Sunday, December 06, 2009

`Now I Am Ice, Now I Am Sorrel'

My former boss at Rice University wrote to say a friend of hers, “the old guy whose passion was writing about the prosody of Milton’s `Samson,’” had died in November, age 78. I’ve heard Ann’s stories about Loren Blaine Hickey and regret having never met him. He lived one of those charmed, interesting lives – studying piano with Van Cliburn’s mother, performing with the USO during World War II, studying photography with Ansel Adams, running a photography business in Houston for 40 years, and for a hobby restoring native grasses on his farm in Austin County, Texas. Here’s Ann:

“Blaine loved nature. He loved poetry. He was what a friend from Luxembourg called a `rustic savant.’ He read widely, had travelled all over Europe, east and west, with his work (photographer for the Menil Collection), and was knowledgeable about so many topics. Yet he had only a high school education.”

Ann is organizing a memorial service for Blaine and has hired a trio from Rice’s Shepherd School of Music -- violin, viola and cello: “They will play some Ravel and Faure, whom he loved.” She asked me to suggest appropriate readings for the service:

“…something from Thoreau or someone else—prose or poetry—about nature. I can’t tell you what it should be about particularly, but something that in a fairly short passage conveys a deep love for nature.

“Am I sounding idiotic? I really don’t know where to start. He also loved Walt Whitman and particularly loved `Song of Myself,’ but I think it would take a special reader to do that justice—someone who had a real affinity for the piece.”

Thoreau’s journals are rich with passages in varying keys celebrating the natural world. Perhaps the elegiac is appropriate, as in this entry from November 16, 1850:

“The era of wild apples will soon be over. I wander through old orchards of great extent, now all gone to decay, all of native fruit which for the most part went to the cider-mill. But since the temperance reform and the general introduction of grafted fruit, no wild apples, such as I see everywhere in deserted pastures, and where the woods have grown up among them, are set out. I fear that he who walks over these hills a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man! there are many pleasures which he will be debarred from.”

Texas is not renowned for apples, wild or otherwise, but I like Thoreau’s mingling of sadness and whimsy. This passage, from June 6, 1857, starts with one of Blaine’s interests, grass, but turns to the seasons of the year and (echoing Ecclesiastes) of a man’s life:

"This is June, the month of grass and leaves...Already the Aspens are trembling again, and a new summer is offered me. I feel a little fluttered in my thoughts, as if I might be too late. Each season is but an infinitesimal point. It no sooner comes than it is gone…We are conversant with only one point of contact at a time, from which we receive a prompting and impulse and instantly pass to a new season or point of contact. A year is made up of a certain series and number of sensations and thoughts which have their language in nature. Now I am ice, now I am sorrel. Each experience reduces itself to a mood of the mind.”

Or this, from March 18, 1858:

"Each new year is a surprise to us. We find that we had virtually forgotten the note of each bird, and when we hear it again it is remembered like a dream, reminding us of a previous state of existence. How happens it that the associations it awakens are always pleasing, never saddening; reminiscences of our sanest hours? The voice of nature is always encouraging."

That’s a start, but Ann adds:

“I really could use some help on this. I’d like to have a second reading, too. Some Shakespeare would be nice. He loved the Bard.”

I’ve just reread Richard II and words spoken by John of Gaunt in Act I, Scene 3 may be appropriate:

“Look, what thy soul holds dear, imagine it
To lie that way thou go'st, not whence thou comest:
Suppose the singing birds musicians,
The grass whereon thou tread'st the presence strew'd,
The flowers fair ladies, and thy steps no more
Than a delightful measure or a dance;
For gnarling sorrow hath less power to bite
The man that mocks at it and sets it light.”

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