Autumn: “the small gnats mourn”

HeadeMartinJohnsonSunlightAndShadow

“Sunlight and Shadow” by Martin Johnson Heade (American 1819-1904, National Gallery, Washington, D. C.). The artist depicts “the tides, meteorological phenomena, and other natural forces that shaped the appearance of the swamp and showed how the land was used for hunting, fishing, and the harvesting of naturally occurring salt hay” (quote from National Gallery description). The apple tree is full of fruit  and the haystack  half in sun and half in shadow. I saw this painting a few weeks ago at the National Gallery and felt it captured the warmth of the harvest season portrayed in Keats’ ‘To Autumn.’ (This photograph is courtesy of wiki commons. My photograph cut off the apple tree.)

Autumn: it’s time again to walk the long good-bye among the fallen leaves and the last flowers of summer and think about Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn,’ a poem I cannot forget. For a number of years on an especially fine October day I would take my Writing as a Naturalist class at Ithaca College outside. We would read Keats’ poem aloud together and then I would ask them to choose their favorite line. Though many students of the 21st century seem to be occasionally more interested in science fiction and epic fantasy, they responded wholeheartedly to this classic Romantic poem. It never failed to awaken their notice and appreciation of the day and the season. Every line had a champion.

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Keats’ “Autumn” has been called by some the most perfect poem in the English language, and many readers and critics have observed that it is a celebration of our ecosystem and interconnectedness. Which is perhaps the reason for its perfection, in that its many references to nonhuman species awaken a remembrance of how our own biology connects us to all the fruits and birds and insects and weather of the Earth. We feel nourished after reading the poem, more aware of the blessings of harvest. Keats composed the poem, in 1819, two years before his death. Scholar Jonathan Bate writes in his essay “The Ode ‘To Autumn’ as Ecosystem” that when doctors in Rome opened up his body after death “they thought it was the worst possible Consumption—the lungs were intirely destroyed—the cells were quite gone’” (p. 258 in The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism). Keats died when he was 26.

My copy of Keats' Letters.

My copy of Keats’ Letters.

Bates quotes from one of Keats’ famous letters about a walk he took in 1819:

How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—that struck me so much in my sunday’s walk that I composed upon it. (p. 258)

Bates says that “To Autumn” is a weather poem, as were many other major Romantic poems.  Weather has always influenced our moods and especially now, in this time of climate change, our sense of the fragility of life. Keats in his letter talks about the stubble appearing warm to him, and in the poem he shows it turning rosy in the setting sun. Bates writes:

… the poem itself is an image of ecological wholeness which may grant to the attentive and receptive reader a sense of being-at-home-in-the-world….the movement through the poem…is not one which divides the culture from the nature. There is no sense of river, hill, and sky as the opposite of house and garden. Rather, what Keats seems to be saying is that to achieve being-at-home-in-the-world you have to begin from your own dwelling-place. Think globally, act locally….

Bates sees the “thee” in the poem as thoroughly female, and I have always imagined the person with “soft-lifted hair” as a woman, though much older than Winslow Homer’s “Autumn,” but perhaps with red hair as well, while Carol Rumens in her rumination on the poem, which she writes is “marked by sensuous profusion and artistic control,” sees a male Dionysian figure  becoming at some points androgynous. The students always end our Keats’ Autumn class talking about how they love Ithaca’s Apple Festival and drinking cider and eating apple cider donuts, where they connect with farmers and growers and craftspeople, many distant from academic circles the rest of the year, through the sharing of harvest.

Winslow Homer's

Winslow Homer’s “Autumn” seen at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago.

I also walk in autumn, saying a  good-bye to the ecosystem before its winter’s nap. Devoid of the kind of “artistic control” that Keats possessed,  I wish to include here all that I see.

Wild apples:

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY).

Wild apple (Enfield, Ithaca, NY). So delicious!

Autumn crocus, always a surprise when it pops up unexpectedly because you forget that its leaves were ever there in the spring:

Autumn crocus arising out of myrtle. The large (some call them ungainly) leaves of the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnal) appear in the spring. After the leaves have died down, the flowers appear in the fall.

Autumn crocus and myrtle. The large (some call them ungainly) leaves of the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) appear in the spring. After the leaves have died down, and much later  the flowers appear in the fall.

Beechdrops:

Beechdrop arising out of leaf litter.

Beechdrop (a parasitic plant, Epifagus virginiana) arising out of leaf litter. It carpets the forest floor at this time of year in Enfield, NY.

Looking down at the whorled form of a beech drop, showing the reddish purple flower.

A view looking down at the whorled form of a beechdrop, showing the reddish purple flower. The beechdrop lacks chlorophyll and so must gain its sustenance from the roots of beech trees.

Delicate grasses:

The grace of grasses.

The grace of grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops find the fine hairs of these soft grasses.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Dewdrops and fall-flowering grass.

Some plants only become exuberant in fall, like the bur cucumber:

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Bur cucumber: flowers, fruit, and tendrils.

Where is the bird now who nested here in the spring?

The nests are empty.

An empty nest dangles in my path.

As Keats’ suggests, the bees have their own harvesting to do:

Apple and bees.

Apple and bees or are they wasps that look like bees? I must consult my cousin for an identification.

I have my own “later flowers for the bees” —Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’:

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

Helianthus (perennial sunflower) and butterfly.

The autumn day portrayed in Keats’ poem is gracious and benevolent, but we know there are also days of cool mists and grey skies and shriveled plants. Yet, they are beautiful too:

Horse browsing in Keats'

Horse browsing in Keats’ “mellow mists” (Enfield, NY).

The only descriptive word Keats repeats in the poem is “soft” as in “thy hair soft-lifted” and “soft-dying day.” He’s right. When the sun shines, autumn days are so soft, because some mists are warm.

My favorite line is “Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn.” It’s a line that is both romantic and unromantic. I find it moving that Keats gives the burden and honor of mourning, the short good-bye because gnats do not live very long, to the insignificant gnat.

Every day that I walk I find new autumn stories. The hedgerows of my husband’s tree nursery are blessed with hickories–particularly shagbark hickories. The nuts cause my feet to bobble. Soon I pick up the offending spheres, sniff them, and put them in my pocket for further aromatherapy. Sometimes I see an ecosystem story, like this one about the hickories and ants.

Shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore.

A shagbark hickory awaiting an herbivore caught my attention.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

Ants investigate the inside of a hickory shell.

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Ants in close contact as they explore the inside of the shell.

Ants in close contact as they explore the inside of the shell.

I am sure this is a story that E. O. Wilson, the great ant biologist, could decipher, or perhaps Darwin had notes on such an interaction because he observed almost everything. It seems that Autumn is a time when members of an Ecosystem exhibit their last behaviors of interconnectedness before the Big Rest.

Goldenrod and woodpile.

The golden and the grey: goldenrod ornamenting woodpile constructed by busy human.

“Petrified Lightning”–for Charles Darwin, “Spy of Everything”

 

The Modern Library edition of The Voyage of the Beage.

The Modern Library edition of The Voyage of the Beage.

 

Whenever I used Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle as a text for Academic Writing at Ithaca College, the students and I celebrated the author’s birthday with a cake if Feb. 12 fell on a M-W-F. We devoured Wegman’s best vanilla sheet cake with white icing, lemon filled in the middle and blue letters for “Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin.” We may have left the classroom desks slightly smeared with gooey frosting as we honored the young man we had grown so fond while reading the Voyage and his letters home, available online at the Darwin Correspondence Project.

The students were quick to sympathize with a young man who seemed aimless and unsuited for many professions. He had failed in both the medical and theological studies that his father pushed him into after college. He was UNPROMISING. Luckily, a mentor recommended him for what might now be called a gap year, room and board paid for, as he sailed around the world as a shipboard naturalist. Despite constant seasickness and homesickness, Darwin prevailed. Adrift and alone, he found a new way of looking at the world.

 

The Penguin Classics edition of the Voyage of the Beagle.

The Penguin Classics edition of the Voyage of the Beagle.

 

While the students particularly liked his descriptions of animals, like the puffer fish, I have marveled at a passage at the end of Chapter III about finding examples of petrified lightning near Maldonado, in what is now Uruguay. Darwin describes Maldonado, where he spends 10 weeks, as “quiet and forlorn.” However, after many weeks on a 90-foot long ship, he is positive about his view. He writes,

The scenery is very uninteresting; there is scarcely a house, an enclosed piece of ground, or even a tree, to give it an air of cheerfulness. Yet, after being imprisoned for some time on a ship, there is a charm in the unconfined feeling of walking over boundless plains of turf. Moreover, if your view is limited to a small space, many objects possess beauty.

With that mindset it is no wonder that his eye would be open to discerning fulgurites poking up out of a drab sandy hillock, though Darwin had reasons for being distracted from his work if he so chose. For example, the gauchos:

They frequently wear their moustaches and long black hair curling down their backs. With their brightly colored garments, great spurs clanking about their heels, and knives stuck as daggers (and often so used) at their waists, they are a very different race of men from what might be expected from their name of Gauchos, or simple countrymen. Their politeness is excessive; they never drink spirits without expecting you to taste it; but whilst making their exceedingly graceful bow, they seem quite as ready, if occasion offered, to cut your throat.

Darwin may have sipped their spirits to be convivial, but he stayed on task, making copious notes about the habits of every manner of flora and fauna, the four-footed as well as the two-footed. The tucutuco, which he writes can “be briefly described as a Gnawer,” is also a grunter, and is named for its persistent and resonant vocalizations. If one could only read one chapter in the Voyage, a good choice would be Chapter III. In its last few pages he describes his finding of the petrified lightning, also known as fulgurites.

 

The Anchor Library of Science Edition of the Voyage of the Beagle.

The Anchor Library of Science Edition of the Voyage of the Beagle.

 

It being February 12, 2015, Darwin’s 206th birthday, and nearly Valentine’s Day, I have composed a prose poem/birthday card/Valentine trying to paint a picture of the young Darwin unearthing the almost invisible glass tubes from the sandy hillock near Maldonado. Darwin said at the end of his life that he could not read poetry, that his thinking had become too dependent on facts. This may be an occupational hazard for a naturalist. Darwin never embroiders or exaggerates, though he allows himself to talk about beauty. There is a serene, disinterested moderation in his description and diction. In my birthday card I have tried, however, to demonstrate the drama of this quiet moment, Darwin on his hands and knees noticing, noticing, noticing to 1/30 of an inch. My prose poem/birthday card/Valentine is meant to be literal, place based, and accurate with just a slight leaning toward the dramatic.

 

Petrified Lightning

A fierce history marks

life on our planet.

Lightning explodes in 1793

over Buenos Aires,

striking 37 times, killing 19 people.

Charles Darwin in 1832, just 22, visits

Monte Video and Maldonado, Uruguay,

across the Rio Plata from Buenos Aires,

by night, sleeping under the stars with gauchos,

by day observing the river hog, the tucutuco,

the tyrant flycatcher, the carrion hawk, and the verbena.

As he explores what exists,

the living and the nonliving,

Fanny, the girlfriend in England, stops writing,

while despotic General Rosas befriends him,

paranoid as such rulers must be,

asking why the traveller scribbles notes.

Darwin replies, Naturalista.

Oh, so you are a spy? Rosas asks.

Yes, a spy of everything.

The tips of minute glass tubes

signal to him from loose sandy

hillocks near Maldonado.

Delicate, sooty black, wrinkled like bark,

driven into the ground by violent heat, they

prove the meeting of heaven and Earth.

Fiery thunderbolts melt particles of silica,

fusing them into threads of glass, petrified lightning.

Digging on his hands and knees,

unearthing the filaments, two feet deep,

measuring the thickness of their walls to 1/30 of an inch,

Darwin confirms that no event on Earth goes unrecorded.

If we follow the traces of life’s thunderbolts,

we will live forever.

The Barnes & Noble edition of the Autobiography of Charles Darwin.

The Barnes & Noble edition of the Autobiography of Charles Darwin.

Tending foxes: real and imaginary

A few days ago I drove past a dead fox on a road I travel frequently. I stopped and backed up carefully. I feared it was my fox.

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The tail of my fox.

The fox lay a short distance from the entrance to a small parcel of land, 9/10ths of an acre that my husband and I recently purchased from a Ms. Fox (a real person) as a writing/gardening retreat (this writer needs to be close to the land in order to write). Ms. Fox told me that a fox was living under the garden shed and that she would block the entrance because of the musty smell. I could see the scooped out place at the entrance to the shed and imagined a fluffy red tail disappearing into a safe hiding place under my writing desk. I said that I didn’t mind the smell (because in fact I couldn’t smell anything unusual) and I would like to share the shed with the fox, and I came to think of Ms. Fox’s fox as my fox. Ms. Fox told me that the garden “wants to be wild” but she had wrested, with her pruning shears, weed wacker, and true grit, sinuous beds for hardy, tough perennials. My husband and I planted three different kinds of foxgloves (Digitalis)  (the woolly foxglove, the salmon-pink Foxglove ‘Glory of Roundway,’ and the golden-apricot Foxglove ‘Goldcrest’) to attract pollinators and glove the fox.

So when I saw the dead fox near the entrance to the secret garden, I felt a sense of loss and a need to take responsibility for the body. I got out of the car, put on my gloves, and went to the fox. She (he?) was in perfect condition. There was no blood nor any visible external blemish. I picked her up, she had stiffened in rigor mortis, and brought her inside the entrance, set her on a patch of clean snow behind the gate, and admired her beauty. The tail was magnificent, bushy, long, and full. The ears were lovely, delicate, pointed, furry. The tip of a pink tongue peaked out from her mouth. Dainty feet! What whiskers! Gray or red fox? I thought gray because  each tawny hair was white tipped. From a distance it looked like a dusting of snow covered the body. A perfect way to be gray.

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The fur of my fox.

Ithaca was in the grips of another polar vortex, so the body remained frozen, and the ground as well, so that we could not bury her. My husband and I decided that nature’s way was best, that letting vultures or coyotes nourish themselves upon her body was beneficial to the ecosystem. That was the decision—but nothing happened. I kept visiting my fox. After 48 hours she lay there as pristine as ever, though I had seen signs of  winter creatures eating other winter creatures everywhere.

Blood, fur, and pawprint:  a meal has been eaten in the forest.

Still life of blood, fur, and pawprint: a meal has been eaten in the forest.

At Seven Fields my husband and I observed a frozen deer carcass be eaten to the bone over several days. I worried about my dog becoming interested  in my fox if a thaw set in and decomposers had not found the body.

Deer carcass at Seven Fields, Enfield, Ithaca, NY.

Deer carcass at Seven Fields, Enfield, Ithaca, NY.

Deer carcass at Seven Fields cleaned by scavengers (scat of scavenger visible on ribs).

Deer carcass at Seven Fields cleaned by scavengers (scat of scavenger visible on ribs).

Meanwhile, at the same time, on a completely different tangent, hunting for a poem to memorize, I opened Ted Hughes: Selected Poems 1957-1994.

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Botanical illustration of foxgloves on cover  of Ted Hughes: Selected Poems 1957-1994 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2002).

The first poem in the volume  is “The Thought-Fox,” which I read many times with my writing-as-a-naturalist students in a different book, Hughes’ superb Poetry in the Making: An Anthology. It is a collection of informal talks he gave for the BBC designed for interesting children in poetry.  In the essay called “Capturing Animals,” he describes his youthful interest in animals, how sometimes as a boy he stuffed 30-40 live mice in his pocket that he had plucked from sheaves at threshing time, and the genesis of his poem  “The Thought-Fox.”

TED HUGHES Poetry in the Making: An Anthology ( Faber and Faber, 1967)

TED HUGHES Poetry in the Making: An Anthology ( Faber and Faber, 1967)

Hughes writes: “An animal I never succeeded in keeping alive is the fox. I was always frustrated: twice by a farmer, who killed cubs I had caught before I could get to them, and once by a poultry keeper who freed my cub while his dog waited. Years after these events I was sitting up late one snowy night in dreary lodgings in London. I had written nothing for a year or so but that night I got the idea I might write something and I wrote in a few minutes the following poem: the first ‘animal’ poem I ever wrote. ”

So as I was visiting my fox I was thinking of Ted Hughes’ “thought-fox.” I completely agree with Hughes that immortalizing an animal in a poem has many advantages, but I had a body to think about.

My fox as I found her.

My fox as I found her.

I agonized, checked the yellow pages, made a phone call, and then made a decision on the third day. I drove back out to the secret garden a few hours after my morning visit, wrapped my fox in a blanket, put her in the back of my car, and took her to a taxidermist.

My fox behind the gate in the secret garden.

My fox behind the gate in the secret garden.

I was apprehensive about my decision, but happily a positive adventure ensued. I handed my fox over to a lovely couple in their ‘70s who run a retirement business in taxidermy. He, tall, bright-blue-eyed, youthful baseball cap on his head, and she, beautiful, gracious, and friendly, gave me a complete explanation of the processes involved in taxidermy, which I will omit here for the sake of brevity. Their ranch house looked unremarkable from the outside, but soon my head whirled, as I found myself nose-to-nose with several elk, a turkey vulture, crow, huge mountain goat, and numerous deer. These taxidermists work terribly hard. After a career in construction he retired to taxidermy and championship archery, and she, after 39 years working for the local trust company retired to be his indispensable helpmate and companion in the taxidermy business. They know a lot about animals of all kinds, well, mostly the furred and feathered. He told me that the grey fox (Urocyron cinereoargenteus) is a creature of the brush and has the footprint of a cat. Coyotes tolerate this most  ancient member of the dog family (Canidae), which can climb trees to escape predators.  He said the red fox has the footprint of a small dog and favors wooded areas.

Taxidermy was a critical job skill that helped Charles Darwin gain his position as naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle. In Edinburgh, when he was studying (unhappily) as a medical student at the university, Darwin had lodgings two doors away from those of a freed Guyanan slave named John Edmonstone, whom Darwin hired for a guinea a week to teach him the art of taxidermy. Darwin and Edmonstone formed a congenial friendship, based on mutual natural history interests, that Darwin remembered all his life (see his Autobiography). In the process of rewilding, a movement whose aim is to bring extinct animals back to life (see Nathaniel Rich’s “The Mammoth Commeth” in the New York Times, Feb. 27th, 2014),  taxidermied specimens may offer the DNA fragments that will allow geneticists to reconstruct the original genome of the extinct animal. Thus, Darwin’s specimen of the now-extinct Floreana mockingbird may sire descendents one day.

In his BBC talk, Hughes tells children,  “in some ways my fox is better than an ordinary fox. It will live for ever, it will never suffer from hunger or hounds. I have it with me wherever I go. And I made it.”  Hughes wanted children to understand that poets are pacifists, but there is a paradox in his words. There would never have been a thought-fox without the real fox, which first appeared 3.6 million years ago.

Taxidermy has been called the art of death.  I cannot offer a rational explanation for why I took my fox to the taxidermists. However, in a few months, a fox, more than a thought but less than real, will keep me company in the shed as I think about the lovely taxidermists and the poet, thought-foxes and real foxes,  and mortality and extinction.

I want lots of foxes and foxgloves in my garden, all real. I want to see fluffy tails disappearing into tangles and thickets, and spires of speckled peach and rose colored foxglove flowers. Like Hughes, I want foxes of all kinds to live forever. One problem with extinction is how barren human imaginations will become if we destroy all the models for our flights of fancy.

Winter leaf lies quietly.

Oak leaf on snow, holding out against decomposition.