Wednesday, May 29, 2013

`A Place Where Viewing Is Unhindered'

A subset of writers I cherish are those who teach me new words or remind me of old ones. Few contemporary writers do this. Geoffrey Hill is an exception, as is Les Murray. Both are thoroughly of their time but deploy English with Shakespearean gusto, reveling in its rich redundancy. Another such writer is the less obviously literary Verlyn Klinkenborg, since 1997 a member of the editorial board of the New York Times. One expects little of writers associated with newspapers, though some of the best (Twain, Liebling, Mitchell) served time in journalism. Klinkenborg I’ve been reading since his first book, Making Hay, published in 1986, and I reviewed his next one, The Last Fine Time, when it came out in 1991. In 2004 he put out The Rural Life, a collection of his Times columns devoted to farming, gardening and nature. A second such collection, More Scenes from the Rural Life, has just been published by Princeton Architectural Press. 

As its best, Klinkenborg’s style is clean in the journalistic sense, transparent, without ambiguity where none is intended, but lyrical, with an artful sense of rhythm and little pandering to populist colloquialism. He runs a farm in Columbia County, N.Y., in the region where I lived for almost twenty years. Klinkenborg writes most enthusiastically about animals – horses, chickens and especially pigs – while occasionally digressing into the economics, chemistry, politics, folkways and history of agriculture. Here he is on livestock: 

“That night I saw the ways that they’ve tamed me. I never rush the ducks. It only confuses them. I never ask too much when herding chickens. The horses expect a certain presence from me, which changes with every situation. The pigs want joy and vigorous scratching. None of the animals seems to want me to be other than human. But they do want me to be a human who knows how the world looks to them and respects it.” 

Here are some of the words, a surprising number of them monosyllabic, I’ve learned or relearned by reading Klinkenborg: frass, propolis, tilth, altricial, oxalis, latigos and galinsoga. My spell-check software recognizes only “oxalis,” the largest genus in the wood-sorrel family. “Frass” comes up when Klinkenborg describes a dying, century-old honey locust he cuts down: 

“What kept it standing I don’t know. The core of the trunk had decayed into dirt-red frass.” 

From the context I discerned the word’s meaning – that rust-colored sawdust-like waste that fills the cavities of dying trees. In the words of the Oxford English Dictionary: “The excrement of larvæ; also, the refuse left behind by boring insects,” from the German verb for “to devour.” Another new word is forb, which I should have known. Writing about the scattered remnants of prairie in the Midwest, Klinkenborg says: “In states where the prairies were richest, like Iowa, those last stands serve as much to remind people of oxen shouldering the plows forward as to preserve the species that once made of the great sweeps of grasses and forbs.” Again, the OED: 

“A herbaceous plant of a kind other than grass: applied chiefly to any broad-leaved herbs growing naturally on grassland.” 

It’s from the Greek for fodder or forage – something grazing animals eat that’s not a grass, sedge or rush. For example: clover, sunflower, milkweed. By using words like frass or forb, Klinkenborg seems to be endorsing Emerson’s notion of language as “fossil poetry.” He grew up on a farm in Iowa and has lived on range land in Montana. Though now in upstate New York, he retains fondness for grasslands and their intimate connection to humans and other animals. Here’s how he describes the sound of the prairie: 

“Instead of the rustling newsprint sound of corn and soybeans, there was a breezy hush that seemed to merge with the birdsong rising from the community of tallgrass plants. It was a richer note than anything you hear in a pasture or hayfield, if only because no one ever lets a pasture or hayfield grow so tall.” 

Intuitively, I’d always known the attraction of grasslands, vegetation-covered open spaces bordered by woodlands, and the sense of sanctuary and contentment they inspired. Only after I interviewed Tony Hiss in 1988 and later read his first book, The Experience of Place (1990), did I learn a possible, evolution-based explanation for this uncanny impression. Hiss cites the work of a geographer who studied the African savannah, likely the birthplace of our species, and contrasts “prospect” and “refuge”: 

“Both, he says, are aspects of the environment that support human functioning and make survival more likely. `Prospect’ means a long, sweeping vista—a place where viewing is unhindered and we can take in information from miles around. `Refuge’ means a hiding place where, from concealment, we can see without being seen, and gain information about ourselves.”

[ADDENDUM: Thanks to Brian Sholis for sharing these photographs of the American prairie taken by Terry Evans.]

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