Into the Woods, 1: The Language of the Earth
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
“The image of a wood has appeared often enough in English verse. It has indeed appeared so often that it has gathered a good deal of verse into itself; so that it has become a great forest where, with long leagues of changing green between them, strange episodes of poetry have taken place. Thus in one part there are lovers of a midsummer night, or by day a duke and his followers, and in another men behind branches so that the wood seems moving, and in another a girl separated from her two lordly young brothers, and in another a poet listening to a nightingale but rather dreaming richly of the grand art than there exploring it, and there are other inhabitants, belonging even more closely to the wood, dryads, fairies, an enchanter's rout. The forest itself has different names in different tongues -- Westermain, Arden, Birnam, Broceliande; and in places there are separate trees named, such as that on the outskirts against which a young Northern poet saw a spectral wanderer leaning, or, in the unexplored centre of which only rumours reach even poetry, Igdrasil of one myth, or the Trees of Knowledge and Life of another. So that indeed the whole earth seems to become this one enormous forest, and our longest and most stable civilizations are only clearings in the midst of it.” ― Charles Williams (The Figure of Beatrice)
"I’ve often thought of the forest as a living cathedral, but this might diminish what it truly is. If I have understood Koyukon teachings, the forest is not merely an expression or representation of sacredness, nor a place to invoke the sacred; the forest is sacredness itself. Nature is not merely created by God; nature is God. Whoever moves within the forest can partake directly of sacredness, experience sacredness with his entire body, breathe sacredness and contain it within himself, drink the sacred water as a living communion, bury his feet in sacredness, touch the living branch and feel the sacredness, open his eyes and witness the burning beauty of sacredness.” - Richard Nelson (The Island Within)
“He stood staring into the wood for a minute, then said: 'What is it about the English countryside -- why is the beauty so much more than visual? Why does it touch one so?'
"He sounded faintly sad. Perhaps he finds beauty saddening -- I do myself sometimes. Once when I was quite little I asked father why this was and he explained that it was due to our knowledge of beauty's evanescence, which reminds us that we ourselves shall die. Then he said I was probably too young to understand him; but I understood perfectly.” - Dodie Smith (I Capture the Castle)
“All forests have their own personality. I don't just mean the obvious differences, like how an English woodland is different from a Central American rain forest, or comparing tracts of West Coast redwoods to the saguaro forests of the American Southwest...they each have their own gossip, their own sound, their own rustling whispers and smells. A voice speaks up when you enter their acres that can't be mistaken for one you'd hear anyplace else, a voice true to those particular tress, individual rather than of their species.” ― Charles de Lint (The Onion Girl)
How I Go to the Woods
Ordinarily I go to the woods alone,
with not a single friend,
for they are all smilers and talkers
and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree.
I have my ways of praying,
as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone
I can become invisible.
I can sit on the top of a dune
as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned.
I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me,
I must love you very much.
Robert Pogue Harrison (author of the Forests: The Shadow of Civilization) recommends the work of four other fine poets of the forest: Andrea Zanzotto, Susan Stewart, A.R. Ammons, and W.S. Merwin. But Harrison's fear is that "the rapidity with which our society is losing daily contact with the natural world will make it more and more unlikely that we will have poets of the forest like Zanzotto or Merwin, or Stewart, who grew up on a farm in the midst of Pennsylvania's forests. The more our worlds are detached and abstracted from nature in this daily way, the more I fear that poets will invoke the forests in only the most superficial of ways, without the kind of full-bodied authority that a lived relationship to the forest creates."
The late naturalist John Hay would have agreed that the forest poet must be one who knows the land, which takes both proximity and time. "There are occasions," he wrote (in The Immortal Wilderness), "when you can hear the mysterious language of the Earth: in water, or coming through the trees, emanating from the mosses, seeping through the under currents of the soil, but you have to be willing to wait and receive.”
As Tilly and I scramble over rock and root, as we do most mornings, rain or shine, I pray that our own small patch of woods remains safe, remains wild, remains here for future generations to come "home" to. I pray for patience to wait, and ears to listen, and a heart wide open, ready to receive. I want to be wild myself, like the woodland creatures in these paintings, in my quiet scribbler's way. But what is the wild? asks Louise Erdrich (in The Blue Jay's Dance). A place? A state of mind? The conjunction of these things? "What is wilderness?" she muses. "What are dreams but an internal wilderness and what is desire but a wildness of the soul?”
Bernard Malamud's answer is simple and speaks to all of us, rural and urban, young and old. “The wild," he says, "begins where you least expect it, one step off your normal course."
All of the "wild art" above comes from artists here in the village: An illustration for JRR Tolkien's "The Hobbit" by Alan Lee, faery sculptures in the daffodils by Wendy Froud, Spring Watch by David Wyatt (from his Local Characters series), trolls by Brian Froud (from his new book "Trolls"), Telling Stories to the Trees by Rima Staines, and Wolf Boy by Danielle Barlow.