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.
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)