Friday, October 21, 2011


tamarack and pine trees I pass on my way to work

Throughout my adult life, there have been times I have been criticized for not being more engaged with nature. The harshest came from Denise Levertov, who thought it was the ultimate reason that I should not be a poet. I remember a conference with her when she said, "Susan, your interest is in human relationships. Poets care about nature. Why don't you write fiction?" I said to her, almost plaintively, "I'm going on a backpacking trip for four days starting tomorrow." She came very close to patting my knee, as if to say, "That's nice, dear, but it's not going to make you a poet."

Such a pronouncement is silly, of course, but Denise Levertov loomed very large and we students gave her a lot of power. In fact, she did have the power to make or break us, recommending her favorite students' manuscripts to publishers. When my poetry manuscript was a finalist for the National Poetry Series a couple of years later, she was one of the judges.

I grew up in Park Forest, a suburb of Chicago, a place defined, if by anything, but culture, by sociology, by human relationships. It is the subject of the book The Organizational Man. There was a forest preserve, and we walked in it, but in its deep recesses there was danger-- smoking and drinking and sex and violence. We stayed on the path and didn't go there at night. On a camping trip with the Campfire Girls we got deluged and ended up twelve whimpering, sodden girls in the back of station wagons driving home in the middle of the night.

I knew the names of a few trees: locust, maple, oak. Firs and pines were all "evergreens." The truth is, I didn't know anyone who knew the names of any plants beyond the most common. I loved summer storms and October weather, especially the early darkness and wind in the piles of leaves. I loved lilacs in June. I loved snow on the giant pine outside our kitchen window, framed by the carport.

During my two stints in California and my year in Reno, I worked very hard to absorb the natural world. Backpacking was just the start. The fact is, it was foreign terrain. In Reno, attached to the Literature and Environment program at the University, there was so much talk about the various ecosystems. Basin and range. Watersheds. Elevation and its effects. Lake Tahoe and its clarity and fragility. Walking in the public lands, which seemed barren to me, I have to admit I loved the rusted out shells of old cars people had pushed over ridges and the sound of people shooting tin cans. But I worked hard to pay attention to the plants as well.

Which brings me to the tamarack tree. This fall it has made an impression on me. Two weekends ago we were out at the Kluesner log cabin, which was built on our property and moved to a lake near Wadena, Minnesota. It was a gorgeous, unseasonably warm October weekend, so we went kayaking both days on the lake. On one shore was a large tamarack grove, right along the swampy edge of the lake, backed by black-green pines.

Tamarack is a pine tree whose foliage turns yellow in the fall before it loses its needles. They're feathery and I'm sure I thought they were just drought-stricken, sickly trees in the past (not noticing they grow in or near water). But this year I saw them along that lakeshore in all their glory, and now I see them on my way to work, small stands sometimes glowing in the morning sun or stark against green pines. They only grow in northern climes, mostly in Alaska and Canada, also in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Connecticut and Maine, dipping down as far south as the "extreme northern end of Illinois." 

I remember standing with my sister on a corner in Atlanta when she helped me move there after college. She wanted to know what kind of tree we were looking at, a large tree with smooth bark, gnarly branches and large, waxy green leaves. It hadn't occurred to me to wonder. It turned out to be a magnolia, and then I started seeing them everywhere. I wish she could have been there to see them in bloom. Later I learned about dogwoods, from a poster for the annual dogwood festival, and started looking for them. I learned what azaleas were.

I read about jacaranda trees in a poem, and then looking for them in Southern California after living there two years. They bloom in April, and if you look for them they are everywhere. But you have to look-- amid the shopping centers and concrete. You have to go into the neighborhoods and slow down. In fact, you can see them best from an airplane at that time, making a light-purple canopy over the area. They are native to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. They are exotic, like the bamboo, birds of paradise and lemon trees in my Long Beach neighborhood.

Nature is a tricky business, and mostly, it is local. In Park Forest, I loved the rattling seed pods of the locust trees, the helicopter seeds of the maple. More than anything I loved the weeping willows that grew along a creek behind the public library. I loved Queen Anne's lace with its black dot at the center. When I was very young and living by that forest preserve,  I thought the black dot was a baby ant, the queen. I loved black-eyed Susans, with whom I shared a name. To share a name with a flower seemed quite magical.

Now I live with and love the purple aster, droopy cone flowers and bergamot. I look for the sumac and, now, the tamarack groves.   

1 comment:

WolfsGotYourTongue said...

that's funny, I never knew that poetry was 'supposed' to be about nature... I'm glad my poetry professors never told me that! ;)

I dig this post... and the jacarandas