In 1817, poet John Keats noted that The poetry of earth is never dead.
In his famous environmental treatise A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold proposed that “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.” Jack London, in The Call of the Wild referred to that same howl as “A song of the younger world.” Today, amidst the din and clang of modern life in the modern city, many seem to have lost – or perhaps have never found at all – that sense of melody, that voice which is the song of the untrammeled world.
And, too, how to describe the bugling elk, or the creak of the crow’s wings as they pound through the silent forest air? And the rustle of the wildflower in a soft breeze — is that in itself the flower’s song, or is there more? John Muir spoke of the Ponderosa when he wrote, “Of all the pines, this one gives forth the finest music to the winds.” Few who have listened closely enough to genuinely hear that melody will dare to argue.
William Blake began his Auguries of Innocence with a scant twenty-nine words which reveal both his vision and insight:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
One might surmise that Blake understood, that he had heard the song even as he watched the orchestra perform. In that regard he was, indeed, a most uniquely fortunate man.
In his Ode on Intimations of Immortality William Wordsworth noted his abiding concern for the natural world and man’s impact thereupon when he wrote:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
Or perhaps, for those who care to look, those things are still there to see? Emily Dickinson once described death as that moment when “I could not see to see”; perchance this ‘glory’ which has ‘past away’ is not of the earth itself but is, rather, more a failure of the observer ? a manifest of a myopic inability or unwillingness to look, to listen, to See ? Or, as John Ruskin put it, “Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.”
Wordsworth once asked,
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
And almost as if in answer, William Cullen Bryant proclaimed:
To him who, in the love of Nature, holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language …
It was nearly forty years ago when my discovery of that land which defined my surround — the Sonoran Desert — slowly evolved from mere concept to become an enduring and lifelong reality. In the process, I met a poet. He was, in the real world, an accountant, a company Comptroller, but he was also one of those rare birds with the ability to soar far beyond the moment, to See in the genuine Ruskin sense of the word. We both lived in that same huge and ‘modern’ city which sprawled upon — and did everything within its (thankfully LIMITED!) power to ignore — the harsh reality of the Sonoran Desert. But together, we both finally ‘saw’ that which the desert stubbornly reveals to only those who care to wander upon it, to explore, to listen to its voices, to its songs. Following are his words in combo with some old images of my own, photographs of moments in desert’s time, captured courtesy of determination in combination with the utility available via a very primitive digital camera.
A Poem, by T. R. Nissle
The desert is a barren place
For myopic guests,
But for the waiting eye, quietly,
Astonishing much endures to see:
Rooted things rapier barbed; things wingéd,
furry whiskered, fork-tongued, and scaly,
The desert is a many creatured place.
The desert is a peopled place,
Outpost isles of life,
Each from solitude its strength must take,
Some with spines themselves a fortress make,
All self-contained and lone, unlike jostling
throngs of human procreation,
The desert’s a selective dwelling place.
The desert is an austere place
For its denizens,
Which small things, to live, must frugal be,
And grasp each spartan possibility,
Unbounteous land, unforgiving careless
The desert is a mirthless, muffled place.
The desert is a beauteous place
Though drab sun-baked hues voice year-long mood
With rapture from pent-up solitude,
Water hoarding plants, in muted cry of
flower, unfold exquisitries,
The desert is a fragile garden place.
The desert is a private place,
Like a human heart,
Unspeaking, it has a subtle beat
In night’s chamber, safe from glare and heat,
Guests, intrusion is no access – enter not
unless you understand,
The desert is a shy, unpublic place.
So there you have it: The Desert — one of those ‘Songs’ of that ‘Younger World’ modestly displayed as renderings in combination with comments upon renderings of captured moments of time, moments of that eternal passage — a poem of the mind, of the heart. And while it’s true that nothing we know to do can capture the entire of even the briefest spot of time, perhaps that which we might ‘see’ can offer an encouragement for others to leave behind, for the moment, the commonality of the human foible which pretends to fuel life’s engine and substitute, instead, a reason to look and listen for the Song of that world far younger than ours, to hear those erstwhile Voices in the Wind. They are, after all and to the attentive mind and heart, part and parcel to the Sum of Life.
Listen. Hear. See. Enjoy. And remember, always, the words of John Keats circa 1817:
The Poetry of Earth is ceasing never.