But those herbs which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by all the rest, but, being trodden upon and crushed, are three; that is, burnet, wild-thyme and watermints. Therefore, you are to set whole alleys of them to have the pleasure when you walk or tread.
Francis Bacon, Essays, Civil and Moral, 1601Every so often I have an idea for a piece of conceptual art. I am not a conceptual artist. But it is easy to imagine that one could be – it is simply the leap from notion to implementation (by way of funding, logistics and commitment) that is absent.
But perhaps a declaration is sufficient to lay claim to the idea. If I were to make conceptual art, this would be my first piece. I would call it …
A wish for the city that you helped make come true
It is just before dawn on a perfect autumn morning. Sleepy commuters disembark at Wellington train station. They find the platforms and the building’s floors covered in a blanket of strewing herbs.
Each person has no choice but to be part of the work. As they walk out into the world, waves of mint and rosemary and lavender and pennyroyal rise into the air. The scent rolls out into the city, up to Parliament, towards the harbour, turning the air sweet and clean and astringent.
A wish for the city that you helped make come true lasts only until the sun has fully risen. At this moment, the herbs are swept away. The scent lingers in the air to puzzle the next wave of commuters, who arrive too late to be part of the mystery.
Because it interests me …
In a 1557 instructional poem, Thomas Tusser listed 21 plants that could be used as strewing herbs:
Cowsleps and paggles
Daisies of all sorts
Roses of all sorts
And because this interests me too …
Now obsolete, the role of the Herb Strewer in the English court was to ensure unpleasant smells were masked in the royal apartments and stables through the strewing of herbs and flowers. The earliest recorded Herb Strewer was Bridget (or Brigit) Rumsey, who was appointed into the role by Charles II upon his restoration to the Crown in 1660. Rumsey received an annual salary of £24 for her services as ‘garnisher and trimmer of the chapel, presence and privy lodgings’, and two yards of superfine scarlet cloth. The last Herb Strewer was Mary Rayner, who served in the under George III and two of his sons from 1798 to 1836.