“We must go back and find a trail on the ground
back of the forest and mountain on the slow land;
we must begin to circle on the intricate sod.
By such wild beginnings without help we may find
the small trail on through the buffalo-bean vines.
We must go back with noses and the palms of our hands,
and climb over the map in far places, everywhere,
and lie down whenever there is doubt and sleep there.
If roads are unconnected we must make a path,
no matter how far it is, or how lowly we arrive.
We must find something forgotten by everyone alive,
and make some fabulous gesture when the sun goes down
as they do by custom in little Mexico towns
where they crawl for some ritual up a rocky steep.
The jet planes dive; we must travel on our knees.”
~ Watching the Jet Planes Dive, William Stafford
This poem calls us to be humble, to “travel on our knees“, in the face of our world. In our frantic and narrow-sighted push forward into progress, the scientific method driven dissecting of nature into categories, labels, and processes, the endless mapping and charting, we dis-enchant our world; “And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof (Genesis 2:19).
“And I have known the eyes already, known them all— The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, Then how should I begin To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?” (T.S. Eliot).
The tight naming of our world, our noun based language, binds life and traps it. “As he paces in cramped circles, over and over, the movement of his powerful soft strides is like a ritual dance around a center in which a mighty will stands paralyzed” (Rilke). The panther, trapped inside its name, its definition, its thing-like definition, paces, desiring to break free. Have we not all been there, pushed into the corner of a label or a role, feeling the strictures of words tighten around us, suffering as objects, our objectification, yet longing for the freedom that is our verb-like nature, doing and acting, our changing, fluid nature, in constant communication with our world. We are not fossilized essences but processes of emergence “tied in one with the great mountains, with the great rocks, with the great trees” (Yokuts Proverb).
“But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It … Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars–all this in its entirety … One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity” (Martin Buber).
“Touch lightly Nature’s sweet Guitar / Unless thou knonw’st the Tune” (Emily Dickinson). Stafford calls us to enter this long-forgotten world, using our senses, our “noses”, our animal bodies “the palms of our hands” on the ground, climbing “over the map”, beyond the map, despite the map, against the map, the ideology of the map, and “lie down whenever there is doubt and sleep there.” To sleep and dream, to dream in the mystery, not to search for answers. “Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger” (David Wagoner).
“We must find something forgotten…”. Have we forgotten how to be, still, among trees, in the fields? When was the last time that we sank down underneath the shadow of a great oak-tree in the summer and allowed ourselves to just be, to do nothing more than feel, “beneath all this summer transiency … the earth’s spine beneath” us (Virginia Woolf). To sit for a while, then close our eyes, breathe with the wind, listen to the birds and notice how “gradually the flutter in and about [us] still[s] itself; the little leaves h[a]ng, the deer stop; the pale summer clouds stay … by degrees the deer stop nearer and the rooks wheel round … and the swallows dip and circle and the dragonflies sho[o]t past, as if all the fertility and amorous activity of a summer’s evening were woven web-like about [our] body” (Virginia Woolf, Orlando).
After such a day spent underneath a tree, watching the day’s end arrive, perhaps we feel the urge to “make some fabulous gesture when the sun goes down“, to praise and to give thanks “that this moment / at least, was not / the last” (Denise Levertov).
And “in the distance, bulldozers, excavators, babel of destructive construction” (Denise Levertov). We watch the “jet planes dive“, their noise and fumes descending, like so much civilizational detritus, down upon our one and only “fragile paradise.”
“We must travel on our knees” in the face of such destruction and beauty and learn to “circle on the intricate sod” to remember our “wild beginnings.” For “[w]ho can utter the poignance of all that is constantly threatened, invaded, expended and constantly nevertheless persists in beauty, tranquil as this young moon just risen and slowly drinking light from the vanished sun. Who can utter the praise of such generosity or the shame?” (Denise Levertov).
“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.”
~ David Wagoner, Lost