October 20, 2015
“I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”—Aldo Leopold
The things of the earth are changing again in the north. Marigolds rim our houses like the rings of Saturn. Old apples fill every corner and mushroom-eaten pocket of our yards. The yellow jackets work around them as they shrink further, down to the core. As the days of the season peel themselves off, we too eat this fruit in silence. The Finnish poet Eeva Kilpi said, “Autumn knows: the shrikes are leaving, the butterflies linger, scent of thistles fills the air, sweetness runs wild...”
Maybe it is because of the way autumn begins its subtracting of the natural landscape that I become more aware of it, alert to how it will fall, transmute, wane, cease. Some part of me has a bit of separation anxiety. I know my birches will green and flower again in the spring. Meanwhile I feel this is the time to lie down in a field of asters, climb any tree I can, observe whatever migratory highways I can follow, before as Gretel Ehrlich calls it, “the smooth skull of winter,” appears. I am glad for my wild country even in my not too wild city home.
I have a friend who is also an artist and a mother. When her children were younger and they lived in the city, she and other mothers from her neighborhood put together an art co-op. Each Saturday they would take turns guiding the kids in an art project together. She told me how one Saturday it was her turn and she wanted to go collect cattail rushes and weaves baskets. It mystified her that none of the other mothers really wanted to go stomp around in a marsh. She was on her own. She said, “I don’t know…I just like walking around in the woods in my rubber boots.” I said I thought collecting cattails sounded quite a bit more fun than gluing pasta onto cardboard, an art project my daughter had just done in school that week. We nodded silently to each other.
My daughter and I have often gone to the nearby nature center for a nature walk. Setting off with binoculars, notebooks and pencils to record what we see that day. When we do encounter adult humans in amongst the toads, fleabane, kingfishers and mourning cloaks– they are often joggers. And what a serene, restorative place to do it, I guess. And were I a fit person myself, I suppose I would also opt for raising my heart rate beneath stands of cottonwood, along side egrets zeroing in on their pond lunch. It beats watching CNN at the gym.
Why does nature matter? Well, I keep discovering that it doesn’t, not to everyone. It’s not always on our radar. One winter I was asked to be a guest poet at a university. In one of the classes I did a short reading and the students followed it up with questions. One question I was asked was, “I didn’t know a lot of the words in your poems. I had to look them up. Why don’t you just use the word tree or flower?” I had to stop and think. I had used the words tree and flower in my poems, but I had also used chinaberry, heliotrope, hackberry, anemone, cinnamon fern, hawkweed… words that to me did not seem terribly exotic. My quick answer to the student was– I liked the names of things. But that was not all, they weren’t arbitrary choices, the words had to fit the poem, they had to have some music and purpose. The longer answer was– I also want to know what are all these living things that surround me? What are they called, do they smell –good or bad? If I can touch them, what do they feel like? Who likes to eat them, sleep in them, make them into a home? And perhaps the more we know about nature, the less likely we may want to bulldoze, clear cut or frack it with ignorance and impunity. I am not a biologist. I’m just enamored by all the vagaries of the earth. And puzzled at times when others are not.
Another friend of mine is a publisher and a poet who is enamored of dragonflies. He spends his spare time collecting and studying them out of sheer fascination for the order of Odonata and for research for a series of books. Which means he spends hours alone with an empty net walking remote ponds or streams waiting for the precise moment to flick his wrist and swoop up the odd emerald spreadwing or sedge sprite. What it really means is he is walking in nature like the poet Basho, looking for ‘a hidden glimmering there’.
There are hidden glimmerings everywhere. I learned this from my father who was a conservationist. I grew up across the street from a lake and a grand stand of woods. One of the first things my dad taught me was to canoe and fish in Silver Lake. This lake had islands and leeches and snapping turtles. I loved it. It was there I learned that being in nature was about observing, listening and sitting inside a sort of luminous silence—like breathing in a prayer. It was a great gift to be young in that wellspring of wildness.
I guess for some of us it doesn’t matter if we don’t know what an aspen is or if we don’t have the time or inclination to walk, not run through the woods. We don’t all have to put on our waders to bond with dragonflies or cattail rushes. I think, depending of course where we grow up and what environment we are born to, we all start out running after small, mystical glass-winged helicopters or by petting the soft, brown cattail fur. And some of us in the city forget about it as we grow older. It blurs into the background of our frenetic lives. School children in Finland go outside for fifteen minutes of every hour—sometimes continuing their lessons there. How would that be if every adult left their desk job every fifteen minutes of every hour at work to not inhale their e-cigs, but walk by a pond or lilacs filled with sparrows?
The natural history writer Edward Abbey expressed one of his goals, “to oppose injustice, defy the powerful and speak for the voiceless…to honor life and praise the divine beauty of the world.” I prefer nature’s great harvest and slow fade to extinction. I want Leopold’s wild country to continue so we can all have a chance to be young and free, to honor, praise and know divine wilderness. Autumn is a beautiful time to praise.
Published in an earlier version in the New World Finn