Sunday, April 24, 2011

`As of the Air Airy'

A reader in New York City, noting the recent mention of Hyla crucifer, writes:

“Oh to be in New Hampshire -- my cousin emailed me just yesterday that the peepers have started. When my mother was beginning to fail, her caretaker would drive her on spring evenings to a place where she could hear the peepers from the car.”

Go here and here to hear what my friend’s mother wished to hear, and at the same time read what Thoreau observes in his journal for March 31, 1857:

“The voice of the peepers is not so much of the earth earthy as of the air airy. It rises at once on the wind and is at home there, and we are incapable of tracing it further back.”

Even when we understand the spring chorus as the peeper’s mating call, a song of courtship, we understand very little. The sound moves us out of proportion to its exclusively biological significance: “We are incapable of tracing it further back.” Nature is both familiar and alien, and that is the source of its attraction, though some remain immune to the charms of the natural world. Imagine hiking the fields and forests with Franz Kafka. Still others identify nature with the distant and exotic, as though Amazonia were “real” nature, but not the backyard. Though boasting he had “travelled a great deal in Concord,” Thoreau helped manufacture the cult of wilderness, a natural extension of the Romantic longing for transcendent experiences.

Saturday morning, my 10-year-old was standing idly by the big window in the living room when he was startled by what he called “an explosion of feathers.” Not for the first time, a bird had crashed into the glass. We couldn’t find it and concluded it had flown away or was hiding in the ivy. But there it was, nicely camouflaged against the stone-filled concrete of the driveway – a newly fledged house sparrow. I lifted it and a drop of blood appeared on my palm, and I noticed another, smaller, on its beak. The bird was frozen in shock, perhaps dead, then exploded again in flight and landed high in the cedar beside the house. For a second I had stared into its staring eye, not knowing if it was alive or dead. Yvor Winters writes in “On Rereading a Passage from John Muir”:

“This was my childhood revery: to be
Not one who seeks in nature his release,
But one forever by the dripping tree,
Paradisaic in his pristine peace.”

And in "The Manzanita," about the arbutus or madrone, a tree common in our region and elsewhere on the West Coast, Winters writes:

"This life is not our life; nor for our wit
The sweetness of these shades; these are alone.
There is no wisdom here; seek not for it!
This is the shadow of the vast madrone."


Dave Lull said...

". . . some remain immune to the charms of the natural world."

The Return of Nature (Eric Hoffer, 2/01/1966, Saturday Review)

All through adult life I had a feeling of revulsion when told how nature aids and guides us, how like a stern mother she nudges and pushes man to fulfill her wise designs. As a migratory worker from the age of eighteen I knew nature as ill-disposed and inhospitable. If I stretched on the ground to rest, nature pushed its hard knuckles into my sides, and sent bugs, burs, and foxtails to make me get up and be gone. As a placer miner I had to run the gantlet of buckbrush, manzanita, and poison oak when I left the road to find my way to a creek. Direct contact with nature almost always meant scratches, bites, torn clothes, and grime that ate its way into every pore of my body. To make life bearable I had to interpose a protective layer between myself and nature. On the paved road, even when miles from anywhere, I felt at home. I had a sense of kinship with the winding, endless road that cares not where it goes and what its load.

Almost all the books I read spoke worshipfully of nature. Nature was pure, innocent, serene, health-giving, bountiful, the fountainhead of elevated thoughts and noble feelings. It seemed that every writer was a 'nature boy.' I assumed that these people had no share in the world’s work, and did not know nature at close quarters. It also seemed to me that they had a grievance. For coupled with their admiration of nature was a distaste for man and man’s work. Man was a violator, a defiler and a deformer.

The truth about nature I found in the newspapers, in the almost daily reports of floods, tornados, blizzards, hurricanes, typhoons, hailstorms, sandstorms, earthquakes, avalanches, eruptions, inundations, pests, plagues, and famines. Sometimes when reading about nature's terrible visitations and her massacre of the innocents it seemed to me that we are surrounded by devouring, pitiless forces, that the earth was full of anger, the sky dark with wrath, and that man had built the city as a refuge from a hostile, nonhuman cosmos. I realized that the contest between man and nature has been the central drama of the universe.

Continued here:

jeff mauvais said...

As so often with Hoffer, we're presented with a false dichotomy: in this case, the hard working man vs. the soft "nature boy".

"I assumed that these people had no share in the world's work, and did not know nature at close quarters." Oh, really, Eric? This is nothing but pompous, ignorant presumption. Millions of farmers, foresters, and fishermen would scoff at such nonsense.

The continued popularity of this lout's so-called philosophy mystifies me.

e'clair said...

I have had the pleasure to read five posts in a row (to the one after this), and have marked each to return to at later times.
What came to mind is the likeness of the madrone (not to be scrutinised for wisdom but which proffers shade) to the Chinese adage: a carefully planted seed never grows; a carelessly transplanted willow grows into shade.
Wisdom happens when we are not looking, but after we have looked.
To link this concept to those of the other five posts I just read, the political, even when masked as poetry, can never have a place in the lasting orchard, for unto itself, it is not universal, and awaits a mind, an interpreter, to make it thus.
...all of this just to show, most clumsily, that I have engaged with what you wrote, and am thankful to have discovered your blog.