Thursday, March 03, 2011

`Take an Insect View of Its Plain'

Allen J. Coombes, author of The Book of Leaves (University of Chicago Press, 2010), plays it safe with an epigraph from Thoreau’s journal dated Oct. 22, 1839:

“Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.”

Granted, this is the callow Thoreau, written precisely two years after his first, Emerson-inspired journal entry. He was twenty-two and, though already a gifted amateur naturalist, sadly smitten with Romantic sentimentality: “She invites us…” Nature, in fact, invites nothing but more nature, but the young Thoreau was a conventional man of his time, a would-be Emerson destined, fortunately, to outgrow his landlord. When I say Coombes plays it safe with the Thoreau snippet, I mean that out of context the sentiment could show up in a “green” greeting card, though I like “insect view.”

Visually, The Book of Leaves is the most beautiful new volume I’ve seen in years. Color photographs of leaves from six-hundred trees around the world, reproduced actual size, accompany brief descriptions of each species, distribution maps, tables of vital stats, and sidebars devoted to similar species and detailed accounts of each tree’s leaves. The introduction, with sections on “Leaf Shape and Arrangement” and “Identifying Tree Leaves” (“Monocot or Dicot?”), is a useful orientation to the subject, not a token text for a coffee-table book. An author’s note informs us Coombes was president of the International Oak Society from 2006 to 2009, so here is a portion of his entry devoted to the leaves of Quercus coccinea, the scarlet oak:

“The leaves of the Scarlet Oak are elliptic to obovate in outline, and up to 6-1/4 in (16 cm) long and 4-1/4 in (12 cm) across. They are deeply pinnately lobed, with up to 7 or 9 lobes, sometimes almost to the midrib. Each lobe is widest toward the tip and is further divided, ending in several bristle-tipped teeth. The leaves are glossy dark green above, paler and glossy beneath, turning bright red in fall.”

Poetry is rooted in deep observation. This is poetry. If “obovate” and “deeply pinnately lobed” leave you unenlightened, here is Thoreau, nineteen years after the passage cited above, looking as closely as Coombes at the leaf of the scarlet oak, and turning it into another sort of poetry. He transforms precise description into a fantastic, extended metaphor. This is from the journal entry for Nov. 11, 1858:

“The scarlet oak leaf! What a graceful and pleasing outline! a combination of graceful curves and angles. These deep bays in the leaf are agreeable to us as the thought of deep and smooth and secure havens to the mariner. But both your love of repose and your spirit of adventure are addressed, for both bays and headlands are represented, — sharp-pointed rocky capes and rounded bays with smooth strands. To the sailor's eye it is a much indented shore, and in his casual glance he thinks that if he doubles its sharp capes he will find a haven in its deep rounded bays. If I were a drawing master, I would set my pupils to copying these leaves, that they might learn to draw firmly and gracefully. It is a shore to the aerial ocean, on which the windy surf beats. How different from the white oak leaf with its rounded headlands, on which no lighthouse need be placed!”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"When I say Coombes plays it safe with the Thoreau snippet, I mean that out of context the sentiment could show up in a 'green' greeting card, though I like 'insect view.'"

I still don't get what you mean by "playing it safe" here.

I understand playing it safe may mean "not taking sides"...but what is your point here?