Saturday, December 06, 2014

Autumn hanging on into winter

For some reason, maybe because of an early freeze, 
the leaves are hanging on this year. This is different from last year
and I might not have noticed if I had not been rereading The Forest Unseen.

The best discussion I have ever read of the mysteries of rising sap, seeds and falling leaves and the processes and timing of annual phenomena of trees is in The Forest Unseen; a Year's Watch in Nature, by David George Haskell, 2013. For this book Haskell chose one square meter of Tennessee forest (that had never been logged) and visited it daily observing, describing and explaining scientific findings on whatever he observes. We get everything from chickadee's eyesight and the movement of different kinds of photons as they leave the sun, to wildflower structures and accommodations to the differences in how the sap travels upwards in maple and in beeches; to the "short violent lives" of shrews and the varied lives of insects. He has the scientific background to explain so many things I had never even thought about. This is a book to treasure and re-read, full-to-bursting of the how, the why and the natural processes of the forest at work. Maybe next year I should write a blog on nature writing, rather than poetry. . . Here are a couple of passages:

"In the nineteenth century we stripped more trees from the land that the ice age accomplished in one hundred thousand years. We hacked the forest down with axes and handsaws, hauling it away on mules and railcars. The forest that grew back from this stripping was diminished, robbed of some of its diversity by the scale of the disturbance." page 73

"This is why the sky is blue; we are seeing the redirected energy of blue photons, the glow of billions of excited air molecules." page 94

"Chickadees must daily find hundreds of food morsels to meet their energy budget. Yet the mandala's larder looks utterly empty. I see no beetles, spiders, or food of any kind in the ice-blasted forest. Chickadees can coax sustenance out of the seemingly barren forest in part because of their outstanding eyesight. The retinas at the back of the chickadees' eyes are lined with receptors that are two times more densely packed than are mine. The birds therefor have high visual acuity and can see details that my eyes cannot. Where I see a smooth twig, birds see a fractured, flaking contortion, pregnant with the possibility of hidden food. Many insects pass the winter ensconced inside tiny cracks on tree bark, and the chickadees' discerning eyes uncover these insect hideaways." 
Page 19.

If you love the woods, you will also want to look up the piece by Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) in The New Yorker, Dec. 1, 2014, pp 40-45. "Days in the Branch" is the title. The Branch was a wet North Carolina woodlands with cypress, black gum and tulip poplar, ancient virgin trees, and all the associated plants and wild living things. Mitchell spent as much of his youth there as he could manage, and his descriptions are marvelous! His was a true early 20th century boyhood. This is an unfinished section from his unfinished memoir.

I have been looking again at the work of Seamus Heaney (1939-2014) since his death a short while ago. It was this short poem that sent me to this photo and reminded me of the the other works cited above.

The Poplar

Wind shakes the big poplar, quicksilvering
The whole tree in a single sweep.
What bright scale fell and left this needle quivering?
What loaded balances have come to grief?

Seamus Heaney

The Spirit Level; poems, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996, page 61.

I love the word "quicksilvering"! And you will notice that Heaney begins all his lines with a capital letter. Four lines, two questions. Rhymes ABAB. Four lines! Go outside or look out the window and try it before you go to bed. Don't forget a title!

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