Monday, June 25, 2018

Summer Solstice Reading List

The news from Palomar Observatory is that, yes, the days are now getting shorter again. Should we be sad?

For the last week I've been able to see a pink sky when going to bed and another pink sky the following morning before getting up. That's kind of cool.

Nowadays our "midsummer" festivities seldom go beyond some grilling on the deck with friends, an overnight to a nearby state park, and a bike ride or two.  This year Hilary and I set up camp and walked the trails at Lake Carlos State Park, two hours northwest of the Cities, then unfolded our chairs on the park's deserted beach to watch the tree swallows jive and dart above the water in the waning light. While we were sitting there we spotted a group of women doing "cobra" and "downward-facing dog" on paddleboards out in the middle of the lake.

 Nature has outgrown its freshness, its youthful tenderness, its surprising loveliness, and now exhibits a fulsome vigor. The birds are still singing, but they're no longer showing themselves much. Though various plants will bloom, each in its time, the scene won't change much for the next two months. Our mission—our duty!—is to get out into it.

When not out scouring the countryside (or inside doing "real" work) I have also been doing some reading along these mid-summer lines, and I've come to the conclusion that Nature isn't that easy to write about convincingly. That is to say, reading about plants, animals, landscapes, and natural processes seldom generates the same kind of affection for one's surroundings that being out in them does. Maybe this is because Nature doesn't have a plot. It reaches us as a long succession of amuse-bouches, with a very pleasant soundtrack humming quietly in the background.

Then again, many nature-writers aren't really interested in conjuring Nature's allure. They're drawn to the intricate tidbits of information that help us to "understand" rather than appreciate the natural world. For example, I took a look recently at On Growth and Form, a classic piece of science written by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson and published in 1942. It's clear from the onset that D'Arcy has profound appreciation for the beauty of natural forms. However, he is less interested in describing these forms in words than in coming up with mathematical formulas that somehow 'capture" them.

He describes the zoologist of his day as "deeply reluctant to compare the living with the ideal, or to explain by geometry or by mechanics the things which have their part in the mystery of life."

D'Arcy expresses a degree of sympathy for this approach, which is, after all,  spurred by curiosity and appreciation, and he admits that the results of such lines of thoughts can have interest.

"[The zoologist] has the help of many fascinating theories within the bounds of his own science, which, though a little lacking in precision, serve the purpose of ordering his thoughts and of suggesting new objects of inquiry. His art of classification becomes an endless search after the blood-relationships of things living and the pedigrees of things dead and gone. The facts of embryology record for him ... not only the life-history of the individual but the ancient annals of its race. The facts of geographical distribution or even of the migration of birds lead on and on to speculations regarding lost continents, sunken islands, or bridges across ancient seas. Every nesting bird, every ant-hill or spider’s web, displays its psychological problems of instinct or intel­ligence. Above all, in things both great and small, the naturalist is rightfully impressed and finally engrossed by the peculiar beauty which is manifested in apparent fitness or “adaptation"— the flower for the bee, the berry for the bird."

But in the end, D'Arcy rejects this approach, which, as he remarks at one point, "deals with ephemeral and accidental, not eternal nor universal things."

At that point, I reject D'Arcy. In the first place, how could any thinker equate eternal and universal things with statistical analysis? D'Arcy is infatuated with Fibonacci numbers and considers it worthwhile—one example among many—to reproduce a chart of "mean apparent length of one-year-old herring, as deduced by scale-reading from herring of various ages or 'year-classes.' "

"The whole subject is very difficult, " he writes, "as we might well expect it to be, and I am only concerned to show some small part of its difficulty."

Difficult? Perhaps. Interesting? Not in the slightest. The eternal and universal can be perceived far more easily and clearly in a single tendril of a pale green vine reaching out to wrap itself around the branch of a nearby shrub. It's path doesn't follow an arc or a spiral; it's much more elegant than that.

Nowadays the authors of works of natural history and popular science make less of an effort to approach the phenomena of Nature with slide-rule in hand. I dipped into The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman and was delighted by the concatenation of recently discovered facts about bird behavior she has gathered together. On the other hand, I'm not fond of the "scientists have shown that" terminology that invariably accompanies these reports. After all, no one who watches birds, even just out in the back yard, has ever considered them "dumb." And I'm afraid that too much specific information about neurons, genetics, vocal chords, and flight patterns might undercut the charm that these creatures so often possess.

I prefer a more poetic approach. Here the challenge lies in somehow avoiding generalities and making a few details stand for a larger whole. I brought a thick book of Antonio Machado's poems out on the deck a few nights ago. It was the perfect book for the evening ... bordering on the soporific. For example:

... the wind blows in squalls,
and between clouds and clouds
are patches of indigo sky.

Water and sun. The rainbow gleams.
In a remote cloud
a thread of yellow lightning.

The rain batters the window
and the panes chime.

In the midst of the haze
shaped by the fine drizzle,
a green meadow emerges
and an oak forest blurs
and a mountain ridge is lost...

Though nothing is very specific, this sounds very much like experience to me. But having read one page, I'm likely to sit back and stare off into space with an inaudible but satisfied "hmmm" on my lips.

Let me assure you, I had no intention of systematically surveying a variety of approaches to writing about nature. Maybe it was just that after a few pleasant hours outside, I naturally selected a book off the shelf, time and again, that would preserve the mood of semi-detached reverie rather than suck me into that vortex of conflicting emotions that drive so many works of fiction.

Whatever the case may be, the other day I took a look at Mute Objects of Expression (1974) by the French poet Francis Ponge. In the introductory pages of this squarish paperback Ponge espouses a radical devotion to the think he chooses to describe, eschewing the limpid turns of poetic phrasing that might naturally come to mind.
From now on, [he writes] may nothing ever cause me to go back on my resolve: never sacrifice the object of my study in order to enhance some verbal turn discovered on the subject, nor piece together any such discoveries in a poem.
Always go back to the object itself, to its raw quality, its difference: particularly its difference from what I’ve (just then) written about it.
May my work be one of continual rectification of expression on behalf of the raw object (with no a priori concern about the form of that expression)...Recognize the greater right of the object, its inalienable right, in relation to any poem ...
This approach raises some thorny epistemological questions, of course. Does the poet, at any time, have a direct, objective, and unmediated awareness of his or her "object"? Can a description capture a thing faithfully, in the raw? I think not.

The essay/poems that follow take up, describe, or inquire after a variety of "things," including a wasp, birds, a mimosa tree, and a carnation. Ponge seems to be tussling with his own wayward imagination as he puts forth an adjective or a verbal phrase intended to convey some aspect of the creature or element under review, and as a result, the pieces often have a tone of playful nonsense.
Mimosa (prose poem). - A single spray of the hypersensitive golden chick plumes, seen through binoculars two kilometers down the lane, pervades the house. Full blown, the little mimosa balls give off a prodigious fragrance and then contract; they have lived. Are they flowers of the rostrum? Their speech, unanimously heeded and applauded by the throng with nostrils wide, carries far:


Combs discouraged by the beauty of the golden lice born of their teeth! Lower yard upper yard of rooted ostriches, erupting with golden chicks. Brief fortune, young millionairess with dress fanned-out, tied at the base, fluttered in bouquets ...

Within this play of free associations, the mimosa itself returns to our attention repeatedly--presuming we already know what a mimosa sprig looks like!
I kind of like it.
But I think some benevolent editor ought to change the title of Ponge's collection: not Mute Objects of Expression but Mute Objects of Affection.

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