Friday, October 16, 2015


I was born in Minnesota, and I spent the first eleven years of my life there.   Looking back, I think of those years as a vanished deciduous world, a world of oaks and elms and birches and maples.

This week I am in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.  I have no connections with this part of the country, but I feel that I have returned to my lost deciduous world.  Nostalgia?  Sentimentality?  Of course.  I always choose nostalgia and sentimentality over modern irony.

In this fair country, the Blue Ridge Parkway in autumn is among the fairest of the fair.  A 400-mile ribbon of road running up near the sky, it alternates between leafy tunnels and breathtaking vistas (a cliché, but no other phrase suffices).


As life improved, their poems
Grew sadder and sadder.  Was there oil
For the machine?  It was
The vinegar in the poets' cup.

The tins marched to the music
Of the conveyor belt.  A billion
Mouths opened.  Production,
Production, the wheels

Whistled.  Among the forests
Of metal the one human
Sound was the lament of
The poets for deciduous language.

R. S. Thomas, H'm (Macmillan 1972).

William Samuel Jay, "At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

I resolved to travel light on this trip.  I brought only two pocket-size books of poetry, both anthologies:  The Faber Book of Reflective Verse (Faber and Faber 1984), compiled by Geoffrey Grigson, and Zen Poems (Everyman's Library 1999), compiled by Peter Harris.  Earlier this week, I came across this in the former:

Perplex'd with trifles thro' the vale of life,
Man strives 'gainst man, without a cause for strife;
Armies embattled meet, and thousands bleed,
For some vile spot, which cannot fifty feed.
Squirrels for nuts contend, and, wrong or right,
For the world's empire, kings ambitious fight,
What odds? -- to us 'tis all the self-same thing,
A Nut, a World, a Squirrel, and a King.

Charles Churchill, from "Night: An Epistle to Robert Lloyd" (1761).

Yesterday I walked through the woods of the North Carolina Arboretum, which lies beside the Blue Ridge Parkway, just south of Asheville.  As I have noted here in the past, I admire those who can rattle off the common names, as well as the Latin binomial names, of flora and fauna. I am usually content to remain ignorant, and to simply look.  But, in my deciduous mood, I stopped to read the tree identification markers that are posted at intervals along the trails.

Yes, "a Nut, a World, a Squirrel, and a King."  The message of the Kings (who come in various guises) and of their Worlds (calculated to distract) is, in essence, this:  "Sell your repose."  Yet, all around us, uncountable and everlasting, offering the real message, are these (to name but a few):

Black oak, white oak, bitternut hickory,
Mockernut hickory, hemlock, white pine,
Chestnut oak, Virginia pine, black cherry,
Red maple, sourwood, tuliptree.

Alexander Docharty, "An Autumn Day" (c. 1917)

As I walked through the Arboretum, I could hear the sound of acorns dropping to the ground.  Squirrels and their nuts.  But I didn't think of Charles Churchill's lines.  There was no striving or contending.  It was only the deciduous world being itself, going about its annual, timeless business.

                       The Dependencies

This morning, between two branches of a tree
Beside the door, epeira once again
Has spun and signed his tapestry and trap.
I test his early-warning system and
It works, he scrambles forth in sable with
The yellow hieroglyph that no one knows
The meaning of.  And I remember now
How yesterday at dusk the nighthawks came
Back as they do about this time each year,
Grey squadrons with the slashes white on wings
Cruising for bugs beneath the bellied cloud.
Now soon the monarchs will be drifting south,
And then the geese will go, and then one day
The little garden birds will not be here.
See how many leaves already have
Withered and turned; a few have fallen, too.
Change is continuous on the seamless web,
Yet moments come like this one, when you feel
Upon your heart a signal to attend
The definite announcement of an end
Where one thing ceases and another starts;
When like the spider waiting on the web
You know the intricate dependencies
Spreading in secret through the fabric vast
Of heaven and earth, sending their messages
Ciphered in chemistry to all the kinds,
The whisper down the bloodstream:  it is time.

Howard Nemerov, The Western Approaches (University of Chicago Press 1975).

John Milne Donald, "Autumn Leaves" (1864)

Standing at one of the "overlooks" on the Blue Ridge Parkway beneath infinite blue, with millions of green, gold, and red trees stretching off for hundreds of miles in every direction, one's best course of action is to keep silent.

Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It's like an echo
     resounding through the mountains
          and off into the empty sky.

Ryōkan (translated by Steven Carter), in Peter Harris (editor), Zen Poems (Everyman's Library 1999).

George Vicat Cole, "Autumn Morning" (1891)


John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, I still live fairly close to where I was born and I too am aware how the number of trees has diminished. Housing development and an increasing population put ever greater pressure on our precious green spaces. I am however fortunate in living close to one our Royal Parks which has within it two small areas of woodland which are the destination of many of my local walks, and for reasons of my lifelong connections with this locality I have strong feelings of nostalgia for this place and the many resonances it has for me. I am unembarrassed by sentimentality, it is true feeling in my opinion. I like the intimate sense of place this small wood gives me, and too the leafy tunnels, though on a smaller scale than yours in North Carolina. Nevertheless when the Autumn winds gain in strength, and the yellowing leaves fall through the slant of October sunlight I am powerfully reminded of other days spent here over many years.
I think we've discussed before about being unable to easily trees and wild flowers by name. I have tried and can name the more common trees and wild flowers, but like you I'm content to look and listen as the natural world follows the perennial pattern of Autumn. I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina.

Ron Ireland said...

You are in my neighborhood. I'm near the parkway on the Virginia side of the Blue Ridge. It's beautiful this time of year. So...deciduous. Thank you for what you do.


Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you very much for your thoughts on trees and autumn. I appreciate your comment on "the intimate sense of place" that the small wood gives you after all these years: although the grand views along the Blue Ridge Parkway have been wonderful, the walk through the sun-dappled woods at the Arboretum was equally special; although I didn't have the long years of association that you have with your small wood, I still felt the sense of place that you describe. I can imagine why that sense is quite strong for you after all these years.

Yes, I recall our past discussion about the naming of trees and wild flowers. I'm not at all resistant to acquiring the knowledge. At my age, I suppose that I'm saving my limited memory space for other things! Although, if I spend more time in the Blue Ridge area in the future, I think I'll make further efforts to educate myself. Besides, the names are lovely, and worth knowing and repeating.

As ever, I greatly appreciate hearing from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ireland: I'm sure it is lovely in your part of the Blue Ridge right now. I suspect that the trees have progressed further into autumn up there. One of these years I intend to drive the entire length of the Parkway. I drove parts of the Virginia section (up in the north Shenandoah Valley area) many years ago, and it was wonderful. I'd also like to drive the Natchez Trace Parkway in autumn in the future. As you know, the lack of development on the Parkway can sometimes give you the feeling that you have gone back in time.

Yes, "deciduous" started bouncing around in my brain as soon as I arrived here. I live in Seattle, which has its share of deciduous trees, but nothing like back here. The Northwest is more of an evergreen and blue water world. So the contrast struck me immediately -- which is why I wanted to visit.

Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for your kind words about the blog.

Deb said...

The lovely poem by Ryokan reminded me immediately of this well known quote -

"What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset."
~ Crowfoot

There are a lot of similarities between Eastern thinking and that of the Native American races. They come from the same stock I guess, and seem to hold a similar attitude to life.

Acornmoon said...

I hope you enjoy your trip, thanks for taking us along. And now I have this tune in my head- "In the blue ridge mountains of Virginia , on the trail of the lonesome pine........."

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: Thank you very much for the quote from Crowfoot, which is new to me. I agree with you about the correspondences between Eastern and Native American thought, but I would also carry it further and suggest that these fundamental human insights have been recognized everywhere and at all times. We often lose sight of them, and we need to be continually reminded. Unfortunately, the noise of current events (and media-created daily "crises") tends to drown out the essential. Which is why I try my best to avoid "news" of any sort. News is noise.

For instance, I'm reminded of two passages from Marcus Aurelius: "Close is the time when you will forget all things; and close, too, the time when all will forget you." "As if you had died and your life had extended only to this present moment, use the surplus that is left to you to live from this time onward according to nature." Marcus Aurelius is not as poetic as either Crowfoot or Ryōkan, but I think that many of his insights (and the insights of Stoicism in general) echo Crowfoot and Ryōkan. And this, of course, only scratches the surface. I immediately think of the truths spoken by Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas in their poetry. The list is lengthy.

As always, thank you stopping by again, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Acornmoon: Thank you very much. Two more days here, and then back to the Northwest, which has its own beauties. I fear the leaves will be nearly gone up there when I return.

Thank you for the reference to the song, which is new to me. I did some Internet research about it, and discovered a wonderful scene from a Laurel and Hardy movie in which the two of them sing it.

As ever, thank you for stopping by again.

Jeff said...

"The Faber Book of Reflective Verse." I had no idea such a thing existed! Sounds like something I need to add to my library.

Safe travels. You picked a great time to come re-experience the east: warm(ish) by day, bracingly cool by night...

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: Interesting title, isn't it? Grigson's introduction provides background as to how the title was arrived at. He says that he initially was inclined to call it "The Faber Book of Solemn Verse," but changed his mind. It is, I think, a wonderful selection of poems. Grigson is particularly good at finding and excerpting passages from longer poems (such as the one from Charles Churchill that I used in the post).

I agree with you about the timing of my trip: I'm back in Seattle now, but the weather was exactly as you described, as well as being perfectly clear the entire time, but for a single partly cloudy morning in Asheville.

It is always good to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Back from my own autumn trip, a glorious two weeks in southwestern New Hampshire, I must make a belated comment. I wonder if any other of your readers will have noticed, as I just did, a strong resemblance between "An Autumn Day", by Alexander Docharty, & the opening credits of "Downton Abbey"!
Best from Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I'm very happy to hear from you again. I'm pleased that you were able to spend part of autumn in New Hampshire, which indeed must have been beautiful.

When it comes to "Downton Abbey," I have to plead complete ignorance: I've never watched it. But, thanks to the Internet, I did find a video of the opening credits, and I certainly see the similarity you mention.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.