SISTERS OF THE EARTH -- WOMEN'S PROSE & POETRY ABOUT NATURE
Her Solace: HOW NATURE HEALS US
It seems instinctive for me when I'm feeling lonely or blue or wrestling with some especially troublesome problem to take a walk outside. Fresh air and the reassuring presence of nature can clear my head and loosen the knots my thoughts have tied. I'm not the only one whosever felt this instinct; in my walk I join an age-old stream of pilgrims who have journeyed in times of trial and trouble to special places of healing power in nature. When human connections fail us, we return to the source, to the font of health and sanity, to our Mother.
This section contains accounts by and about women who have turned to nature to assuage grief, discouragement, loneliness, anger, pain, fatigue, or alienation, or as an antidote to the fragmenting frenzy of urban life. Some have gone for an afternoon, others for a week, a month, or a year. All have found comfort and refuge there, a steadying influence, a new sense of proportion, healing of physical ills, transcendence of psychic ills.
Poet, novelist, and photographer Nancy Wood (born 1936) has made a career of sensitively interpreting the wisdom and vision of the Pueblo Indians for a wider audience. She first became involved with the people of Taos Pueblo in 1962 and since then has considered them her friends and teachers. Beginning with Hollering Sun in 1972 (source of "My Help Is in the Mountain" and "Earth Cure Me"), Wood has offered evocative poetic renderings of the Pueblo philosophy of living in harmony with nature, honoring the cycle of the seasons and of death and rebirth, and pursuing spiritual values in a world bent on material acquisition. With her second book, Many Winters (1974), she started a fruitful collaboration with the artist Frank Howells that would include the books Spirit Walker (1993), Dancing Moons (1995), Shaman's Circle (1996), and Sacred Fire (1998). Wood has also produced a book of photographs of Taos Pueblo (Taos Pueblo, 1989), edited an anthology of prose, poetry, and art of the Pueblos (The Serpent's Tongue, 1997), and written a novel based in Pueblo myth and legend (Thunderwoman, 1999). She lives with her husband in Santa Fe and in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
MY HELP IS IN THE MOUNTAIN
My help is in the
EARTH CURE ME
Earth cure me.
Earth receive my woe. Rock
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather (1873-1947) once told a Nebraska journalist, "All my stories have been written with the material that was gathered -- no, God save us! not gathered but absorbed -- before I was fifteen years old." Born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, she moved with her family to the Nebraska frontier near Red Cloud when she was ten, and her years in this landscape were the rich soil out of which grew the twelve novels she later wrote while living in New York City. "No one has described the West with more passion and clarity. In every sentence, her feeling for the earth surges beneath a strong, disciplined prose," said one critic. She graduated from the University of Nebraska and worked in Pittsburgh as a journalist and schoolteacher before joining the staff of McClure's Magazine in New York in 1906, becoming managing editor in 1908. During her tenure there, she met Sarah Orne Jewett, who was to become her dear friend and mentor. After finishing her first novel, Cather left McClure's in 1912 to concentrate on her writing and became newly inspired by a visit to the Southwest to see her favorite brother, a trainman for the Santa Fe. Thereafter, her work reflected two primary themes: her disenchantment with the materialistic ideal of progress espoused by industrial society, and her belief that if treated properly, the land is a source of well-being and -- in the case of struggling young opera singer Thea Kronborg, protagonist of Cathers third and longest novel, The Song of the Lark (1915), deep solace. Preceding the excerpt that follows, Kronborg has tried to transcend the limits of her upbringing in the frontier Colorado town of Moonstone by escaping to Chicago; when that attempt has seemingly failed, she finds respite in Panther Canyon, modeled on Walnut Canyon National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona, which Cather visited in May 1912.
THE ANCIENT PEOPLE
The San Francisco Mountain lies in Northern Arizona, above Flagstaff, and its blue slopes and snowy summit entice the eye for a hundred miles across the desert. About its base lie the pine forests of the Navajos, where the great red-trunked trees live out their peaceful centuries in that sparkling air. The pinons and scrub begin only where the forest ends, where the country breaks into open, stony clearings and the surface of the earth cracks into deep canyons. The great pines stand at a considerable distance from each other. Each tree grows alone, murmurs alone, thinks alone. They do not intrude upon each other. The Navajos are not much in the habit of giving or of asking help. Their language is not a communicative one, and they never attempt an interchange of personality in speech. Over their forests there is the same inexorable reserve. Each tree has its exalted power to bear.
That was the first thing Thea Kronborg felt about the forest, as she drove through it one May morning in Henry Biltmer's democrat wagon -- and it was the first great forest she had ever seen. She had got off the train at Flagstaff that morning, rolled off into the high, chill air when all the pines on the mountain were fired by sunrise, so that she seemed to fall from sleep directly into the forest.
Old Biltmer followed a faint wagon trail which ran southeast, and which, as they traveled, continually dipped lower, falling away from the high plateau on the slope of which Flagstaff sits. The white peak of the mountain, the snow gorges above the timber, now disappear from time to time as the road dropped and dropped, and the forest closed behind the wagon. More than the mountain disappeared as the forest closed thus. Thea seemed to be taking very little through the wood with her. The personality of which she was so tired seemed to let go of her. The high, sparkling air drank it up like blotting-paper. It was lost in the thrilling blue of the new sky and the song of the thin wind in the pinons. The old, fretted lines which marked one off, which defined her, -- made her Thea Kronborg, Bowers's accompanist, a soprano with a faulty middle voice, -- were all erased.
So far she had failed. Her two years in Chicago had not resulted in anything. She had failed with Harsanyi, and she had made no great progress with her voice. She had come to believe that whatever Bowers had taught her was of secondary importance, and that in the essential things she had made no advance. Her student life closed behind her, like the forest, and she doubted whether she could go back to it if she tried. Probably she would teach music in little country towns all her life. Failure was not so tragic as she would have supposed; she was tired enough not to care.
She was getting back to the earliest sources of gladness that she could remember. She had loved the sun, and the brilliant solitudes of sand and sun, long before these other things had come along to fasten themselves upon her and torment her. That night, when she clambered into her big German feather bed, she felt completely released from the enslaving desire to get on in the world. Darkness had once again the sweet wonder that it had in childhood.
Thea's life at the Ottenburg ranch was simple and full of light, like the days themselves. She awoke every morning when the first fierce shafts of sunlight darted through the curtainless windows of her room at the ranch house. After breakfast she took her lunch-basket and went down to the canyon. Usually she did not return until sunset.
Panther Canyon was like a thousand others -- one of those abrupt fissures with which the earth in the Southwest is riddled; so abrupt that you might walk over the edge of any one of them on a dark night and never know what had happened to you. This canyon headed on the Ottenburg ranch, about a mile from the ranch house, and it was accessible only at its head. The canyon walls, for the first two hundred feet below the surface, were perpendicular cliffs, striped with even-running strata of rock. From there on to the bottom the sides were less abrupt, were shelving, and lightly fringed with pinons and dwarf cedars. The effect was that of a gentler canyon within a wilder one. The dead city lay at the point where the perpendicular outer wall ceased and the V-shaped inner gorge began. There a stratum of rock, softer than those above, had been hollowed out by the action of time until it was like a deep groove running along the sides of the canyon. In this hollow (like a great fold in the rock) the Ancient People had built their houses of yellowish stone and mortar. The overhanging cliff above made a roof two hundred feet thick. The hard stratum below was an everlasting floor. The houses stood along in a row, like the buildings in a city block, or like a barracks.
In both walls of the canyon the same streak of soft rock had been washed out, and the long horizontal groove had been built up with houses. The dead city had thus two streets, one set in either cliff, facing each other across the ravine, with a river of blue air between them.
The canyon twisted and wound like a snake, and these two streets went on for four miles or more, interrupted by the abrupt turnings of the gorge, but beginning again within each turn. The canyon had a dozen of these false endings near its head. Beyond, the windings were larger and less perceptible, and it went on for a hundred miles, too narrow, precipitous, and terrible for man to follow it. The Cliff Dwellers liked wide canyons, where the great cliffs caught the sun. Panther Canyon had been deserted for hundreds of years when the first Spanish missionaries came into Arizona, but the masonry of the houses was still wonderfully firm; had crumbled only where a landslide or a rolling boulder had torn it.
All the houses in the canyon were clean with the cleanness of sun-baked, wind-swept places, and they all smelled of the tough little cedars that twisted themselves into the very doorways. One of these rock-rooms Thea took for her own. Fred had told her how to make it comfortable. The day after she came old Henry brought over on one of the pack-ponies a roll of Navajo blankets that belonged to Fred, and Thea lined her cave with them. The room was not more than eight by ten feet, and she could touch the stone roof with her fingertips. This was her old idea: a nest in a high cliff, full of sun. All morning long the sun beat upon her cliff, while the ruins on the opposite side of the canyon were in shadow. In the afternoon, when she had the shade of two hundred feet of rock wall, the ruins on the other side of the gulf stood out in the blazing sunlight. Before her door ran the narrow, winding path that had been the street of the Ancient People. The yucca and niggerhead cactus grew everywhere. From her doorstep she looked out on the ocher-colored slope that ran down several hundred feet to the stream, and this hot rock was sparsely grown with dwarf trees. Their colors were so pale that the shadows of the little trees on the rock stood out sharper than the trees themselves. When Thea first came, the chokecherry bushes were in blossom, and the scent of them was almost sickeningly sweet after a shower. At the very bottom of the canyon, along the stream, there was a thread of bright, flickering, golden-green -- cottonwood seedlings. They made a living, chattering screen behind which she took her bath every morning.
Thea went down to the stream by the Indian water trail. She had found a bathing-pool with a sand bottom, where the creek was dammed by fallen trees. The climb back was long and steep, and when she reached her little house in the cliff she always felt fresh delight in its comfort and inaccessibility. By the time she got there, the woolly red-and-gray blankets were saturated with sunlight, and she sometimes fell asleep as soon as she stretched her body on their warm surfaces. She used to wonder at her own inactivity. She could lie there hour after hour in the sun and listen to the strident whir of the big locusts, and to the light, ironical laughter of the quaking asps. All her life she had been hurrying and sputtering, as if she had been born behind time and had been trying to catch up. Now, she reflected, as she drew herself out long upon the rugs, it was as if she were waiting for something to catch up with her. She had got to a place where she was out of the stream of meaningless activity and undirected effort.
Here she could lie for half a day undistracted, holding pleasant and incomplete conceptions in her mind -- almost in her hands. They were scarcely clear enough to be called ideas. They had something to do with fragrance and color and sound, but almost nothing to do with words. She was singing very little now, but a song would go through her head all morning, as a spring keeps welling up, and it was like a pleasant sensation indefinitely prolonged. It was much more like a sensation than like an idea, or an act of remembering. Music had never come to her in that sensuous form before. It had always been a thing to be struggled with, had always brought anxiety and exaltation and chagrin -- never content and indolence. Thea began to wonder whether people could not utterly lose the power to work, as they can lose their voice or their memory. She had always been a little drudge, hurrying from one task to another -- as if it mattered! And now her power to think seemed converted into a power of sustained sensation. She could become a mere receptacle for heat, or become a color, like the bright lizards that darted about on the hot stones outside her door; or she could become a continuous repetition of sound, like the cicadas.
The faculty of observation was never highly developed in Thea Kronborg. A great deal escaped her eye as she passed through the world. But the things which were for her, she saw; she experienced them physically and remembered them as if they had once been a part of herself. The roses she used to see in the florists' shops in Chicago were merely roses. But when she thought of the moonflowers that grew over Mrs. Tellamantez's door, it was as if she had been that vine and had opened up in white flowers every night. There were memories of light on the sand hills, of masses of prickly-pear blossoms she had found in the desert in early childhood, of the late afternoon sun pouring through the grape leaves and the mint bed in Mrs. Kohler's garden, which she would never lose. These recollections were a part of her mind and personality. In Chicago she had got almost nothing that went into her subconscious self and took root there. But here, in Panther Canyon, there were again things which seemed destined for her.
Panther Canyon was the home of innumerable swallows. They built nests in the wall far above the hollow groove in which Thea's own rock chamber lay. They seldom ventured above the rim of the canyon, to the flat, wind-swept tableland. Their world was the blue air-river between the canyon walls. In that blue gulf the arrow-shaped birds swam all day long, with only an occasional movement of the wings. The only sad thing about them was their timidity; the way in which they lived their lives between the echoing cliffs and never dared to rise out of the shadow of the canyon walls. As they swam past her door, Thea often felt how easy it would be to dream one's life out in some cleft in the world.
From the ancient dwelling there came always a dignified, unobtrusive sadness; now stronger, now fainter, -- like the aromatic smell which the dwarf cedars gave out in the sun, -- but always present, a part of the air one breathed. At night, when Thea dreamed about the canyon, -- or in the early morning when she hurried toward it, anticipating it, -- her conception of it was of yellow rocks baking in sunlight, the swallows, the cedar smell, and that peculiar sadness -- a voice out of the past, not very loud, that went on saying a few simple things to the solitude eternally.
Standing up in her lodge, Thea could with her thumbnail dislodge flakes of carbon from the rock roof -- the cooking smoke of the Ancient People. They were that near! A timid, nest-building folk, like the swallows. How often Thea remembered Ray Kennedy's moralizing about the cliff cities. He used to say that he never felt the hardness of the human struggle or the sadness of history as he felt it among those ruins. He used to say, too, that it made one feel an obligation to do one's best. On the first day that Thea climbed the water trail she began to have intuitions about the women who had worn the path, and who had spent so great a part of their lives going up and down it. She found herself trying to walk as they must have walked, with a feeling in her feet and knees and loins which she had never known before, -- which must have come up to her out of the accustomed dust of that rocky trail. She could feel the weight of an Indian baby hanging to her back as she climbed.
The empty houses, among which she wandered in the afternoon, the blanketed one in which she lay all morning, were haunted by certain fears and desires; feelings about warmth and cold and water and physical strength. It seemed to Thea that a certain understanding of those old people came up to her out of the rock shelf on which she lay; that certain feelings were transmitted to her, suggestions that were simple, insistent, and monotonous, like the beating of Indian drums. They were not expressible in words, but seemed rather to translate themselves into attitudes of body, into degrees of muscular tension or relaxation; the naked strength of youth, sharp as the sun-shafts; the crouching timorousness of age, the sullenness of women who waited for their captors. At the first turning of the canyon there was a half-ruined tower of yellow masonry, a watchtower upon which the young men used to entice eagles and snare them with nets. Sometimes for a whole morning Thea could see the coppery breast and shoulders of an Indian youth there against the sky; see him throw the net, and watch the struggle with the eagle.
Old Henry Biltmer, at the ranch, had been a great deal among the Pueblo Indians who are the descendants of the Cliff- dwellers. After supper he used to sit and smoke his pipe by the kitchen stove and talk to Thea about them. He had never found anyone before who was interested in his ruins. Every Sunday the old man prowled about in the canyon, and he had come to know a good deal more about it than he could account for. He had gathered up a whole chestful of Cliff-Dweller relics which he meant to take back to Germany with him some day. He taught Thea how to find things among the ruins: grinding-stones, and drills and needles made of turkey-bones. There were fragments of pottery everywhere. Old Henry explained to her that the Ancient People had developed masonry and pottery far beyond any other crafts. After they had made houses for themselves, the next thing was to house the precious water. He explained to her how all their customs and ceremonies and their religion went back to water. The men provided the food, but water was the care of the women. The stupid women carried water for most of their lives; the cleverer ones made the vessels to hold it. Their pottery was their most direct appeal to water, the envelope and sheath of the precious element itself. The strongest Indian need was expressed in those graceful jars, fashioned slowly by hand, without the aid of a wheel.
When Thea took her bath at the bottom of the canyon, in the sunny pool behind the screen of cottonwoods, she sometimes felt as if the water must have sovereign qualities, from having been the object of so much service and desire. That stream was the only living thing left of the drama that had been played out in the canyon centuries ago. In the rapid, restless heart of it, flowing swifter than the rest, there was a continuity of life that reached back into the old time. The glittering thread of current had a kind of lightly worn, loosely knit personality, graceful and laughing. Thea's bath came to have a ceremonial gravity. The atmosphere of the canyon was ritualistic.
One morning, as she was standing upright in the pool, splashing water between her shoulder-blades with a big sponge, something flashed through her mind that made her draw herself up and stand still until the water had quite dried upon her flushed skin. The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself, life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one's throat and nostrils and held it on one's breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals.
Thea had a superstitious feeling about the potsherds, and liked better to leave them in the dwellings where she found them. If she took a few bits back to her own lodge and hid them under the blankets, she did it guiltily, as if she were being watched. She was a guest in these houses, and ought to behave as such. Nearly every afternoon she went to the chambers which contained the most interesting fragments of pottery, sat and looked at them for a while. Some of them were beautifully decorated. This care, expended upon vessels that could not hold food or water any better for the additional labor put upon them, made her heart go out to those ancient potters. They had not only expressed their desire, but they had expressed it as beautifully as they could. Food, fire, water, and something else -- even here, in this crack in the world, so far back in the night of the past! Down here at the beginning that painful thing was already stirring; the seed of sorrow, and of so much delight.
There were jars done in a delicate overlay, like pine cones; and there were many patterns in a low relief, like basket-work. Some of the pottery was decorated in color, red and brown, black and white, in graceful geometrical patterns. One day, on a fragment of a shallow bowl, she found a crested serpent's head, painted in red on terra-cotta. Again she found half a bowl with a broad band of white cliff-houses painted on a black ground. They were scarcely conventionalized at all; there they were in the black border, just as they stood in the rock before her. It brought her centuries nearer to these people to find that they saw their houses exactly as she saw them.
Yes, Ray Kennedy was right. All these things made one feel that one ought to do one's best, and help to fulfill some desire of the dust that slept there. A dream had been dreamed there long ago, in the night of ages, and the wind had whispered some promise to the sadness of the savage. In their own way, those people had felt the beginnings of what was to come. These potsherds were like fetters that bound one to a long chain of human endeavor.
Not only did the world seem older and richer to Thea now, but she herself seemed older. She had never been alone for so long before, or thought so much. Nothing had ever engrossed her so deeply as the daily contemplation of that line of pale- yellow houses tucked into the wrinkle of the cliff. Moonstone and Chicago had become vague. Here everything was simple and definite, as things had been in childhood. Her mind was like a ragbag into which she had been frantically thrusting whatever she could grab. And here she must throw this lumber away. The things that were really hers separated themselves from the rest. Her ideas were simplified, became sharper and clearer. She felt united and strong.
Edith Warner (1892-1951) first came to New Mexico from Pennsylvania at age thirty after her doctor prescribed a year of outdoor life without responsibilities. The land's invisible energies captured her, and in 1928 she moved there for good, into a little house where she ran a tearoom beside the bridge over the Rio Grande that connected San Ildefonso Pueblo with Los Alamos. Over the years, this prim, shy woman became a legend, befriending the Pueblo Indians as well as the brilliant scientists who gathered from all over the world to develop the atomic bomb. Tilano, governor of the pueblo, came to live with her and became her companion and helpmate. "The knowledge that leads to power, and the wisdom that grows from the service of the earth and the love of its beauty existed side by side for her, as though they were the opposite banks between which the great river flowed," wrote Warner's friend and neighbor Peggy Pond Church in her book The House at Otowi Bridge: The Story of Edith Warner and Los Alamos (1959). Warner made an attempt to write about her life but abandoned it after the first few pages, feeling that it sounded too hackneyed: "White woman moves west. Lives among Indians." She did leave journal fragments, skillfully woven by Church into her story and excerpted here; a series of Christmas letters from 1943 through 1950, reprinted in Church's book; and a few published essays. Frank Waters's novel The Woman at Otowi Crossing (1966) is a narrative of the growth and meaning of the myth that grew up around this woman who embraced a simple life and cultivated her depths.
I ran away today, so sick I was of the kitchen and everlasting food. Constant walls and a roof do something to me at any time and when the aspens turn golden, I seethe inside until finally I revolt and leave everything.
The sun was just above Baldy when I walked to the Pueblo for the old white horse, but by the time I reached the trail leading to the top of Shumo, it was halfway up the heavens. Shumo has a round knoll on its top which is the highest spot in the valley, and I had to be on top of my world today. All the beauty of the valley lay below me. Beyond were mesas reaching westward to the Jemez with its masses of golden aspens. The whirring of a bird overhead and the rushing of the river far below me were the only sounds. If I were a leader of people on such a day I would send them out alone into the open.
This morning when I stood on the river bank, the sun was making all golden the edge of the clouds in the west. There was a blue sky above Shumo, but snowflakes were blown thick and fast from the canyon until they hid the mesas. As they shut out the world and made for me a hushed place in their midst, I was very near the source of things.
Yesterday when I woke there were clouds in the east and I was happy.... Later the winds blew them away and I doubted. But by noon the snow had come and it fell until the earth was thickly covered. When darkness came, I went out into it -- that softly falling whiteness in the hush of the night. This morning all was heavy with snow and from it rose a white veil about the foot of the mesa. I was alone in a world of snow and I was conscious only of what came to me from it.
This is a day when life and the world seem to be standing still -- only time and the river flowing past the mesas. I cannot work. I go out into the sunshine to sit receptively for what there is in this stillness and calm. I am keenly aware that there is something. Just now it seemed to flow in a rhythm around me and then to enter me -- something which comes in a hushed inflowing. All of me is still and yet alert, ready to become part of this wave that laps the shore on which I sit. Somehow I have no desire to name it or understand. It is enough that I should feel and be of it in moments such as this. And most of the hatred and ill will, the strained feeling is gone -- I know not how.
No, it is not what Ouspensky experienced when he was drawn by the waves into them, becoming all-mountain, sea, sky, ship. I am I and earth is earth -- mesa, sky, wind, rushing river. Each is an entity but the essence of the earth flows into me -- perhaps of me into the earth. And to me it is more than a few seconds' experience. Nor is it any longer strange but natural, not ecstatic but satisfying. The detail of life becomes the scaffolding.
Even in these rushed days there is such peace between. There are moments when two eagle feathers can fill me with joy; when the last rays of the sun touch my forehead as I stand by the kitchen door; when the outline of To-tavi is marked in rhythm against a clear western sky; when even the wind is part of it all. Surely such moments do something to me. If not, it is because I hide beneath the pettiness. I have no apparent goal. I only know that I am living a day at a time as I feel the way.
Today the sun shines here, but the clouds hang low on the Sangre peaks and beyond Shumo. Again I have touched the fringe of the unknown and been drawn to it, not by my seeking, which is the only real way.
As I worked ... there came without warning a flowing into me of that which I have come to associate with the gods. I went to the open door and looked up at the mountains with something akin to awe. It forced me out into the open where I could look up to those sacred high places on which humans do not dwell. Then it left me -- perhaps to return to those sacred places.
I had almost forgotten how to lie curled on the ground or here on my couch, content just to look and feel and enjoy the thoughts that come. Rushing with things to be done crowding is such a waste of living. There need to be hours of this.
Twice within this week I have seen what must be meant only for the delight of the gods. I chanced to look up from my reading a bit ago, and went flying out to the river bank. My carved foothill was a shining thing of beauty. No artist could capture the gold that bathed it with wonder and set it apart. And while I looked in awe, from its earth-hold rose slowly a new color -- a cloak of mauve only less bright than the gold that with a caressing movement wrapped itself about my golden hill. Only then could I look to faraway purple mountains and the Mesa which was quite black against a clouded sky. When I looked back to the hill the magic was gone. Can such beauty be and then not be? I think the gods must have taken back to themselves that god-made color -- perhaps to paint themselves for an approaching ceremony. And I know that some of it came to stay with me.
Just now as I watched the ever-changing beauty, I saw a cloud pass over the earth on long gray stilts of rain. And then as I looked I saw its shape and knew that over the pueblo moved the Thunder Bird. With wings outspread he slowly passed, broad tail sweeping the thirsty earth. Down from his breast fell feathers of rain and out from his heart the lightning flashed its message to the people that the gods never forget. Thunder roared from his long black beak and all earth sounds were hushed. He has gone, leaving only his mark on the land, but I still see his broad wings stretched, and the white rain-feathers dropping from his breast. And any fear, lingering from those childhood days when I, unafraid, was made to fear lightning, has gone. Did it not come from his heart? If it should seek me out or find me wandering in its path, would it not take me back with it? I should not mind going so much if I could look down on beauty like earth's today.
I have been sitting here looking at the peaked ceiling of two gray and one brown, one rough and one smooth board -- the only roof for which I have any affection -- wondering why such heights and depths have been given me. There are days when I question the gods. And then come the things that make me catch my breath. There are moments when this crude house, my little pottery singing woman, my books and pictures are filled with something that sends out to me peace. Is it because of an ancient prayer that color and form and movement have come to mean so much more, or is it that the years bring an increased vision -- no, a more understanding vision? Is it a natural gift that accompanies maturity, or is it a gift of the gods?
I am glad that the years of adjustment are over and that there has come to me this new relationship with all of earth. I know that I was never so aware of the river and the trees; that I never walked so eagerly looking for the new wild things growing. I know that I have had to grow sufficiently -- no, to cast off enough of civilization's shackles so that the earth spirit could reach me.
This morning I stood on the river bank to pray. I knew then that the ancient ones were wise to pray for peace and beauty and not for specific gifts except fertility which is continued life. And I saw that if one has even a small degree of the ability to take into and unto himself the peace and beauty the gods surround him with, it is not necessary to ask for more.
The youngest person and the first African-American to serve as poet laureate of the United States, Rita Dave (born 1952) is a versatile writer who finds significance in family ties and in the intersection of individual lives with history. Born and raised in a middleclass family in Akron, Ohio, where she was encouraged to read anything and everything, Dove earned a B.A. from Miami University of Ohio and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. The author of several volumes of poetry, she worked tirelessly during her tenure as poet laureate and consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (1993- 1995) to promote literacy and build a greater readership for poetry, appearing on such popular radio and TV shows as A Prairie Home Companion and Sesame Street. She has also written short stories, a novel, plays, and verse dramas. She teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia and lives in Charlottesville with her husband, the novelist Fred Viebahn, and their daughter. Her collection of poems based on the lives of her grandparents, Thomas and Beulah (1986), in which the following poem first appeared, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987.
She wanted a
little room for thinking:
So she lugged a
chair behind the garage
were things to watch the
She had an hour,
at best, before Liza appeared
building a palace.
Author, naturalist, and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams (born 1955) is a passionate advocate of the spiritual and emotional values of wild nature, and in particular of wild lands in the American West. Since the early 1980s, she has evolved in her work from writing safely within the bounds of traditional gender roles to risking more and more pointed challenges to the status quo. Williams grew up a fifth-generation Mormon in Salt Lake City, Utah, schooled in nature on family camping trips and on birding expeditions with her grandmother. During her work for a masters degree in environmental education at the University of Utah, she spent time with the Navajo and discovered that through story she could integrate her passion for landscape and literature. While employed as a naturalist by the Utah Museum of Natural History, she published two children's books and two short-story collections before the pivotal book of her career, Refuge (1991), which chronicles her mother's death from cancer and the parallel flooding of a beloved bird refuge. Since then, she has sought to articulate a feminine philosophy of sensual intimacy with landscape -- an "erotics of place" -- in books, articles, and interviews (www.coyoteclan.com). "My connection to the natural world is my connection to self-erotic, mysterious, and whole," she writes in An Unspoken Hunger (1994). "The Bowl," inspired by her mother, first appeared in Coyote's Canyon (1989), a collection of stories centered in southern Utah, where she now lives with her husband, Brooke Williams. Coyote's Canyon has since been reprinted as part of Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (2001).
There was a woman who left the city, left her husband, and her children, left everything behind to retrieve her soul. She came to the desert after seeing her gaunt face in the mirror, the pallor that comes when everything is going out and nothing is coming in. She had noticed for the first time the furrows under her eyes that had been eroded by tears. She did not know the woman in the mirror. She took off her apron, folded it neatly in the drawer, left a note for her family, and closed the door behind her. She knew that her life and the lives of those she loved depended on it.
The woman returned to the place of her childhood, where she last remembered her true nature. She returned to the intimacy of a small canyon that for years had loomed large in her imagination, and there she set up camp. The walls were as she had recalled them, tall and streaked from rim to floor. The rock appeared as draped fabric as she placed her hand flat against its face. The wall was cold; the sun had not yet reached the wash. She began wading the shallow stream that ran down the center of the canyon, and chose not to be encumbered by anything. She shed her clothing, took out her hairpins, and squeezed the last lemon she had over her body. Running her hands over her breasts and throat and behind her neck, the woman shivered at her own bravery. This is how it should be, she thought. She was free and frightened and beautiful.
For days, the woman wandered in and out of the slickrock maze. She drank from springs and ate the purple fruit of prickly pears. Her needs were met simply. Because she could not see herself, she was unaware of the changes -- how her skin became taut and tan, the way in which her hair relaxed and curled itself. She even seemed to walk differently as her toes spread and gripped the sand.
All along the wash, clay balls had been thrown by a raging river. The woman picked one up, pulled off the pebbles until she had a mound of supple clay. She kneaded it as she walked, rubbed the clay between the palms of her hands, and watched it lengthen. She finally sat down on the moist sand and, with her fingers, continued moving up the string of clay. And then she began to coil it, around and around, pinching shut each rotation. She created a bowl.
The woman found other clay balls and put them inside the bowl. She had an idea of making dolls for her children, small clay figurines that she would let dry in the sun. Once again, she stopped walking and sat in the sand to work. She split each clay ball in two, which meant she had six small pieces to mold out of three balls she had found. One by one, tiny shapes took form. A girl with open arms above her head; three boys -- one standing, one sitting, and one lying down (he was growing, she mused); and then a man and a woman facing each other. She had recreated her family. With the few scraps left over she made desert animals: a lizard, a small bird, and a miniature coyote sitting on his haunches. The woman smiled as she looked over her menagerie. She clapped her hands to remove the dried clay and half expected to see them dance. Instead, it began to rain.
Within minutes, the wash began to swell. The woman put the clay creatures into the bowl and sought higher ground up a side canyon, where she found shelter under a large overhang. She was prepared to watch if a flash flood came. And it did. The clear water turned muddy as it began to rise, carrying with it the force of wild horses running with a thunderstorm behind them. The small stream, now a river, rose higher still, gouging into the sandy banks, hurling rocks, roots, and trees downstream. The woman wondered about the animals as she heard stirrings in the grasses and surmised they must be seeking refuge in the side canyons as she was watching as she was. She pulled her legs in and wrapped her arms around her shins, resting her cheekbones against her knees. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the sound of water bursting through the silence of the canyon.
The roar of the flood gradually softened until it was replaced by birdsong. Swifts and swallows plucked the water for insects as frogs announced their return. The woman raised her head. With the bowl in both hands, she tried to get up, but slipped down the hillside, scraping the backs of her thighs on rabbitbrush and sage. She finally reached the wash with the bowl and its contents intact. And then she found herself with another problem: she sank up to her knees in the wet, red clay, only to find that the more she tried to pull her foot free, the deeper she sank with the other. Finally, letting go of her struggle, she put the bowl and her family aside, and wallowed in it. She fell sideways and rolled onto her stomach, then over onto her back. She was covered in slimy, wet clay, and it was delicious. She stretched her hands above her head, flexed her calves, and pointed her toes. The woman laughed hysterically until she became aware of her own echo.
Her body contracted.
She must get control of herself, she thought; what would her husband think? What kind of example was she setting for her children? And then she remembered -- she was alone. She sat up and stared at the coiled bowl full of clay people. The woman took out the figurines and planted them in the wash. She placed the animals around them.
"They're on their own," she said out loud. And she walked back to the spring where she had drunk, filled up her bowl with water, and bathed.
The next morning, when the woman awoke, she noticed that the cottonwood branches swaying above her head had sprouted leaves.
She could go home now.
The work of Pat Mora (born 1942), an award-winning author of poetry, nonfiction, and children's books, reflects a commitment to sharing her Mexican heritage as well as exploring the imprint of the Chihuahuan desert, in whose magical presence she has spent most of her life. "The desert, mi madre, is my stern teacher," she writes. A native of El Paso, Texas, the border city to which her grandparents came during the Mexican Revolution, she was educated at Texas Western College (B.A.) and the University of Texas at El Paso (M.A.). She taught English and worked as a museum director and a university administrator for many years while she was honing her writing and raising three children. Having published five volumes of poetry, a book of essays, a family memoir, and more than twenty books for young readers, she now devotes much of her time to promoting literature and literacy as a way to connect communities (www.patmora.com). She divides her year between Cincinnati, where she moved with her husband, an archaeologist and university professor, in 1989, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The two poems that follow are from Chants (1984).
The desert is
don't fear your
The desert says:
feel the sun
Molly Peacock (born 1947) earned a reputation early in her poetry career for writing about love and sex with disarming frankness. She finds joy in the sensual pleasures of life -- and of the garden, as her essay from Mirabella magazine (May 1995) here describes -- and makes no secret of it. With the same boldness, she has done much to make poetry accessible -- through her book How to Read a Poem -- and Start a Poetry Circle (2000), through appearances on radio and TV, and through her work on the "Poetry in Motion" program on the nation's buses and subways, as president of the Poetry Society of America from 1989 to 1995, and as poet-in-residence at various universities and now at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Born in Buffalo, New York, she attended the State University of New York and earned an M.A. in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her poetry and essays have appeared in a number of journals, magazines, and anthologies, and her poetry has been collected in five volumes. She is also the author of a memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece (1995), telling the story of her decision not to have children and the choices that have led to a fulfilling life "as a poet and teacher, and as a sister, daughter, lover, friend, and wife." Peacock (www.mollypeacock.com) lives in New York City and Toronto with her husband, James Joyce scholar Michael Groden.
STATE OF GRACE
Orange poppies lolled in a great pride, like lionesses, beside the apple trees. Huge and real; they leapt to life from a book I had stowed in my suitcase that summer, the Lilac Fairy Book. I'd finally come to visit my grandmother by myself, old enough to be sent the mere hundred miles that separated my prim suburbia from her ramshackle house. She'd placed the perennial beds in a remnant of an apple orchard that still had a few gnarled trees, just to make her garden even more of a fairy tale. Forces I felt responsible for but did not understand were the cause of my prolonged visit: the death throes of my parents' marriage, and my grandmother's insistence that I go to summer Bible school. But the religion she gave me was her garden.
It was a place of grace, a sanctuary I spent hours in, where flowers had personalities, including the queen, a recalcitrant French lilac who had gotten her seasons turned around and insisted on producing blossoms in September. In my parents' house I was never free of the tasks that helplessly fell to me as their lives disintegrated: the care of the house and meals and my younger sister. I had two selves, really: a robot self to dispense my obligations, and a true self that was dangerously buried or, as gardeners say, "caught in the bulb." But in that garden, where I was able to act dreamy, my true self was released.
A Buddhist might call it mindfulness. A Quaker might call it connecting with the light inside you. To be able to look an orange poppy in its chartreuse eye and simply be doing nothing other than looking at that blowsy-headed flower, feeling only one experience without competing subsidiary ones, is my idea of grace. To be fully inside the looking moment is to be fully in your true self, not the one you have created for others' demands. This grace is a kind of blooming.
Because the garden is so deeply connected with the true self, it is also deeply sensual, and intensely so for women because flowers, so shockingly sexual, are identified with women. That summer I became a seed-catalog junkie, entranced with pictures of flowers. I was riveted and embarrassed by the close-ups of orchids. Each orchid was me, it was every girl, turned inside out for all to see.
My grandmother's poppies and apple trees are long gone, but just the way we sometimes feel that someone whom we loved and lost is not gone entirely, but transformed somehow into another type of energy, that garden is inside me. It has become a portable state of grace.
And I need it, because I live a portable life. Having lost each other for decades, my high-school boyfriend and I met again and married. Since we both had well-established lives in two countries, we decided not to dismantle them, but to enlarge -- and complicate -- our lives by keeping both. Now we live in London, Ontario, full of stately trees and tiny backyard gardens; and in New York City, where the flowers are in tin buckets at the fruit markets and in the unexpected gardens one discovers inside stately buildings like the Frick Mansion.
Although I don't always feel it, I carry that dreamy flower state within me as I lug my suitcases through customs. Tucked inside, like the Lilac Fairy Book in my first suitcase, it insists on its presence, just like the Lilac Queen in my grandmother's garden, who bloomed when she wanted to, turning everybody else's fall into her spring. My attention to a flower can help me rediscover my true self, the self I lose to forces I'm responsible for but often do not completely understand. That centered staring helps erase the robot self of Lists, Calls, Chores, Duties, Dampened Desires.
The frailest of nature's objects, these most female emblems, have staying power. Staying power has healing power, too. You can stand in front of flowers and look them in their many eyes and see just them, and for a moment you are doing only one thing fully, being in the presence of their tart soil and tender personalities, and connecting with the tart and tender within yourself.
"Nature whispers in my ear all the time, and it is the same thing over and over," writes Sharman Apt Russell (born 1954) in her fourth work of nonfiction, Anatomy of a Rose: Exploring the Secret Life of Flowers (2001). "Nature whispers, and sometimes shouts, 'Beauty, beauty, beauty, beauty.'" While her earlier books (Songs of the Fluteplayer, 1991, and Kill the Cowboy, 1993) explored the southwestern landscape she calls home, more recent writing has conveyed a scientific as well as an aesthetic appreciation of life forms that are as beautiful as they are essential to the ecology of our world. Russell was born at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and moved at age two with her mother and older sister to Phoenix after her test-pilot father was killed in a crash. Though she started college at the University of California, Berkeley, as a drama major, she was influenced by reading Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac to change her major to conservation and natural resources, earning a B.S. in 1976. In 1980 she earned an M.F.A in creative writing from the University of Montana and moved with her new husband, Peter Russell, to the Mimbres Valley of southwestern New Mexico to create a self-reliant life close to the land. She bore two children at home and began authoring books while teaching writing at Western New Mexico University. Anatomy of a Rose opens with Russell's recollection of the large garden her grandmother in Kansas grew to provide flowers for the grave of her son, Sharman's father; it closes with a chapter on phytoremediation (the use of plants to repair or heal), from which the following excerpt is taken.
CURED BY FLOWERS
I am sitting naked in a hot spring. The water is a delicious 103 degrees Fahrenheit, mint smells strongly, cottonwoods and alders leaf above my head, yellow cliffs crumble above the trees, blue sky is above everything. Sliding deeper into the pool's warmth, I cushion my head against a rock and enter the drama of the bank: a tiny flower, an ant, another ant, a confrontation.
My friend next to me is also naked. Her pale legs shift and stir up mud so that a brown wash darkens her left breast. This hot spring is one of many in this canyon where, at the turn of the century, a sanitarium for consumptives was built around these heated pools. People wanted nature to cure them. They came for the sun and the air and the power of the land. Some were cured, and some were not.
After a few years, the sanitarium failed. The land was sold as a cattle ranch, and the cattle ranch failed, and a group of hippies bought this place in the 1970s with the dream of creating an international community, another kind of cure. The children of these hippies are still here. They walk about naked when they choose and take long baths in the hot water.
From this mint pool, a canyon runs northeast. My friend and I decide to walk under the brown and yellow cliffs, no higher than a two-story house. A small stream snakes over rounded rocks and soft sand. Barefoot, naked, we go slowly, from rock to rock. A juniper reaches out to catch my skin. Tall grass scuffles in the shadows between sun and stone. I feel, suddenly, alienated from this world.
We want nature to cure us.
My friend says, no, she would rather I did not write about her body, so I must write about mine. It is ordinary and I think about it in ordinary ways, the stomach too soft, the breasts nice. I see cellulite when I turn in a certain way. I am self- conscious, and I know this is odd: No one is watching me but me. My friend moves easily with her bare thighs. She lives in a place where naked is normal.
For a long time now, flowers have cured us in very direct ways. A quarter of our prescription drugs contain some part or synthesis of a flowering plant. At the same time, only 1 percent of plant species in the world have been studied for their medical use.
In folk medicine, the rosy periwinkle in Madagascar was prescribed for diabetes. When researchers began studying the flower, they found that extracts of the plant also reduced white blood cell counts and suppressed bone marrow activity. These experiments led to the isolation of two chemicals now used against childhood leukemia. With these drugs, a child's survival rate has increased from 10 to 95 percent.
For centuries, healers in Africa recommended a fruit called bitter kola for infections. In the 1990s, Nigerian scientists discovered that compounds of bitter kola may be effective against the Ebola virus, which causes a fatal disease characterized by severe bleeding. Ebola is a symbol of all the horrific diseases ahead of us, viruses that have mutated, epidemics that rise out of the jungle and the places we disturb. We have had no defense against the Ebola virus. Now, we may have the bitter kola.
On my walk with my friend, through a canyon in New Mexico, we stop before a ragged Emory oak, its gray-green leaves pointed, their edges sharp. All parts of all oaks have an antiseptic effect. Oak is the basic astringent, a wash for inflammations, a gargle for sore throats, a dressing for cuts.
All around me are plants that heal and connect to the human body. The yucca spiking above is a steroid. Mullein acts as a mild sedative. Mullein root increases the tone of the bladder. Juniper is used for cystitis. Yarrow clots blood.
My body is interwoven into the chemistry of juniper and yarrow. The tone of my bladder is related to mullein root.
How can we doubt our place in the natural world?
From every habitat, I hear a chorus of cures. In the American West, for menstrual cramps, I might take angelica; cornflower, cow parsnip, evening primrose, licorice, motherwort, pennyroyal, peony, poleo, raspberry, storksbill, or wormwood. For tonsillitis, I could try cachana, cranesbill, mallow, potentilla, red root, or sage. For a sunburn, I might turn to penstemon and prickly poppy. The juice of the prickly poppy was once used to treat a cloudy cornea. The poppy helps, as well, with inflammations of the prostate.
I stand in a canyon of crumbling yellow cliffs, embarrassed to be without my clothes, my soft stomach showing, my vanity showing, my prudery showing. Where else, besides my bed and bath, would I stand like this, exposed?
In the doctor's office. In the hospital, in illness and pain. To be cured there, I must also be naked. I must let myself be seen....
We may need to be cured by flowers. We may need to strip naked and let the petals fall on our shoulders, down our bellies, against our thighs. We may need to lie naked in fields of wildflowers. We may need to walk naked through beauty. We may need to walk naked through color. We may need to walk naked through scent. We may need to walk naked through sex and death. We may need to feel beauty on our skin. We may need to walk the pollen path, among the flowers that are everywhere.
We can still smell our grandmother's garden. Our grandmother is still alive.
Although best known for her historical novels, including The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), Janet Lewis (1899-1998) wrote poems first and last in her long literary career and drew often on earth imagery and the thought of native peoples there. Her volumes of poetry include The Earth-Bound (1946) and The Ancient Ones (1979). She also penned librettos, criticism, children's books, and short stories. Born in Chicago, she wrote for the same Oak Park high, school literary magazine as her classmate Ernest Hemingway and then studied poetry and French at the University of Chicago, where she met her future husband. She lived in Paris briefly but moved to Santa Fe in 1923 to recuperate from tuberculosis. In 1926 she married the poet, critic, and teacher Ivor Winters, and the couple moved to Los Altos, California, so Winters could join the Stanford University faculty. Lewis taught creative writing classes at Stanford herself in the late 1960s. She was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992 . "Meadow Turf" is from her Poems Old and New: 1918-1978 (1981).
strawberry leaf, small
Elizabeth C. Wright (1831?-?) was an early voice for bioregionalism, urging firsthand knowledge of the flora of one's home place, and a fiery critic of American culture's appetite for distraction and speed nearly a century and a half ago. She was also an abolitionist and a feminist, decrying how women's energy was squelched by putting them in hoops and long skirts and feeding them romance novels, which "have shown that women never take to science or art, except from starvation or disappointment." Her Lichen Tufts, from the Alleghanies, published in 1860, celebrates nature as a refuge from the "finery and etiquette, and conventional rubbish" of civilization and quotes Thoreau, whose Walden appeared in 1854. Of Wright herself, we know no more than what she reveals in her single book: that she grew up in woods like those bordering the Allegheny River in New York and that she spent two years (probably 1857 and 1858) pioneering in Illinois before returning to the East. A twenty-nine-year-old Elizabeth Wright is listed in the 1860 U.S. census as living in Dunkirk, on the shore of Lake Erie in western New York, with her husband Henry C. Wright and two children, but there is no evidence verifying that this is the author of Lichen Tufts. The book itself encompasses four essays and forty poems. In "The Nature Cure -- For the Body," an excerpt from which follows, and "The Nature Cure For the Mind," she prescribes outdoor exercise and Curiosity about natural phenomena as the means to physical and mental health.
THE NATURE CURE-FOR THE BODY
Even wise men say that the times demand a rapidity of action which cannot be sustained except by unnatural stimulus and expenditure of vital energy. The spirit of the times demands that we should hurry ourselves to death, eating, drinking, sleeping, and working, with a deadly activity, which prevents any of these things being done thoroughly.
Why this scrambling haste? Have you not time to live well while you are about it? We Americans are in such a desperate hurry we have not time even to chew our dinners before they are swallowed. We can't wait for the cars to stop before we jump upon the platform, nor wait for the steamboat to be moored before we leap across a nice place in which to drown, in order to get on board or on shore. We count it wasted time to do slowly what it is possible to do rapidly even to live. The deliberate philosophy has few votaries among our countrymen. Because man is not a ruminating animal, he seems to think he needs no time for chewing anything but gum or tobacco, and these he chews as he runs.
To move leisurely along the ways of existence, in order to let the experiences of life have full time to mature their proper fruit in the character, is considered too slow for the Age; and so this double high pressure engine Age drives everybody as if life were a general racecourse, where he who gets through quickest wins the stakes. Few of us like even slow, solemn, and grand music; a waltz or quickstep better pleases us.
All our inventions are for hurrying up the processes known before, or contriving more rapid ones to supersede them; and we partake of the character of our inventions. We cannot wait even for hides to be tanned into leather by the tedious processes of the old time, but rot them by more rapid and less substantial and efficacious methods. It is the same with most of our fabrics. Dispatch, rather than durability and excellence, is the prevailing idea in the manufacture of everything from college Baccalaureates to shoe pegs.
We have thus created a false and flimsy taste among us, which, from having few substantial things which would endure the wear and tear of time, has made us come to like the incessant change; and if we do happen to have anything last beyond the ephemeral existence of its contemporaries, we get tired of it, and demolish it on purpose. People get tired of durable garments, -- have had them so long they are sick of them. They get out of conceit of beautiful houses which have outlasted the style in vogue when they were built, and pull down the excellent old house only because it is out of fashion, and build another not as good but more fashionable, in its place.
Even old men and women are out of fashion, and if there is now and then one, they are the odd exceptions and not the rule. The unavoidable evil, when it does come, is concealed as far as possible by all manner of arts and affectations, as though old age were no longer honorable.
Thus we have destroyed our faculty of veneration by destroying what is venerable among us. As we measure age, our nation itself will soon be old and in its dotage, and must make way for some newer style of government, or some old style come round new again, as our styles of dress are renewed.
This absurd and destructive racing system must either rush us into this and other undesirable results and catastrophes, or be abated and cooled off, and taught to go slower. So long as we are proud of our rapidity there is little hope of mending it. We must meet some overwhelming disaster or disgrace, to humiliate us, if we will learn wisdom from nothing but experience. If nothing but rushing into the gap of an open drawbridge will convince our fast engineers that the car of state has no wings, why we must have a general crash, as on our railroads.
But those of us who love smooth waters and quiet scenes, can at least set before our fast countrymen and women the dangers of haste, and the open and inviting fields of health and recreation, where the overtasked and broken down may regain in fresh and quiet pursuits, that strength they have destroyed by their over hasty living....
Oh! all ye whose lives have been a feverish strife after some imaginary good, come and slake your thirst and cool your fever in the clear waters of the many springs among the hills. Let nature's breath breathe into your failing lungs the healing of her own. Let the serenity of Nature steal upon your unrest, and give you her tranquility. Allow the vigor of her unfailing forces to renew your lives. Let the great pulses of her ever beating heart throb with your own.
Ina Coolbrith (1842-1928) rose to literary prominence in early California from beginnings marred by dramatic loss and wrote classic verse that focused mainly on the theme of unhappiness abated in the simple pleasures of nature. Born into a Mormon family in Nauvoo, Illinois, she was christened Josephine Donna Smith and was the niece of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church. Her father, Don Carlos Smith, died when she was four months old, and when she was still an infant her mother, Agnes Coolbrith Smith, fled the Church and polygamy by marrying a St. Louis printer. The family migrated over the Rockies to Los Angeles by wagon in 1851. The exceptionally pretty and vivacious Josephine entered into a short-lived marriage at sixteen during which an infant son died and that ended in a sensational divorce trial. Thereafter she moved to San Francisco and adopted the pseudonym Ina Coolbrith. She established a literary reputation there as her poems were printed in the leading magazines of the day, and eventually in three full-length volumes, and she came to associate with literary luminaries like Joaquin Miller, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, John Muir, and Bret Harte. The only woman ever admitted to the Bohemian Club, she was selected Oakland's first librarian in 1873, a position she held for nearly twenty years, and in 1915 was named California's first poet laureate, the first female laureate in America. "Longing" is from her collection Songs from the Golden Gate (1895).
O foolish wisdom
sought in books!
For there the
grand hills, summer-crowned,
Their cool, soft
green to ease the pain
For Eden's life
within me stirs,
And I could kiss,
with longing wild,
The trees would
talk with me; the flowers
And as the
pardoned pair might come
So I, from out
these toils, wherein
Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930), like her friend Sarah Orne Jewett, secured her place in American literature as a local- color realist by writing stories set in rural New England with mostly female protagonists. The women Freeman wrote about were often impoverished, as she herself had been early in life. Her father worked as a carpenter in the small shoe- manufacturing town of Randolph, Massachusetts, until Mary was fifteen, at which time he moved the family to Brattleboro, Vermont, and became part-owner of a general store that ultimately failed. Mary spent one unhappy year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before she began writing and selling children's literature, which saved her from destitution after the deaths of both her parents. She resided with the family of a childhood friend for twenty years before her marriage to a physician- turned-businessman at the age of forty-nine, and during those years she established a solid reputation with her adult fiction. Nature was always a component of her regional writing, but at midcareer she embarked on a series of "symbolic and mystical" stories examining the subtle influence of the natural world on the human psyche. These stories were collected in two books: Understudies (1901), which contains six stories focused on animals and six on plants (Freeman was particularly fond of flowers and cats), and Six Trees (1903), which contains "The Balsam Fir" and five other tree stories. Freeman also wrote novels, poetry, nonfiction prose, plays, and motion picture scripts, but the following story is typical of the work she is best remembered for.
THE BALSAM FIR
Martha Elder had lived alone for years on Amesboro road, a mile from the nearest neighbor, three miles from the village. She lived in the low cottage which her grandfather had built. It was painted white, and there was a green trellis over the front door shaded by a beautiful rose-vine. Martha had very little money, but somehow she always managed to keep her house in good order, though she had never had any blinds. It had always been the dream of Martha's life to have blinds; her mild blue eyes were very sensitive to the glare of strong sunlight, and the house faced west. Sometimes of a summer afternoon Martha waxed fairly rebellious because of her lack of green blinds to soften the ardent glare. She had green curtains, but they flapped in the wind and made her nervous, and she could not have them drawn.
Blinds were not the only things which aroused in Martha Elder a no less strong, though unexpressed, spirit of rebellion against the smallness of her dole of the good things of life. Nobody had ever heard this tall, fair, gentle woman utter one word of complaint. She spoke and moved with mild grace. The sweetest acquiescence seemed evident in her every attitude of body and tone of voice. People said that Martha Elder was an old maid, that she was all alone in the world, that she had a hard time to get along and keep out of the poor-house, but that she was perfectly contented and happy. But people did not know; she had her closets of passionate solitude to which they did not penetrate. When her sister Adeline, ten years after her father's death, had married the man who everybody had thought would marry Martha, she had made a pretty wedding for her, and people had said Martha did not care, after all; that she was cut out for an old maid; that she did not want to marry. Nobody knew, not her sister, not even the man himself, who had really given her reason to blame him, how she felt. She was encased in an armor of womanly pride as impenetrable as a coat of mail; it was proof against everything except the arrows of agony of her own secret longings.
Martha had been a very pretty girl, much prettier than her younger sister Adeline; it was strange that she had not been preferred; it was strange that she had not had suitors in plenty; but there may have been something about the very fineness of her femininity and its perfection which made it repellent. Adeline, with her coarse bloom and loud laugh and ready stare, had always had admirers by the score, while Martha, who was really exquisite, used to go to bed and lie awake listening to the murmur of voices under the green trellis of the front door, until the man who married her sister came. Then for a brief space his affections did verge towards Martha; he said various things to her in a voice whose cadences ever after made her music of life; he looked at her with an expression which became photographed, as by some law of love instead of light, on her heart. Then Adeline, exuberant with passion, incredulous that he could turn to her sister instead of herself, won him away by her strong pull upon the earthy part of him. Martha had not dreamed of contesting the matter, of making a fight for the man whom she loved. She yielded at once with her pride so exquisite that it seemed like meekness.
When Adeline went away, she settled down at once into her solitary old-maiden estate, although she was still comparatively young. She had her little ancestral house, her small vegetable garden, a tiny wood-lot from which she hired enough wood cut to supply her needs, and a very small sum of money in the bank, enough to pay her taxes and insurance, and not much besides. She had a few hens, and lived mostly on eggs and vegetables; as for her clothes, she never wore them out; she moved about softly and carefully, and never frayed the hems of her gowns, nor rubbed her elbows; and as for soil, no mortal had ever seen a speck of grime upon Martha Elder or her raiment. She seemed to pick her spotless way through life like a white dove. There was a story that Martha once wore a white dress all one summer, keeping it immaculate without washing, and it seemed quite possible. When she walked abroad she held her dress skirt at an unvarying height of modest neatness revealing snowy starched petticoats and delicate ankles in white stockings. She might have been painted as a type of elderly maiden peace and pure serenity by an artist who could see only externals. But it was very different with her from what people thought. Nobody dreamed of the fierce tension of her nerves as she sat at her window sewing through the long summer afternoons, drawing her monotonous thread in and out of dainty seams; nobody dreamed what revolt that little cottage roof, when it was covered with wintry storms, sometimes sheltered. When Martha's sister came home with her husband and beautiful first baby to visit her, her smiling calm of welcome was inimitable.
"Martha never did say much," Adeline told her husband, when they were in their room at night. "She didn't exclaim even over the baby." As she spoke she looked gloatingly at his rosy curves as he lay asleep. "Martha's an old maid if there ever was one," she added.
"It's queer, for she's pretty," said her husband.
"I don't call her pretty," said Adeline; "not a mite of color." She glanced at her high bloom and tossing black mane of hair in the mirror.
''Yes, that's so," agreed Adeline's husband. Still, sometimes he used to look at Martha with the old expression, unconsciously, even before his wife, but Martha never recognized it for the same. When he had married her sister he had established between himself and her such a veil of principle that her eyes never after could catch the true meaning of him. Yet nobody knew how glad she was when this little family outside her pale of life had gone, and she could settle back unmolested into her own tracks, which were apparently those of peace, but in reality those of a caged panther. There was a strip of carpet worn threadbare in the sitting-room by Martha's pacing up and down. At last she had to take out that breadth and place it next to the wall, and replace it.
People wondered why, with all Martha's sweetness and serenity, she had not professed religion and united with the church. When the minister came to talk with her about it he was nonplussed. She said, with an innocent readiness which abashed him, that she believed in the Christian religion, and trusted that she loved God; then it was as if she folded wings of concealment over her maiden character, and he could see no more.
It was at last another woman to whom she unbosomed herself, and she was a safe confidante; no safer could have been chosen. She was a far-removed cousin, and stone-deaf from scarlet fever when she was a baby. She was a woman older than Martha, and had come to make her a visit. She lived with a married sister, to whom she was a burden, and who was glad to be rid of her for a few weeks. She could not hear one word that was spoken to her; she could only distinguish language uncertainly from the motion of the lips. She was absolutely penniless, except for a little which she earned by knitting cotton lace. To this woman Martha laid bare her soul the day before Christmas, as the two sat by the western windows, one knitting, the other darning a pair of white stockings.
"To-morrow's Christmas," said the deaf woman, suddenly, in her strange, unmodulated voice. She had a flat, pale face, with smooth loops of blond hair around the temples.
Martha said, "It ain't much Christmas to me."
"What?" returned the deaf woman.
"It ain't much Christmas to me," repeated Martha. She did not raise her voice in the least, and she moved her lips very little. Speech never disturbed the sweet serenity of her mouth. The deaf woman did not catch a word, but she was always sensitive about asking over for the second time. She knitted and acted as if she understood.
"No, it ain't much Christmas to me, and it never has been," said Martha. "I ain't never felt as if I had had any Christmas, for my part. I don't know where it has come in if I have. I never had a Christmas present in my whole life, unless I count in that purple crocheted shawl that Adeline gave me, that somebody gave her, and she couldn't wear, because it wasn't becomin'. I never thought much of it myself. Purple never suited me, either. That was the only Christmas present I ever had. That came a week after Christmas, ten year ago, and I suppose I might count that in. I kept it laid away, and the moths got into it."
"What?" said the deaf woman.
''The moths got into it," said Martha.
The deaf woman nodded wisely and knitted.
"Christmas!" said Martha, with a scorn at once pathetic and bitter -- "talk about Christmas! What is Christmas to a woman all alone in the world as I am? If you want to see the loneliest thing in all creation, look at a woman all alone in the world. Adeline is twenty-five miles away, and she's got her family. I'm all alone. I might as well be at the north pole. What's Christmas to a woman without children, or any other women to think about, livin' with her? If I had any money to give it might be different. I might find folks to give to -- other folks's children; but I 'ain't got any money. I've got nothing. I can't give any Christmas presents myself, and I can't have any. Lord! Talk about Christmas to me! I can't help if I am wicked. I'm sick and tired of livin'. I have been for some time." Just then a farmer's team loaded with evergreens surmounted with merry boys went by, and she pointed tragically; and the deaf woman's eyes followed her pointing finger, and suddenly her great, smiling face changed. "There they go with Christmas-trees for other women," said Martha; "for women who have got what I haven't. I never had a Christmas-tree. I never had a Christmas. The Lord never gave me one. I want one Christmas before I die. I've got a right to it. I want one Christmas-tree and one Christmas." Her voice rose to daring impetus; the deaf woman looked at her curiously.
"What?" said she.
"I want one Christmas," said Martha. Still the deaf woman did not hear, but suddenly the calm of her face broke up; she began to weep. It was as if she understood the other's mood by some subtler faculty than that of hearing. "Christmas is a pretty sad day to me," said she, "ever since poor mother died. I always realize more than any other time how alone I be, and how my room would be better than my company, and I don't ever have any presents. And I can't give any. I give all my knittin' money to Jane for my board, and that ain't near enough. Oh, Lord! It's a hard world!"
"I want one Christmas, and one Christmas-tree," said Martha, in a singular tone, almost as if she were demanding it of some unseen power.
"What?" said the deaf woman.
"I want one Christmas, and one Christmas-tree," repeated Martha.
The deaf woman nodded and knitted, after wiping her eyes. Her face was still quivering with repressed emotion.
Martha rose. "Well, there's no use talkin'," said she, in a hard voice; "folks can take what they get in this world, not what they want, I s'pose." Her face softened a little as she looked at the deaf woman. "I guess I'll make some toast for supper; there's enough milk," said she.
"What?" said the deaf woman.
Martha put her lips close to her ear, and shouted, "I guess I'll make some toast for supper." The deaf woman caught the word toast, and smiled happily, with a sniff of retreating grief; she was very fond of toast. "Jane 'most never has it," said she. As she sat there beside the window, she presently smelled the odor of toast coming in from the kitchen; then it began to snow. The snow fell in great, damp blobs, coating all the trees thickly. When Martha entered the sitting-room to get a dish from the china-closet, the deaf woman pointed, and said it was snowing.
"Yes, I see it is," replied Martha. "Well, it can snow, for all me. I 'ain't got any Christmas-tree to go to to-night."
As she spoke, both she and the deaf woman, looking out of the window, noted the splendid fir-balsam opposite, and at the same time a man with an axe, preparing to cut it down.
"Why, that man's goin' to cut down that tree! Ain't it on your land?" cried the deaf woman.
Martha shrieked and ran out of the house, bareheaded in the dense fall of snow. She caught hold of the man's arm, and he turned and looked at her with a sort of stolid surprise fast strengthening into obstinacy. "What you cuttin' down this tree for?" asked Martha.
The man muttered that he had been sent for one for Lawyer Ede.
"Well, you can't have mine," said Martha. "This ain't Lawyer Ede's land. His is on the other side of the fence. There are trees plenty good enough over there. You let mine be."
The man's arm which held the axe twitched. Suddenly Martha snatched it away by such an unexpected motion that he yielded. Then she was mistress of the situation. She stood before the tree, brandishing the axe. "If you dare to come one step nearer my tree, I'll kill you," said she. The man paled. He was a stolid farmer, unused to women like her, or, rather, unused to such developments in women like her. "Give me that axe," he said.
"I'll give you that axe if you promise to cut down one of Lawyer Ede's trees, and let mine be!"
"All right," assented the man, sulkily.
"You go over the wall, then, and I'll hand you the axe."
The man, with a shuffling of reluctant yielding, approached the wall and climbed over. Then Martha yielded up the axe. Then she stationed herself in front of her tree, to make sure that it was not harmed. The snow fell thick and fast on her uncovered head, but she did not mind. She remembered how once the man who had married her sister had said something to her beside this tree, when it was young like herself. She remembered long summer afternoons of her youth looking out upon it. Her old dreams and hopes of youth seemed still abiding beneath it, greeting her like old friends. She felt that she would have been killed herself rather than have the tree harmed. The soothing fragrance of it came in her face. She felt suddenly as if the tree were alive. A great, protecting tenderness for it came over her. She began to hear axe strokes on the other side of the wall. Then the deaf woman came to the door of the house, and stood there staring at her through the damp veil of snow. ''You'll get your death out there, Marthy," she called out.
"No, I won't," replied Martha, knowing as she spoke that she was not heard.
"What be you stayin' out there for?" called the deaf woman, in an alarmed voice. Martha made no reply.
Presently the woman came out through the snow; she paused before she reached her; it was quite evident what she feared even before she spoke. "Be you crazy?" asked she.
"I'm going to see to it that John Page don't cut down this tree," replied Martha. "I know how set the Pages are." The deaf woman stared helplessly at her, not hearing a word.
Then John Page came to the wall. "Look at here," he called out. "I ain't goin' to tech your tree. I thought it was on Ede's land. I'm cuttin' down another."
''You mind you don't," responded Martha, and she hardly knew her voice. When John Page went home that night he told his wife that he'd never known that Martha Elder was such an up and comin' woman. Deliver me from dealin' with old maids," said he; "they're worse than barbed wire."
The snow continued until midnight, then the rain set in, then it cleared and froze. When the sun rose next morning everything was coated with ice. The fir-balsam was transfigured, wonderful. Every little twig glittered as with the glitter of precious stones, the branches spread low in rainbow radiances. Martha and the deaf woman stood at the sitting-room window looking out at it. Martha's face changed as she looked. She put her face close to the other woman's ear and shouted: "Look here, Abby, you ain't any too happy with Jane; you stay here with me this winter. I'm lonesome, and we'll get along somehow." The deaf woman heard her, and a great light came into her flat countenance.
"Stay with you?"
"I earn enough to pay for the flour and sugar," said she, eagerly, "and you've got vegetables in the cellar, and I don't want another thing to eat, and I'll do all the work if you'll let me, Marthy."
"I'll be glad to have you stay," said Martha, with the eagerness of one who grasps at a treasure.
"Do you mean you want me to stay?" asked the deaf woman, wistfully, still fearing that she had not heard aright. Martha nodded.
"I'll go out in the kitchen and make some of them biscuit I used to make for breakfast," said the deaf woman. "God bless you, Marthy!"
Martha stood staring at the glorified fir-balsam. All at once it seemed to her that she saw herself, as she was in her youth, under it. Old possessions filled her soul with rapture, and the conviction of her inalienable birthright of the happiness of life was upon her. She also seemed to see all the joys which she had possessed or longed for in the radius of its radiance; its boughs seemed overladen with fulfillment and promise, and a truth came to her for the great Christmas present of her life. She became sure that whatever happiness God gives He never retakes, and, moreover, that He holds ready the food for all longing, that one cannot exist without the other.
"Whatever I've ever had that I loved I've got," said Martha Elder, "and whatever I've wanted I'm goin' to have." Then she turned around and went out in the kitchen to help about breakfast, and the dazzle of the Christmas-tree was so great in her eyes that she was almost blinded to all the sordid conditions of her daily life.
Abbie Huston Evans (1881-1983) was born in New Hampshire and grew up in Maine, whose landscape was to form the principal subject of her poetry. Her father was a Congregational minister, and she taught Sunday school. Among her pupils was Edna St. Vincent Millay, who later wrote in the foreword to Evans's first volume of poetry, Outcrop (1928), ''These are the poems of one more deeply and more constantly aware than most people are, of the many voices and faces of lively nature." Educated at Radcliffe (where she earned both a B.A. and an M.A.), Evans worked as a social worker in a Colorado mining camp during World War 1. She then began a long career that lasted well into her seventies teaching dancing, art, and dramatics, first at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia (1923-1953) and then at the College Settlement Farm-Camp in Horsham, Pennsylvania (1953-1957). She created a small but enduring body of poems published in three widely spaced volumes and collected later, along with five new poems, in Collected Poems (1970). ''The Back-Road" originally appeared in Outcrop.
Perhaps I needed
something gray and brown
But if I needed
these, I did not know it.
-- Whatever it was I
needed, know I found it!
As long as I've been conscious of my thoughts, I've considered myself a lover of nature, writes Barbara Kingsolver (born 1955). Her early social and environmental activism led to writing novels, poetry, short stories, and essays in which her main theme is "seeing ourselves as part of something larger." A critic of wasteful consumption, a gardener who grows much of her family's food, a scientist with a reverence for the sacredness of all creation, she encourages us to take heart while raising questions about prevalent values and beliefs. She was born in Annapolis, Maryland, and grew up in Kentucky, where she formed her adult worldview in a childhood spent close to nature. She attended DePauw University in Indiana on a music scholarship but changed her major to biology and later earned an M.S. in biology and ecology at the University of Arizona. With her ornithologist husband, Steven Hopp, and her two daughters, she divides her time between Tucson, Arizona, and a farm in southern Appalachia. "In my own worst seasons I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window," she writes in High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never (1995), from which the following excerpt is taken.
MY DESERT POND
After two days of gentle winter rains, the small pond behind my house is lapping at its banks, content as a well-fed kitten. This pond is a relative miracle. Several years ago I talked a man I knew who was handy with a bulldozer into damming up the narrow wash behind my house. This was not a creek by any stretch of imagination -- even so thirsty an imagination as mine. It was only a little strait where, two or three times a year when the rain kept up for more than a day, water would run past in a hurry on its way to flood the road and drown out the odd passing Buick. All the rest of the time this little valley lay empty, a toasted rock patch pierced with cactus.
I cleared out the brush and, with what my bulldozer friend viewed as absurd optimism, directed the proceedings. After making a little hollow, we waterproofed the bottom and lined the sides with rocks, and then I could only stand by to see what would happen. When the rains came my pond filled. Its level rises and falls some, but for years now it has remained steadfastly pond, a small blue eye in the blistered face of desert.
That part was only hydrology and luck, no miracle. But this part is: within hours of its creation, my pond teemed with life. Backswimmers, whirligig beetles, and boatmen darted down through the watery strata. Water striders dimpled the surface. Tadpoles and water beetles rootled the furry bottom. Dragonflies hovered and delicately dipped their tails, laying eggs. Eggs hatched into creeping armadas of larvae. I can't imagine where all these creatures came from. There is no other permanent water for many miles around. How did they know? What jungle drums told them to come here? Surely there are not, as a matter of course, aquatic creatures dragging themselves by their elbows across the barren desert just in case?
I'm tempted to believe in spontaneous generation. Rushes have sprung up around the edges of my pond, coyotes and javelinas come down to drink and unabashedly wallow, nighthawks and little brown bats swoop down at night to snap insects out of the air. Mourning doves, smooth as cool gray stones, coo at their own reflections. Families of Gambel's quail come each and every spring morning, all lined up, puffed and bustling with their seventeen children, Papa Quail in proud lead with his ridiculous black topknot feather boinging out ahead of him. Water lilies open their flowers at sunup and fold them, prim as praying hands, at dusk. A sleek male Cooper's hawk and a female great horned owl roost in the trees with their constant predators' eyes on dim-witted quail and vain dove, silently taking turns with the night and day shifts.
For several years that Cooper's hawk was the steadiest male presence in my life. I've stood alone in his shadow through many changes of season. I've been shattered and reassembled a few times over, and there have been long days when I felt my heart was simply somewhere else -- possibly on ice, in one of those igloo coolers that show up in the news as they are carried importantly onto helicopters. "So what?" life asked, and went on whirling recklessly around me. Always, every minute, something is eating or being eaten, laying eggs, burrowing in mud, blooming, splitting its seams, dividing itself in two. What a messy marvel, fecundity.
That is how I became goddess of a small universe of my own creation -- more or less by accident. My subjects owe me their very lives. Blithely they ignore me. I stand on the banks, wide-eyed, receiving gifts in every season. In May the palo verde trees lean into their reflections, so heavy with blossoms the desert looks thick and deep with golden hoarfrost. In November the purple water lilies are struck numb with the first frost, continuing to try to open their final flowers in slow motion for the rest of the winter. Once, in August, I saw a tussle in the reeds that turned out to be two bull snakes making a meal of the same frog. Their dinner screeched piteously while the snakes' heads inched slowly closer together, each of them engulfing a drumstick, until there they were at last, nose to scaly nose. I watched with my knuckles in my mouth, anxious to see whether they would rip the frog in two like a pair of pants. As it turned out, they were nowhere near this civilized. They lunged and thrashed, their long bodies scrawling whole cursive alphabets into the rushes, until one of the snakes suddenly let go and curved away.
Last May, I saw a dragonfly as long as my hand -- longer than an average-sized songbird. She circled and circled, flexing her body, trying to decide if my little lake was worthy of her precious eggs. She was almost absurdly colorful, sporting a bright green thorax and blue abdomen. Eventually she lit on the tip of the horsetail plant that sends long slender spikes up out of the water. She was joined on the tips of five adjacent stalks by five other dragonflies, all different: an orange-bodied one with orange wings, a yellow one, a blue-green one, one with a red head and purple tail, and a miniature one in zippy metallic blue. A dragonfly bouquet. Be still, and the world is bound to turn herself inside out to entertain you. Everywhere you look, joyful noise is clanging to drown out quiet desperation. The choice is draw the blinds and shut it all out, or believe.
What to believe in, exactly, may never turn out to be half as important as the daring act of belief. A willingness to participate in sunlight, and the color red. An agreement to enter into a conspiracy with life, on behalf of both frog and snake, the predator and the prey, in order to come away changed.
Laura Lee Davidson (c. 1870-1949) was a Baltimore school-teacher when she decided to spend a year alone on an island in Canada's Lake of Many Islands. "I am tired to death," she declared to friends and family as her plans took shape. "I need rest for at least one year. I want to watch the procession of the seasons in some place that is not all paved streets, city smells and noise. Instead of the clang of car bells and the honk of automobile horns, I want to hear the winds sing across the ice fields, instead of the smell of asphalt and hot gasoline, I want the odor of wet earth in boggy places. I have loved the woods all my life; I long to see the year go round there just once before I die." So at summer's end in 1914, she and her gear were deposited on a small rocky island, and she set up housekeeping in a one-room shack. In the selection that follows, from her memoir A Winter of Content (1922), she looks back over the year and what it has done for her.
THE MIRACLE OF RENEWAL
My holiday is over. In a very few weeks I must go back to the city and take up my work -- the same, yet never again to be the same. Here in the quiet of the woods I am trying to take stock of all that this year has done for me.
It has given me health. I have forgotten all about jerking nerves and aching muscles. I sleep all night like a stone; I eat plain food with relish; I walk and row mile after mile; I work rejoicing in my strength and glad to be alive.
There has been also the renewing of my mind, for my standards of values are changed. Things that once were of supreme importance seem now the veriest trifles. Things that once I took for granted, believing them the common due of mankind -- like air and sunshine, warm fires and the kind faces of friends -- are now the most valuable things in the world. What I have learned here of the life of birds and beasts, of insects and trees are the veriest primer facts of science to the naturalist -- to me they are inestimably precious, the possessions of my mind, for, like Chicken Little, "I saw them with my eyes, and heard them with my ears." And I shall carry away a gallery of mind-pictures to be a solace and refreshment through all the years to come.
The camp is ready for its owner. I have spent many hours in cleaning, arranging, replacing, that she may find all as she left it ten months ago. The island lies neat and fair in the sunshine, reminding me of a good child that has been washed and dressed and seated on the doorstep to wait for company. Never have the woods looked so fair to me, or the wide lake, where the dragonflies are hawking to and fro over the water, so beautiful.
This is dragonfly season. Millions of them are darting through the air -- great green and brown ones with a wingspread of three to four inches; wee blue ones, like lances of sapphire light; little inch-long yellow ones, and beautiful, rusty red.
Today I spent three hours on the dock watching one make that wonderful transition from the life amphibious to the life of the air. Noon came and went, food was forgotten while that miracle unfolded there before my very eyes.
I was tying the boat, when I saw what looked like a very large spider, crawling up from the water and out on a board. It moved with such effort and seemed so weak that I was tempted to put it out of its pain. But if I have learned nothing else in all these months in the woods, I have thoroughly learned to keep hands off the processes of nature. Too often have I seen my well-meant attempts to help things along end in disaster. So I gave the creature another glance and prepared to go about my business, when I noticed a slit in its humped back, and a head with great, dull beads of eyes pushing out through the opening. Then I sat down to watch, for I realized that this was birth and not death.
Very slowly the head emerged and the eyes began to glow like lamps of emerald light. A shapeless, pulpy body came working out and two feeble legs pushed forth and began groping for a firm hold. They fastened on the board and then, little by little and ever so slowly, the whole insect struggled out, and lay weak, almost inanimate, beside the empty case that had held it prisoner so long.
Two crumpled lumps on either side began to unfurl and show as wings. The long abdomen, curled round and under, like a snail-shell, began to uncurl and change to brilliant green, while drops of clear moisture gathered on its enameled sides and dripped from its tip. The transparent membrane of the wings, now held stiffly erect, began to show rainbow colors, as they fanned slowly in the warm air, and, at last, nearly three hours after the creature had crept out of the water, the great dragonfly stood free, beside its cast-off body lying on the dock. And
certain stupendous phrases rose in my mind and kept sounding through my thoughts.
"Behold, I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed."
There it stood, that living jewel, growing every moment more strong, more exquisite, waiting perhaps for some trumpet call of its life. Suddenly it stiffened, the great wings shot out horizontally, and with one joyous, upward bound, away it flashed, an embodied triumph, out across the shining water, straight up into the glory of the sun.
When I came to myself I was standing a-tiptoe gazing up after it, my breath was coming in gasps and I heard my own voice saying: "It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.... Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory."
Then, standing there under those trees, clothed in their new green and upspringing to the sky, and beside the lake, where the young ferns troop down to the water's edge, valiant little armies with banners, there came to me one of those strange flashes of understanding, that pierce for an instant the thick dullness of our minds, and give us a glimpse of the meaning of this life we live in blindness here.
I had seen those woods, all bare and dead, rise triumphant in a glorious spring. I had seen that lake grow dark and still and lie icebound through the strange sleep of winter. Its water now lay rippling in the sun.
Since my coming to Many Islands, one year ago, the Great War has broken forth, civilization has seemed to die, and the hearts of half the world have gone down into a grave.
But even to me has come the echo of the Great Voice that spoke to John, as he stood gazing on a new heaven and new earth:
"I am the beginning and the end," it said. "Behold I make all things new."
Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) chronicled in her poems and in occasional columns for the local newspaper the inner and outer weathers of her life at Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire, where she lived and worked for nearly twenty years with her husband, the poet Donald Hall. The four books of poetry published before her untimely death from leukemia, as well as two posthumously published collections, reflect her love of nature, her religious faith, her awareness of life's shadows, and her knack for capturing meaning in the luminous details of ordinary moments. She grew up outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, across the road from a working farm, and graduated from the University of Michigan. In a 1993 interview with Bill Moyers, she expressed the hope that her poems would help people understand and deal with depression, something she struggled with all her life. She herself found relief in physical exertion outdoors, especially gardening and hiking. "Depression in Winter" is from her second book of poems, The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986).
DEPRESSION IN WINTER
There comes a
little space between the south
I sank with every
step up to my knees,