Poetics of Sticky Mysteries

Becoming a Naturalist, Part 22

by Jack Phillips

G-H 4

Broad-banded forest snail (Allogona profunda) in mid-October, Harrison County, Iowa. Photo by Troy Soderberg.

Talk of mysteries! – Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come into contact with it, – rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?

                            Henry David Thoreau, ”Ktaadn and the Maine Woods,” 1848.

This morning, as I was on my way to meet up with my poetry workshop, I encountered a familiar face on a winding woodland trail. She was birding. After our pleasantries she asked: “why would naturalists need to write poetry?” That is a good question, and I sometimes struggle to explain how poetry can help us experience the mysterious realities of nature more deeply. She politely nodded as I tried to say something meaningful on the subject then hoisted her binoculars to catch an errant warbler.

As it happens, David Hinton’s new book is concerned with similar questions. The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape, opens with a watershed moment in the American nature-writing tradition: Thoreau’s “talk of mysteries” journal entry, written during a failed attempt to climb Maine’s Mount Ktaadn. Thoreau experienced a deeply profound and existential contact with, in Hinton’s words, the “inexplicable thusness of things, this immediate reality, unknowable and unsayable, reality that is pure question, pure mystery.” That pure mystery is the pure question that poetry can help us experience and explore. I don’t think that answer would have been very satisfying for my warbling friend. Nonetheless, Hinton’s new book can be useful for a naturalist to consider for a few reasons.

First, he begins with Thoreau, as many nature writers and literary critics do, but interprets Thoreau in the contexts of the ancient Tao/Ch’an (Zen) traditions and 20th-century American avant-garde poets, as very few nature writers and literary critics do. In so doing, he casts new light on a well-worn tradition, even for those who have no affinity for Asian philosophies or experimental poetry. Second, Hinton articulates the vital role that reading and writing poetry can play in growing intimacy and attentiveness in nature, something that my friends and I try to articulate but not as deftly as he. Lastly, he expounds, via the poets he features, on the Thoreauvian principle that wildness is found not only in remote wilderness, but in the ordinary, civilized world that most modern western people inhabit.

However, the context for Thoreau’s crucial contact on Ktaadn was not ordinary. It was exhaustion, desperation, a fierce wind, and a sojourn in the wilderness like a biblical story. But like the prophet Elijah on his mountain, Thoreau’s contact with the infinite nature of reality, with “thusness,” with the generative tissue of the cosmos as Hinton would have it, reveals not the power of the stormy mountaintop, but the mysterious nature of the small, the still, and the common. The infinite mystery of the cosmos is to be discovered in the daily experience of nature, in walking close to home, and in the capacity to be surprised by the persistent wildness at the heart of every living thing, including ourselves.This is the central theme of Thoreau’s vast journal and other writings, at least as I read him: “The walking of which I speak…is the enterprise and adventure of the day” and “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest”  from his essay ”Walking.”

Like walking close to home, poetry has the capacity to reveal the true nature of reality in the small and the common, as Thoreau wrote in his journal on August 28th, 1851: “I omit the unusual—the hurricanes and earthquakes—and describe the common. This has the greatest charm and is the true theme of poetry.” Hinton’s estimation of Thoreau’s experience seems a bit more ambitious, or at least explicitly so, than what we find in Thoreau’s own writings and his conventional sing-song rhyming poetry: “Thoreau’s questions about who we are and where we are… encapsulate the philosophical inquiry driving the central thread of innovative poetry in twentieth-century America.”

If Thoreau was less concerned with dramatic mountain-top experiences than with discovering the wild and sacred character of the somewhat ordinary experiences of local nature, then why has the Ktaadn narrative received so much attention in the nature-writing tradition? Perhaps it is because the human imagination is more easily inspired by stunning landscapes of remote wilderness than by the subtle wildness of fragmented ecosystems and abandoned fields, like the landscape of Thoreau’s own 19th-century Massachusetts milieu. Thoreau was not a wilderness writer; neither are the majority of the poets that Hinton anthologizes. Some, like Walt Whitman and Gustaf Sobin, are village poets; others, like John Cage, are thoroughly urban.

Hinton’s insights have helped me to think more clearly about what it means to be a naturalist, though that is not his intent. Hinton is concerned with “contact” in the Thoreauvian sense, the primacy of the immediate, the re-wilding of consciousness, the “stuff and life of poetry,” informed by both American experimental poetry and by primal and ancient Chinese understandings of reality. I believe there is something to his claims, though the methods of our naturalist school and our school of thought do not draw heavily on these poetic and philosophical traditions.

Rather, we believe that “re-wilding” grows in immersive and contemplative walking, deep attention and mindfulness, and close observation. We read and write poetry and creative essays, make art and photography, use binoculars and hand lenses and also believe in the power of the naked eye and bare skin. If deep contact with nature and the re-wilding of consciousness is the primal stuff of life and poetry as Hinton (rightly) argues, then it should be discoverable through a growing openness to nature wherever we find a measure of wildness and through the free expression of human creativity. We have found that it is. 

In these russet days, we contemplate the feel of smooth salamander skin in the rain and the slick scales of squirmy snakes on a sunny afternoon, the gooey copulations of forest snails, the loopy lines of migrating hawks and the daggers of crows on a midday sky, the rustles of deer mice under oak leaves and the crunchy smell of prairie grass just now ripened by October. We consider the weight of a saw-whet owl waiting to be banded and the potency of hickory nuts. (We don’t often speak of Thoreau’s contact! except, perhaps, when we walk through a patch of stickseed or a swarm of late-season mosquitos.) We appreciate cold coffee back at the car and the bag of apples someone thought to bring. Are the juncos early this year and the flickers late in leaving? Have we ever seen chorus frogs so close to November?

We return from rugged saunters, muddy boots and wet knees and charms of burs, with tales of caught-and-released frogs and fragments of poems that might settle in a notebook or at the bottom of a pond. Sometimes our contact with the generative tissue of the cosmos is Ktaadn-like, but mostly it’s just sticky. That’s where poetry comes in. We know by way of sore feet and slimy hands that the thusness of wildness is found not so much on spiritual mountains or in literary tradition, but in the hills and ravines we so often walk and the wild verse we compose along the way.