Saturday, November 20, 2010

Untitled Poem

Where the firs grew in circles by Saranac Lake
A scarlet-eyed loon howled over its mate.
I felt its rage swell and swallow the sky,
Knock down the stars, the fire, and I.

The lap of the lake, the loon's song, my breath,
The sound of all life holds the promise of death.
To stand shod on those shores felt ignorant sin.
Let me go back to that place again.

The tap-drip of rain on the forest's green eaves,
Come cover and cloak me in pine and oak leaves,
To cut thru the gold poplars as a crow to its nest,
But Uncas is dead. Hawkeye is gone to the west.

Even October branches feel sacred and haunted,
To sway with their sway is not more than I've wanted.
Now in my mind it is winter, and the colors grow dim.
Let me go back to that place again.

At a farm in the fields where two rivers crossed,
And the swallows swooped low and were gone with the frost,
My thoughts held the shape of a lone whip-poor-will.
Did I dream it all then? Could I dream it still?

A lion had stepped from the ranks of the corn
And shattered the moon with the boom of his roar.
The blue of his eye burned thru me like flame.
Let me go back to that place again.

The roll of the prairie's striated loom,
The smell of the sweet grass and Indian perfume,
Old boots and a horse and and feathers and grains
And ride with the buffalo over the plains,

The drum of the sage grouse, the coyote choir,
Joseph went cold and dead with his fire,
Solace and silence, without and within,
Let me go back to that place again.

Is the world - or I - who has changed?
That the sounds are all harsh and the words have come strange?
That we've mapped out the stars, found the secrets therein,
And we've been to the wizard, though our hearts remain tin?

The fields are all burned. The river's gone dry.
A body of crows has eaten the sky.
I remember the way that it was before then.
Let me go back to that place again.

Crossing the Olympics in Silence

I had written earlier that Olympic National Park is one of the quietest places on the planet. Go there, and you will understand. A fist of rock thrust up from the ocean and joined North America, then sent glaciers down to carve out Puget Sound, cutting a moat from where there would one day be people. Then when the people came, in boats and on foot and later by car, geography and climate played against settlement. East-blowing, moisture-laden air knocks against the mountains and sheds its load, resulting in the wettest place in North America. (The island of Kauai receives more, but is only politically, not geographically, North American) Rainfall is more commonly measured in feet than by inches. Up to 12 feet in parts. A goldfish could spend summers free range with weather like that.

The mountains that allow this spectacular rainfall are not especially high – Mt. Olympus does not even rise to 8,000 feet. Rainier, by contrast, is over 14,000 feet high. But these same mountains still hold glaciers from the Pleistocene, thanks to cool ocean air. They rise in a jumble of teeth. There is no easy ridgeline and only one low pass, and so no road thru the Olympics, which means a drive from the coastal section of the park to the city of Bremerton, on the sound, will take about 3 hours, though they are not even 60 miles apart.

Then there is the vegetation, so much of it that an 1889 expedition assembled for the purpose of crossing the Olympic peninsula took 6 months. It was unknown what they would find within the wilderness – 90% of which is still there – as the natives of the area seldom ventured within the mountains. It was not, presumably, because of superstition, rival tribes, or grizzly bear – none of which were known to ever have been within what is now the park – but for the shear difficulty of navigation. Every pint of rain has been converted to wood, moss, and leaves that the place is a dense tangle of chin-high sword fern, salal, spruce, alder, maple, and fir. The air itself is green. This is the highest concentration of biomass per acre on Earth - including the Amazon and the Congo - since when a tree falls, it does not rot, but sprouts moss and fungus and trees in turn that a century old spruce can be growing suspended from a hanging snag and it seems there are two forests, the vertical and the horizontal.

Still, six months seemed outrageous. I was sure that I could do better. And I did. It took me five days to cross the park from east to west, but I had a distinct advantage over those earlier folks. I had trails and a map to follow. That’s cheating I suppose. I let someone else do the exploring for me. That’s not the way it was for them.

Alright then, let’s try it the way they did.

At Ruby Beach, north of Kalaloch, on the coast-side of the park, my walk along the beach was blocked by a cliff sticking its foot out into the Pacific. If I wanted to get all the way to Cape Flattery – the end of the Olympic Peninsula, and of the US too, I suppose – I was going to have to get off the beach. So instead of taking the path up to Highway 101, which I had passed a quarter mile back, I made sure my hip-belt was tight, stashed my hiking poles, and started to climb.

I am not sure if any members of the Press Expedition – as the 1889 foray was called – ever had to climb a cliff with a backpack, but surely had they encountered such an obstacle, they would not have shied away. So, my fingers in the cracks of sandstones and hollows left by borer clams, I crept spider-like up the cliff till I could sink my fingers into some sedges sprouting at the top. Then I gripped onto a salal bush and swung myself up. There was a deer path that I followed, ducking a low branch, straying wide where the cliff had eroded under a mat of roots, going between two stunted spruces. My pack gets stuck as I try to pass, so I take it off and shift it around one of the trees and over a log. I take a step and fall thru some rotted leaves covering a sinkhole, though only about 6 inches deep. I pull out, and put my other foot forward, breaking a weft of branches, cracking and scratching thru the next few steps.

A swale in the land drops me down to where a tree blew over and tore a chunk of earth with it that I stand in a hollow, salal branches and ferns closing over my head. I begin to walk one way out and get my glasses knocked off my a bush. I spend a minute groping for them, not moving my feet, then try another way thru the sword ferns, but the fallen tree tore up its roots like great links in a chain that bar me from that way. The only way then is to climb up the root ball and onto the trunk, a more difficult task than the cliff as I’m being jabbed, scratched, and grimed all over as I rise, mud falling out beneath my feet, sweating like a horse with no ocean breeze to cool me off. I walk along the trunk, the only clear path, till the remaining branches block me, and I descend, looking for the next fallen tree. And that’s how I move thru, going trunk to trunk, navigating the lattice of fallen wood.

All the earlier elements of the first part are repeated, minus losing my glasses, plus a few more falls. Each passage of the labyrinth comes blocked with salal that I must either force my way thru, or scrambled onto an adjacent log sheathed in velvet moss, till I stumble onto the highway. Sitting down, I shake out my clothes, unlace my boots and empty the twigs from my socks. I pull the leaves from my underwear and change my hat. I look back thru the forest to the open air where the cliff falls to the ocean, maybe about 80 meters away. It has taken me 40 minutes to get this far.

The same factors that kept the Indians out still seem to keep folks away that despite being within easy commute distance of 6 million people, the park is virtually uninhabited. During my five days within the mountain section, I would see one person more than a mile from a road. I would enjoy an external quiet that I had been lacking since Rainier.

However, it was only an external quiet. Internal quiet is something different. My mind is an active one. I won’t say keen or productive, but certainly buzzing.

It’s no wonder, given the amount of stimuli available to it, it should be so. I don’t know about a century, or a millennium, ago, but in my time it’s as though silence has come to be feared, and despite the hundred of precious proverbs extolling its worth we’re bent on its extinction. In public, even in places that I had hoped would have quiet – libraries, coffee shops, cathedrals – I find whirring machinery, conversation, or piped in music. I don’t particularly want to be listening to the Jackson Five as I write this, but the coffee shop I’m in insists on having it.

I talked about this incident with a park employee I met. I felt that a hundred years ago things were quieter not due to lack of machinery – or rather, not solely from lack of machinery – but lack of intruding sound. Most sound that was out there was put there by or for the listener – for work, for pleasure, for transportation, for thought. How much more meditative it would have been to be out in the woods without a song in my

“In John Muir’s time,” he said, and with park employees it always comes back to Muir, “people read more, sang more, and there were more musicians. People had stuff in their heads all the time.”

I don’t doubt that a century ago people were thinking, but I do suspect they had much less in their heads. Their brain activity wasn’t clogged with radio jingles and theme songs to cancelled television programs and the Jackson Five. The thoughts that were there were thoughts that they wanted to have. They were not intrusions coming to them via well-meaning, banal restaurateurs and civic centers. One could still walk thru a city park, say, and listen to the wind and not the piped-in marches of Sousa.

I became frustrated with myself that sitting at an alpine meadow, or watching bears enjoy a huckleberry bush, my mind was still chattering on, that in even such a charged natural environment I could have a Zeppelin song in my head, or think about a sentence I wanted to write. It was as if the accretion of outside sound had built up in a reservoir of noise that now leaked back to fill a vacuum. I couldn’t have silence even if I wanted it, even if I got there – and I had – for lack of having a quiet mind. All those sounds, conversations, jam sessions, questioning thoughts would come back that I may as well be listening to an audio player.

This is troubling. It means that I am doing something I always admonished my students never to do. I am just passing thru. I am distracted.

I think, come spring, I may again cross the park, this time from south to north, and perhaps then, in silence. From when I enter to when I leave, I will make neither words nor songs, but let the memory of noise fade and let sound enter me. To contribute towards me and to who I am becoming, and not project myself so much.