Wednesday, May 03, 2006


In 1992, I reviewed Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, four of The New Yorker reporter’s five books in a single volume, for a newspaper in upstate New York. Mitchell had published nothing in almost 30 years, and had been turned into a legend of non-productivity, a hero to the terminally blocked. To some of us, he was a quiet master of nonfiction, a reporter with an instinct for turning unlikely, un-newsworthy incidents and lives into gems of storytelling and prose. I focused on Mitchell’s inveterate attention to humble details and humble people, and to bolster this aspect of his work, I quoted the final lines of a poem by Czeslaw Milosz, “Blacksmith Shop,” which he had published the year before in Provinces. Here is the poem in toto:

“I liked the bellows operated by rope.
A hand or foot pedal – I don’t remember which.
But that blowing, and the blazing of the fire! And a piece of iron in the fire, held there by tongs, Red, softened for the anvil,
Beaten with a hammer, bent into a horseshoe,
Thrown into a bucket of water, sizzle, steam.

“And horses hitched to be shod,
Tossing their manes; and in the grass by the river
Plowshares, sledge runners, harrows waiting for repair

“At the entrance, my bare feet on the dirt floor,
Here, gusts of heat; at my back, white clouds.
I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.”

That final line always moves me. Most people, and certainly many writers, can be divided into those who wish “To glorify things just because they are,” and those for whom such a thought is anathema. A significant subset of the latter group consists of those who repudiate things as they are and, usually, wish to destroy or at least radically alter them. I’m not speaking in strictly political categories. To glorify creation is to stand in awe before the mute haecceity of a thing – its thisness, not its whatness, as Duns Scotus might put it. I’m speaking in what probably sounds like religious language, though my unbelief belies that impression. What I’m describing combines humility, wonder and openness, regardless of doctrine.

One childhood summer, I was running in the woods behind our house, late in the afternoon, with other kids from the neighborhood. We were playing army or hide-and-go-seek – something that called for pursuit and adrenaline. I came to a field and laid down in the grass, apparently trying to hide. Growing in front of my face was a green stalk of goldenrod, not yet in bloom. On it was the foamy bubble of a spittle bug. This aphid-like insect secretes what looks like a gob of saliva, which I now know serves as protection and temperature control. I remember my face pulsing from heat and excitement, and suddenly I felt that nothing existed but me and the spittle bug, and then even I disappeared. I don’t know how long this experience lasted. It was pleasant but disconcerting and I never told anyone about it. Spittle bugs and other sorts of putative vermin – toads, ants, pill bugs, silverfish, earth worms -- became important. Some might call this little happening more than 40 years ago a mystical experience, but that’s not a category I recognize. What remains with me is the conviction that everything is charged with importance and worth, if not always meaning. Blake described something like this in “Ah Sunflower.” Whitman does it again and again in “Song of Myself,” even reproducing my setting – lying in summer grass – and Hopkins does it in “Pied Beauty.”

Where I find this devotion to the ordinary most often and most persuasively described is in Thoreau’s journal. On April 22, 1852, he wrote:

“I want things to be incredible,—too good to appear true. C. says, `After you have been to the post-office once you are damned!’ But I answer that it depends somewhat on whether you get a letter or not. If you should not get a letter there is some hope for you. If you would be wise, learn science and then forget it. A boat on the river, on the white surface, looks black, and the boatman like Charon. I see swarms of gnats in the air. What is that grass with a yellow blossom which I find now on the Cliff? It is the contrast between sunshine and storm that is most pleasing; the gleams of sunshine in the midst of the storm are most memorable. Saw that winkle-like fungus, fresh and green, covering an oak stump to-day with concentric marks, spirally arranged, sometimes in a circle, very handsome. I love this apparent exuberance of nature.”

Parodied as a Yankee bachelor of repressed passion and dubious sexuality, Thoreau lived for haecceity. He celebrated it daily. He was highly emotional, if not always outwardly expressive of his excitement, and often very funny, as in this journal entry from Oct. 31, 1857:

“If you are afflicted with melancholy [as surely he was, on occasion] at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Who shall be sexton to them? Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk-cabbagedom? `Up and at ‘em,’ `Give it too ‘em,’ `Excelsior,’ `Put it through,’ these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards where the `weary shall be at rest.’ But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Its withered leaves fall and are transfixed by a rising bud. Winter and death are ignored; the circle of life is complete. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot.”

How often does Thoreau compare humans to humble flora and fauna, usually to our disadvantage?

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