Monday, September 16, 2013

`In the Calm They Guarded Now Abide'

On the day I was telling someone about the post oak that almost crushed our house eight years ago on Easter morning, Helen Pinkerton wrote me about my favorite trees as they grow near her home in Northern California: 

“One characteristic of a Live Oak, growing over our swimming pool, was that it dropped its leaves on the hard surface of the pool surround, which when dry were very sharp, as the Latin name indicates. When small bare feet emerged from the water, they often were distressed by the very sharp dry leaves as they stepped on them. [Yvor] Winters refers to all three types [live, black, valley] in his elegiac nature poem `The California Oaks.” He is, I believe, prematurely anxious about their survival, when he writes: 

“Then the invasion! and the soil was turned,
The hidden waters drained, the valleys dried;
And whether fire or purer sunlight burned,
No matter! one by one the old oaks died.
Died or are dying! The archaic race--
Black oak, live oak, and valley oak--ere long
Must crumble on the place which they made strong
And in the calm they guarded now abide.” 

“The California Oak” seems not to be available online. You can find it in The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters (ed. R.L. Barth, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1999), with a wonderful introduction by Pinkerton; and in Yvor Winters: Selected Poems (ed. Thom Gunn, Library of America, 2003). In the poem, Winters speculates on the possibility that Chinese explorers visited California late in the fifth century A.D. See Barth’s note to the poem. Here are Winters’ first four lines: 

“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…” 

Helen continues: “Thousands of all types growing in the hills around Woodside and in the Stanford hills, and elsewhere on the SF Peninsula are still flourishing as far as I can see. However, Winters might be even more pessimistic about their future had he known about the recent epidemic of the fatal `sudden oak death’ disease, Phytophthora ramorum, which has spread like a plague through the oaks in San Mateo county (where we lived). Nature is never done changing, is it?” 

About that post oak: It was a fat, 75-footer growing on the side of our old house here in Houston, two blocks from where we now live in the Oak Forest neighborhood. That Easter morning, I was assembling a wooden desk for my middle son, not yet five years old, when my wife noticed a ten-inch vertical crack in the wall of our youngest son’s bedroom. The oak had already squashed the gutter and was leaning like a drunk against the house. We called a tree service and half a dozen young Mexican guys spent the rest of the day dismantling the tree. They were still there after dark, climbing with chain saws and ropes like a demented and very careful acrobatic team. That was four months before Hurricane Katrina.

[Last week, the poet Kenneth Fields published an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books about Winters, his former teacher and co-editor for The Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English (1969).] 

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