Saturday, February 08, 2014

`The Fat, Wet Smell of the Woods'

Over the long stretch of winter, even in Houston, where the season amounts to a tentative cooling, a shading from true green to greenish-brown, one longs for greenery in any form, even in a book. One of the central poems in David Middleton’s new collection, The Fiddler of Driskill Hill (Louisiana State University Press, 2013), is “Black Lake Tales,” subtitled “Bienville Parish, north Louisiana, 1959.” As in much of his work, Middleton mingles memories of life in his home state with meditations on death, loss and redemption. The effect is not cloyingly autobiographical but devotional, an artful intersection of intensely local and eternal. In a stanza midway through his recollection of a summer’s day spent fishing with his uncle, Middleton writes: 

“The things themselves, familiars of their names,
He saw as science and Genesis and sense:
Creek water pure and cold from leeched gray clays,
The cottonwood, crab apple, sassafras,
The purple morning glory, goldenrod,
The black-eyed Susans, cattails, chinquapins,
Loblolly bogs where rare white arums thrive,
Celestial lilies, star grass, spiderwort—
Such uttered substance once had been a speech,
A rhetoric made tremulous with love.” 

The catalogue of plants warms me like a sweater. Even growing up in the North I knew most of them. “Chinquapins” refers to at least six different plants and Middleton might mean the American lotus, a sort of water lily, or the Ozark chestnut. I grew up calling arums “swamp lilies.”  “Celestial” is not an adjective but part of the common name for one of the most beautiful flowers I know, Nemastylis floridana. In the same span of the spectrum is the blossom of the spiderwort. I miss the seasonal tease that traditionally comes in February in upstate New York, when temperatures top freezing for a day or two, drifts melt in the woods, the skunk cabbage burns through the snow and you can smell the newly thawed earth, rich with decay. 

Dave Lull this week alerted me to The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (Viking, 2012) by David George Haskell, a professor of biology at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn. The book is a recounting of Haskell’s almost daily visits to a patch of forest in Tennessee for a year, and is organized chronologically. The entry for Jan. 1 nicely echoes my experience of mid-winter even farther north: 

“The New Year starts with a thaw, and the fat, wet smell of the woods fills my nose. Moisture has plumped the mat of fallen leave that covers the forest floor, and the air is suffused with succulent leafy aromas.”

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