Sunday, December 19, 2010

`When the Leaf Falls Off in the Fall'

I don’t like games but do enjoy challenges, the private sort, invitation only. I like identifying the author of an unattributed line of verse, or the composer or performer of music on the radio. Before resorting to the internet I try to deduce at least the era and nationality. When I say “invitation only” I mean one invitation, sent only to me. Such recreations, like the content of our dreams, are inevitably tedious to others though riveting to ourselves.

I’ve been reading Winter Twigs by Helen M. Gilkey (1886-1972), first published in 1962 as an Oregon State Monograph. The edition I have, revised by Patricia L. Packard, was put out in 2001 by the Oregon State University Press. It’s a field guide to the deciduous plants of northwestern Oregon and western Washington. Identifying leafless trees in winter (or dead ones any time of year) is another of my private amusements, so Gilkey’s book is doubly attractive, though I wish the new edition included information about Gilkey and her work. The introduction quotes this quatrain:

“When winter woods are leafless and bare,
And Nature is stripped of her splendor;
When twigs and branchlets stand out 'gainst the sky
Graceful and dark and slender . . .”

There’s no attribution. First I thought of Bryant, maybe Emerson. The feel is American, nineteenth or early twentieth century. It’s not great verse. Rhythmically, it's a Clydesdale crossing a wooden bridge. “Leafless and bare” is redundant and “splendor”/”slender” is a teeth-grating rhyme. Still, I couldn’t let go of it but the internet turned up nothing. Could the lines be Gilkey’s? Consider this an invitation, dear readers: Who wrote it?

Gilkey’s prose is a model of precision and concision, true to the physical world, as a botanist’s ought to be. This is from her description of Populus trichocarpa, the cottonwood:

“Twigs slender to moderately stout, usually curved and pebbly, lustrous, brown with shades of red or orange, green on shaded sides; lenticels conspicuous, orange, becoming pale, not raised, vertically elongated; older branches gray; leaf spurs present.”

In her introduction she shares an anecdote that tells us something of her tastes in prose and scientific observation:

“In winter, beneath a lateral bud at each node is found a leaf scar. Perhaps as good a definition as any for this structure was once written in an examination paper by a freshman: `A leaf scar is a scar that a leaf leaves when the leaf falls off in the fall.’ Whether this was composed innocently or by design, the instructor will never know, but at least it expresses the situation.”


William A. Sigler said...

I would deduce the poem came from Gilkey herself, since it isn't quoted or attributed as would be required in an academic work. Her brief CV online includes poetry.

Fred said...

The theme of the poem is close to Gilkey's heart, and the word branchlet though it sounds poetic is actually a precise botanical term.