Wednesday, May 01, 2013

`This Little Oak-Leaf, My Little Friend'

While shifting books around in another futile effort to organize my shelves, I noticed something sticking out of my Modern Library edition of Thomas Pynchon’s V., a book I bought at the May Company in Cleveland forty-five years ago. It was the stem of an oak leaf. I’ve always used books to press flowers and leaves, and I’ve learned to be careful handling volumes I’ve owned for a long time, or a mess of desiccated compost may fall into my lap. The leaf has left an approximately V-shaped, rust-colored stain on two pages, a mark I prefer to my signature, though I wish I had dated it. 

In Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield (DelMonico Books-Prestel, 2009), the editors reproduce a photograph of a framed oak leaf preserved by the painter’s widow, Bertha, and hung in his studio. The leaf inspired Burchfield to paint “The Constant Leaf” in 1960, and the editors include an excerpt from a letter he wrote to a friend, John Baur, on Jan. 7, 1957: 

“I must tell you about `my’ oak leaf--in my neighbor’s yard. The yard had been raked clean of leaves, but later, somehow this oak leaf got attached to something in the grass, so that it stands upright, and repeated gales and snow-storms have failed to dislodge it. (I first noticed it in early November.) It bends over with the wind and when it is calm again, there it is, standing up so pert and imp-like. On gray days it is a dark sepia, on sunny days, a rich sienna. For me it has become a sort of symbol or example—as it clings so stubbornly, so must I `hang on’ through this illness which has lasted so long. I have moments of utter despair, and then I look out and see this little oak-leaf, my little friend. Each morning I look for it and it is always there.” 

Burchfield seems not to have been a notably sentimental man, though he loved the natural world and found much solace in it. Much of his journal consists of close descriptions of wildflowers, rocks, frogs, fish, trees and weather conditions. His Jan. 23, 1960, entry notes: 

“P.M.—painted the `Constant (or Stedfast [sic]) Leaf’ picture—a tribute to an oak leaf that became anchored in Cottrell’s lawn in 1957, and stayed there upright through every storm—I saw in it a symbol of the need of holding fast to my faith in spite of my affliction—(In March Bertha went out and got it—The stem was imbedded in the ground over an inch—we put it in a book to preserve it).” 

Burchfield (1893-1967) read Thoreau as a teenager and continued to do so for the rest of his life. We know he read the journals, published in 1904, as early as 1914, and can only wonder if he knew the Nov. 11, 1858, entry, accompanied by Thoreau’s drawing of a scarlet oak leaf: 

“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!”

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