Becoming a Naturalist, Part 21.
By Jack Phillips.
I find myself in a morning coffee shop when not in the field. Yesterday I drank a medium Rwanda and read my new fascination, the cosmic avant-garde French-village poetry of Gustaf Sobin. David Hinton’s new The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape put me on to Sobin, held up as a clarion of eco-poetics in the traditions of Lao Tzu and Henry David Thoreau. The professors, philosophers, and poets at nearby tables new nothing of Sobin, not one. I argued that one day that Sobin will stand as a giant along Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder, and explained how his poetry speaks of the existential hunger of humanity for authentic contact with the wild. But then something came hot out of the oven, and we answered our quest for meaning with blueberry scones.
Today we are following a spring-fed brook, and my hunger for wildness takes the shape of a frog. An existential frog is much harder to find than a hot scone. Cricket frogs in this bright ravine jump ahead, preferring that we go back home. I don’t want to eat them, just to adore their shiny calico backs and maybe hear them sing. But they don’t believe that we will love them, and the last guy needed bait.
Humans have come to believe that nature is ours to collect, name, or forage. So nature does not wait for us around the next meander, but runs like hell or hides. Linnaeus hired a marching band to lead the way on field trips, and likewise we march into the bush, chanting mispronounced scientific names to hang on wild things that can’t get away. Cricket frogs are as disturbed by our super-sized feet as by our Latinized babble, by what Gustaf Sobin makes out as mutter and muscles:
what the eye flies after transluces; what
you want, doesn’t want: it vanishes…
you’re only yours, mutter and
muscles, as you enter it, its vanishing.
we’re almost not, and
know it. but the poem, the poem happens
before us , and we send it across, in-
nocent and still hesitant, instead of us.
Sobin’s words make space for moments that can’t be captured. They feel to me like gaps in human ambition, respites from boots on the ground. But these spaces are more than the absence of words, they function as an opening into creative silence. In Hinton’s analysis, “A Sobin poem opens a “talk of mysteries,” a force field of wonder and query and unknowing.” Sobin’s ecopoetic practice weaves “consciousness and cosmos together.”
This morning in this bright ravine, this poem written in cosmos, we stand at the edge of unknowing wonder before we go crashing in, if at all. I long to enter the space in-between, to feel cool mud under my bare feet, to add mine to the impress of fox and bobcat, turkey, crow, racoon. And frogs. But the morning mysteries are guarded by poison ivy and nettle, so I keep my distance and my boots on. In space and silence, in the stream in-between, cricket frogs indulge us a moment of vanishing innocence, a moment of being purely and ever-wildy frog. With them we are briefly spared the never-ending tromp and titter disguised as love of nature.