January 6, 2002


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


A night on Bald Mountain
and other childhood joys


When I was 5 years old, I lived not terribly far from the Harz Mountains in Germany, which probably explains quite a lot about my personality that I'd just as soon not explore. Germany was starting to rebuild and refurbish after the war, and I remember riding through a village (standing up between my parents in the front seat of the car, by the way — a pleasure wrested away from today's kids by the Safety Stormtroopers; but I digress) and seeing a small tree, decked with streamers, mounted on the roof ridge of a house under construction. When I asked what it was there for, my parents, bland-minded Californians, didn't have a clue, but our Estonian housekeeper had all the skinny an imaginative 5-year-old kid could hope for. She told me that the tree was up there to attract all the evil spirits who prowled through the area. Instead of entering the house through the gaping unshingled beams of the roof, the spirits would nest in the tree. As soon as the roof was sealed over, the builders would burn the tree, and the spirits would be destroyed.

Apparently the evil spirits on new-house-invasion duty were a dim lot, because all over the area, trees were mounted on housetops and, in due course, burned. The imps should have caught on, but the trick seemed to work no matter how many times it was performed. There also seemed to be a constantly revitalized evil-spirit population. One of my colleagues here in The Last Ditch has a penchant for getting all tangled up in the natural-history aspects of supernatural beings, but I'm afraid that my knowledge of the spirits and their activities is limited to their roosting in the tree and getting torched afterwards. Why they never learned from the mistakes of their fellows is beyond me.

The tree-mounting ceremony has trickled into American construction practices in what is called a topping-out ceremony, although the evil-spirit bit is underplayed: the tree is just there for "good luck." Frequently the tree isn't burned after the roof is closed over; as a live tree with a root ball in a pot, it's hoisted up and eventually planted on the building grounds. That hardly addresses the original concerns, but it might explain a lot of very uninspired landscaping.

A few weeks ago, when the local police restored our pre-911 traffic patterns in Northern Virginia, I drove past the Pentagon on a Sunday morning. The construction crews had cleaned away the debris on the edges of the gash caused by American Airlines Flight 77 and closed off the exposed rooms with plywood panels. The roof, however, was still open, and a small tree was mounted on the right-hand edge of the broken sector.

Now, anybody who goes to the movies these days, watches TV programs popular with the under-16 set, or reads best-seller fiction knows as much about pentagons as the warlocks of the Middle Ages did. (As "Buffy" aficionados are well aware, pentagons are nothing but pentagrams without the points.) Depending on what parts of the netherworld one dabbles in, you hunker down inside a pentagon to keep the nasties from getting at you, or you confine an imprisoned demon inside the pentagon while you have your way with it. In either case, breaking a side of the pentagon before your business transaction is complete is not a good thing, and it reminds us, O Best Beloved, that the phrase "all hell breaking loose" can sometimes be taken literally.

Consequently, the Pentagon tree-mounting raises a few questions. We know there are ultra-secret operations within the military community examining the paranormal, the possibility of an alien/extraterrestrial infestation, and many other things. (Actually, if they're going to use my tax dollars for anything, I'd prefer it be for exploring UFO sightings rather than conjuring the sort of mischief that's likely to backfire on an unsuspecting public — chemical-warfare agents, for instance.) But have the authorities checked to make sure that nothing got out when the jetliner hit? And will one paltry little tree keep it from getting back in? Or, considering what the Department of Defense can concoct on its own, will it really make a difference? Perhaps we should push for a full-bore congressional investigation; at the very least it would divert this idle chit-chat about national identity cards.

Of course, architectural awareness has changed a lot since the ground was broken for the Pentagon in the 1940s. The building was designed with five sides because there were five major roads converging on the site, and it seemed like a practical adaptation to existing traffic patterns. Back when TV's family-viewing hour revolved around "Father Knows Best" and "Our Miss Brooks," the idea of a major public building having five equal sides was not a big deal. But today, with "Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch" and the sweet young things from "Charmed" ruling the airwaves, everybody knows that a five-sided building is a major hazard. Seems unlikely that DOD would ever get those blueprints approved in spooky 2002.

But you never know. The occult possibilities of architecture do seem to be thriving. The Disney conglomerate is opening a theme park in Hong Kong, and they're calling in experts in feng shui to help them with the facility design. For those among us who have managed to avoid this aspect of New Age nonsense, feng shui is a system of aligning one's surroundings in order to let benevolent forces flow in an unobstructed manner; various objects that attract good omens are placed in geographically affirmative locations.

It's very complex; perhaps an excerpt from a feng shui Website will give you the flavor of the discipline: "For those of us involved in jobs where there is the opportunity to earn commission or side income, display a three-legged toad for wealth luck next to your desk or diagonally opposite the front door to your home." There's no indication of whether you have to find said toad already three-legged, or whether you can adapt any toad to your particular specifications. There's also no clue as to how you can explain your successful commission-earning to PETA, who are probably alert to this ploy already and poised to strike.

Or here's a home-decorating tip for the newlyweds among us: "Hang a pair of auspicious red lanterns in the southwest corner of your bedroom to energize for matrimonial bliss as well as excellent children luck. You should light up the southwest corner of your home with a pair of these red lanterns to infuse it with a dash of precious yang energy.... Keep them constantly lit to create excellent matrimonial luck and to energize for a fruitful marriage leading to many healthy children." Well, no doubt it's all true, but having a red lamp constantly lit in the bedroom has an unfortunate implication in my neck of the woods. To say nothing of the fact that I hung black-out curtains in the bedroom so that the "constantly lit" lamp in the street outside wouldn't intrude on my precious yang energy. Anyhow, you get the point.

But multicultural infusions could have their uses. Perhaps we should pay more attention to the paranormal aspects of architecture and start adding monuments to the Mall, not to commemorate various leaders or conflicts, but to cancel out the bad aspects of the public buildings already there — a few of the proper sort of toads in the Reflecting Pool might have gone a long way toward neutralizing the improper sort that infested the White House during the last administration.

In the meantime, I'm keeping an eye on that tree atop the Pentagon, and if it starts to wilt, sag, or otherwise deteriorate, I'm hanging garlic in my windows and tossing a toad into the laundry sink. You can't be too careful.

© 2002 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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