Sunday, April 17, 2011

`The Things We Love for What They Are'

We joined the tree-huggers on Saturday in a premature observance of Arbor Day. Our contribution was destruction you could feel good about – uprooting English ivy (Hedera helix) in the wooded portions of the Bellevue Botanical Gardens and pulling the vines off cedars and Douglas firs. Ivy is an invasive species that quickly upholsters trees, blocking sunlight and adding weight, increasing the risk of “blow-over.”

Yanking the roots from the ground released the scent of vegetable rot, the percolating chemistry of soil, an intoxicating smell. Decay on the forest floor is called duff, an intermediate state of matter between dead leaves and dirt. Among the tangle of roots and natural mulch at the base of a fir, six inches under the surface, I found two ancient beer bottles of brown glass, each packed with soil. Under the same tree I unearthed two copper-colored salamanders (Van Dyke’s, I think). They felt like stiff rubber but started moving as they warmed in my hand and turned into little tubes of jelly. Amphibians and the fragrance of the soil brought to mind Robert Frost’s “Hyla Brook” (Mountain Interval, 1920):

“By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)—
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat—
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.”

Hyla crucifer is the spring peeper, the diminutive frog with the rough mark of a cross (“crucifer”) on its back. Common in the eastern United States and Canada, it makes a sound in spring disproportionate to its size. Thus, Frost says, they “shouted in the mist a month ago, / Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow.” In upstate New York, where I lived for almost twenty years, they were the sound of spring, the most comforting of sounds in the night.

Frost suggests happiness follows acceptance. A farmer who complains of his brook drying up in the summer revels in futility, like those on Saturday who moaned self-righteously about beer bottles and “people always wrecking nature.” The song of the human-haters has grown tiresome. I miss the song of Hyla crucifer:

“We love the things we love for what they are.”


Gary in Sudan said...

One of the most lovely posts in all these winsome years.

JoeKeller said...

The happiness I feel upon hearing the first peepers in spring is beyond compare. No, it's like the dream of my father I had the other night, where he returned in some time machine to suddenly be standing next to my son and me. We hugged him and I inhaled him deeply and I awoke suddenly and was deliriously happy.

Also, we have a large marsh in the middle of our garden. It is painful to stand at night on the walkway that traverses it, so assaulted are the ears. I enjoy standing there until I'm nearly deaf.

Fran Manushkin said...

Lovely post, Patrick! I wrote a children's book called Peeping and Sleeping many years ago about a boy and his father going to see the peepers in the pond. The editor picked an artist who couldn't draw frogs. The book is out of print, but, happily, the peepers are still around.