The naming of Dryas Octopetala

Originally commissioned for Les Dryades, an exhibition by Anaïs Tondeur with Crystal Bennes, Bibliothèque de Biologie-Chimie-Physique Recherche (BCPR), 30th November – 21st December 2015, part of ArtCOP21.

Dryades_The naming of Dryas Octopetala_Tom Jeffreys_2015_2

Once upon a time, when half the world was wooded, there lived a little white nymph. She had bright golden hair and lean limbs as white as snow. She skipped through the forests and danced atop mountains. She ran and jumped and sang and jigged. She paused to talk to the trees, to whisper to the rocks, and to laugh with the animals. All of the trees loved her. The plants loved her. And the animals loved her too. She loved them back in return. She did not have a name. She did not need one.

This story is the story of how the nymph was named.

One day, the little white nymph was in the mountains. She had paused to talk to the trees, to whisper to the rocks, and to laugh with the animals. Now, she had left the woods and was walking in the mountains. It was a cold day, but sunny, and her golden hair glittered in the ice-cold sunshine. The nymph admired the sunshine and the bright blue sky and her own delicate limbs. And she was happy. All was right in the world.

Except it wasn’t.

Something somewhere was brewing.

In the distance, just at the base of the horizon, was a subtle darkness – far, far away. In her happiness, the nymph did not notice it. Even if she had, there is nothing that she could have done. Gradually the darkness crept closer. A ball of cloud breathed flame upon her, and all of a sudden she was rooted to the spot.

Some said it was the gods. Some thought it was magic. Some blamed the nymph herself. Nobody knew for sure.

At first it was unclear to the nymph whether she had received a reward or a punishment. The animals still came to visit her: the snuffling lemming and the snow-white owl, the bustling ptarmigan and the fire-red fox. The reindeer breathed heavily beside her and the wolf crept silently after.

But she could no longer skip through the forests or dance atop mountains. She could no longer talk to the trees or whisper to the rocks or laugh with the animals. As the trees grew, she remained small, and she began to fear them. So she was glad to be on the mountainside away from the forests as they grew taller and taller, warmer and warmer, and darker and darker. She was glad too when the trees she had known began to age and die. For she stayed young: her hair remained golden and her lean limbs as white as snow.

Days passed and she did not change.

Years passed and she did not change.

Centuries passed and she did not change.

As time wheeled its way across the skies, the temperature of the world began to change again. Colder and colder it became. Ice crept over the earth and the skies were filled with the sounds of groaning. The trees retreated and the animals hid in the ground. Even the rocks stopped their whispering. Only the little white nymph stayed young, clinging to the rocks and the crumbling cliffs: her hair remained golden and her lean limbs as white as frost.

The first freeze lasted three thousand years.

Then, gradually, the warmth returned. The trees took back what the ice had claimed. The animals emerged from hiding. The rocks once more began their whispering. And the little white nymph stayed young, clinging to the rocks and the crumbling cliffs: her hair remained golden and her lean limbs as white as cloud.

But it did not last.

Colder and colder it became. Ice crept over the earth and the skies were filled with the sounds of groaning. The trees retreated and the animals hid in the ground. Even the rocks stopped their whispering. Only the little white nymph stayed young, clinging to the rocks and the crumbling cliffs: her hair remained golden and her lean limbs as white as snow.

The second freeze lasted two hundred years.

Then, gradually, the warmth returned. The trees took back what the ice had claimed. The animals emerged from hiding. The rocks once more began their whispering. And the little white nymph stayed young, clinging to the rocks and the crumbling cliffs: her hair remained golden and her lean limbs as white as chalk.

But it did not last.

Colder and colder it became. Ice crept over the earth and the skies were filled with the sounds of groaning. The trees retreated and the animals hid in the ground. Even the rocks stopped their whispering. Only the little white nymph stayed young, clinging to the rocks and the crumbling cliffs: her hair remained golden and her lean limbs as white as ice.

The third freeze lasted eight hundred years.

Then, gradually, the warmth returned. This time, new animals emerged: men. Men fought and roamed and killed. Men sought first to own the world. Then they sought to understand it. They examined it with microscopes and measured it and organised it all. They named each other and they named the land and they named everything they found within it.

One day, a man came and found the nymph. He bent down before her, admiring her golden hair and her lean limbs, white as silk. He touched her, very gently and he drew her, very carefully. He noted the chalky rocks around her, and he thought of the tiny strawberries he knew from home. For a moment, he wondered what he was doing here.

He looked at her limbs and named them petals. He counted the petals, one by one in the language of his ancients:

Unus
Duo
Tres
Quattuor
Quinque
Sex
Septem
Octo

And he named the nymph in the language of his ancients: Dryas, the wood nymph. He named her well.

The age of men brought light. But it was a bright light that burned. It was not long before the temperature began to change once more.

Gradually, the warmth increased. The trees took back what man had claimed. The animals emerged from hiding. The rocks once more began their whispering. And the little white nymph stayed young, clinging to the rocks and the crumbling cliffs.

In time, at last, she forgot her name. But her hair remained golden and her lean limbs as white as they had always been and would now remain for ever.

Les Dryades, by Anaïs Tondeur with Crystal Bennes, was held at Bibliothèque de Biologie-Chimie-Physique Recherche (BCPR) between 30th November and 21st December 2015, as part of ArtCOP21.