A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I woke up this morning to a chill in the air. I closed the bedroom windows and shivered into my clothes, then hurried down to the kitchen to consult the outdoor thermometer. It read 58 degrees. I knew that if I opened the front door, I would be greeted by a burst of light, that the cold front that had moved in had swept the dusty air out to sea. I felt as if fall had suddenly aroused itself out of the ground and was creeping around blowing frosty breath on the last few flowers of the season. They would wilt soon, and hang their long necks down. The birds are fewer, and the trees, still heavy with leaves, would begin to shake loose their green canopy and let in the parched brightness of coming afternoons.
My sweater is not warm enough as I sit here. I could use a good wool jacket to keep me snug and sleepy. I could also use another cup of coffee to warm my insides, but I dare not trick myself into a third cup. I hate the jitters. I don’t like fidgeting at a desk; it reminds me too much of my school days when I could barely sit still as the clock crawled toward three o’clock. So I told myself my cardigan would be enough and that I should do something honest in these chrome-colored hours of mid-morning. But it was comforting to hear the furnace go on in the basement. I waited for the little rattling sounds that the registers would make as heat coursed through their watery veins.
The consolations of old age are small; you are grateful for the creaks and moans of old floors as a house comes slowly to life around you. You are listening intently to a silent world, a modest reality that holds the house in its arms and waits for nothing. You know you are standing at the ruins of summer, the threshold of a new season nudging the noisy, carnival world along to its demise. You are moving with the wind toward some shallower part of the year, standing at the prow of a ship as it heads off into the gray sea and the indifferent sky. But you are thrilled in a dull sort of way that a powerful will is lifting you gently out of your dreams and fantasies to a realm of sparse fields and solemn creeks.
I’m told the winds blowing now carry with them the fading traces of smoke from the wild fires out west. The sun will be hazy for a few days, but the odor of burning wood will not be noticeable. The weather makes the world seem smaller, as you learn how to connect distant events to the place where you stand gazing out a window. I try to imagine the panic and remorse of a woman staring at the ruins of her house, as her husband picks through the debris and finds the charred remains of a childhood diary. He puts it in his pocket and moves on, kicking at the loose bricks, the abrupt and frightening violence of timbers that had burst from the roof. He says nothing. I am near him, like a ghost hovering over his shoulder, as he steels himself before finding the cinders of his beloved cat. I can’t bear to think of his suffering. I must look inward a moment and comfort myself that I am spared this hour from his terrible grief.
I caught a snippet of a conference Trump was hosting with some scientists and officials in California. He hasn’t said much about the fires that are laying waste to five million acres of forest. He blames mismanagement of the forests and nods blankly as Gavin Newsome, the governor, reminds him that 58 percent of the trees are owned by the federal government and only 3 percent are the property of the state. He smiles at the climatologists to his left and says he doesn’t believe in science, that science “doesn’t know” the cause of these great conflagrations. He dismisses climate change as a hoax, of course, one perpetrated by his archenemy, the Democrats. Hence his unwillingness to lend federal aid to fight these fires. The two great pillars of error loom over him, his indifference to the Covid-19 pandemic, and his intractability in working with Pacific states, since they are all part of a liberal bloc of voters. He has no use for these adversaries, or for coming to the rescue of a disease afflicting people of color more than whites. He has his base to look after, and to cater to their prejudices against race and liberal enclaves. He serves no purpose in attending this meeting; he offers no guidance or encouragement as the commander in chief, the father of his country. He is a starkly aloof figure who will not bend to any entreaty, but must soldier on in his obsession to be reelected by some mysterious minority of idolaters who worship him. I feel the emptiness of his life as he sits there in his blue suit and red tie, flanked by men and women who plead for understanding from him.
If you ever walked the paths of the Muir Woods, you will know what I mean when I say you walk among the gods. The massive bodies of sequoias make you feel as if you swim among whales, as if the myths of Titans suddenly came alive around you as these towering trunks dwarf you into nonexistence. You hardly know where to look to grasp the majesty of such monuments of nature. They make a mockery of your brief life; they were here before the wheel was invented, they towered over the land long before the first nomads wandered into their midst. They are the memory of the New World written in their sprawling roots, their canopies spread out like some primal language of the soul. But the fires are so fierce and anarchic that nothing can stop them from tearing into this museum of grandeur and magic and laying it waste. And this is what Trump is nodding about, smiling as he tolerates the voices of his presumed enemies. He is wrong but he will never know what fatal errors he is committing. He listens without hearing, and talks gibberish as the voice of federal authority. God help him.
I pour a glass of orange juice and bring it to my lips with the expectation of tasting a memory already fading away. I remember reading Ray Bradbury’s story, “Dandelion Wine,” where a boy is given a glass of this wine only to find himself lost in the dazzling possibilities of summer in Green Town, where he lives. It is a secret garden and there is no way out, except of course, as he grows older. There is that scent of a lost Eden in my glass of juice, and a feeling that life can be frozen in innocence as long as you taste it. But the villains of awareness emerge in time, and you put down the empty glass. You feel the gnawing chill of autumn on your arms, and perceive the shadow that Trump casts across the floor, across the browning grass and thinning trees. You know you must not ignore him, but at the same time, you are clinging to the shreds of your faith in a world now passing out of existence.
I’ll take a walk this afternoon and pass through certain tilting fields of grass where a few cows and bulls are still grazing. My neighbor will gather them up in a few weeks and haul them to a slaughterhouse to make burgers. But for now, in this dazzling zone of neutrality and change, we are all content to do nothing but stare. I move slowly at the bottom of the hill, my hat almost luminous white in the late afternoon sun. I am observed closely by these sedate animals. They would blink and look away if I tried to tell them my fears. There is only this delicious sunlight and the shoots of still-green grass that turn to pulp in their grinding teeth. They swallow and bend down for more, and lie down in the shade to take a leisurely, dreamless nap. I move on, up a slight rise of ground and stop at a barn full of firewood. I am at the end of my little hike and walk back to the house, knowing that my feet measure the inches of my mortality and little more. The land rolls away from me, covered in ancient history. The earth hardly notices the moths hanging in the air, the streaks of clouds as they float high above us. We are the trifles of an endless universe, and a single earthworm wriggling in the dirt in front of me cannot shift the balance of fate. Nothing nods and smiles out of ignorance in this natural theater of the seasons; everything is aware of the moment, and there is only the shifting light of the sun as it slowly gives in to night.
Paul Christensen is a poet and essayist who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2020 Paul Christensen.