Wednesday, August 5, 2009
I wrote many letters on long pieces of yellow legal pad and a few on my portable Smith Corona manual typewriter. One of my best friends was a girl who was never a girlfriend but a welcome confidante with a family life much more difficult than my own. When she did not answer letters for two months, I felt abandoned. Then in early December she wrote a 3 page letter in flawless blue ink and proudly straight lines on parchment-like cream colored paper. I still have it.
She gave me her reasons for not writing but never turned them into excuses. Her family story would make a Tennessee Williams’ family look un-dramatic and mellow. She had been its prisoner. Enough. I recall her letter because after her own eloquent and moving apology that put my own troubles in perspective, she ended with her favorite poem from Emily Dickinson.
It’s a poem I copied and sent back to her today, 50 years after I received it from her. I did so because again, she has not written for a few months and I worry her life again is filled with troubles—a very sick husband, renegade children, her own crippling arthritis.
If you ever need a persuasive way to encourage a friend to resume correspondence send this:
Bee, I'm expecting you.
Was saying yesterday.
To someone you know
Think you were due.
The frogs came last week,
are settled and at work,
birds mostly back,
the clover warm and thick.
You'll get my letter by
The seventeenth; reply,
or better, be with me.
Monday, July 20, 2009
A pair of house finches have brought me a mini-Darwinian insight this morning. (The variety of the finches in the Galapagos Islands helped shaped his thoughts on evolution.) As the sunrise extended to the feeder by my office window I watched a female finch picking out sorghum and sunflower seeds. Above her on the arch of the pole holding the feeder sat her mate in his crimson plumage. His head moved alertly from side to side, up and down. At any moment he might save them both from the thunderbolt of a falcon plunging murderously out of the sun.
For a moment I thought, “How nice that he watches out for her.” He then dropped off his perch, hovered momentarily above his drab brown mate at the feeder perch, took his fill and flew off. He left her alone, and he left me knowing I had been suckered not by him but by my all too human desire to find the best human qualities in other species.
The fact is we can much more easily and accurately find the most troublesome human qualities in other species. Wildness may have some value for civilization as in Thoreau’s oft repeated proclamation, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” However, overcoming our wildness is exactly the crowning triumph of civilization. The fact that civilization and civility are very much a tentative and unfinished effort is exactly why we seek in other species the validation of our best qualities—intelligence, conscience, and the capacity for love. We feel lonely being the only species struggling to turn these qualities into great institutions.
So for a moment my decades of struggle to be a good provider and protector found validation in a pair of house finches. Why have I tried so hard and why have I been so frustrated by my failures? For a moment it seemed that the finches proved nature wants us to be providers, to care for each other. So it seemed for a moment.
The human animal is the only animal that spends any time trying to prove other species share its best qualities. We are the only species that cares about the well being and survival of another species that does not directly feed us or clothe us. This hope for company explains why efforts to raise money for environmental causes are dominated by images of animals with large eyes, soft noses, warm fur, and a tendency to care for their young. If they move in herds or family groups so much the better, and if they have hands and touch one another, even better. And best of all—do they touch human animals gently?
We grasp at any of these signs to assure ourselves we are not alone with our intelligence and sympathies and our desire to like and be liked. We are not far from the children we used to be who loved books filled with talking, feeling, human-like animals.
To seem more adult, we try out arguments like, “Chimps and humans share 95% of their DNA.” How unscientific. When the human genome has some 3 billion DNA base pairs the 5% difference could mean 150 million possible differences. Similarly among the 20 thousand plus protein coding genomes, 5% means 1,000 differences. Consider that a single variation in a gene can mean the difference between an average human and a seriously deformed or retarded human or a human devoid of all empathy and sympathy.
The human animal is a very social animal. That means that when something nags at its conscience, it seeks company. And we are willing to spend money to get that company. As Robert Frost advised:
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
So, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars we have sent space ships out beyond our solar system looking for signs of intelligent life. For scientists the search may mean many things, but for the average person the message the space ships carry is simple, “Hey, is anybody home out there?” I used to say something like this when I would return home from first grade and open the door to a silent house. I’d immediately yell, “Anybody home?”
In all probability we are entirely alone with our humanity both on our little blue planet and in any part of the cosmos we might reach. We don’t like it one bit. We have only each other. W.H. Auden contemplated this situation in one of humanity’s darkest and most brutal hours.
His poem on the eve of World War II begins
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Even at this hour, however, this man who knew so much of human history and failure knew the solution. The poem ends this way:
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
(from “September 1, 1939,” by W.H. Auden)
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Every year I go to an annual dinner for alumni of Oxford and Cambridge who live in Oregon or nearby Washington. I live as a near hermit on the side of a mountain much of the year, so I go forth to the dinner because it offers as great a variety of people as I can find in any one gathering. They are recent grads, ancient grads, English, American, Asians, Australians, Africans and Latins.
The informal conversation is always interesting. Sometimes it is also near life-saving as it was last year when an ophthalmologist told me that the Lasik eye surgery that liberated me 10 years ago from a life of glasses and contacts and near blindness underwater, might lead to sudden blindness at high altitudes as internal pressure pushes out a thinned cornea.
While such pre-dinner talk enlightens or entertains, the after dinner talk by one guest is . . . well, let us say, not as entertaining as the life I lived at Oxford. I have urged the organizers to uphold tradition. How lively is that tradition?
I could go on and recount murders and mayhem, but consider only this description of a ceremony to honor the Duke of Portland in 1793:
“. . . luckily the ladies were admitted first ; for a rush of 3,000 men was made. Gowns were torn, caps broken, and pugilistic rounds fought. The " Broad " was strewn with shoes, buckles, gowns, caps and prostrate men. Pick-pockets from town came dressed in M.A. costume.”
This blog, however, is about words, and I will illustrate with some rhymes that showed Oxford’s passion for life occasioned praises of food such as I’ve never heard for the string beans and chicken or steak served at our annual dinner.
In the mid 1700s students and faculty of Oxford enjoyed the wares of two caterers. Mrs Dorothy Spreadbury’s spiced sausage was so famous that students named a collection of verse for her product. In that book, The Oxford Sausage, we find the other cook, Ben Tyrrell, maker of mutton pies. Here is Ben’s advertisement and lines about him and his wares, as well as an opinion about which cook was best.
ALL ye that love what's nice and rarish,
At Oxford, in St. Mary's Parish,
Ben Tyrrell, Cook of high Renown,
To please the Palates of the Gown,
At Three-pence each, makes Mutton-pies,
Which thus he begs to advertise :
He welcomes all his Friends at Seven,
Each Saturday and Wednesday Even *.
* Mr. Tyrrell, Cook, in the High-ftreet, Oxford, having formed a laudable Design of obliging the University with Mutton Pies, twice a Week, this Advertisement appeared, on that Occasion, in the Oxford Journal, Nov. 25, 1758.
No Relicks Hale, with Art unjust,
Lurk in Disguise beneath his Crust;
His Pies, to give you all fair Play,
Smork [smoke]only when 'tis Market-Day :
And all must own, hows his Meat,
While Jolly's Porter crowns the Treat.
If Rumps and Kidneys can allure ye,
Ben takes upon him to assure ye,
No Cook shall better hit the Taste,
In giving Life and Soul to Paste.
If cheap and good have Weight with Men,
Come all ye Youths, and sup with Ben.
If Liquor in a Mutton-pie
Has any Charms, come taste and try!
O bear me Witness, Sons!
Pierce but the Crust—the Gravy runs:
The Taster licks his Lips, and cries,
" O Rare Ben Tyrrell's Mutton Pies !"
But hold—no more—I've said enough— Or else my Pies may prove a Puff.
BEN TYRRELL's, Wednesday Kight,
December 6th, 1758.
HOW I congratulate fair Isa,
That such the Taste for Mutton Pies is!
Hail glorious Ben ! whose Genius high
First plann'd a genuine Mutton Pie!
Born to combine with matchless Taste,
The Charms of Pepper and of Paste !
Was but the Motion of my Pen
Quick as thy Rolling-Pin, O Ben !
O, could my Thoughts thy Pastry ape,
And slide, like yielding Dough, to Shape ;
My Genius, like thy Oven glow,
My Numbers, like thy Gravy flow ;
Or, in the Twinkling of an Eye,
I cook an Ode as you a. Pie;
O then (nor think, to mock thy Trade,
My Promises of Pie-Crust made)
I'd raise thy culinary Fame
Above immortal Spreadbury's Name:
Though from all Cooks, a Matron wise,
In Sausages fhe bore the Prize :
Her seasoning Hand mould yield to thine,
Thy Mutton should her Pork outshine.
On Ben TyrrEll's Pics.
LET Christmas boast her customary Treat,
A Mixture strange, of Suet, Currants, Meat,
Where various Tastes combine, the greasy, and the sweet.
Let glad Shrove-Tuesday bring the Pancake thin,
Or Fritter rich, with Apples stor'd within :
On Easter-Sunday be the Pudding seen,
To which the Tansy lends her sober Green :
And when great London hails her annual Lord,
Let quiv'ring Custard crown the AlJermannic Board.
But Ben prepares a more delicious Mess,
Substantial Fare, a Breakfast for Queen Bese :
What dainty Epicure, or greedy Glutton,
Would not prefer his Pie, that's made of Mutton ?
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Back to the question-- have we outgrown a central fact of all human history or dangerously forgotten it? I don’t know the answer, but I know a few poems that pose the question. Here’s one.
He knew how Roman legions looked, for he
Had seen the Maine coast fogs march in from sea
For many years now, in August days.
They came in mighty columns up the bays,
Tawny and gray and silver in the sun;
They trampled out the seaports one by one,
The islands and the woods, with their high hosts
And pushed the world back inland from the coasts.
This little house was lost, these hills and dells,
Cows in a pasture faded into bells,
The world around a man closed in and in
Till nowhere was ten paces from his chin.
A man drawn up and halted with a start
To be so close to his own beating heart
And left so to himself and wholly blind
To everything but what was in his mind.
This was the peril and the comfort, too,
A man who lived in such a region knew;
On any Summer’s day, within an hour,
He might be blind and naked to a power
So vast, it might have come from stars unmade,
Undreamt of, even, making him afraid,
So mightier than the night that he could guess
How life was but a name for loneliness.
(Robert P. Tristram Coffin)
Friday, May 1, 2009
The most utilitarian argument is that these tools make poetry memorable. I suspect some practitioner of a discipline called something like bio-literature or biopsychology (which does exist) has discovered an area of the brain that lights up a CAT scan when the subject hears rhyme or metered meaning.
Biopsychology we don’t need to find the proof of the utility of the tools of poetry. This afternoon, I turned to the literature of spring and I picked up an old favorite, Viscontess Wolseley’s compilation of English rural folklore, The Countryman’s Log-Book. It’s 300 plus pages are full of verse used by the people engaged in the grittiest labor of olde England to make the rules, values, and history of their world memorable.
“Be sure of hay till th’ end of May,” or your animals might starve before the new forage is ready.
Here’s one that is a riddle for moderns but easily understood in the 16th Century:
The calf, the goose, the bee
the world is ruled by these three.
(from the herald Guillim.)
From the calf comes parchment on which the most durable books and official documents were written: the Magna Carta, for instance. From the goose came the quill pen. From the bee came candles and sealing wax that made a tamperproof seal on letters and documents and that bore the unique impression of the authority issuing a document. (Sealing was made from pine rosin and bees wax.)
About the tendency of a hive’s bees to gather up their hive’s honey and leave in search of a new home (called swarming), the farmer is reminded:
If bees swarm in May, they're worth a pound and next day;
If they swarm in July, they're not worth the fly.
That is to say a swarm caught in May can still be put in a new hive and make enough honey to see them through the winter. Or perhaps they can be sold for a pound sterling to another farmer. July is too late to re-hive them or sell them.
About sheep we read:
A scabb’d sheepe will mar a whole flock,
Faith, then the Shepherd’s a Knave or a Block.
History too was recorded and made memorable by rhyme. Sure, some were long narratives by educated poets, but often enough the rhymes were simple and utilitarian:
Turkeys, Carps, Hops, Piaccarel and Beer,
Came into England all in one year.
Politics too had its expression in verse. After the Black Death struck England the law allowed the privatization of the commons land where anyone could graze cattle, sheep, and geese. Those who favored it might recite:
The country enclosed I praise
The t’other delighteth not me;
For nothing the wealth it doth raise
To such as inferior be.
That summed up what the modern biologist Garret Hardin famously called “The tragedy of the commons.” However, those who saw enclosure as a land grab by the rich (or richer) might recite:
A sin it is in man or woman
To steal a goose from off a common;
But he doth sin without excuse
Who steals the common from the goose.
This last verse is still quoted by activists who believe the rich steal from and enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.
What contemporary poetry will be remembered 10 years from now, not to mention 300 years in the future? The classic poets whose works we read in schools and universities as literature, from Homer to Hopkins, all build on this very well proven practical service of poetry to memory.
I could even suggest that this lesson might give us a simple solution to defining what is and is not art.
We remember art.
We forget the fart.
Friday, April 24, 2009
Because for most of my life I have lived and worked alone out of sight of any neighbor in the middle of hundreds of acres of forest, people often ask me, “Why do you like living out there?” I am not a misanthrope, a person who detests mankind. I not only admire the human animal above all others, but I believe over the long run civilization has made the right choices and will learn how to manage both itself and the natural environment.
Many of the people who ask why I want to live in a wild place are fellow environmentalists but of the kind who believe that the human race is at best ignorant and self-destructive, at worst, a selfish and cruel horde that pillages and plunders innocent nature. When such an environmentalist asks why I live alone, I should reverse the question and ask why he or she is not living in a wild place, enjoying a vacation from civilization and communing with the spirits of nature.
Most environmentalists feel about nature the same way they often say they feel about New York or Chicago--a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. When they do move to the country, they usually bring their domestic partners, both human and animal. Going for a walk in the woods with a dog is akin to attending a concert with a turned on paper shredder. These are often the same people who delight in drinking from clear streams oblivious to the excrement or dead bodies upstream, and who often kiss their dogs and cats who have just licked their own unbathed genitals and rectums.
I do not feel the need to drink nature’s excrement and kiss its dirty kisser exactly because I have observed it closely and thought about it long and hard. So why would anyone, including me, would want to live in a wild place without human neighbors?
My answer is power. Living here I have the thrill I experienced as a city kid entering the ocean waves for the first time. They bowled me over, tossed me around, slammed me into the sand, and spit me out in the foam. I kept going back for more. I learned to duck under the waves and to body surf on the crests, no expensive board between me and that power, something like galloping bareback.
I have come to appreciate the risks and enjoy other powers of nature—cold, wind, trees, sun, and mountains. Living with these powers and protected by few intermediaries and defenses tests our limits and defines the edges of our lives. In short, it is a way of defining who we are.
Wildness and its powers do something more important for some of us. Oddly enough the people who often find the greatest relief living in the presence of a wild power are prone to self-doubt and depression. Their personal frustrations often come from their commitment to make a difference in the civilized world. Their lack of power, if you will.
That’s how it was for me when I left my forest and served for two years as a resident adviser on housing and land reform in a Central Asian capital city of 1.5 million people. I was struggling with the language, struggling with bureaucracy there and in Washington, infuriated by the daily dose of corrupt officials, and breathing city air thick and greasy with coal smoke, car exhaust, and diesel soot.
I had the good fortune to live in a shoddy little neighborhood of old cottages instead of the tall concrete apartment buildings where the embassy security officer thought Americans should live. Every morning I got up early enough to walk outside. High above the city of Alma Ata (now Almaty), from east to west rose an unbroken wall of snow covered peaks 15,000 feet high, gleaming in the morning sun. In geological time these are new mountains, a few rifts northward toward Siberia from the Himalayas. They had been rising for millions of years. And for millions of years the snows and glaciers had been shaving them down, grinding the grit from them, cascading avalanches of mud and rock over the plains below. The city of Alma Ata and my cottage sat on a gentle slope of old avalanches. As recently as twenty years earlier the mountains had invaded parts of town with boulders and mud.
Every morning I paused to look at these mountains, to drink them in with my eyes. I grew very small beneath them. I had lived more than five decades, but my life was a nanosecond in their time. Civilization was a little bubble. Those mountains loomed above me like the crests of ocean waves. The forces that had been building them for millennia sometimes shook the city and made the glasses dance on my kitchen shelf and the light bulb swing on its cord.
Every morning I looked at the great still peaks and went on to my work with my staff and my clients. In my mind, we were like the children my brother and I were when we went into the ocean waves and locked our hands together to see if we could stand up as a big ocean wave washed over us. No matter how firmly my brother and I locked arms, sooner or later we were knocked down. My staff and I would do our best, but it would stand only afew seconds in the cosmic scheme of things. You might think it odd I took some comfort in that realization. But after all, it shrunk not only the importance of my work but the importance of my frustrations and failures.
Apart from that kind of comfort and perspective, I have no other explanation for why I like to live in a wild place. Whether the wildness is ocean waves, great mountains, or the stillness of an old forest, it tells me what Lord David Cecil’s father, the prime minister of England, once told him: “Few things matter very much, and most things don’t matter at all.”