SISTERS OF THE EARTH -- WOMEN'S PROSE & POETRY ABOUT NATURE
Her Pleasures: THE DELIGHT WE TAKE IN NATURE
Nature offers us a thousand simple pleasures -- plays of light and color, fragrances in the air, the sun's warmth on skin and muscle, the audible rhythm of life's stir and push -- for the price of merely paying attention. What joy! But how unwilling or unable many of us are to pay this price in an age when manufactured sources of stimulation and pleasure are everywhere at hand. For me, enjoying nature's pleasures takes a conscious choice, a choice to slow down to seed time or rock time, to still the clamoring ego, to set aside plans and busyness, and simply to be present in my body, to offer myself up.
The writing in this section sings the praises of nature's simple pleasures. For many of the authors, the pleasures of nature are sensory and aesthetic, while for others the pleasure assumes an added spiritual dimension. All show us the possibility of finding happiness, delight, and joy in the natural world.
Pattiann Rogers (born 1940) paints a lush physical world in her exuberant poems, detailed tapestries that capture the profusion and extravagance of nature. She began writing nature poetry as a way to re-create in language a landscape that she missed. Now in writing a poem she says that she starts with the senses and her sensual pleasure in what she's experiencing. She also tries to bring together the artistic and the scientific ways of knowing, often using the vocabulary of science while at the same time asking questions about divinity or the spiritual life. Rogers was born in Joplin, Missouri, and earned a B.A. in English from the University of Missouri before marrying a fellow student and bearing two sons. She devoted herself solely to mothering for some years and then earned an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Houston. She has published eight volumes of award-winning poetry, has taught at a number of different universities, and lives with her husband in Castle Rock, Colorado. Her well-loved poem "Rolling Naked in the Morning Dew," first published in Splitting and Binding (1989), was inspired by watching her sons roll down a grassy hill, reminding her of her own similar childhood experiences, and then reading of Lillie Langtry (a British actress known for her great beauty who starred in American theater) rolling naked in the dew.
ROLLING NAKED IN THE MORNING DEW
Out among the wet
grasses and wild barley-covered
practiced it, when weather permitted,
Just consider how
the mere idea of it alone
Ann Zwinger (born 1925) has commented that the thread she finds running through all her books of natural history is "an expanding sense of home." Though she came late to nature writing, she has earned a distinguished reputation as a meticulous researcher and reliable guide to the natural history of deserts, rivers, and mountains in the West. Born in Muncie, Indiana, and trained as an art historian at Wellesley (B.A.) and Indiana University (M.A.), she was the devoted wife of an air force pilot and mother of three daughters when the literary agent of a friend challenged her to turn her wildflower sketchbook into a book on Colorado ecology. The result was Beyond the Aspen Grove (1970), about the land that she calls the keystone of her existence as a human being and as a writer -- the mountain property she and her husband bought as a summer refuge for their family near Colorado Springs. Her third book, Run, River, Run (1975), from which the following selection is taken and which won the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing in 1976, recounts her journey down the Green River of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. Later books, illustrated like her first books with her own precise and detailed drawings, have taken her even farther afield. A reviewer once noted that Zwinger "derives as much scientific and aesthetic pleasure as possible from whatever agreeable things serendipity sets in her path. "
A RINSE IN THE RIVER
One of the delights of a river evening, especially after chinning up sandstone and shale ledges and poking around dry, silty terraces, is a rinse in the river. There is a place below Turks Head which, at high water, fulfills the requirements of privacy and a safe place out of the current. The water temperature in May is hardly tepid, at 62° F., but the air is warm. There are two table rocks, firm sandstones, upon which I can stand and safely submerge, letting the water swirl around me. In water that is so opaque, it is a matter of some faith to sit down. The current nudges but little in this back eddy, yet it is still easy to feel the erosive power of a big springtime river. The river sounds ear close. Seated eye level with the surface, I feel like an apprentice Lorelei, learning the siren sounds of the river.
The silt wells and fumes, voluminous and soft, just beneath the surface. It is fascinating to discover that by moving a hand just under water I can evoke all kinds of kaleidoscopic patterns. This silt settles out of a container of river water within twenty-four hours, but the remaining water looks like clam juice, colored by finer particles that do not precipitate as quickly in response to gravity. These extremely small particles are colloidal; since they have more surface compared to their volume, and so a specific gravity less than that of water, they remain in suspension almost indefinitely, settling out only if they cluster together to form larger particles. Gravels in a stream may fall out in less than a second when the velocity drops; colloidal particles may remain for decades.
The Green River, at this time of moderately heavy runoff, is probably carrying more than half its silt load for the year. The average load held in suspension by the river is estimated at 19 tons a year, plus 2.5 million tons dissolved. The silt content near the mouth of the Green, by volume, was once estimated at 0.5 percent; it seems a minute amount, but evenly distributed by the current it forms an effective screen, creating the year-round turbidity in the river from the Gates of Lodore south.
The sandpaper surface of the rock, unslicked by algae, provides a sense of stability in a flowing, swirling, moving world. How to explain the pure delight of being here -- some of it no doubt stems from the fact that, after a day of unrelenting sunshine, almost any kind of ablution feels welcome. But there is an ineffable sybaritic pleasure beyond the necessity. The cool slide of water slips down the back of my neck, down my arm, drips off my elbow, picks patterns on the river's surface. The water that tugs around my ankles is pure hedonistic enticement, issuing a reminder of downriver delights in a branch that bobs by, on its way to other appointments.
After seeing ruins all day, I am extremely conscious of those who came here before me. So too, on a warm spring evening, a thousand years ago, someone must have stood like this, soothing calloused feet, cactus-scratched legs. I feel no time interval, no difference in flesh between who stood here then and who stands here now. The same need exists for the essentials of food and shelter, the same need to communicate and to put down symbols for someone else to see, and, so I cannot help but believe, the same response to cool water and warm sun and heated rock and sandstone on bare feet.
The last rays of the sun keep it warm enough to air dry. The sun hangs for a moment above the cliff. As it disappears behind the rim, the air cools. And yet it is not cold; maybe time to robe and leave, but not yet, not cold yet. As long as I can stand, ankle deep, without civilization, without defense, going back to self, as long as there is yet enough warmth in the air to respect needful body temperature, so long as possible I stand here, submerged physically only to the ankles, psychologically to the base of being.
Katie Lee (born 1919) fell in love with Glen Canyon on the Colorado River on her first float trip there in 1954, a decade before the exquisite canyon was drowned beneath the waters of Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam. She returned every summer or fall until the dam was built, all the while pursuing a career as a folksinger, songwriter, and Hollywood actress. Born in Tucson, Arizona, she earned a B.F.A. from the University of Arizona and studied with two of the most successful folksingers of the 1940s, Burl Ives and Josh White. Although she worked hard and achieved success in her career, she lived for the pleasure of the days and weeks she spent on the river every year. The canyon's death after one of the landmark political struggles in conservation history left her grieving and angry, catapulted her into environmental activism, and spurred her to turn her journal entries from the 1950s and 1960s into the colorful memoir All My Rivers Are Gone (1998). "As my intimacy with this canyon grows every day, it wraps around me like a lover's arms," she writes there. Lee is a commentator for National Public Radio and serves on the advisory board of the Glen Canyon Institute, dedicated to draining Lake Powell and restoring the natural ecosystem of the Colorado River. The following is excerpted from an essay published in the Mountain Gazette (September/October 2001).
On this new October day, in the year of our River Gods 1959, I have walked up a deep, shaded canyon through water, wet sand and golden redbud leaves. My feet are cold in boots and socks, yet the sun, low in its arc across the southwestern sky, keeps smiling through a sweet-smelling autumn haze.
When I find it, the slickrock bowl is creamed in gentle warmth.
After the brilliant, blazing heat of summer, the ambiance of this place has shifted considerably. Then, the bowl was like a sweaty exercise room; now, more like a balcony rimmed with the light from candalerias.
Boots and socks -- off with them! The second my bare feet touch stone, I become a thermometer -- the mercury moves past my toes, up through my legs and body to form a blush on my face -- and what I see before me has already warmed my pulsing innards. This scooped-out place in an ancient dune of sand, turned to rock, has the look of a hammock, a cradle, a papyrus raft, or maybe Cleopatra's couch -- anyhow, it's a tempting space, a space that invites me to lie down, roll over, stretch out, and feel the texture of time-beneath-the-elements that has formed this perfect sanctuary.
Yes, I've been here before. The first time, not alone -- the other times, always. It's not that easy to find. We first came upon it by accident -- a real accident -- stumbled on the ridge and literally slipped, rolled and tumbled into this hollow to find ourselves unhurt, laughing ... and completely alone. With no chance that anyone would be able to trace us, we stripped, slid into the pool at the lowest end of the bowl, came out dripping slick and made heady love skin-to-skin with the stone -- same color as our own. I could feel the rock sucking at my back where we entwined above the pool, feel against my body like warm silk-silkier than his, if you want to know -- as if I were the center figure in a menage a trois. And I know it was the slickrock that made that coupling a more memorable one.
I'm warm enough now in this nude place, to be the same; so I strip to my freckles and moles and walk down to the pothole; maybe to replay that fond memory as the water caresses me... .
Is it possible to be attached to, or love a place more than one does a human being? When you think about it, places are a large part of our psyche. We go to places we love -- wildlands, rivers, deserts, the seas and mountains -- go there when we're hurting from the treatment of other humans, or the society we live in. We need those sanctuaries, those sacred places; they're medicine for whatever ails us.
Therefore, I must concede, when a place has altered my life, has sent me in a direction other than the one I was striving for, and shown me possibilities I was unaware of about myself, that place deserves more than one or two visits and a few photographs. It deserves my attention, my curiosity, my involvement, and finally ... my devotion.
The sandstones of Glen Canyon rest in the palm of my love.
Go! Hike the slickrock, swim the river, plunge the potholes, chimney the crevasses, twist with the canyon -- do it alone -- that's where the finest discoveries are made. But ... before you go alone, here is a primer, not a preachment:
I think it wise to learn the slickrock like boatmen learn waves and currents in rivers -- respectfully, and in various seasons -- after which time you will realize there are places here that have the power to tempt, bewitch and kill. I'm one of the lucky -- bewitched, brought to the brink, then allowed to go on. It was an intense and frightening experience that infused all the senses. The many changing faces, moods and textures of the rock need to be learned. Only then will you be aware of what the stone tells you, The wise number for exploration is three. Two, for reappraisal and engrossment. Alone, for fulfillment.
My wondrous sandstone bowl of flesh and warmth is high above the river and slanted enough to catch most of the sun's orbit until a couple of hours past noon, The air is still, not even a breeze, it hugs me gently -- feels like I'm in a warm pool just floating ... floating ... as if I could levitate from this spot slowly, sweetly, up to the rim. It's so quiet I can hear the sun conversing with the earth in the gentle way it has during the autumn months of the year. Nude beside my now-and-then pool, I raise my arms high to the sky and feel my whole resurrection take place in just these few minutes. Back to the earth, back to who I am and who I am not, back to my kin -- the sandstone in my veins. The dreck drains away Peace overwhelms me.
Julia Older (born 1941) was the twenty-fourth woman to walk the entire 2,00-mile length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, an experience she and her companion, Steve Sherman, describe in their book Appalachian Odyssey (1977) from which the following poem is taken. Born in Chicago and educated at the University of Michigan (B.A.), Older studied and worked in several countries before settling in the Monadnock region of southern New Hampshire to write full-time. With Steve Sherman, she has coauthored guides to nature walks in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine. Her fascination with author Celia Laighton Thaxter, whose work is included later in this section, led her to write a novel based on Thaxter's life, The Island Queen (1994), and to edit Celia Thaxter: Selected Writings (1997). Older's poems, stories, and essays have appeared in many magazines, journals, and anthologies, and six volumes of her poetry have been published.
RIVER, O RIVER
I throw myself
into your amber liquid.
Theodora Cope Stanwell-Fletcher (1906-2000) and her first husband, John, had "a taste for the loneliness and realism of out- of-the-way places and peoples." From August 1937 to January 1939 and again from February to September 1941, they lived in Driftwood Valley, an unexplored wilderness in north-central British Columbia, many miles from neighbors, towns, or roads, and without communication with the outside world, collecting flora and fauna for the British Columbia Provincial Museum in Victoria. Theodora's account of their wilderness experiences, Driftwood Valley (1946), from which the following selection is excerpted, won the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing in 1947. Born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, to Quaker parents who loved the out-of-doors, Theodora earned degrees in economic geography from Mount Holyoke (B.A.) and vertebrate ecology from Cornell University (M.S. and Ph.D.), and traveled throughout the world to study natural science. She also wrote books about the flora and fauna of western Hudson Bay (The Tundra World, 1952) and a voyage she took with the Hudson, Bay Company's supply ship to the eastern Arctic (Clear Lands and Icy Seas, 1958), as well as numerous scientific and natural history articles, all the while raising a daughter.
CHRISTMAS IN DRIFTWOOD VALLEY
Last night when we went to bed the windows on the inside were covered with frost an inch thick; the logs in the walls, and the shakes in the roof, cracked like gunshots, as they were split by the cold; and out on the lake the ice kept up an almost steady booming, interspersed with the horrid ripping and tearing that always makes my spine tingle. During the night I was waked repeatedly by such terrific cracks in the logs that I thought the cabin was coming down on our heads. When the temperature is falling, we expect a drop of 15 or 25 degrees during the night, beginning at sunset, but last night it broke all records.
This morning I was the first one out of bed. These days I can hardly wait to get up. Whether this is because I'm always hungry, or because the night is so long, I don't know, but it is refreshing to be able to jeer at J. as he lies lazily in bed with his morning smoke. Although when we went to bed last night we piled up the stove with slow-burning green wood, this morning the fire was practically out. It was still dark outside; dawn had not yet begun although it was long past eight. The windows were so densely frosted that it seemed as if daylight, even if it were there, could never penetrate the cabin. I lit the lamp, then carefully laid the pile of shavings, as always unfailingly prepared by J. the evening before, in the front of the stove and applied a match. After which I delicately laid on more shavings and then larger and larger sticks. Everything was ice cold and I was careful not to touch any metal with bare hands, having learned from bitter experience that skin, especially moist skin, freezes fast and is sometimes peeled right off at the slightest contact with very cold metal. Still clad in bathrobe and slippers, I went to scrape away the frost and read the thermometer outside. I realized then that, although I didn't feel chilled, I could hardly move my arms.
"I'll just see what the temperature is inside first," I thought, and went to peer at the thermometer hanging above our dining table. It read 25 below. Gosh! That couldn't be right! How could we sleep like that, how could I be wandering around with only a wrapper on? I must see what it was outside!
I couldn't even find the mercury. It dawned on me, after a time, that it had gone its limit and jammed at 50 below. My exclamations roused J. and we were so busy arguing over the thermometer that we forgot to say "Merry Christmas." I was convinced that if the mercury could have gone beyond 50 it would have read at least 60 below. J. said it was not much colder than 50; that he could tell from past experience in the Arctic just how many degrees the temperature drops when it gets beyond 45 below. For one thing, if it is 55 or more below, when hot water is poured out of a window, it freezes solid before it reaches the snow level. I could hardly wait until we had hot water to try this experiment. Sure enough -- when, later, I poured a stream from the teakettle onto the snow outside, the water steamed and twisted into threads, but did not turn actually solid till it reached the ground. We must put out our unused thermometer whose scale goes to 60 below.
By the time dawn was coming we had scraped two peepholes in the frost on the panes; and we stood quiet to watch the winter sunrise. The radiant peaks of the Driftwoods, cut like white icing into pinnacles and rims against the apple-green sky, were brushed with pink, that, even as we watched, spread down and down and turned to gold. Rays of the rising sun, coming between the pointed firs of the east shore, stretched straight across the white lake, and as they touched it huge crystals, formed by the intense cold, burst into sparkling, scintillating light. The snow-bowed trees of the south and west shores were hung with diamonds; and finally the willows, around our cabin, were decked with jewels as large as robins' eggs that flashed red and green and blue. No Christmas trees decorated by human hands were ever so exquisite as the frosted trees of this northern forest. The sky turned to deep, deep blue, and the white world burst into dazzling, dancing colors as the sun topped the forest. The dippers, undismayed by a cold that froze dumb all other living things, broke into their joyous tinkling melody by the open water patch below the bank. And our first Christmas Day in the wilderness was upon us.
After a breakfast of canned grapefruit which we had been saving especially, and pancakes with the last of our syrup, also preserved scrupulously for Christmas, we did our usual chores. I cleaned the cabin and began a round of baking. In addition to bannock, which I bake daily either in the drum oven or in an open frypan on top of the stove, I made tarts of strawberry jam and a chocolate cake, As these favorite articles of diet make inroads on a meager supply of Crisco, jam, and sugar, we have them only for very special celebrations.
When I went outside to scatter crumbs for our furred and feathered friends, the jays were almost too stiff to move. Instead of flying down to snatch the food before it left my hand, they sat on the spruce branches, their feathers so fluffed up that I could hardly distinguish head from tail. Sometimes they moved near the smoke from our stovepipe, which was giving forth some warmth. The chickadees, tiny as they are, though also tremendously puffed out, were slightly more active than the jays.
Why are some animals in this country so much better equipped for cold than others? There are the dippers, for example, whose nerves and organs are, seemingly, completely unaffected by an almost arctic temperature. Twice, during this month, we've watched a pair performing the act of coition on a snowbank.
Toward noon the temperature moderated enough for us to enjoy a tramp. That is, it had gone up from 50, or whatever below it was, to 36 below. Our snowshoes tossed up clouds of crystals. Young trees which, in autumn, had reached above our heads had been completely covered with fresh snow, so that they were transformed into great mounds and small hills. Wherever we looked our eyes were dimmed by the twinkling brilliants scattered before us. The azure of the sky above, the unsullied whiteness below, the mountains and the woods, the intense pureness of the air, were exhilarating beyond imagining. And there was not a sound or a motion, anywhere, to distract our senses of sight and feeling.
Soon after noon the temperature began dropping again, fast. Our faces, which we rubbed constantly with wool mitts, began to show a tendency toward frostbite, and J.'s right big toe, once badly frozen in arctic tundras, was starting to pain severely. So we turned homeward.
As daylight faded, the rays of the sinking sun tinted the snow with red and lavender. The mountains grew purple and then came that period which, if I could make a choice of the wonders of all the twenty-four hours of a winter's day, seems the most wonderful of all. It is that moment of white twilight which comes on a particularly clear afternoon, after the last colors of sunset fade and just before the first stars shine out. I don't suppose its like can be seen anywhere except in the snowbound, ice-cold arctic places. Everything in the universe becomes a luminous white. Even the dark trees of the forest, and the sky overhead, are completely colorless. It is the ultimate perfection of purity and peace. But even as one looks and wonders, the white sky takes on a faint pale green, there are the stars, and then the great winter's night is upon one.
We had our Christmas dinner at five: dehydrated potatoes and onions and a bit of moose steak, especially saved and tendered, baked in a pan with stuffing. For dessert there were the jam tarts and chocolate cake. With these vanished the last vestiges of Christmas, the things which made it a little different from our other days.
Have we greatly missed the things that make Christmas Day in civilization? Other loved human beings, Christmas carols, wonderful food? I suppose so, but I think that this lack is more than made up for by the deep contentment of our healthy minds and bodies, by our closeness to and awareness of the earth, and of each other.
Margaret ("Mardy") Murie (born 1902) has through an intense devotion to protecting wilderness earned an esteemed place in conservation history. Born in Seattle and raised in frontier Fairbanks, Alaska, she attended Reed College in Oregon and Simmons College in Boston, and was the first woman to graduate from the University of Alaska (with a degree in English). Soon after, she married wildlife biologist Olaus Murie, and on their honeymoon by dogsled across the Alaskan tundra was inspired to join him in the cause of conservation. Mardy accompanied and worked closely with Olaus on many of his field trips, even when it meant bringing along infants and toddlers as their family grew to include three children. The classic memoir Two in the Far North (1962), from which the following excerpt is taken, tells of Mardy's early life in Alaska, her marriage to Olaus, and several of their trips into the Alaskan wilderness to study caribou. Her second book, Wapiti Wilderness (1966), is a record of the couple's lives together in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Olaus was subsequently sent by the us. Biological Survey to study the worlds largest elk herd. Tireless crusaders for wilderness, the two were instrumental in the passage of the Wilderness Act, the founding of the Wilderness Society, and the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. After Olaus's death in 1963, Mardy continued to write, speak, and travel on behalf of wild lands. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. The Murie legacy lives on in the work of the Murie Center in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (www.muriecenter.org).
JAUNT FROM NULATO
Day came sparkling clear, calling to us, and before the waterfront had come to life we laced up our hiking boots, took a sackful of mousetraps, some rolled oats for bait, and the shotgun, and went swinging up the grassy old winter road south of the village. As we followed this road for several miles through the spruce woods, now aflame with high-bush cranberries, I had my first lesson in being a field assistant to a naturalist. I learned where to look for mouseholes and feeding places and was shown their tiny runways, like an intricate street system for fairies. What delightful discoveries can be made beneath a mossy stump or under the dense mat of water rushes! I had never seen a mousehole before; the unknowing eye is unable to see. In addition to his main assignment, studying the life history of the caribou, Olaus was interested in learning all he could about the distribution of several species of meadow vole, the red-backed mouse, the bog lemming, and the brown lemming. I had never known there were so many kinds of mice; I had known only the kitchen-cupboard ones. Nor had I known that these were true wild animals, which ranged throughout the wilderness and belonged there, nor that at that time there was not much known about the distribution of the various species. So everywhere Olaus traveled he set out mouse traplines! I learned that to the scientist these little creatures are interesting and important, for they have a relationship to bigger creatures and to the land and are part of the great chain of life.
We collected some plant specimens. This too I learned is part of the usual routine of any field naturalist, for plants are also part of the great chain of life. We also collected a good many blueberries, and I had my first taste of bird watching. I learned to identify two chickadees, the Hudsonian and the black-capped, the arctic three-toed woodpecker, and the pine grosbeak, so sturdy and vivid and at home in his world. Even that first day I began to feel the magnetic charm of birds, of knowing them.
After Olaus had set his trapline for mice, we looked northward toward the beautiful dome-shaped hill rising off the tundra. "Let's go over, shall we?"
An Indian hunting trail led across the summit of this dome, through evergreens made glorious by silver birches in their autumn gold and cranberries in a riot of red, and underfoot the rich colors of all kinds of moss dotted with orange toadstools.
Up there on top we found a broad stretch of flat hilltop covered with deep, deep reindeer moss and nothing else; no little dwarf birches or dwarf willows sticking up through. Olaus was looking for lemming runways, but then he straightened up and looked around and said: "Did you ever try falling straight backward without bending? We could do it here."
And he showed me. He stood with hands at his sides and tipped back on his heels, holding his body in one straight stiff column. Over he went, describing a perfect quarter circle, and there he was, lying perfectly straight and flat on that fine soft bed. "Now you try it," he said, grinning up at me.
I did. It takes a little courage to trust that the moss is really going to be soft, and to keep your body perfectly rigid. I didn't make it the first time, but afterward it was great fun. And I learned something else that afternoon: my husband thought I could do anything -- and he expected me to do it!
Poet, essayist, and naturalist Diane Ackerman (born 1948) describes herself as an earth-ecstatic and a sensuist (one who rejoices in sensory experience), a devoted witness and a celebrant of the natural world. In spirited works of nonfiction she has explored the natural history of the senses, of love, and of her own garden, and has recounted expeditions made from her home in Ithaca, New York, to the far reaches of the earth to observe exotic and endangered animals and habitats. Born in Waukegan, Illinois, and educated at Pennsylvania State University (B.A.) and Cornell (M.F.A., M.A., Ph.D.), Ackerman is noted for blending scientific fact and poetic truth in her writing. She remarks in Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden (2001): "Life doesn't require you to choose between reason and awe, or between clearheaded analysis and a rapturous sense of wonder. A balanced life includes both." A recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing, she has published several volumes of poetry and is writing a series of nature books for children. She has taught at Columbia, New York University, Cornell, and elsewhere. In 1995 she hosted a five-hour PBS television series inspired by A Natural History of the Senses (1990), from which the following selection is taken. She is married to the writer Paul West.
Some years ago, when I had taken a job directing a writing program in St. Louis, Missouri, I often used color as a tonic. Regardless of the oasis-eyed student in my office, or the last itchlike whim of the secretary, or the fumings of the hysterically anxious chairman, I tried to arrive home at around the same time every evening, to watch the sunset from the large picture window in my living room, which overlooked Forest Park. Each night the sunset surged with purple pampas-grass plumes, and shot fuchsia rockets into the pink sky, then deepened through folded layers of peacock green to all the blues of India and a black across which clouds sometimes churned like alabaster dolls. The visual opium of the sunset was what I craved. Once, while eating a shrimp-and-avocado salad at the self-consciously stately faculty club, I found myself restless for the day to be over and all such tomblike encounters to pale, so I could drag my dinette-set chair up to the window and purge my senses with the pure color and visual tumult of the sunset. This happened again the next day in the coffee room, where I stood chatting with one of the literary historians, who always wore the drabbest camouflage colors and continued talking long after a point had been made. I set my facial muscles at "listening raptly," as she chuntered on about her specialty, the Caroline poets, but in my mind the sun was just beginning to set, a green glow was giving way to streaks of sulfur yellow, and a purple cloud train had begun staggering across the horizon. I was paying too much rent for my apartment, she explained. True, the apartment overlooked the park's changing seasons, had a picture window that captured the sunset every night, and was only a block away from a charming cobblestone area full of art galleries, antique stores, and ethnic restaurants. But this was all an expense, as she put it, with heavy emphasis on the second syllable, not just financial expense, but a too-extravagant experience of life. That evening, as I watched the sunset's pinwheels of apricot and mauve slowly explode into red ribbons, I thought: The sensory misers will inherit the earth, but first they will make it not worth living on.
When you consider something like death, after which (there being no news flash to the contrary) we may well go out like a candle flame, then it probably doesn't matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly. It probably doesn't matter if, while trying to be modest and eager watchers of life's many spectacles, we sometimes look clumsy or get dirty or ask stupid questions or reveal our ignorance or say the wrong thing or light up with wonder like the children we all are. It probably doesn't matter if a passerby sees us dipping a finger into the moist pouches of dozens of lady's slippers to find out what bugs tend to fall into them, and thinks us a bit eccentric. Or a neighbor, fetching her mail, sees us standing in the cold with our own letters in one hand and a seismically red autumn leaf in the other, its color hitting our senses like a blow from a stun gun, as we stand with a huge grin, too paralyzed by the intricately veined gaudiness of the leaf to move.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) proclaimed her intoxication with natures pleasures in one of her untitled poems containing the lines "Inebriate of air am I, / And debauchee of dew." Although she spent most of her fifty-five years within the confines of her family's house and garden in Amherst, Massachusetts, her poems make it clear that what her life lacked in breadth it made up for in depth. Nature was one of her primary topics: "This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me, -- / The simple news that Nature told, / With tender majesty," she explained. The editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson remarked in the preface of the first of three volumes of her poems that he edited for posthumous publication (Dickinson saw only four of her poems published during her lifetime, though she wrote more than seventeen hundred), "In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them." Her nature poems range from the ecstatic to the whimsical but clearly show a deep and abiding pleasure in the earth's beauty. Moreover, this eccentric poet seemed to find a key element of her personal theology in nature's wonders, as indicated in her slight poem "Why?" collected in Poems by Emily Dickinson (1890).
The murmur of a
The red upon the
The breaking of
Theodora Parsons (1861-1952) came to nature rambles and nature writing as a way out of the stultifying existence in which she was stranded as a result of early widowhood and the conventions surrounding it. Born Frances Theodora Smith, she grew up in New York City and spent childhood summers with her grandparents at their place between the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains near Newburgh, New York, where she developed a love of nature and especially of wildflowers. In her early twenties she married a naval officer many years her senior, Commodore William Starr Dana. Shortly thereafter she lost her first baby, and then her husband died in a flu epidemic in Paris. Observing the Victorian rules for widows, Mrs. William Starr Dana (as she called herself then) wore black and restricted her social contacts for some years afterward, until her friend Marion Satterlee lured her into taking walks in the countryside and resuming her interest in wildflowers. The friends eventually collected material for a book that was to become a popular American classic, How to Know the Wild Flowers, authored by Mrs. Dana and illustrated by Satterlee. Mrs. Dana then wrote a column about nature for the New York Tribune; these essays, including the one reprinted here, were later collected as According to Season (1894). During the early years of her second marriage, to James Russell Parsons, Jr., she authored (under the name Frances Theodora Parsons) a guide called How to Know the Ferns and a children's botany book before giving up writing to become active in Republican state politics and the suffrage movement. Her autobiography, Perchance Some Day (1951), was published a year before her death.
SPRING IN THE CITY
In the city as in the country there are marks of the changing seasons pregnant with suggestions to the nature-lover. One of the most unfailing season-marks in town is the turning on of the fountains in the public parks. How joyfully the liberated water flashes through the sunlit air. It seems to speak of the distant brooks that are released from bondage and free to ripple along their green-edged channels. There is a strange fascination about the sight and sound of water in motion. The sparrows dash with mad enjoyment in and out beneath the beaded, iridescent curves. The children pause in their play to watch, with wide, wondering eyes, the sparkling jets, Even the grown-up passers-by seem to fall under the spell and join the little group for a few wistful moments.
In the squares it seems as though in the space of twenty-four hours the grass had changed from dull brown to bright green. Here, too, we are convinced of the arrival of spring by the blossoming trees. The great shining buds of the balm of Gilead at last shake out their long tassels. The upper gold-tinged branches of the white poplar give a misty effect, which a careful inspection discovers to be due to a host of downy, close-set catkins. The elms and maples let out tiny clusters of red and yellow flowers -- flowers so minute and comparatively insignificant that if one is caught, standing motionless, with head flung back, and eyes upraised, and is able to account for his apparently absurd attitude only by the explanation that, Japanese-like, he is "viewing the blossoms," the chances are strong in favor of his being esteemed a harmless lunatic.
Another season-sign is afforded by the flowerbeds in these same squares. As soon as the frost is fairly out of the ground, the needle-like tips of the crocus appear. This plant is followed by tulip, hyacinth, and daffodil. But before they have time to blossom, the vases that front the clubs and restaurants are filled with deep-hued pansies and English daisies, the latter the cultivated variety of Burns's,
"Wee, modest, crimson-tippit flower."
The florists' windows yield a veritable feast of form and color. Even more of a delight are the street flower-stands, and the moving gardens in the shape of peddlers' flower-carts. These last seem like visions of a brighter world let into the dismal monotony of our dreary side-streets.
Strangely enough, few of these flowers which are peddled about the streets or sold in the shops, are natives. And as one studies the gayly filled window, or half unconsciously notes the contents of the peddler's cart, if he chance to be something of a traveller as well as a flower-lover, memories of many lands flash through his mind.
The yellow jonquils now so abundant recall the rocky shores of southern Italy, for during that wonderful drive from Castellamare to Sorrento, early in December (though properly and botanically these flowers belong to May), I first saw them at home. It has never been my good fortune to find in its native haunts that near cousin of the jonquil, the daffodil. But how abundant this is during the early spring in England no lover of Wordsworth need be told. And until he beholds it with other than the "inward eye," he has in possible anticipation an enchanting experience.
With the crocus is associated my earliest glimpse of Switzerland. It was already late in August when, for the first time, I looked upon the Alps. And almost as great as my awe-struck exultation in the grandeur of the snow-capped mountains was my delight in the green meadows at their feet, studded with the delicate blossoms of the fall crocus. A few days after this entrance into Switzerland, during a climb up one of the lower mountains, I found the lovely cyclamen, and soon learned to look upon this peculiarly satisfying flower, one of our most treasured importations, as the natural companion of my walks.
The little English daisy recalls a May morning at Hampton Court, where the smooth, grassy sweeps were starred with the dainty blossoms.
The close bunches of yellow primroses peddled at the streetcorners, conjure up a vision of that quiet, high-banked flowergirt lane where perhaps we first heard the nightingale, where certainly, once and for all, we fell under the spell of the tranquil beauty of the mother-country.
One of our favorite Easter plants is the feathery white spiraea. This is a Japanese cousin of our well-known meadowsweet and steeple-bush. The yellow genista, so abundant now, comes, I believe, from New Zealand. It suggests the wild indigo so common with us in summer, and also the English broom, all three of these plants being closely allied. The lovely foreign heaths, which look as though they came straight from the Scotch moors, could claim kinship with our trailing arbutus, our mountain-laurel, and with other favorite plants which belong to the same heath family.
Upon our avenues every sunny morning in early spring is found another season-mark which should not be overlooked. You could almost fancy that the floral decorations had not been confined to the squares, and to the grass-plots and vases that lie within the railings. All along the sidewalks, as far as the eye can reach, are patches of bright color. These bright patches are made by innumerable baby-carriages, whose gorgeous decorations harmonize in gay coloring with the pansies and daisies of the parks and window-boxes. And lovelier than either pansies or daisies are the little flower-faces that beam from the dainty equipages.
Another sign of the season is the call of "strawberries" from the street-venders. It is as full of suggestion as the first note of the bluebird. My journal last year records that I heard this call for the first time on the twenty-first; this year, I did not notice it till the fifth, about two weeks later; just as the birds and flowers are a fortnight later this year than last.
The English sparrows do their share in celebrating the return of spring. If in no other way, the intensified colors of the plumage of the males would signify that the period of courtship was at hand. But besides this, they are more obstreperous than ever; yet so joyfully obstreperous that I cannot find it in my heart to feel toward them all the antagonism that seems to be considered a mark of patriotism. That they never had been brought over to banish our far more attractive native birds is most heartily to be wished. But as they are with us, by no fault of their own, I find it impossible, especially at this season, to withhold from them a certain amount of sympathy. They are so overflowing with vitality, so brimful of plans, such ardent wooers, such eager house-builders. Their superfluous enthusiasm in this matter of house-building is responsible for the unsightly fringes of rope and other materials that decorate the undereaves of our houses. The amount of energy that they throw into their slightest occupation shames our languid selves. And I frankly admit that I take a keen pleasure in seeing their palpitating little shadows sweep impetuously across the bars of sunlight that lie upon my floor. These seem to bring within the house something of the freedom of out-door life.
And to the city-bound lover of nature a peculiar satisfaction is yielded by the few objects which help to link his sympathies with his daily experience. That nightly certain stars sent into my room their far-reaching gaze seems to bring me into closer and more constant touch with the mysterious laws of the universe. These stars, too, are the most unfailing of all our season- marks, sky-flowers, "faithful through a thousand years." The stars which companion me these April nights are not those which glittered in the winter heavens. And by this silent march across my little limited patch of city sky, I am enabled to note the passage of the year more accurately than by any other of those indications which we, with city lives but country loves, look and long for each spring.
Celia Laighton Thaxter (1835-1894), a contemporary of Emily Dickinson, was a highly popular poet and an influential proponent of bird conservation during her lifetime but is chiefly remembered today for her gem of gardening writing, An Island Garden (1894). She was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and grew up on the Isles of Shoals, a group of rocky islands nine miles off the New Hampshire coast. Her father became the lighthouse keeper on tiny White Island when she was five, and for many years Celia, her two brothers, and her parents were the only human inhabitants of the island. When she was thirteen the family moved to Appledore, largest of the Isles of Shoals, where her father built a summer resort that attracted New England writers and artists such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Nathaniel Hawthorne. At sixteen, Celia married her tutor, Levi Thaxter, who in 1856 took her and their two sons to live in Newtonville, Massachusetts, where Celia bore a third son. Here in exile from her beloved islands, Celia found her writing voice in letters and poems that sprang from her emotional connection to the natural world of her childhood. She began to return to Appledore for the summers and there devoted herself to her garden. Eventually a series of articles about her life on the islands was published in The Atlantic Monthly and later collected as Among the Isles of Shoals (1873), where the following selection first appeared.
CHILDHOOD ON WHITE ISLAND
I well remember my first sight of White Island, where we took up our abode on leaving the mainland. I was scarcely five years old; but from the upper windows of our dwelling in Portsmouth, I had been shown the clustered masts of ships lying at the wharves along the Piscataqua River, faintly outlined against the sky, and, baby as I was, even then I was drawn, with a vague longing, seaward. How delightful was that long, first sail to the Isles of Shoals! How pleasant the unaccustomed sound of the incessant ripple against the boat-side, the sight of the wide water and limitless sky, the warmth of the broad sunshine that made us blink like young sandpipers as we sat in triumph, perched among the household goods with which the little craft was laden. It was at sunset in autumn that we were set ashore on that loneliest, lovely rock, where the lighthouse looked down on us like some tall, black-capped giant, and filled me with awe and wonder. At its base a few goats were grouped on the rock, standing out dark against the red sky as I looked up at them. The stars were beginning to twinkle; the wind blew cold, charged with the sea's sweetness; the sound of many waters half bewildered me. Someone began to light the lamps in the tower. Rich red and golden, they swung round in mid-air; everything was strange and fascinating and new.
We entered the quaint little old stone cottage that was for six years our home. How curious it seemed, with its low, whitewashed ceiling and deep window-seats, showing the great thickness of the walls made to withstand the breakers, with whose force we soon grew acquainted! A blissful home the little house became to the children who entered it that quiet evening and slept for the first time lulled by the murmur of the encircling sea. I do not think a happier triad ever existed than we were, living in that profound isolation. It takes so little to make a healthy child happy; and we never wearied of our few resources. True, the winters seemed as long as a whole year to our little minds, but they were pleasant, nevertheless. Into the deep window-seats we climbed, and with pennies (for which we had no other use) made round holes in the thick frost, breathing on them till they were warm, and peeped out at the bright, fierce, windy weather, watching the vessels scudding over the intensely dark blue sea, all "feather-white" where the short waves broke hissing in the cold, and the sea-fowl soaring aloft or tossing on the water. ...
We waited for the spring with an eager longing; the advent of the growing grass, the birds and flowers and insect life, the soft skies and softer winds, the everlasting beauty of the thousand tender tints that clothed the world, -- these things brought us unspeakable bliss. To the heart of Nature one must needs be drawn in such a life; and very soon I learned how richly she repays in deep refreshment the reverent love of her worshipper. With the first warm days we built our little mountains of wet gravel on the beach, and danced after the sandpipers at the edge of the foam, shouted to the gossiping kittiwakes that fluttered above, or watched the pranks of the burgomaster gull, or cried to the crying loons. The gannet's long, white wings stretched overhead, perhaps, or the dusky shag made a sudden shadow in mid-air, or we startled on some lonely ledge the great blue heron that flew off, trailing legs and wings, stork-like, against the clouds. Or, in the sunshine on the bare rocks, we cut from the broad, brown leaves of the slippery, varnished kelps, grotesque shapes of man and bird and beast that withered in the wind and blew away; or we fashioned rude boats from bits of driftwood, manned them with a weird crew of kelpies, and set them adrift on the great deep, to float we cared not whither ...
Few flowers bloomed for me upon the lonesome rock; but I made the most of all I had, and neither knew of nor desired more. Ah, how beautiful they were! Tiny stars of crimson sorrel threaded on their long brown stems; the blackberry blossoms in bridal white; the surprise of the blue-eyed grass; the crowfoot flowers, like drops of yellow gold spilt about among the short grass and over the moss; the rich, blue-purple beach-pea, the sweet, spiked germander, and the homely, delightful yarrow that grows thickly on all the islands. Sometimes its broad clusters of dull white bloom are stained a lovely reddish-purple, as if with the light of sunset. I never saw it colored so elsewhere. Quantities of slender, wide-spreading mustard-bushes grew about the house; their delicate flowers were like fragrant golden clouds. Dandelions, buttercups, and clover were not denied to us; though we had no daisies nor violets nor wild roses, no asters, but gorgeous spikes of golden-rod, and wonderful wild morning-glories, whose long, pale, ivory buds I used to find in the twilight, glimmering among the dark leaves, waiting for the touch of dawn to unfold and become each an exquisite incarnate blush, -- the perfect color of a South Sea shell. They ran wild, knotting and twisting about the rocks, and smothering the loose boulders in the gorges with lush green leaves and pink blossoms.
Many a summer morning have I crept out of the still house before anyone was awake, and, wrapping myself closely from the chill wind of dawn, climbed to the top of the high cliff called the Head to watch the sunrise. Pale grew the lighthouse flame before the broadening day as, nestled in a crevice at the cliff's edge, I watched the shadows draw away and morning break. Facing the east and south, with all the Atlantic before me, what happiness was mine as the deepening rose-color flushed the delicate cloudflocks that dappled the sky, where the gulls soared, rosy too, while the calm sea blushed beneath. Or perhaps it was a cloudless sunrise with a sky of orange-red, and the sea-line silver-blue against it, peaceful as heaven. Infinite variety of beauty always awaited me, and filled me with an absorbing, unreasoning joy such as makes the song-sparrow sing, -- a sense of perfect bliss. Coming back in the sunshine, the morning-glories would lift up their faces, all awake, to my adoring gaze. Like countless rosy trumpets sometimes I thought they were, tossed everywhere about the rocks, turned up to the sky, or drooping toward the ground, or looking east, west, north, south, in silent loveliness. It seemed as if they had gathered the peace of the golden morning in their still depths even as my heart had gathered it.
Katharine Sergeant Angell White (1892~1977) was a highly influential editor at The New Yorker from its founding in 1925 until 1959. It was only as she neared retirement that she began writing about "a field that had endless allure for her -- the green world of growing things," as her husband, the essayist E. B. White, explains in his preface to Onward and Upward in the Garden (1979). This much-reprinted collection, assembled by E. B. after Katharine's death, contains fourteen pieces on horticultural matters that Katharine wrote for The New Yorker between 1958 and 1970. Her first article, a critique of the seed and nursery stock catalogs from which she ordered for the gardens around the couples home in North Brooklin, Maine, prompted Elizabeth Lawrence, a garden columnist for the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina, to send a fan letter recommending other catalogs to look into. The women's ensuing correspondence, which lasted for nearly two decades, was a continuing source of inspiration and encouragement for White's gardening and writing. What accounts for the enduring appeal of her book is that even while focused on the plant world, the text is good-humored and intensely personal, embellished with anecdote and charged with emotion. Born in Winchester, Massachusetts, and educated at Bryn Mawr, Katharine "revered the beauty of flower form and the spiritual impact of the natural world as it was manifested in flowers," notes E. B. The following introduction to a piece on flower catalogs certainly attests to this.
GREEN THOUGHTS IN A GREEN SHADE
I have read somewhere that no Japanese child will instinctively pick a flower, not even a very young child attracted by its bright color, because the sacredness of flowers is so deeply imbued in the culture of Japan that its children understand the blossoms are there to look at, not to pluck. Be that as it may, my observation is that Occidental children do have this instinctive desire, and I feel certain that almost every American must have a favorite childhood memory of picking flowers -- dandelions on a lawn, perhaps, or daisies and buttercups in a meadow, trailing arbutus on a cold New England hillside in spring, a bunch of sweet peas in a hot July garden after admonishments from an adult to cut the stems long, or, when one had reached the age of discretion and could be trusted to choose the right rose and cut its stem correctly, a rosebud for the breakfast table. All these examples come from my own recollections of the simple pleasure of gathering flowers, but none of them quite equals my memories of the pure happiness of picking water lilies on a New Hampshire lake. The lake was Chocorua, and picking water lilies was not an unusual event for my next-older sister and me. We spent the best summers of our girlhood on, or in, this lake, and we picked the lilies in the early morning, paddling to the head of the lake, where the water was calm at the foot of the mountain and the sun had just begun to open the white stars of the lilies. The stern paddle had to know precisely how to approach a lily, stem first, getting near enough so the girl in the bow could plunge her arm straight down into the cool water and break off the rubbery stem, at least a foot under the surface, without leaning too far overboard. It took judgment to select the three or four freshest flowers and the shapeliest lily pad to go with them, and it took skill not to upset the canoe. Once the dripping blossoms were gathered and placed in the shade of the bow seat, we paddled home while their heavenly fragrance mounted all around us.
Margaret Walker (1915-1998) captured in her writing the lush physical beauty of the South while taking a historical approach to the struggles of African Americans. "My roots are deep in southern life . .. / Warm skies and gulf blue streams are in my blood," she wrote in her poem "Sorrow Home." The daughter of a Methodist minister and a music teacher, she was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and moved with her family to New Orleans, Louisiana, when she was ten. At the urging of the poet Langston Hughes, she sought schooling in the North, earning a B.A .in English from Northwestern University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Iowa. She worked with the Federal Writers' Project in Chicago and taught at colleges in North Carolina and West Virginia before being appointed professor of English at Jackson State College, Mississippi, a position she held for three decades (1949-1979), supporting a disabled husband and four children. In 1968, Walker founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People (now the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center) at Jackson State and served as its director for eleven years. With her work (six volumes of poetry, the acclaimed novel Jubilee, two volumes of essays, and a biography of Richard Wright), she consciously attempted to nurture the growth of black culture. Jazz rhythms and blues meters pulse in her writing, along with lyrical images of the aching beauty of her homeland, as seen in the following poem from This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (1989).
MY MISSISSIPPI SPRING
My heart warms
Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) is remembered for her nine Little House books, but she wrote newspaper articles and columns about the life of a farmwoman for decades before she began her famous books at age sixty-three. Born in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods, Laura Ingalls moved with her homesteading family to Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and finally South Dakota, where she met and married Almanzo Wilder. After Laura bore a son, who died in infancy, and a daughter, the couple bought Rocky Ridge Farm near Mansfield, Missouri, where they lived the rest of their days. Laura wrote the Little House stories at the urging of her daughter, the writer Rose Wilder Lane, and in the belief that her childhood was "much richer and more interesting than that of children today, even with all the modern inventions and improvements." Some of that richness is captured in the following essay written for the Missouri Ruralist (20 July 1917) and later collected with other pieces by Laura and her daughter in A Little House Sampler (1988).
A BOUQUET OF WILD FLOWERS
The Man of the Place brought me a bouquet of wild flowers this morning. It has been a habit of his for years. He never brings me cultivated flowers but always the wild blossoms of field and woodland and I think them much more beautiful.
In my bouquet this morning was a purple flag. Do you remember gathering them down on the flats and in the creek bottoms when you were a barefoot child? There was one marshy corner of the pasture down by the creek, where the grass grew lush and green; where the cows loved to feed and could always be found when it was time to drive them up at night. All thru the tall grass were scattered purple and white flag blossoms and I have stood in that peaceful grassland corner, with the red cow and the spotted cow and the roan taking their goodnight mouthfuls of the sweet grass, and watched the sun setting behind the hilltop and loved the purple flags and the rippling brook and wondered at the beauty of the world, while I wriggled my bare toes down into the soft grass.
The wild Sweet Williams in my bouquet brought a far different picture to my mind. A window had been broken in the schoolhouse at the country crossroads and the pieces of glass lay scattered where they had fallen. Several little girls going to school for their first term had picked handfuls of Sweet Williams and were gathered near the window. Someone discovered that the blossoms could be pulled from the stem and, by wetting their faces, could be stuck to the pieces of glass in whatever fashion they were arranged. They dried on the glass and would stay that way for hours and, looked at thru the glass, were very pretty. I was one of those little girls and tho I have forgotten what it was that I tried to learn out of a book that summer, I never have forgotten the beautiful wreaths and stars and other figures we made on the glass with the Sweet Williams. The delicate fragrance of their blossoms this morning made me feel like a little girl again.
The little white daisies with their hearts of gold grew thickly along the path where we walked to Sunday school. Father and sister and I used to walk the 2-1/2 miles every Sunday morning. The horses had worked hard all the week and must rest this one day, and Mother would rather stay at home with baby brother, so with Father and Sister Mary I walked to the church thru the beauties of the sunny spring Sundays. I have forgotten what I was taught on those days also. I was only a little girl, you know. But I can still plainly see the grass and the trees and the path winding ahead, flecked with sunshine and shadow and the beautiful golden-hearted daisies scattered all along the way.
Ah well! That was years ago and there have been so many changes since then that it would seem such simple things should be forgotten, but at the long last, I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.
We heap up around us things that we do not need as the crow makes piles of glittering pebbles. We gabble words like parrots until we lose the sense of their meaning; we chase after this new idea and that; we take an old thought and dress it out in so many words that the thought itself is lost in its clothing like a slim woman in a barrel skirt and then we exclaim, "Lo, the wonderful new thought I have found!"
'There is nothing new under the sun," says the proverb. I think the meaning is that there are just so many truths or laws of life and no matter how far we may think we have advanced we cannot get beyond those laws. However complex a structure we build of living we must come back to those truths and so we find we have traveled in a circle.
The Russian revolution has only taken the Russian people back to the democratic form of government they had at the beginning of history in medieval times and so a republic is nothing new. I believe we would be happier to have a personal revolution in our individual lives and go back to simpler living and more direct thinking. It is the simple things of life that make living worthwhile, the sweet fundamental things such as love and duty, work and rest and living close to nature. There are no hothouse blossoms that can compare in beauty and fragrance with my bouquet of wild flowers.
A sensitive and scholarly woman who dedicated herself to improving the lot of her race, Charlotte Forten Grimke (1837-1914) published a number of poems and essays in her lifetime and left behind four volumes of journals that provide glimpses of her deep love of nature as well as a wide range of notable people and events of her day. Born into a financially secure and politically active free black family in Philadelphia, Charlotte Forten was the fifth-generation descendent of an African slave. When she was sixteen, she moved from Philadelphia to Salem, Massachusetts, to complete her studies and prepare for a teaching career, and she began keeping her journal. It was while she was teaching grammar school in Salem that her first essay, "Glimpses of New England," from which the following selection is excerpted, was published in the National Anti- Slavery Standard (19 June 1858). She subsequently traveled to the South Carolina Sea Islands to teach recently freed slaves, and in 1878 married Francis Grimke, a former slave who had become a Presbyterian minister and served parishes in Washington, D.C., and Jacksonville, Florida. Charlotte was widely read and was encouraged in her literary endeavors by close family friend John Greenleaf Whittier, romantic poet and abolitionist, who was also a literary mentor to Celia Thaxter. Her writings reveal a woman invigorated by healthful exercise in the outdoors and receptive to natural beauty. Moreover, she seemed to find solace in nature for the profound hurt she felt at the racial prejudice she encountered.
GLIMPSES OF SALEM
Many of the little side streets of the town extend to the water, for Salem is situated on a harbor, and is quite near the sea. So one is never at a loss for cool and pleasant walks. Near the large cotton factory is a miniature beach -- "Factory Beach," as it is called. Here a long, rocky point projects into the water. It is delightful to sit here on a hot Summer day, while the welcome sea breezes kiss one's cheek, and gaze out upon the deep blue waters of the bay, studded, here and there, by snowy sails, and to listen to the music of the dancing, rippling little waves, as they wash the stones at our feet. I thank them for the sweet songs with which they have often soothed a restless and troubled spirit. Next to the seaside I love the hills, the dear old mossgrown rocks and hills. A continuous range of these extends from Salem to Lynn. Many of them are very high, and command a fine view of the town and bay. These hills are generally called "The Pastures." One of them is called "Gallows Hill," from the circumstance of some of the unfortunate witches having been hung on it. Now, instead of the gallows, a staging is erected there, from which we have a beautiful view of the country for miles around. Almost at our feet lies the pretty town of Salem, nestling among trees, and looking really beautiful in the fading sunlight, which, glancing brightly from the steeples and treetops, lends a thousand glowing hues to the little winding streams which almost encircle the town. In May these hills are covered with violets, anemones, and the delicate, modest little honsitania. And all the Summer long, there may be found, in quiet little nooks, other graceful and beautiful wild flowers. The "Pastures" abound in these delightful nooks, in whose neighborhood there is often a leaping, singing little brook, overhung by gray, mosscovered rocks. Some of my pleasantest rambles have been over these hills. One is hardly content to walk over them. The pure, bracing air, the open sky, give to us such a sense of freedom and relief that we want to bound along, like merry, light-hearted children. And here I have seen and felt the glorious, wondrous, ever-changing beauty of the clouds, watching them for hours, until I have been tempted to think them the grandest and most beautiful of all God's grand and beautiful works. "Castle Hill" is another eminence, rising like a dome from the surrounding hills; in Winter, a pure white dome, in Summer of the richest emerald green. A pleasant, shady lane leads to this hill. On each side of the lane is a smooth, clear sheet of water, over whose banks some graceful young elms droop until their branches almost touch the surface, as if admiring, in the watery mirror, their own beauty and grace.
I have mentioned but few of the many pleasant walks which one may take in Salem and its environs. Before leaving the town, one should visit the pretty little cemetery, "Harmony Grove," which is completely embosomed in trees. No stately monuments mark the last resting place of those who sleep in this quiet grove. But over the pure, white headstones cluster vines and flowers -- planted by loving hands. And the drooping larch, the dark, solemn fir, the weeping willow, with many other protecting trees, overshadow the graves of the loved and lost. Over one grave is planted a small cross of the purest white Italian marble, on which an ivy vine is most exquisitely carved. Every leaf is perfect. The whole was cut in Italy, from a solid block of marble. At the foot of the hill on which the cemetery is built, a stream of water flows peacefully along. I shall not soon forget a delightful afternoon in the early Summer, passed by myself and a lovely friend of mine in "Harmony Grove." We had both of us some writing to do, and went there "to seek inspiration." We found a spot which suited us exactly; a large, flat stone shaded by lofty trees. Seating ourselves on it, we drew forth our pencils and paper -- and did everything but write. It was far pleasanter to muse, and talk; to listen to the birds singing overhead, and watch the sunbeams as they crept through the leaves above and around us. After the birds had ceased, L., who has one of the richest, sweetest voices I have ever heard, sang for me, song after song, with her whole heart in her singing. When the last sweet echoes of her voice died away, the sunlight had faded from hill and trees; and we walked slowly, thoughtfully homeward in the deepening twilight.
Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986) began her writing career as a poet but achieved recognition as a writer of children's books, many of them set in rural New England and reflecting her love of nature. Born in Buffalo, New York, Coatsworth received a B.A. from Vassar and an M.A. from Columbia University and married the writer Henry Beston (author of the nature classic The Outermost House). She traveled widely for many years in the Orient, North Africa, and Europe, but finally alighted happily in Nobleboro, Maine. "On the Hills" was first published in Atlas and Beyond (1924) and later collected in Down Half the World (1968), which is, as Coatsworth wrote in the preface, "essentially a short record of my delight in the world and in living."
ON THE HILLS
Today I walked on
Born into a conservative Buffalo banking family, Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962) was for years patroness of the avant- garde in Greenwich Village, writing undistinguished poems, book reviews, essays, biographies, and social criticism, and seeking an identity through the famous artists and activists she gathered around her. All that changed when she first traveled to New Mexico during World War I at the age of thirty-eight. "My life broke in two right then. ... I had a complete realization of the fullness of Nature . .. and I felt that perhaps I was more awake and more aware than I had ever been before," she wrote in Edge of Taos Desert (1937), volume 4 of her Intimate Memories. In Taos, she found a clear sense of herself and her voice as a writer, as well as a world of simple, earthy pleasures where she could be at home. She married her fourth husband, a Pueblo Indian named Tony Luhan, and together they turned an old adobe on the edge of the Pueblo reservation into a seventeen-room hacienda to which they welcomed such luminaries as Georgia O'Keeffe, D. H Lawrence, Robinson Jeffers, Willa Cather, Martha Graham, and Carl Jung. In this atmosphere, Mabel wrote her masterpiece of regional literature, Winter in Taos (1935), a lyrical narrative that marries details of the southwestern landscape with her emotional life. The following excerpt recounts a journey to a lake sacred to the Pueblo Indians. The Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos is now open to the public as an inn and conference center (www.mabeldodgeluhan.com).
TREK TO BLUE LAKE
One of the nicest things we do in the summer in the short period when it has grown warm and dry on the ground, and before the cold weather comes at the end of August, is to go up to Blue Lake for a night and a day and we leave early in the morning when there is a dew sparkling on everything and cobwebs stretching all in one direction across the grasses and trees. We take the long trail behind the Pueblo Mountain for twenty-five miles; we plod, with our camping things on pack horses behind us, and it is a slow ride, for we can rarely go beyond a walk, and only occasionally into the jog trot.
We leave behind us everything that we love in houses and gardens and all we have is what the Indians say God gave them: "Just what grows on the mountain." But the richness of it! The mountainsides are covered with patches of mauve-blue columbine and the "little scarlet rain" and all the other flowers. The forests are deep in vivid green moss and dozens of varieties of birds sing on all sides. The vividness of all this growing life is startling when one leaves furniture and curtains, silk and cloth and made things behind one.
The little river is beside us until we climb above it, and we hear it below in the crevices of the giant hills. After a while, as we go higher and higher, the color fades out of the sunshine so it is as though everything is drawn in black and white! The trail leads up into the very high mountains that tumble and billow, roll on roll beyond us. We never see anyone except an occasional Indian wrapped in his white sheet riding over the slopes.
Sometimes across a deep abyss an Indian, so far away over on the opposite mountainside I cannot even see him, will accost us with a call like a bird, and Tony and Trinidad will answer him with their hands cupping their mouths.
Sound grows strange up on these heights. It seems squeezed and solid. Our voices are unfamiliar to us and we do not talk much.
By noon we reach the halfway place where the tribe stops on the first halt when it makes the journey up to Blue Lake for its great August Ceremony.
Here there is a spring so we can drink and water our horses, and we like to lie on the ground a while to rest our tired backs, and then we eat our dinner.
Tony is a fine camp cook and makes good grilled steaks, fried potatoes and onions and coffee, and soon we are rested and ready to go on.
Our little string of horses are like ants crawling over these enormous spaces. The trail winds around mountain after mountain and in some places it is cut into the steep sides until there is just a narrow shelf to ride on with the earth rising perpendicular and straight up above one on one hand and on the other falling away so abruptly one looks down past the horse into miles of green bottomless darkness. This part of the ride is always a little frightening, and one leans as far as possible towards the mountain; one can reach out and touch it with one's hand! Looking back, one sees the bulging packs on the pack horses are hanging right out over the abyss.
We took Brett up there once and she prepared herself for her customary vertigo in high places by carrying a long rope and a policeman's whistle. When we reached the first steep mountain where we had to crawl around the ledge, she roped herself to Trinidad who rode ahead of her. She tied her rope around her waist and gave him the other end which he carried in his hand. Then, she shut her eyes and sat.
However, she made the mistake of opening them too soon and caught a sudden glimpse down into those depths! We heard the shrill whistle blasting the terrible summits and Trinidad singing against it. Looking back, we saw him laughing and Brett blowing for all she was worth to hearten herself and show us how she felt.
Upon one of these mountainsides the osha plant grows. It has stalks and leaves like celery and the root is wonderful to burn in the house, for it has a sweet, heavy, oriental perfume, like an incense, and it obliterates all other stale smells of cigarettes or cooking. The Indians use it for colds and sore throats, chewing it and swallowing the juice, which is very spicy and sharp and stings one's mouth. It is considered a very powerful medicine, for snakes, witches and other harmful entities cannot endure it. When Autumn comes we get an Indian boy to go up and dig a sackful of roots for us that we burn on winter evenings and we never have known anyone who did not love its lovely fragrance.
The afternoon passes, the light fades, and evening is coming when we are upon the cold, treeless ridges in austerity and awe, utterly removed from everyday life and everything we are used to in light and sound. As we top the last bleak, shale-covered edge we see below us Blue Lake. Bottomless, peacock blue, smooth as glass, it lies there like an uncut, shining jewel. Symmetrical pine trees, in thick succession, slope down to its shores in a rapid descent on three sides.
This Blue Lake is the most mysterious thing I have ever seen in nature, having an unknowable, impenetrable life of its own, and a definite emanation that rises from it. Here is the source of most of the valley life. From this unending water supply that flows out of the east end of the lake and down the miles and miles of the rocky bed of the stream to the Pueblo, the Indian fields are irrigated. It is turned into the acequia madre, that winds on down through the Indian land until it reaches the town and feeds all our fields and orchards that lie on the eastern side of the valley. The west portion of the valley is watered from Bear Lake, another deep pool with a perpetual spring feeding it.
The Indians call this one Star Water, it is so light and clear. Near the opening of the canyon there is a little, sheltered glade where the Indian sweet grass grows and of it they make bundles to perfume their clothes.
It has never been surprising to me that the Indians call Blue Lake a sacred lake, and worship it. Indeed, at first I felt we should not camp upon its shore, but after I found out how they conduct the camp there I knew it was all right and fitting that one should sleep beside it and try to draw what one could for oneself from its strong being.
The evening fire is soon burning and the food ready; the Indians are speaking in low voices that yet are very distinct at that altitude of nearly fourteen thousand feet, and the horses are hobbled and we hear them crunching their oats over in the trees. When the dishes are washed and all the scraps are burned and we are sitting in a circle around the fire, the Indians begin to chant, at first in faint, humming tones, that gradually grow strong and full. They look over to the lake and sing to it. Their faces show they are deep in communion with the place they are in. They experience it and adore it as we do not know how to do.
The dark night is soon full of the repeated mantric song. The sound of it goes back and forth between the singers and the mountains, the lake and the fire. They go on singing for hours, long after I have gone into the pine shelter and wrapped myself in blankets to go to sleep. It isn't easy to sleep as high as that, but to lie awake in the marvelous air and feel the potency of the place has a kind of active repose in it and one is always refreshed by the night up there.
Riding back to the valley late the next day has the same surprise in it every time. The fields of corn and wheat that we ride through, seem terribly rich and luxurious and there is a thickness of living in the downy, sumptuous, golden valley. When we reach our house in the dusk, the living room seems crowded with comforts, the bright colors and glints of metal and glass startle one whose eyes, just in those few hours, grew used to the holy look of natural life. Most of us are used only to the awesome holiness of churches and lofty arches, cathedrals where, with stained glass and brooding silences, priests try to emulate the religious atmosphere that is to be found in the living earth in some of her secret places.
Linda Hasselstrom (born 1943) was actively involved in her family's small cattle ranch in southwestern South Dakota from the age of nine until almost fifty, and her writing is rooted in this place. She says that she considers her primary responsibility to be preserving the territory she loves, "including not only the land but its inhabitants, human and otherwise, and their stories," and she has done so in books of poetry, essay collections, a memoir, and anthologies of Western women's writing. Her work argues, and her life demonstrates, that the goals of environmentalism and family ranching are compatible. Born in Texas, she moved to South Dakota with her mother following her parents' divorce and was adopted by her mother's second husband, a rancher who soon put her to work as a cowhand. She earned a B.A. in English and journalism from the University of South Dakota and an M.A. in American literature from the University of Missouri. Her first book of poetry was published in 1984, but it wasn't until the publication in 1987 of Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, her journal of a year on the ranch, that her work gained national attention. The following year, her second husband died suddenly of Hodgkin's disease; memories of him occupy a central position in Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (1991), source of the following selection. In 1996 Hasselstrom began operating her ranch home -- now called Windbreak House -- as a women's writing retreat (www.windbreakhouse.com). She has established a botanic garden for Great Plains native species on the ranch, which she now owns.
NIGHT IN THE COUNTRY
At midnight in midwinter the sky is a deep blue-black, lit only by a few cold stars and shards of ice in the deepest ruts. The temperature reached nearly fifty today, and the scent from the deep golden grasses on the rolling hills south of the house hangs in the air, tangy and sweet, mixed with the sharper odor of manure from the corrals, and the heavy scent of burning wood. Moonlight gives a faint silver sheen to tall bronze bluestem, tawny foxtail, brown alfalfa.
I turn slowly, enjoying a skyline molded to the smooth shapes of hills; no straight-sided buildings break that gentle arch, no trees slash upward. This is the prairie, during the annual warm spell between the first snow and the spring storms that strike when our cows begin calving in March. To the north, a glow marks the nearest town, twenty miles away. If I lean forward over the porch railing, I can see my neighbor's yard light a mile away.
As a city child, I lived in terror of the dark. Even now, on brief city visits, I lock doors and look wistfully out of high windows at night, awakened by sirens and inexplicable shrieks. Out here, where strange sounds in the night may mean a prairie fire or someone stealing cows, I can't avoid the responsibility of investigating. But here the night is more than peaceful; it is inviting, an opportunity not to be missed. Often, I get up and prowl outside in my nightgown just for the pleasure of it.
On a moonless night when I was a teenager, I found myself on a, tired horse far from home after dark. Coyotes howled; a beaming rush overhead told me the nighthawks were hunting insects. In my fear, I complained to my horse. She blew her warm breath on my face and reminded me that a good horse will take a rider home even in a blizzard. I mounted, loosened the reins, and waited. She raised her head and began trotting confidently straight into smothering blackness, as if a sack had dropped over my head. But I trusted her. Soon the nighthawks swirling around me became benevolent night spirits; the coyotes sounded happy to be alive. Grass swished against my horse's legs just as it did in daylight; my saddle squeaked, After a while, I could see the birds, and the grass seemed to glow faintly, as if lit from within. Before I'd seen enough, I was home. My fear was gone.
A coyote howls from the east, near the carcass of a cow that died of old age yesterday. In the distance a series of puppy-like yips and yaps begin, and I can trace the young coyotes' high-spirited progress through the gully toward the dead cow by their cheerful arguing. If I wanted to leave the porch and walk a half-mile to the hilltop, I could hear them growling over the old cow's thin ribs.
Directly below me, tall weeds around a waterhole rattle briefly -- a coyote hunting mice, or a skunk headed for the compost, or the seven deer come for water. A yearling calf bawls, one of the bunch of twenty-six heifers we're raising for replacement breeding cows. They've been fed together since they were weaned and always move -- like teenagers -- in a compact and usually raucous bunch. Faintly I can see black shapes lying close together a half-mile away, and a light-colored blotch moving toward them from a gully. Perhaps they left her while she dozed, and she woke alone, frightened as a child.
I breathe deeply, glad the blizzard roared over our heads two days ago. We could almost inhale snow from the heavy gray clouds, and the winds left a fifteen-foot hole in the plank corral, plastic flapping on barbed wire, hamburger cartons jammed under tumbleweeds in fence corners. The next blizzard is on its way, and we may not get off so lightly next time. When snow is piled deep on the plains, so that even normal sounds are muffled, I put on my sheepskin moccasins before my midnight trips. But I still go.
If I'm patient, on some night when the thermometer reads ten or fifteen degrees below zero, I will hear the grouse calling. First a single note, like the mellow tone of a monastery bell, will ring from the top of a haystack, and be answered from the shelter of the willows down the gully. I'll try to get outside without making a sound. If I shut a door too hard, or speak, or even shiver, they stop and may not start again that night.
But if I am quiet enough, I might listen to them ringing back and forth across the prairie for an hour. Finally, with a thoroughly undignified squawk, the first one will launch itself awkwardly and fly toward the others. Then they will all take off, floundering in the air like flying turtles, clucking and muttering, until they bury themselves under a rosebush to peck after seeds and gossip for the rest of the night.
Then I move, take a step and hear the snow squeal with cold underfoot. Each step seems to reverberate until I can hear nothing else. The world shrinks to the sound of my footsteps painfully symbolic -- until I stop, and wait for the natural sounds to reassert themselves.
The neighbor's dog barks, a high, frantic yelping. The spell of the moonlight is broken. I'll come back another night, after the snow, to hear the grouse. Now it's time to go back to bed, the warm tangle of husband, dog, and cat, to drift back to sleep among faint coyote howls.
Leslie Marmon Silko (born 1948) is a storyteller steeped in the Pueblo Indian understanding of the relationship between land and people. In that worldview, which she has explored in novels, short stories, essays, poetry, articles, and filmscripts, "human identity, imagination, and storytelling were inextricably linked to the land, to Mother Earth." Certain stories are connected with certain locations, and this connection gives the narrative resonance as it is passed from generation to generation. Born of mixed ancestry -- Laguna Pueblo, Mexican, and white -- in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Silko grew up at Laguna Pueblo listening to the stories told by her relatives, particularly her great-grandmother and her father's aunt. She earned a B.A. in English from the University of New Mexico and attended law school but later dropped out in disillusionment when she decided that "the only way to seek justice was through the power of stories." The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant, she is the divorced mother of two sons and lives now in Tucson, Arizona. In the following poem, first collected in Voices of the Rainbow: Contemporary Poetry by American Indians (1975), the story uniting Silko with her ancestral past deepens and intensifies for her the beauty of rain coming to a dry land.
Rain smell comes
with the wind