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By September 16, 2022 9 Comments

I am not a theologian on this blog, or a pastor. I have no authority to say this, but I think there’s a spiritual virtue in poking around in the precious margins, a virtue in presence among the leavings and in laying one’s imagination open to connection. Creator rhythms are ancient and nourishing, and it helps to go look.

Following Tim Van Denend’s splendid posts is humbling, so today I won’t even try. This Friday morning, I’ll just begin with his yesterday’s final paragraph and sing along for a few measures, hopefully even harmonize.

I used Mary Oliver’s “Passing the Unworked Field” on Tuesday night as a meditation before a meeting that was mine to lead. I did so because I like the poem muchly, but also because English royalty is presently the world’s preoccupation, even though Queen Anne I or II is not in anyone present frame of reference.

Here it is, in its entirety:

Passing the Unworked Field

Queen Anne’s Lace

is hardly

prized but

all the same it isn’t

idle look

how it

stands straight on its

thin stems how it

scrubs its white faces

with the

rays of the sun how it

makes all the


it can.

Thusly doth Mary Oliver honor countryside weeds that brandish beauty like sunflowers and, well, even dandelions. Queen Anne’s Lace can’t not be noticed because they’re so abundantly invasive and thus “hardly prized,” Oliver says in deliberate understatement. 

But then, without motion or intent or even our regard, the QAL prospers, even there in the “unworked field” where she spots them: “Look/how it/stands straight/on its thin stems,” despised but undeterred.

By its rigor, its clean white faces, its sheer loveliness despite its weediness, Mary Oliver can’t look away from its precise beauty, and that she cannot is our blessing. You have to love Queen Anne’s Lace for its sheer insistence on being beautiful: “look.  . .how it. . ./makes all the/loveliness/it can.”

It’s an endearing little poem that spots nothing less than radiance where we may be conditioned not to see it. I like that, and so, obviously, does Tim Van Denend. I’m in good company.  

The night I read it at a gathering, an embarrassing thing happened–I got a question. “Why is it called “Queen Anne’s Lace?” a woman said, a rotten thing to ask because I didn’t know the answer.

With the sounds of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral rituals playing on the morning news, like any old teacher I looked it up as soon as I got up. Seems that once upon a time Queen Anne II (1655-1714) created for herself a splendid reputation for her lace work, and that the tiny black spot amidst the glory of a thousand “scrubbed white faces” was created when once upon a time the Queen, normally steady of hand, pricked her finger and left a spot—once, and for always.

If only I’d known the night before.

And there’s more mythology—beware! Anguish too. Queen Anne was “with child” eighteen times but left but one heir. As a consequence perhaps, for years the lace her favorite handiwork names was considered something of a contraceptive.

No matter. Beauty is all around us, even in our ditches. Call QAL a pest, call it a weed, call it somehow noxious, it stands tall and straight and bright and beautiful, Mary Oliver says, a poet who sings the beautiful praise of little things whenever she can.

 “Consider the lilies,” the Bible says. King James put it this way: “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not, and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

In her own lovely prophetic voice, Mary Oliver says something similar: “Consider Queen Anne’s Lace, she says. Just consider.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    It was the first wildflower my mother taught me. Maybe partly because she’s always had a thing for British history. But also because, with her sharp and critical eyes, she always looked for beauty.

    • Marc Smith says:

      I remember Queen Anne’s Lace and my mother telling me about it as a very little boy just as you do.

    • Marc Smith says:

      I remember Queen Anne’s Lace and my mother telling me about it as a very little boy just as you do.

  • Having grown up in an agricultural family, I learned early on that all weeds are noxious and unwanted. I’m grateful that I now find beauty in QAL, blue chicory, cattails, and milkweed growing together beautifully along our roadsides.

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Thank you James. We teach our ecologists that non-native plants and animals are bad, and there are interesting assumptions supporting that idea that need examining. There’s important nuance, metaphorically and scientifically to consider — as you illustrate. Robin Wall Kimmerer, herself a credentialed botanist, has a very wise and generous meditation on common plantain, a non-native that modestly and quietly makes itself useful. Might be another verse to sing next time….

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Knackweed is very pretty too, but it’s trying to crowd out everything else in my yard. So, except along the road edge, I fight it.

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    Thank you for this beautiful essay and Oliver’s poem. I’ve always loved Queen Annes lace and have missed it along the many roads and ditches that have been “sprayed.”

  • June says:

    What a lovely post, and timely for me. I picked some last week in a field just steps from my grandson’s soccer game (in Grand Rapids). I kind of got “lost” in its wonder until I heard “grandma! It’s time to go!”

    Anyway, considered!

  • David E Stravers says:

    Wonderful essay and poem. It might be a common weed around my Michigan home, but now in Arizona, at 8,000 feet, it’s a rarity. I’m told it’s good to eat when young (some call it “wild carrot”) but haven’t taken the time to try it. My conclusion: We cannot yet comprehend the complex possibilities of blessings that God’s good creation presents to us in the millions of species, whether celebrated in poetic imagination or savored on the dinner table, Looking forward to exploring the qualities of QAL on the new earth.

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