Earthworms’ Castings

With Jean Ponzi


Out in the blazing summer sun, I stay shady with a cool umbrella.

Single-handed, still or strolling, I can shield head, shoulders, ankles – even a friend. Umbrellas block intense rays as well as they shed raindrops. Under their cheerful protection I can avoid the clogged-pore feel and clinging scents of chemical sunscreen. Plus umbrellas come in patterns and hues to complement any attire, for all occasions!
This versatile portable shelter has served humans for over four thousand years.

Umbrellas appear in the ancient art of Egypt, Assyria, China and Greece, shown as ceremonial canopies carried over priests and nobles. Tibetan Buddhism praises the parasol as one of Eight Auspicious Symbols, representing protection of beings from harmful forces, the eternally unfolding expansiveness of space – and hallucinogenic Himalayan mushrooms.

Umbrella comes from the Latin root umbra, meaning shade or shadow. Jolly useful, it’s called brolly around Great Britain.19th century American slang dubbed it bumbershoot.
Resourceful Chinese first waterproofed their paper-topped wooden para-sols with wax and lacquer. 16th century Europeans took to these handy tools, especially in rainy northern climes. At first the (often frivolously trimmed) accessory was considered suitable only for women, until the Persian traveler and writer Jonas Hanway, who conspicuously carried and used an umbrella in England for thirty years, popularized gentlemanly use of the plain black Hanway.

In 1852, Samuel Fox invented the steel ribbed umbrella design as a way of using up surplus farthingale stays, the thin steel rods that stiffened women’s corsets. African-American inventor William C. Carter patented an umbrella stand in 1885. Ubiquitous umbrella culture then remained unchanged for a century until Taiwanese inventor Chin Sung Ko patented the “automatic fourfold collapsible umbrella.”

Caught in a cloudburst on a via in Rome, I loved the transformation of street-hawker wares, from arrays of knock-off Gucci and Prada bags to bouquets of folding umbrellas, on which everyone without one had to splurge a gouging twenty Euro.

Old wives’ lore warns against opening any umbrella indoors, but I flaunted ill-fortune fate as a very little girl, building playhouses in my Gramma’s living room with Grampa’s sober Hanway collection. I propped my own little sunshine-yellow ‘shoot like a skylight over those broad black domes. Lucky paper doll families moved right in.

Working for the Missouri Botanical Garden, I have happy access to the flower-strewn umbrellas that Garden fans can choose as a membership gift. My fashionably shady array includes the subtle blue and white Ozark dogwood pattern offered at the most recent turn of the century to the primary-hued 2002 “See The World” model to the purple coneflowered “Green for 150 Years” sesquicentennial number, to the most current subtle water colored botanical illustration of Nymphaeae. I’m proud to advertise for the power of plants on a planet I love.

Under a bumbershoot, I can step out in nature sensibly prepared to mingle with her elements.

And, my friend, you can too.
Rain or shine, girl or fella,
Wear a smile AND your umbrella.

Jean Ponzi welcomes you into Green conversations, at your convenience, from her long-running Earthworms show, now podcasting from KDHX, St. Louis Independent Media. Pick ‘em up from www.kdhx.org or through iTunes.