Oh poetry, oh the importance of ground When leaving the ground - from Stephen Dunn, Loves
The frost came last night, the meadow grass whitened, the window panes cold. The hunt for warmths began, and raspberry brambles scratched my ankles as I collected the last berries. This summer has contained many questions and excursions uncollected yet. To make way for a faithful fall writing, here is a slowly collected list. A list like a vine gently shaken, this is what ripened and readily fell.
In the late spring returns to the Northwoods of Maine, we paddled the whitewater of rivers whose droughted emptiness was etched in dark water lines on the rocky rims. The waterways were bony, and Ash trees wilted on the banks whose toes no longer touched groundwater. The boulders’ watermarks darkened around their waists or necks or crowns the memory of flow. The bed stood witness for my students, who possessed no further reference or grounding. I, too, remarked how this rapid which now trickles and pools two years ago enveloped me, and I too became the witness. How do we convince our children of all that our landscapes can be, when we are the ones who know that what our children experience is diminished? How are we convincing our children of all they, themselves can be when that is also more than what they see? The sudden drying, burning air of this Northern summer makes me feel no longer young, makes me write ‘our children’ readily because I have something to tell them, I have seen some things change.
This is ‘the importance of ground when leaving the ground.’ I have stepped into positions of critical perspective from organizations and institutions which formed my ability to critique. What does it mean to become part of an organization, to really enter in? What does it mean to emerge from it, to leave its ground? Who are our allies, and how can we know of them in the widest light possible? Will such alienation be a condition of my life? Is that too much to hope?
I made a list this summer of ‘things that might change’-- weather, seasons, climate, clothing, work, folks in my daily life. Pressed, much, almost all might change-- my association with communities and institutions, the continuing existence of those communities and institutions, my deepest and closest relationships with friends and family, my health, my sound mind, my body. I made another, shorter list of ‘things that will not change.’ Only two items survived-- the reality of our environmental crisis, and the presence of people who need more love. I have been buoyed this summer into orbit around these, to honor and give gratitude to what is present and will soon go, while centering myself around needs towards which no work will ever be wasted.
But what is work towards stewardship, towards believing hard truths, and towards love? It is not work as my society has led me to know it. The last few lines of Philip Levine’s ‘What Work Is’ are on the front page of my journal:
How long has it been since you told him you loved him, held his wide shoulders, opened your eyes wide and said those words, and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never done something so simple, so obvious, not because you’re too young or too dumb, not because you’re jealous or even mean or incapable of crying in the presence of another man, no, just because you don’t know what work is.
On an August week off from instructing canoeing expeditions for teens, I took a solo bike trip to Acadia National Park and the Deer Isle Hostel. At Deer Isle, I camped on a subsistence homestead created by Anneli and Dennis, and ate communal meals in the seventeenth century style farmhouse they built with their own lumber upon a granite root cellar where they store food for the winter. They live off-grid with a few solar panels and pump well-water which they carry in buckets to where it is needed. The outdoor shower is open to the sky and the water is heated through a hose coiled within a seaweed- rich compost heap. Anneli exchanges all sorts of goods and deeds with her neighbors, which allows her to understand money as something ‘often used as a shortcut to not draw on your own skills and community.’ I was wrapped and nodding reading Anneli’s book in the half light hours before dark-- ‘To say that people should work--regardless of the conditions, the salary, or possibilities for personal and spiritual growth-- for the sake of such vague goals as ‘a strong consumer economy’ and ‘profit margins’ is to reduce the individual person into a disposable part in a system where advantages made at the expense of others are not only accepted, but expected.’ She describes how her ‘way of living where gains are earned through physical labor, practical skills and devotion to a place has largely been replaced in modern Western society by a way of living where gains are made by financial strategies and depletion of resources.’
What does it mean to do hard work? My education and society have taught me that my hard work is indicated by efficiency, productiveness, business and monetary reward. I have also learned to measure my hard work by physical exhaustion and depletion. But I am not convinced that these are measures of work worth doing. What then are the indicators of ‘hard work’ in the right directions? How can I re-think what it feels like to work hard?
This fall I am living and ‘working’ as an outdoor educator at Glen Brook, a farm and forest Waldorf education center in Marlborough, New Hampshire. I lead school groups ranging from 3rd to 10th grade in week-long visits on topics that have so far included botany, ecology, farm life, cooking and baking, backpacking and campcraft, astronomy, joyful play in the outdoors, and group work with kindness and compassion. I have a sparse room at the top of the farmhouse where I can lie on my side upon waking and see the sun rise crossing an ever-more barren line of forest. Most of this work is about being present, meeting children and teenagers and adults and animals and plants where they are as they grow.
At a Bread and Puppet Theater show this summer, a group of ragged ‘citizens’ made vagabond by earth changes and political upheaval turned their heads and palms upwards to exclaim. ‘We just need a here! BRING IN THE HERE!’ The ceiling of the Paper Maché Cathedral opened and an enormous sun orb puppet descended. I am lightly tethered to one place right now, and Glen Brook has descended as this fall’s ‘here’--- the lake is chillier around my sweaty body after trail runs, the sugar maples crumple their leaves and I am easily enveloped. It is a place to be slow with children who are not often allowed to be slow. It is a place to be slow and home with myself. I have had frequent de ja vu, and strong personal memories, as my mind is admitted to graze in its own plain. It is a place to be still enough to again ‘go to the limits of your longing’ (Rilke, Book of Hours I.59). Where do I long? Where to I need to venture next?
I feel that a coming step is learning more about how to die, in order to journey further and in order to even believe the news and believe what is already true. Roy Scranton has argued for the importance of the humanities towards our climate crisis, because we need to better learn our own mortality and the mortality of our environments. An extended personal wilderness expedition is also in my midst, where both power and fragility become more pressingly real. Joanna Macy draws the circle between learning to die and learning to work at love, both a diminishment of boundaries. ‘Our grief only doesn’t change if we refuse to look at it, but when we look at it, when we take it in our hands, when we can just be with it and keep breathing, then it turns. It turns to reveal its other face, and the other face of our pain for the world is our love for the world, our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.’ I have felt, and continue to feel, this wild love for the outdoor life and for a world which abounds to support it. What does it mean to die in this same world?
The last drop on this list of ripenings is a particular connectedness which I met at the end of a canoe portage to Mooselookmeguntic lake in early September. The sky was pinkening and the cormorant stood alone on the cool dock, her long nose tucked gently into her layered feathers. Asleep, she shook slightly in the wind. Her tiny bulbs of eyes were thinly closed. How daring, to sleep through such a pink twilight and become the sweet subject of precious attention. There are few creatures who let me watch them sleep, so I took this as a sign of friendship and of peace.