The sole business of poetry

… to feel / Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural / Beauty, is the sole business of poetry. / The rest’s diversion…
— Robinson Jeffers, The Beauty of Things

Sunday morning we greeted the week with an early morning thunderstorm. Was it 5 a.m.? The rain beat against the roof and windows for perhaps 30 minutes, then it was done for the day, which turned sunnier, hot and muggy. I went to Maple Grove about 12 hours after the thunderstorm expecting to find St. Joseph Creek running high, but it was settled between its banks. The floodplain, on the other hand, was brimming with the tall species of summer: wood nettle, jewelweed, wingstem, cutleaf coneflower fill the lowland between the slope that runs down from the east edge of the forest and the river, alluvial soils that spill over with creek water in the worst rains. We have developed this floodplain so badly now that the river goes from a slow-moving creek to a rushing river within an hour of storming. It seems to settle down quickly after the storm passes.

Bouncing above the foliage were a pair of ebony jewelwings. This damselfly is the only member of its order–Odonata, the dragonflies and damselflies–for which I have a particular affinity. I probably ought to have a unique affection for each of many species in this fantastic group. Adult dragonflies are acrobats, voracious and skilled predators on the wing. The nymphs are terrors of the pond, huge-jawed monsters that can devour little snails and fish. When they crawl up onto boardwalk piers to molt, you can hardly believe that such things live in your neighborhood. It is as though you had an annual emergence of alligators from the ditches that you only learned about in your 20s. Be that as it may, I don’t have much connection with the individuals that make up the order.

But the ebony jewelwing has a certain flair, a casual way of moving among the low branches along the riverbank, a careless gait that I appreciate. No other damselfly I know flies quite like this: it comes as close to flapping and gliding as any that I know, which makes it stand out in a group we generally associate with speed, efficiency, and rapaciousness. It is pretty faithful, too, a reliable sight in the low forests that I love, populated though they are with mosquitoes. I find ebony jewelwings with river birch and buttonbush, hop sedge and Gray’s sedge and touch-me-not, alder, silver maple. I first became acquainted with the species along the lower Wisconsin River, where I was hunting for Carex tribuloides in bottomland forests. I didn’t realize it was anything special until I then started running into it regularly along rivers in the Sand Counties of glacial Lake Wisconsin, further north, where little roads in Adams and Juneau and Wood Counties veer down to the river and you can find all the sedges your heart desires. The spring we were in France, I followed what I thought was, remarkably, the same species on my bike ride from the train station through the spring-fed forest on the south side of the train tracks between Gazinet and Pierroton. There was a little creek, and there again was the ebony jewelwing. It was comforting to see an old friend on my bike ride into work in another country. It turns out that I was wrong on the species, as ours, Calypteryx maculata, is endemic to Eastern North America1. But the genus has Eurasian relatives as well. It seems most likely I was following the beautiful demoiselle, Calypteryx virgo, which lives along fast-flowing streams across a wide range of Europe2. What a fitting name for an insect you follow to work when you are living in Bordeaux.

A great horned owl called as I walked into the green calm of the summer woods. Summer in a maple forest lacks the excitement of April and early May, when there are new flowers every day and warblers moving through, the risk of a late-season snow, the potential for overnight frosts followed by t-shirt weather in the early afternoon. This is the season when plants expand and stretch and put on carbon. The trees photosynthesize and respire almost palpably. The fallen trees decompose just as rapidly. On a fallen sugar maple log I found Xylaria peeking out from rifts in the bark, doll-sized fingers in rows and fascicles, their bases fading into nothing. Their mycelia fill the decomposing wood, diffuse and become as dark as topsoil beneath the surface of the bark. How massive is this fungus that so methodically digests trees and returns them to the soil?3. On top of the same log was a smallish scat filled with seeds. I thought at first blackberry, but that’s not right: the seeds were much too large, and the blackberries weren’t ripe enough. At the base of a nearby red oak, I swept aside the maple leaf litter to find a lawn of worm castings, one earthworm lurching away in the light. Why, with so much worm activity, are there any maple leaves left? Teaching sedges in Maine about 10 years ago, I realized with a start that the leaf litter there was entirely intact: no earthworms. Here, the maple leaves are inexorably devoured, along with small plants, and the soil churned relentlessly. Yet there is still a gauzy canopy over the earthworm farms. A great centipede coiled and scuttered away. A moth, a morbid owlet I believe, flew low over the leaf litter, settling down here and there in gaps between the plants.

Summer spreads out in front of the plants who nonetheless continue to tick off the weeks, vaguely cognizant of the coming winter. Hop sedge was in massive flower at the west edge of the pond near the middle of the wood. The stigmas were feathery, perhaps still receptive when I was there. The plant is the dominant graminoid along that entire edge. Within the pond, there is more standing water than I recall this time last year, and the rough cockspur is filling space wherever the water is shallow enough. By August last year, this was a rich lawn of the species. In the dense shade of the forest, bloodroot mothers are shading seedlings. Ants disperse these and many other woodland seeds, but it may be that the chance of finding babies is still highest beneath the mothers. Likely as not, however, I recognize the babies more readily where I have an adult to which to compare them. Perhaps they are everywhere. Blue cohosh seeds are developing. They are not hard and blue yet. If you find one, break it open: the endosperm inside is creamy white and rubbery, a sensory delight. It’s like finding a toy in the woods. The capsules of Virginia waterleaf are maturing, bristly. Early meadow-rue has set seed but still looks regal. Carex blanda has dropped all its perigynia and has taken to lying on the couch in its pyjamas all day. It looks dreadful, but it will do just fine all the same. Enchanter’s nightshade ovaries are bristling with hairs.

Monday night, I sat outside with the dog at my feet and read a passage from Annie Dillard that started, “The woods were flush with flowers…”4, and I wondered how many sentences I have written that start essentially that way. Seriously. How many different ways can I say “flower” or “fruit” or “bloom” or “blossom?” The niche space for descriptions-of-the-woods-in-June is infinitesimally divided, but I fear at times that the volume of that space is small. I suspect it’s just broad enough to squeak through on my way out the door to anywhere else I need to go. “The woods were flush with flowers.” When Annie Dillard writes those words, she is consciously giving you one draught off the cup of woodland spring, and, deliberately, only one. She sets you up with a glance to orient you before she takes you by the elbow and walks you further down the trail. I am reminded of a long, extended solo on Miles Davis’s live performance at the Fillmore East that I listened to many times when I was in high school. I listened, I think, not because I understood it, not even because I enjoyed it, but because I was in awe of the texture of it. I couldn’t detect in it the architecture or flow of Pharaoh’s Dance or Miles Chases the Voodoo Down, a shape that I only much later found was a product of both the performance and the deliberate post-recording production. But I think now that it is this texture or something like it that I see in the woods and am after in my own writing, these paragraphs of flowers and leaves and centipedes and fallen logs.

As I was considering all this, a tiny red mite, not much larger than a comma, dropped onto the page facing the one I was reading and commenced scuttling around the margins. I say “commenced” as though there had been a moment when the mite wasn’t moving. Probably there had been, but I didn’t witness it. The mite entered my awareness as a scuttler and did not stop moving, neither accelerated nor decelerated, weaving through letters and back to the margins, across the gutter to the page I was reading, across that page in a winding course like that of a marble on a sheet of plywood being tilted back and forth, left and right. It disappeared over the edge and I thought for a moment it was gone, then it materialized on the due-date card tucked 100 pages in, and still it was moving exactly the same speed. The mite was a marvel of mobility. The dog by contrast was lying down with her head on my feet and I was sitting still, and had been for about 30 minutes. Yet I had so much to do! And still I was sitting! The mite would eat and reproduce and be gone by the fall, with nothing to show for all its hard work, its incessant roving, but still it moved, up my notebook, then along my finger, back to the book, senselessly composing messages ouija-board-like across page 111 of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This must be how I looked to my grandpa when he was sitting in his chair in the dark, and I was going on walk after walk after walk. This I know is what free jazz and some flavors of fusion sounds like to many people. This is what my own sentences look like to me so often, scuttling and roaming and rolling and moving. They’ll be gone by and by. But for now they just keep going.

And if you compressed the seasons, ran backwards through the years in a single woodland at the rate of a year per second, scrolled back through a human lifetime every minute and a half or so, what would you have? It would all be texture, just like this. The woods would be flush with flowers for a moment. There would be a crash of lightning, but you wouldn’t be able to put it into context of the season. Warblers would career across the screen from south to north and then north to south, and your ears would fill with breeding calls twice per second. The forest floor would suddenly fill with leaves when the earthworms were driven back across the ocean. The prairies would spread out and then contract, then be replaced by mesic forest and then boreal forests. For moment you would see mammoths and giant sloths, and then the screen would go white, and it would be all glaciers for a long long time. You might be relieved, as I often was when I took the headphones off and looked around, and Miles and his group went silent, for just a moment. And then you’d rewind and watch it again, trying to find a little more detail this time.

Something familiar, deliberate, knowable, and present in the places I love wherever I go. That’s what the ebony jewelwing offers, and it’s quite a bit to give. What more could I hope for?


4 Annie Dillard “Spring,” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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