Ombra mai fu Posted on August 11, 2020

It was not far off a hundred old-style degrees yesterday, and not a breath of wind. How did our ancestors in the 18th century, periwigged or corseted, survive the summer? Handel left some clues in two of his operas, in two of his most successful and memorable arias. Ombra mai fu, his ‘largo’ in Serse, of 1738, is King Xerxes’ love song to a plane tree and its ‘soave’ shade, ‘Where’er you walk’ (Semele, 1743) is Jupiter’s promise to his mistress, Semele (the mother of Baccus) that her life with him will be a (shady) paradise; ‘Cool gales shall fan the shade’. Our garden is permanently shady, but you need a breeze as well; close and airless shade is no pleasure.

For months already this summer I have been crossing to (even planning my walks for) the shady side of London streets: east in the morning, west in the afternoon, or the south side of east-west streets. Avoid north-south streets around noon.

Am I unusual in shunning the sun? I shudder when I see photos of crowds fully exposed on shadeless beaches. Summer sun without a shady refuge is my idea of hell. I suspect that plants feel the same. Why do they flower in sunshine, and vegetate in shade? Shade gives them the opportunity to grow, to breathe freely, open their stomata and pump carbon dioxide, using the carbon to multiply their cells and expand. Sun, I imagine, constrains them, makes then hoard their juices, induces the sense of mortality and the urge to reproduce; hence make flowers, mate and fruit.

This is no way to think of a plant, I’m often told. They don’t have feelings, sensations or urges; let alone a concept of the future and the need to provide for future generations. I’m not so sure. They can’t book holidays in a climate that suits them better. Nor, while this poxy virus is among us, can we.

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