Tuesday, April 05, 2011

`Of Growth That Thickens, Not Expands'

On the wall of the new coffee shop at Rice University hang four black-and white photographs of oak leaves, each of a different species found on campus. The pictures hang vertically against a white wall and are six feet tall. The detail is remarkable. Looked at closely, each is a lunar map of craters, plains and veins. A rare instance of public art that is beautiful and appropriate to the setting – the Rice campus is densely shaded with oaks, especially live oaks. When I dream of Rice I see oak-canopied streets and buildings of red brick, and now I think of lines from Yvor Winters’ “The California Oaks”:

“Spreading and low, unwatered, concentrate
Of years of growth that thickens, not expands,
With leaves like mica and with roots that grate
Upon the deep foundations of these lands…”

The academic quadrangle on campus is lined with a non-native species, Italian cypresses that grow tall and needle-like, and slowly tilt and rot and die. Then a grounds crew pulls the dead tree from the earth, like a light bulb unscrewed from its socket, and replaces it with a sapling. The indigenous oaks endure.

The theme of our brief return to Houston is the nature of home and memory, and of what endures. I hardly suspected how happy I was to live here before we moved three years ago. I’ve been reading The Everlasting Man (1925), which G.K. Chesterton starts like this:

“There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk around the whole world till we come back to the same place…”

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