A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Leaves are drifting down from the fiery maple trees across the street. They are perforating the dark hillside with little fists of sunlight as they are released from the branches. It is not a dramatic show of how fall sweeps in and transforms the world. The change is gradual, painstaking, intricate as needlework. I find it hard to pay attention. But in a week or two, the air around the massive black trunks will be diluted with vague pre-winter light. It makes me sad to witness this drift of time, like staring at a sand clock as the little grains drop through the pinched waist of the glass. You feel your mind going blank, even though the measure it takes of change is devastating in its consequences.
Someone asked why trees must shed their leaves each fall, and the answer, not altogether persuasive, is that the trees must conserve their energy when the hard frosts begin, and it would endanger their lives if they had to supply the veins of these chlorophyll factories with some sort of thawing agent. Evergreens keep their own foliage green at great expense, but I rather think the trees enjoy this process of going naked and falling into a profound sleep for several months. Their work is done, they have no desire to continue the arduous process of sucking up the sun and gulping down the polluting gases pouring out of trucks and cars going by all summer long. Now they can stiffen and turn into iron statues, and do nothing but nibble at the moisture in the soil.
Deciduous trees are the monarchs of the woods. Their moods are startling and make us stare up at them, as if they were watery cathedrals trembling in the spring sunshine. When they mature their canopies and the darkness spreads under them like velour robes, we feel numb with desire and want to join them in some pagan ritual of fruitfulness. But we just walk around, and observe the powerful musculature of their roots, and take a deep breath. Our mortality is such a slender reed compared to them. When such mighty towers begin to shake loose their capes and show their fragility to us, we are compensated with a rainbow of rust and neon yellow, red flames and the limp, exhausted energy of orange and silver umbrellas.
We plod along like ushers at a tragic opera, acting as if the events on stage did not affect us. We have programs to sell, and flashlights to see our patrons to their reserved seats. But the piercing cries of the soprano standing in the twilight of a distant spotlight stops the heart with its pathos. That’s when we look up and behold the half-revealed skeleton of once noble trees, the ones that shook with fury after a large truck passed under them. You breathe deep because you don’t understand the momentous character of the events around you.
I breathe deep as I am told there are only twenty-nine days until Election Day. The press is eagerly feeding us with dread and astonishment as the days peel off like so many spent leaves. There is the masked face of Trump waving to his supporters on the street in front of the Walter Reed hospital. He has come out of his sick room to show the crowd his support, and to beckon with his lonely eyes to be loved and supported, and saved from the humiliation of losing. He knows he has erred, and shown such crass indifference to the plight of so many ill and dying people. It is hard for him to imagine forgiveness, but he demands it with his anguished forehead, his strangely hollow look through his black mask. Some hapless passenger rides shotgun in front of him, and a driver no doubt panting shallow breaths to ward off Trump’s contagion, keeps easing the black Suburban foreword through the late evening light.
But here we are in the cracked and crumbling Eden of October, gazing out at the white fence that borders the pasture beyond. The landscape is a hasty composition of wild grasses and aloof clouds, of clumps of weeds along the fence posts, and the bedraggled branches of the overworked maples. I feel sorry for them, and wish I could blow a warm breath of air over them to re-awaken summer for one more precious week. But I sip at my coffee and shift to the other leg as I watch the wind wander around and jerk the lower branches. The leaves tumble to the ground like dying butterflies. We are at the end of a long siege of despair for the country; the earth seems to echo our mood, our misgivings. But eternity hardly notices the vicissitudes of the human world. Its eyes are on the scattered diamonds of coming night, the aloof domains of the planets and the faint galaxies that lie beyond reach.
My wife and I are quiet eaters at night. The food is tasty, the wine rich and dark in our glasses, but there is something missing that leaves us deep in our own private thoughts. I find this to be true of nearly everything I hear, whether on the radio or on TV, or what I find to read in the newspapers. The Times seems tired to me, repetitive in its reporting, overly cautious in its anticipation of the election outcome. I prefer the silence, the emptiness of afternoon to the sound of human voices rambling for lack of any point to make. I’m glad we don’t go out to dinner with friends, or try to find solace in a half-filled restaurant. The headlights at night all seem lost to me, wandering around without logic in the dull hours before bed. I wish I could say there was some thread of romance or sentiment running through the chill in the air, the nearness of Thanksgiving, or the coming of winter. But I don’t feel it. I’m not really sad, just willing to part with the old, dark canopy that hung over me all summer long and is now dismantling itself leaf by leaf.
I light a fire around six in the evening and sit there with my crossword puzzle waiting for my wife to bring me a gin and tonic. I nibble a few salty nuts from a wrinkled bag I keep at my hip. I watch carefully as the flames rise out of the kindling. The wood is reluctant to give out much heat at this moment, but in a half hour the room will lose its chill. We watch an old British detective story and when it’s over, I play some “Frasier” episodes, and ease toward ten o’clock with a movie we have already seen twice. So much for our quiet evenings. After that, I toddle up to bed and read a few pages from my Melville anthology, “Benito Cereno” and the slow, leisurely pace of prose that dawdles over the details of a decaying slave ship and its feeble captain. I’m on deck with the men, with the African women who look on with bloodshot eyes and scarred forearms. I hear Melville’s anguished voice as he moves like some hand-cranked movie camera from scene to scene of this unblinking account of slavery.
That world has vanished after shedding all its strange foliage, and come back again in the rages of cities like Portland and Kenosha, the embers of a world torn asunder by imperialism and brutal conquest. Leaf by leaf, the sky unfolds its ancient sunlight and lets the fragments of history drift to the ground, one broken fact at a time. How difficult it is to gather up the ruins of time and try to make sense of what we are — the foreground we emerged from, the burden of our legacy as inheritors of shame and guilt. But we must and have no choice but to wake up in the morning and gaze out at the maples as they undress themselves in our windows, and look over at us as we plead with them to forgive us.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who lives in Vermont.
Copyright 2020 Paul Christensen.