Autumn Color

November 3, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In celebration of fall color, today's blog offers excerpts from both Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold. Both passages celebrate life, love and the mystery of nature. They also ask deep questions about the human place within nature. Changing colors and seasons present the perfect time for reflection. Enjoy – and happy fall!

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

From Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson, chapter 11 “Indian Summer of the Sea”

“The spirit of the autumn sea was heard in the voices of the kittiwakes, or frost gulls, who began to arrive in flocks by mid-October. They whirled in thousands over the water, dropping down on arched wings to seize small fish that darted through translucent green. The kittiwakes had come southward from nesting grounds on the cliffs of the Artic coast and the Greenland ice packs, and with them the first chill breath of winter moved over the graying sea.

“There were other signs that autumn had come to the sea. Every day the flights of ocean birds, that in September had poured in thin aerial streams over the coastal waters from Greenland, Labrador, Keewatin, and Baffin Land, swelled in volume as the birds hastened to return to the sea. There were gannets and fulmars, jaegers and skuas, dovekies and phalaropes. Their flocks spread out over all the waters above the continental shelf, where the shoals of surface fishes moved and the plankton herds browsed in the sea. ….

“Few of these birds would see land again until spring. Now they belonged once more to the winter sea, sharing its daylight and darkness, its storms and calms, its sleet and snow and sun and fog. ….

“Slowly the summer warmth was drained from the water. The young crabs, mussels, barnacles, worms, starfish, and crustaceans of scores of species had disappeared from the plankton, for in the ocean spring and summer are the seasons of birth and youth. Only to some of the simplest creatures did the Indian summer of the sea bring a brief and flaring renewal of life, so that they multiplied a millionfold. Among these were the one-celled animals, or protozoa, small as pinpricks, which are among the chief light producers of the sea. Ceratium, the horned one – a blog of protoplasm with three grotesque prongs – sprinkled the night seas of October with silver points of light and so filled the surface waters that over vast areas the sea lay thickened and moved sluggishly under the wind. The little globes of Noctiluca – just visible to the human eye – were each aglitter with submicroboscopic grains of light within themselves. During this autumnal period of their great abundance, every fish that moved where the swarms of protozoa were most dense was bathed in light; the waves that broke on reef or shoal spilled liquid fire; and every dip of a fisherman's oar was a flash of a torch in the darkness.”


From “November”, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

“November is, for many reasons, the month for the axe. It is warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort. The leaves are off the hardwoods, so that one can see just how the branches intertwine, and what growth occurred last summer. Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.

“I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land. Signatures of course differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be.

“I find it disconcerting to analyze, ex post facto, the reasons behind my own axe-in-hand decisions. I find, first of all, that not all trees are created free and equal. Where a white pine and a red birch are crowding each other, I have an a priori bias; I always cut the birch to favor the pine. Why?

“Well, first of all, I planted the pine with my shovel, whereas the birch crawled in under the fence and planted itself. My bias is thus to some extent paternal, but this cannot be the whole story, for if the pine were a natural seedling like the birch, I would value it even more. So I must dig deeper for the logic, if any, behind my bias.

“The birch is an abundant tree in my township and becoming more so, whereas pine is scarce and becoming scarcer; perhaps my bias is for the underdog. But what would I do if my farm were further north, where pine is abundant and red birch is scarce? I confess I don't know. My farm is here.

“The pine will live for a century, the birch for half of that; do I fear that my signature will fade? My neighbors have planted no pines but all have many birches; am I snobbish about having a woodlot distinction? The pine stays green all winter, the birch punches the clock in October; do I favor the tree that, like myself, braves the winter wind? The pine will shelter a grouse but the birch will feed him; do I consider bed more important than board? The pine will ultimately bring ten dollars a thousand, the birch two dollars; have I an eye on the bank? All of these possible reasons for my bias seem to carry some weight, but none of them carries very much.

“So I try again, and here perhaps is something; under this pine will ultimately grow a trailing arbutus, an Indian pipe, a pyrola, or a twin flower, whereas under the birch a bottle gentian is about the best to be hoped for. In this pine a pileated woodpecker will ultimately chisel out a nest; in the birch a hairy will have to suffice. In this pine the wind will sing for me in April, at which time the birch is only rattling naked twigs. These possible reasons for my bias carry weight, but why? Does the pine stimulate my imagination and my hopes more deeply than the birch does? If so, is the difference in the trees, or in me?

“The only conclusion I have ever reached is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.

“As I said, November is the month for the axe, and, as in other love affairs, there is skill in the exercise of bias.”

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Season of the Rose

August 7, 2015

A few years ago, the New York Botanical Garden hosted a beautiful event dedicated to Emily Dickinson. They created a facade of her house and gardens in an attempt to demonstrate a living portrait of the Dickinson world. Many students of literature may be surprised to know that Dickinson was an amazing gardener. In fact, a better understanding of horticulture absolutely enlivens her poetry. As Dickinson became more and more reclusive, she enjoyed many hours in her garden. She doted on books of botany and even claimed to have been raised in a garden.

Emily Dickinson was social, charming and educated. However, as she grew older, she became more reserved and hermitic. Nature played an increasingly important role in her life. She understood human nature in such a unique way, having been confronted by life's brutal struggles at a very young age. She wrote with passion and eloquence on such topics as life and death, love, nature and time. At her death, only seven of Emily Dickinson's poems had been published. However, after Emily's death, her sister Lavinia discovered over 1700 poems stashed away. The majority of poems, therefore, were published posthumously. Much debate ensued over the organization of Dickinson's poetry.

Emily Dickinson kept most of her poems privately boxed in her room with few clues as to the order as she saw it. Dickinson did not separate by date and rarely titled a poem, but she may have grouped them thematically. Most of the untitled poems were loose, however some she hand stitched into fascicles, a leaflet bound by thread. She also jotted poems onto envelopes and some existed only in letters to friends. The various formats of her poems and the many people who have attempted an organization of her poems resulted in a chaotic restructuring of the Dickinson poems. Due to her enigmatic character, and the controversy of the poems themselves, her poems have been collected and recollected, revisited and published in many different ways.

Recently, Marta Werner and Jen Bervin published The Gorgeous Nothings, a book of Dickinson's thoughts as scratched on envelopes. There are many beautiful, original photographs, adding to the lustre of Dickinson's life and our obsession with her eccentricity. The envelopes are full of beautiful script, which hints at intimacy and draws an avid audience. The New York Times review claims: “Her chosen paper already carried words, familiar names and addresses. It was stained with life, with postmarked dates and the dust of distant places.” Dickinson lived a social life through letters and an internal life through foliage. From these arenas, she discussed many of the major questions that plague humanity. And really, we have no more answers now than we did then. In addition to publishing The Gorgeous Nothings, Bervin also conducted a study of the notation marks used in Dickinson's fascicles. At the very least, this experimental artist book, The Dickinson Composites, and The Gorgeous Nothings prove how little we know and understand Dickinson's mind.

However, the obvious things remain: passion and truth. Dickinson dedicated her verses to large, difficult questions that plague humanity. As summer turns to fall with bees aplenty and roses blooming, now is the perfect season to read Dickinson. One thing is certain, she would appreciate a walk through the garden this time of year. Couple your stroll with her poems, fascicles, Bervin's projects or a single stanza:

Nobody knows this little Rose --
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.

Each season renews the rose that lifts toward us and we are enamored.

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Image ID: 158744432 Copyright: Heller Joachim.

Image ID: 158744432 Copyright: Heller Joachim.