive. But it did, and now provides jars of jelly every year.

            Our towering Tree of Heaven – ailanthus altissimae, considered a pest by many – started as a sucker salvaged from another neighbour’s yard.  In hindsight, it may have been a mistake.

            Like the black current bush, I didn’t think our lilacs would survive the trauma of being hacked down, dug up, and replanted. My secretary was allergic to their fragrance at the house she and her husband just bought. But they not only survived, they multiplied.

            The coral bell begonias in our rockery have adorned at least three gardens before this one. They came as a birthday gift from my art director’s wife, in Toronto.



            In journalism, we call these “back-stories.” In the museum world, they’re called “provenance” -- who owned an artifact, how it was used, who made it. Sometimes the artifact itself has less value than its provenance.

            We humans have our own provenances. One of my Irish  ancestors walked 100 miles carrying a 100-lb sack of wheat to pay for his first year in seminary. Joan’s grandparents fled a dustbowl in Ohio for a dustbowl in southern Alberta.

            The Bible offers provenance for three world religions. It is the “back-story” of their current practice.

            However prosaic or embellished, provenances matter. The Bible has been written down. Most provenances remain oral.

            Will anyone remember the story of my yuccas when I’m gone?


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





I intended last week’s column about the numbers of escaped slaves in the book of Numbers to be taken lightheartedly, and most of you did. Some of you even enjoyed it.


Jane Walbrown wrote, “This was fun!  It's been sooo long since I was in seminary. Methuselah was how old? 969? I forget how we were told the Bible figured ages. By tens? Methuselah really 96? Really old women having babies? Donkeys talking? I, for one, always discounted biblical time figures or much in the OT. I, too, have been to Jordan...to Petra. I also stood at a point in the monastery that looks out across the valley to the promised land where supposedly Moses and Joshua stood. No way all that huge number of people could have been staying in that area.

            “I look for the ‘spirit’ or intent of what has been written in the Bible. That's what I have always liked about your psalms. In my experience hardly anything that is valued is literal. Although I DO historically believe that a group of people did come out of Egypt and into the promised land.”


Isabel Gibson made a similar point: “Oh what tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to believe. Or something like that.

            “I remember hearing that ‘40’ -- as in the 40 days Noah and his menagerie spent in the boat, 40 days and nights that Jesus spent in the desert -- didn't actually mean 40. It meant ‘a considerable time.’ So maybe 600,000 men (and others) didn't mean 600,000. Maybe it meant ‘a considerable company.’

            “Sometimes I think we take the Bible nowhere near seriously enough, but way too literally.”


Ralph Milton had a simpler explanation:  “Story-tellers exaggerate. (Except you and me of course.) And each generation exaggerates the last person's telling. So ‘there were a big bunch of us,’ gets inflated to 600,000 in the course of many generations of retelling. Goliath grew an inch with each retelling. David's adventures grew in size and number as the years went by. Nice guys become saints. Bad guys become demons.”


Beth Richardson suggested “that the Bible's early books were based on a lunar calendar and not a solar one (which I knew but had forgotten) -- so Methusalah was not 969 solar (365-day) years but lunar years, so he was only in his 70s by our current reckoning. I would imagine that their counting system was a different base too -- probably 7's as it was an important number for them.”


Tom Watson (with tongue in cheek): “Now that you've taken care of the problem of the multitude of ancient Hebrew people who plodded through the Sinai desert -- and I'm much relieved that I don't have to bother about that any longer -- I'm hoping you can help me with another numbers problem from the Bible. In the First book of Kings, it says that King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. I never have understood how he could pull that off.”


Bob Rollwagen: “Numbers, in today’s world, seem to be abused for the end of creating advantage. Maybe the storyteller was trying to create an image, and suspected his audience would be impressed and not aware of the geography. I am always amazed at how numbers are misunderstood. Is 100% better than 10%? Without context, you can’t answer.

            “Numbers matter. Mathematics is critical. Too bad the Ontario government is focused on Arithmetic.”


Art More also stressed the geography: “Your post brought back wonderful memories. At one point I stood on the supposed spot that Moses stood when he first sighted the valley. Wow! Then next day I renewed the promises of my baptism and confirmation in the Jordan river. What a deeply meaningful thrill!

            “Was I in the right spots? Did the stories actually happen? I don't know and I don't really care. What I care about is the beautiful stories behind them and what they have meant to my life.”


Mike Parmenter – who is also my cousin – took a mathematician’s approach:  “As you might expect, I enjoyed the Numbers column and was pleased to see your solid understanding of Modular Arithmetic (a topic I used to teach).

            “The math teacher who wrote you the letter had an interesting idea but there is one problem applying this to the Book of Numbers -- namely, when you're writing a number in a base other than 10 it is customary to only use digits which are less than the base. So when it is stated that 59,300 are enrolled in the tribe of Simeon we can be pretty sure that the base is bigger than 9.

            “’Customary’ is the operative word -- this is not a hard and fast law. But it would be strange if it wasn't followed.”


Laurna Tallman harkened back to a previous column, about clouds and rain: “Influencing weather is a Biblical concept. Elijah called up lightning to consume his water-drenched sacrifice in the presence of the worshippers of Baal. Jesus walked on water (that may have been frozen) and commanded the wind and waves of a storm to subside. Other Biblical figures have prophesied famine and plenty, which is directly related to weather. Moses arrived at the Red Sea in synchronization with a wind that drove the shallow water away and dried the seabed enough for foot-passage but not hoof and chariot-wheel passage. A Christian teacher about prayer, Agnes Sanford, devotes an entire book to how we can take the same kind of ‘authority’ as Jesus did over nature. She has influenced my prayer life in those ways as well as in how to pray for people.”




Psalm paraphrase


Psalm 139 is one of my all-time favourites. I couldn’t possibly go with the alternate reading this week.


1          I am transparent to you, God.
You can see right through me.

2          I can hide nothing from you.
You read my body language, and detect my deepest feelings.

3          The tiniest quirks of my handwriting reveal everything that's going on inside me.

4          You know what I'm going to say before I've thought it through.

5          I look around at the world, and you are there; I look within my psyche, and you are there;
Emotion and intellect are one to you.

6          You know me better than I know myself.
I could not stand knowing myself that well-- I need some hidden corners still to discover,
some mysteries still to unfold.

7          Only you can cope with total knowledge.


7          How can I have a life of my own?

8          If I study science, you are there.
If I explore economics, you are there.

9          From charmed quarks to exploding galaxies,
from icebergs to dinosaurs to industrial toxins -- wherever I turn, you will turn up too.
You insinuate yourself into every crevice of my life.

11        Even if I bury myself in my work, you break in, and upset all my careful applecarts.

10        You drag me forward by my lapels;
in the small of my back, you keep shoving me.

12        I cannot keep you out of my life.
So I might as well let you in.


23        I have nothing to hide from you.
Go ahead -- look into my soul!

24        I have done my best. If you find a jealous heart or a spiteful tongue,
clean them out!
I would rather do without them than be cut off from you.



You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                  I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)



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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: yucca, provenance



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