What It Isn’t
When people taste wine, they rarely say, “It tastes like grapes.” Instead, they will mention almost any other fruit, or grass, or spice, or even something animal. But hardly ever grapes. Wine does not remind us, foremost, of what is actually in it.
That’s not to say that those other aromas and flavors are not there. They are. The process of fermentation can unleash multiple chemical reactions with a myriad of products, some of which give wine the complexity we crave.
Poetry is similar to wine in that we hardly ever describe it as “a bunch of words.” Of course, it is all words, but that’s not what we notice or care about.
Poetry is full of images. Look carefully, but not with your eyes, and see what’s there.
Poetry is lyrical, and it gives us music. Listen for the music among the words.
Poetry is imagination: this is that, that is like the other, it is not what you think. Make believe and see what happens.
Poetry is sound, even if nobody speaks.
Poetry is emotion. What rises within you as you read?
Poetry is the expression of our deepest humanity. It’s how you say it, not the words you say.
That does not mean that all the things unleashed by poetry are not real. They are. Poets weave the words in myriad ways and give poetry its coveted complexity.
Thus poetry is never just poetry, never just that memorable speech that sticks in our heads. It is always something more, something else, something not poetry. We know it as pictures or songs or visions or sounds or feelings, but not just as poetry, not just the words. No, no, that’s not it. It is so much more.
How It Is Supposed To Be
I wasn’t supposed to do this. These papers had come in way past the deadline. Every assignment had a firm deadline, one that I had set, firmly and decisively, when each one was handed out. But I read them anyway.
This was a student who had done nothing to deserve a break. He was hardly ever in class, and the number of promises to do better was about the same as the number of missed classes. He showed up for quizzes because those dates were in the syllabus. Then he would disappear again.
His quiz grades sucked. His assignments sucked. His writing was bad, his reasoning even worse, and his grasp of the material vapor thin.
He had not even tried to suck up, not even a little. He just wanted to be allowed to do the work now, at the end, even though he should have been doing it steadily since the course began. He wanted me to ignore all those deadlines.
He couldn’t drop the course because he had already dropped another course to avoid failure, so he was at his limit if he wanted to be a full-time student. He had no idea what full-time meant, except that he knew he didn’t want to be kicked off campus or lose his financial aid.
His assignments were so bad that I could be sure that he hadn’t copied anyone else, even though I had graded all the work of other students and handed it back long ago. With a little ingenuity, he could have gotten graded assignments from a classmate and copied all or most of them. But he didn’t do that. I guess the lack of cheating was something in his favor.
So I read his assignments. It was like a bad summary of the entire course, compressed into a couple of days. But it couldn’t be dismissed as a complete failure. Sure, it could all be dismissed because it was late. Sure, I could have saved myself a fair amount of work at the end of the semester when there was too much else to do. Sure, I could have let him fail. That’s what I was supposed to do, according to my own rules.
But I didn’t follow the rules. Was this unfair to everyone else in the course? Should they all be given a chance to redo their work? Actually, they all had that chance, and only a handful ever took advantage of it. So no, it was not unfair. Or keep it simple. It was fair.
He passed, just barely, but he passed. Maybe he shouldn’t have. Maybe failure would have been a more valuable lesson. But he hadn’t failed. He did what his character allowed him to do. Barely passing didn’t spare him from probation. Barely passing wouldn’t save his financial aid package. Barely passing didn’t mean he would ever graduate. I’m pretty sure he disappeared after the semester ended and never came back, although I have since retired and have no idea what he did.
So why not just fail him? Would it have mattered?
Yes. He had earned that barely passing grade. He could see that scrambling was better than doing nothing at all. Doing nothing was abject failure. He had not failed.
Maybe, just maybe, he could see that a poor effort was better than zero. And maybe, just maybe, he could see that more effort might produce a better result. If he ever looked at his grades as he left college behind, he might have learned something.
So that’s why I did what I wasn’t supposed to do.
I split the red oak
I imagine wine, also red, also redolent
I imagine cheese, so pungent I almost turn away.
The tree was weakened.
A cleft with rot and ants
Had made the wood fragile
A third of the way above the ground
It snapped in a tropical storm
That rode its way north.
The broken top hung up
In the fork of a larger red oak
I am cutting the snapped tree for fuel
My fire will speed the oxidation.
Except the weak wood
Left in the woods
Along with the branches,
And the leaves still clinging to the branches,
Having died in the summer wind
I cut a piece, the tree is shorter,
But still leaning on its neighbor
I will cut again, and again
Until it falls.
The tree could fall on me,
If it falls at all
But I am careful,
Or think I am
The nearby oaks look strong.
Their wood would smell good
But they are too big for me to cut
Too grand to be killed
Too essential for these woods
The wounded wood will suffice
There is enough for me
To give me heat
And beautiful wood
And wonderful scents
And I will leave but a trace
In the forest
Celebration and Disease
Four hundred years ago, a ship departed from Europe with people hoping for a life guided by their own religious principles rather than the religious principles of others. In the first year of their adventure, about half of them would die. Yet they managed to sustain a settlement in a new land, and the country that now encompasses that settlement – the United States of America – is preparing to celebrate their endeavor.
But our country, along with all other countries, is in the midst of a pandemic. Celebrations are on hold to limit the spread of a highly contagious virus. Large gatherings of people are too risky when there is no effective treatment and no way to prevent the disease. Because we cannot always discern who might be infectious, we must avoid nearly everyone. A vaccine is in the works but perhaps a year away. Treatments are in clinical trials that will take weeks at the very least, perhaps months. It is not safe to mingle with our brethren.
Returning to the recognition of the Pilgrims, another date – 1616 – might be a better choice for when the colonization of New England began. European explorers and traders had often visited the region, now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts, before 1620. They and their ships were in sufficiently close contact with the indigenous people of the Americas to share not merely goods but also bacteria, viruses, parasites and pests. In the Patuxet village of the Wampanoag people, one or more diseases began to spread in 1616. We don’t know which diseases were involved, nor is it certain whether it was one long epidemic or several, but by the time the Pilgrims arrived, portions of the village had suffered 30-90% mortality.
Think about that for a minute. Pick ten family members, and then imagine losing somewhere between three and nine of them in an epidemic, an affliction that you have never seen before and cannot stop. Within a single family living close together, those deaths would probably have occurred fairly quickly, over a period of weeks or months. If you were lucky enough to survive, your world would have been disrupted beyond comprehension.
Disease essentially emptied Patuxet village, either by death or departure. All that remained were empty structures, abandoned implements, stored food and bodies of the victims. Plants and animals would begin to reclaim the area, gradually covering the remains of a ruined culture.
In 1620, the Pilgrims arrived to find what appeared to be empty land. Though at least some of the settlers recognized how the area had come to be empty, they still concluded that Divine Providence had given them a verdant territory. They thanked God for this gift of a new home.
They arrived in December with few provisions and lost about half of their number through the winter. Yet they persisted. And so had the Wampanoag. Interactions between these two ravaged groups of people were tentative and tense, but mostly peaceful. They did share goods and food over the years, and as long as the numbers of newcomers was small, the indigenous people were willing to coexist. But the steady influx of still more colonists strained the relationships, war ensued, treaties were signed and broken, and the indigenous people ultimately lost.
Still, the initiation of the first persistent European settlement in New England is indeed an event deserving of recognition. Few actions have fomented as much change as the intrusion of this small band of newcomers.
And this intrusion might not have been possible at all had it not been preceded by disease.
Four centuries later, we are again in the grip of disease, a disease that we cannot cure, a disease that is challenging to avoid. We are assured that we will find vaccines and/or drugs to overcome this disease, but we just don’t know when. Until then, we must cope.
This new coronavirus appears to kill less – probably much less – than ten percent of those who are infected. It is not nearly as deadly as the diseases brought from Eurasia to America. We are confident that the disruption of society needed to slow the spread of the pandemic will not obliterate society. Restricting movement and contact is only temporary, though months do not seem all that temporary when we are in the middle of them.
Historians point out that another pandemic of a century ago, the so-called Spanish influenza, did not cause the collapse of society. Nations emerged from a Great War as the pandemic began, and by the time it ended, we entered what became known as the Roaring Twenties. Sounds good – flappers and speakeasies and a stock market boom – but it also included the rise of fascism in Italy and hyperinflation in Germany. The great flood of the Mississippi River in 1927 left many people destitute, especially African Americans. Maybe things after that pandemic weren’t as wonderful as we thought.
Now that we are immersed in a different pandemic, what will become of us, our society, and our culture? Unlike four centuries ago, we are the victims, not the observers. Unlike 1918, we can be infected by people who appear healthy. We try to keep our distance, we have closed venues of close contact, and we have cancelled events that would draw large crowds. People have been suddenly thrown out of work, and we have offered them little. Some people doubt that the virus is all that dangerous, some people are tired of being restricted, and some people are insisting on gathering together as before. Our patience seems to be limited. Suspicions of others – leaders or fellow citizens – turns some people toward loud voices, voices promising cures, conspiracy, doubt, and most of all, quick solutions. Has our patience diminished to the point where we will choose entertainment over safety? Is it really ok to let some people die so that others can go back to normal? Some are saying yes. And then we might ask, what will we sacrifice next for our everyday pleasures?
We are not founding a new colony. We are not losing half our population. But we are embarking on a path with choices. What choices will we make? What will we be celebrating when this is over? And what will our descendants be celebrating in a century, or two, or four?
The leaves on temperate deciduous trees typically change color before they fall off. The colors are often bright, even vibrant, and people enjoy the show. We describe the colors in terms of other bright things: fire, stained glass, lights, dyed cloth, or something else that is showy and warm.
Emily Dickinson viewed the colors differently (“opon” is her spelling):
The name – of it – is “Autumn” –
The hue – of it – is Blood –
An Artery – opon the Hill –
A Vein – along the Road –
Great Globules – in the Alleys –
And Oh, the Shower of Stain –
When Winds – upset the Basin –
And spill the Scarlet Rain –
It sprinkles Bonnets – far below –
It gathers ruddy Pools –
Then – eddies like a Rose – away –
Opon Vermillion Wheels –
The leaves are dying, their blood is spilled, driven by wind, gathered on the ground, unavoidable in the road. The image is grim, grizzly, gruesome gore. She calls us to mourn, not to celebrate. But is that all?
Physicians of her day (surgeons, to be precise) still practiced blood letting. Purging the body was a way to heal. The trees are bleeding in Autumn, then asleep in Winter, to be reborn in Spring.
So blood is not merely death. The crimson, or scarlet, or pink when diluted in the rain, is part of a cycle of life, and cycles often involve blood. What is grim today will be growing tomorrow.
In Robert Frost’s poem “Maple,” the mother of the girl named Maple dies after childbirth, apparently bleeding to death. Maple tries to understand why her mother named her for a tree. Was the “autumn fire” of autumn maples her radiant destiny? Or was it the blood of the fallen maple leaves, “laid scarlet and pink” on the ground? Could a destiny be more than one thing? Lives are complex, so why not complex destinies?
In a season of change, when trees switch to dormancy, there is quiet, there is brightness, there is death of leaves, there is promise in buds. There are harvested crops, departing birds, rutting deer, hibernating bears. Destinies intermingle and move forward. There is so much going on. We can feel it in our blood.
High and low
The south island of Aotearoa (New Zealand) is lifted by tectonic forces and eroded by waves, rain and ice. When the climate was cold, very cold, thousands of years ago, the sea level dropped as water was trapped in ice. The accumulated ice ground its way back to the sea, carving deep valleys. Then warming melted the ice, raised the ocean, and flooded those valleys near the coast. Today, we call them fjords. There are other places with fjords in the world, but only these have penguins.
One can get to the fjords over land, but the high passes are cold. One can get to the fjords by boat, but the Tasman Sea can be treacherous. One can find a few places in the fjord with level ground, but only a few. The fjord is best for things that live in the sea or in the temperate rainforest.
Riding in a boat, the intertidal is visible, as are the seagulls roosting, the seals napping, or the penguins hopping on the few available boulders.
Plants cling to the walls. There is forest, and many things of lesser stature, all growing on the cliff faces wet with rain and sometimes spray from waterfalls. Gravity brings some down, leaving a widening swath as the falling plants take others with them. The open space is quickly colonized by new plants, and regeneration begins.
The water is gray or blue, reflecting the sky and the cliffs. On the cliffs themselves, the predominant color is green. Some rock is too steep and clean for plants and remains bare. The rock is mostly gray but colored by array of minerals. And the sunlight can produce rainbows in the spray of falling water.
We are merely awestruck visitors in the fjord. Life here does fine without us. If we warm the climate and raise the sea level, life will continue, with more in the sea and less on land. But even our worst will not make the fjord disappear. All this life will find a way.
Along the rocky north Pacific shore of North America, there are patches of sea palm, Postelsia palmaeformis, standing upright whether the tide is high or low. The Wikipedia entry says, “The stipe is merely a firm, hollow tube, able to withstand the open air of low tide conditions as well as the crashing waves of high tide.”
“Merely”? Standing tall in the rocky intertidal means staying put and upright even when the water is not there for support, and even when waves are crashing on them. Whatever the tide, wave energy is intense, yet there they are, a seaweed, erect and secure in the face of surf, surge, storms, swells, wind, spray and cold. Humans wouldn’t last a day lashed to these rocks, but here is where Postelsia thrives.
Some seaweeds rise and fall with the water, drooping on the rocks at low tide and rising only when the water buoys them up. Some remain mostly submerged and elevate their bodies with gas-filled bladders that tug them toward the surface.
Not sea palms. They are tough enough to stay vertical in water or air, and flexible enough to sway with the waves. Among seaweeds, they stand out. They would be inconceivable if they didn’t, in fact, exist where it seems that they shouldn’t. Inconceivable or not, they exist abundantly.
Merely? Not the word I would use. How about “impressively” or “unimaginably”? Let’s give them their due.
Tree in Rock
The trail disappeared around a curve into the sky. A chain anchored in soft sandstone offered tenuous security, but it vanished with the trail. I stopped, out of breath and full of caution. The canyon floor was far below, and I didn’t want to join it just then. Should I go on and flirt with gravity?
Not quite yet, I told myself. Take a drink of water, hope that nobody else is coming up the trail behind me. Think about it.
Taking off my backpack, I turned and looked across the side canyon and saw the tree.
Tree in rock, a paradox
Suspended where no tree should be, there was a perfect Douglas fir. I dug out my camera from the assorted junk in the pack, decided to go vertical, checked the light meter, took a picture. That might be nice.
I packed up the camera and the water and continued on the trail without a second thought, except to grab the chain. Of course I’m going farther, there is more to see.
The trail was covered in many places with loose sand, testament to the insubstantial rock all around. It didn’t provide sure footing at every step, but it wasn’t serious. The bend was easy to navigate, wide, little sand, a great view, and quick to return to visual and physical security. I continued to climb to Hidden Canyon. I wanted to get there, to know I had done it.
But the tree tugged at me just a little. It was so improbable.
Rooted in eroding sandstone
A few more turns and the trail officially ended at the mouth of the little canyon. (Why call it Hidden Canyon Trail if it didn’t actually go into Hidden Canyon?) The terminus looked flat, but wasn’t. The sand and gentle slope made for a slightly exciting traverse; my feet kept slipping. Following the contour was longer but easier. The canyon itself was small, and people were allowed – enticed – to go in. A small stone arch awaited, so the guidebook claimed. The trail was not maintained, but who cared? Go until you can’t go any more.
The canyon floor was comfortably full of sand. The walk was easy, the canyon delightful with shapes, high monuments visible past the rim. Many footprints preceded me, and I encountered a few other people who were headed back down.
I reached the first barrier, an accumulation of logs that held back the sand, and I was pleased that it was short and easily surmounted, so on I went. I don’t recall exactly where I came across the arch, but it was on the shady side, small and cute.
The canyon slowly got deeper, not more than several meters, but enough to close in a bit. Each barrier got a little higher with more logs holding more sand, sometimes reinforced with a rock ledge. I got to one that I didn’t want to climb directly because it was steep and didn’t have any obvious easy steps. I looked around and noticed that the edge of the canyon floor provided a ramp up the side if I backtracked a bit. It even went higher than the barricade. This should be easy. I crested the barrier and hopped down to the next stage of the canyon floor.
The sandstone walls of the canyon were unevenly weathered (how else would an arch form?). Smooth here, creased there, sculpted and excavated randomly or regularly, it was always interesting. Any touch loosened a few grains and sent them to the floor of the canyon. But it wasn’t human activity that had carved the canyon.
twice rock, once sand
turning into sand again
cut by water in an arid land
A little farther on, I reached my limit, a barrier a good deal above my head and all the way across the canyon. I pondered it a while, found no easy solution, and decided to turn back. After a few steps, I heard two people behind me. I looked back as they reached the lip and scrambled down. Good for them. I’m still not going to try.
Heading back down the canyon, I was pleased with my small adventure. I had gone farther than I had anticipated and met a few challenges. Now for a pleasant hike back. Here was the barrier with the ramp. Where’s the ramp? I didn’t remember what it looked like. But I had come up this thing, so there must be a way down. Walking side to side, I still didn’t see it. (Only later did I read Edward Abbey’s account of nearly getting stranded on a high ledge in Utah. But he wasn’t backtracking when he got stuck. He was dropping down a canyon wall, expecting each step to lead to the next. It didn’t.) I eventually had the good sense to look behind me and there was the upper end of the ramp. It was more of a ledge here, not a ramp, but it was the right ledge. Stepping up to go down, I was back on course. The remaining barriers were easily overcome and I soon got back to the mouth of the canyon. I blithely headed straight for the trail and slipped on the sand, involuntarily sitting down (falling) on my butt. Oh, right, it’s not level.
Hiking down the trail was not the same experience as hiking up. The view was different, legs hurt in new places, and my attitude had changed from anticipation to reflection. But when I came around that turn, there was the tree again. Splendidly isolated, precarious and green. How can it survive?
water, lifeblood freed from stone
weeping deep through porous block
tree in rock, a paradox
I returned to this section of Zion Canyon eight years later. Walking the canyon floor, my wife and I passed the trailhead for Hidden Canyon. It demanded too much exertion for us on a scorching August day, so we stayed at low elevation. But I looked up to see if anything appeared familiar. There it was, off by itself, higher than I had expected but unmistakably the same tree. I pointed it out to Claire. “Oh, that’s the tree in your picture.”
When I was four or five years old, I was playing with other children at the house of close family friends. The son of the host family was excited about his new toy dump truck. When he moved a lever on the side of the truck, the dump popped up quickly, tossing the contents out. It was an impressive toy – I didn’t have anything like it. I was getting a close look at the truck when someone hit the lever and the dump sprang up and hit me hard in the middle of the forehead. The cut began to bleed, I started to cry because it hurt, and my sister screamed for my mother. I’m a little hazy on the details, but I got bundled into a car, towel or cloth pressed tightly to my wound (probably by my mother) and we went to a doctor’s office (this all happened in the dark of evening, but the doctor was there, responding no doubt to a call from one of the adults – it was the mid 1950s).
I remember being on a piece of furniture in the doctor’s office (an examination table?), still crying and being held (restrained?) by my mother. In my memory, the light was dim (cloth over my eyes?) and the doctor prepared to suture the cut. Someone, the doctor or a nurse, approached my face with a large pointed object, and I am pretty sure that I screamed in terror and tried to block it with my hands because I considered the object to be incredibly threatening. I don’t remember the rest of the time in the doctor’s office.
The next thing I remember was being back at our friend’s house watching a home movie. The movie featured me walking around inside a house with a substantial white bandage wrapped around my head.
At the time, this seemed very strange because, as far as I was concerned, I was watching the movie on the same evening that I had been cut by the truck. I was amazed that they were able to show a movie of me so quickly after I had been in the doctor’s office. I had just gotten home (I thought). When did I do the things I was doing in the movie? I had no memory of them. When did they make the movie? It seemed like magic.
Looking back on this incident years later, I have tried to make sense of it. In those days, home movies were shot on film with a rather bulky camera and extra lighting, then taken to a camera shop to be developed. There was no way that the movie could have been shot and developed on the same evening that I was injured, but that’s how it seemed to me. What had happened to the intervening time? As far as I can recall, whatever I did between the doctor’s office and seeing the movie had not registered in my memory. Was that amnesia? Shock? Trauma? I don’t know.
I’ve since had similar experiences with colonoscopies or surgery – I remember being told that the anesthetic was about to be applied, and then the next thing I remembered was waking up after the procedure was done.
But back when I was injured, I know that I had not been anesthetized the entire time between getting the stitches and watching the movie. The movie showed me walking around, doing things that I didn’t remember, but doing them just the same, appearing normal except for the ridiculously large bandage on my head.
Apparently, the advancing object (needle or something else) had been so terrifying that I stopped storing memories until I saw the movie some time later (I don’t know how much later).
Why would the sight of a pointed object produce such an extreme response?
I do remember having a deep childhood fear of needles whenever I had to get an inoculation. I once ran away from the nurse and hid in the kneehole of a desk, at which point they gave up trying to give me the shot on that visit. Of course, it only delayed the inevitable, but I was safe for that day, at least.
My mother claimed that I developed my fear of syringes when I had a penicillin shot, and back in the day, penicillin shots really hurt (I have no memory of that particular shot, but I have no reason to doubt my mother’s claim that I had one). I consider this to be a reasonable hypothesis. Or maybe sharp objects are inherently scary to small children.
The cold air did not stir in the early morning sun. The surface of the pond was undisturbed, sending a reflection of boulders, snow and trees deep into an abyss of vision that made no sense. What was image, what was real? The bottomless echo drew me near, but I held back, afraid to fall (or to fly?) to infinity. Unsure of up or down, I stared into an illusion.
Soon, a breeze would ripple the mirror, blur the pond and stir things back to unreflective normal. No more indecision. No more reason to pause and reflect on reflection. But for now, it was a mirror.
In a land of geysers and boiling springs, placid waters are counterpoint, a respite from turbulence. Eruptions are sensational. Pools are contemplative. The landscape is strewn with multiple moods.
Among them, reflection is deceitful. Inverted mountains, clouds at our feet, even Narcissus couldn’t tell left from right.
And after stillness settles in the cool of the night, as ripples on the pond calm to glass, land and sky resolve and plunge seamlessly to forever.
Before dinner, he lay on the fleece blanket on my lap and slept for an hour. He jumped to the floor when I got up. When I went to bed, he was lying in front of the wood stove. When I awoke at 5 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep, I went downstairs and found him lying on a rug in the kitchen. He started to follow me to the family room, but stopped in the dining room. He lay there for a few minutes, then came and joined me, lying on the carpet. I picked him up and tried to encourage him to lie on the fleece again, but he immediately returned to the floor. I typed on the computer for a while and went back to bed. After 7:00, my wife got up and I warned her to be on the lookout for the cat because he could be anywhere. After just a few minutes, she came back upstairs and told me that he was dead.
We adopted him and his sister sixteen years earlier as a surprise for our son who would soon return home from school. Both cats spent the days outside whenever there wasn’t snow. We wanted them to spend the nights inside year round, but if they were outside once the daylight began to wane, they refused to come in – until the early hours of the morning, when they meowed loudly and scratched at the door or window.
He was lean and adventurous in his youth, plump in middle age, and he remained large well into his senior years. Only in the past few months did he eat less, and finally not at all. He lost weight steadily, even when we tried the appetite stimulant that had worked well for his sister. When he completely lost the ability or willingness to eat and drink, it was only a matter of time – one weekend. For the previous few months, he had spent more and more time lying on his side and had sought out any source of heat, especially our laps. He got quieter and less responsive, and in his last night, he made no response at all when I gently stroked his fur. I left him as he continued to breathe quietly and slowly, on his side.
I had seen this kind of peace once before when I visited my father several years ago. He had spent decades dealing with Parkinson’s disease, caused by the 1918 influenza. His medicines made it possible for him to move, but they also caused involuntary motion in his head and limbs. Even lying on the bed, he would wave his hands, bend and extend his legs and roll his head back and forth, just a little. But that afternoon, he was completely calm, asleep, breathing slowing and easily. He had begun to lose the ability to swallow a few weeks earlier and had taken little food or drink since. Years before, he had insisted that he not be fed with tubes, so that was not an issue now. But he slowly and steadily lost energy and slept more and more. That afternoon, the medicinal movements were entirely gone and he was simply still. I stroked his shoulder and spoke quietly, though I doubted he could hear me. This courageous man had supported and loved his family through all the years during which his infirmity inexorably encroached. Even after his wife of 61 years had died, he continued to converse with us as best he could, and listen to books that we read to him. He had many good days.
I watched him for a few minutes that afternoon, told him that I loved him, and then went home. We got the call after midnight.