Saturday, September 24, 2011

`You Can Unroll the Rotten Papyrus'

Dave Lull alerts me to a new poem by Kay Ryan, “Tree Heart/True Heart,” in the Sept. 26 issue of The New Yorker:

“The hearts of trees
are serially displaced
pressed annually
outward to a ring.
They aren't really
what we mean
by hearts, they so
easily acquiesce,
willing to thin and
stretch around some
upstart green. A
real heart does not
give way to spring.
A heart is true.
I say no more springs
without you.”

Ryan again borrows a phenomenon from the natural world and turns it into a human metaphor. She knows the inner layer of a tree’s growth ring is called “spring wood.” That’s when the growth is rapid and the wood less dense than later in the season, when “summer wood” forms, at least in temperate zones. The metaphor works because it’s not true to our nature. People are not trees. Ryan takes a valentine rhyme – “true”/”you” – and reanimates it, as she surreptitiously rhymes “pressed” and “acquiesce,” “mean” and “green.” No one rhymes more wittily, and the final two lines can be read as a renunciation of love or a pledge of devotion.

The science she draws from is dendrochronology, the dating of trees by counting rings in horizontal cross-sections of the trunk. The discipline was formalized in the last century by an astronomer, A.E. Douglass, founder of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona. I learned the early history of tree-ring science from Guy Davenport in his foreword to the 1983 North Pont Press edition (read the essay here) of Montaigne’s Travel Journal (collected in Every Force Evolves a Form, 1986):

“A lively conversation with a craftsman in Pisa causes an invisible event which we read over in innocence unless alerted to what's happening. When, on Saturday, 8 July 1581, Montaigne in Pisa learned `that all trees bear as many circles and rings as they have lasted years,’ he is recording that fact for the second time in history. Until recently, we thought it was the first time.”

In Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986), Robert D. Richardson reports Thoreau read Harland Coultas’ What Can Be Learned from a Tree soon after it was published in 1860. Coultas writes:

“It is well-known that the age of a tree may be ascertained by counting the rings visible on the cross section of its stem, and that the impress of centuries of seasons has been faithfully recorded in its woody layers.”

In the fall of that year, Thoreau was already counting rings and making charts of tree growth in his journal. On Oct. 19 he writes:

“Thus I can easily find in countless numbers in our forests, frequently in the third succession, the stumps of the oaks which were cut near the end of the last century. Perhaps I can recover thus generally the oak woods of the beginning of the last century, if the land has remained woodland. I have an advantage over the geologist, for I can not only detect the order of events but the time during which they elapsed, by counting the rings on the stumps. Thus you can unroll the rotten papyrus on which the history of the Concord forest is written.”

Like Ryan, Thoreau takes the biology of tree growth and turns it into a human metaphor, albeit darker and sadder than the poet’s:

“It is easier far to recover the history of the trees which stood here a century or more ago than it is to recover the history of the men who walked beneath them. How much do we know — how little more can we know — of these two centuries of Concord life?”

Richardson says Thoreau was counting tree rings on Dec. 3, 1860, when he caught a cold – Thoreau called it influenza -- which turned into bronchitis, which aggravated his tuberculosis. He was housebound most of the winter and wrote progressively less in his journal. The following year, one month after Fort Sumter, he made a two-month recuperative journey to Minnesota by rail and steamboat. Still weak and never well, Thoreau succumbed to tuberculosis on May 6, 1862.

[Go here to see “The Ultimate Tree-Ring Web Pages.”]

1 comment:

Cynthia Haven said...

And congratulations to Kay for her new MacArthur "Genius" award:

Famous story about Thoreau on his deathbed. His visitor asked, "Well, have you made your peace with God?"

Thoreau turned to her calmly. "I didn't know we had quarreled."