I sometimes think we have lost the frisson of the sublime, that complexing of beauty and fear, replacing it with more of an ice cream sublime, the kind of cheap, quick delight available at the parking lots of the Grand Canyon, at least when we face the natural world.
If I thought I might face the sublime, I’d probably reach for a good book. Subtle beauty in the landscape is sufficient for me, although I prefer a landscape that has depth and is not hemmed every 50 yards by roads. Those deep landscapes are tough places to find.
I walked off the dirt road at Onion Creek on Sunday on a sandy wash. Above me and beyond the edge of the mesa, low clouds obscured the La Sal Mountains. Snow covered the rocks on the detrital flanks of the mesas—at least on those flanks ahead of me that faced north; behind me, the southern flanks of mesas on the other side of the Colorado River were mostly snow-free. There were no shadows.
Big junipers were scattered along the edge of the wash. Most junipers of this landscape—those on the flats—are hardly head-high, and those on the ridges are shorter and worn, often it seems, to half-life. The big junipers along the margin of the wash were a good three heads high. I thought about camping under a nice big juniper. My daydreams and driving dreams this month have tended toward thoughts of camping, toward longer walks to botanize deeper canyons, warmer places, with spring flowers. Big junipers along desert washes, like cottonwoods with fresh leaves along rivers and aspen patches on the sides of mountains, draw my desire to lay-out my sleeping bag for the evening, to settle in a simple camp with tea and constellations. I began as I walked to make a list of the things to put in my backpack.
The sand margins and small hills around the wash gave way to sandstone walls the color of dusty iron. The surfaces of the walls rolled and bubbled. Dipped and holed. The big junipers were gone. In the little canyon, scraggly junipers projected at incautious angles from the base of the sandstone or leaned from precarious sand piles in the middle of the channel. The channel narrowed. The canyon disappeared. I was forced out of the wash to circumvent a plunge pool drop-off. I stepped back down slope to the wash channel, but in a few more steps—it seemed only a few steps—there was another plunge pool drop off. I clambered over this one. The canyon came back. Disappeared again. As I approached the base of the mesa, the landscape dissected. Channels a foot or two wide ramified in a high hillscape.
The promontories of the mesas were ahead—high ahead. I took a left channel, then another sharp left into a short canyon, where I decided to climb out for a look around. On the side of the canyon I reached a ledge—I could have easily walked across this, but I lack a head for exposure, heights are frights—I froze at the step onto the ledge and backed-off slowly. I made my way down to the bottom of the canyon; its head was a fairly shallow slope, where I easily clambered up the boulders. These ‘boulders’ were obelisks—15 feet long, two feet wide, and two feet thick. Flowing water had rippled the upper surfaces of the obelisks. A pair of these sandstone obelisks would look nice outside the door of my house, making an entrance to my own little Stonehenge. They were like totems of silence, although those surface ripples bespoke conversational trickles of water. The call of the obelisks made me think of the monolith at the heart of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now beyond the future of Clarke’s novel, which I read young, slung over the arm of a chair, I am enticed less by the siren calls of sublime outer space than by the silent but simple beauty of wind edged, water dimpled sandstone. Monolith and myth have passed.
From the saddle I had a good view. To the west was the Convent, Sister Superior, Priest and Nuns, and Rectory, an assemblage of wind sculptures that adorns the parapet of a ridge above Professor Creek. Religious icons looked down on the professor’s outwash; erosion, I thought, would ultimately cause those stones to fall, to roll down slope, placing them level with the logic and flow of this perennial creek. The flank of the ridge was covered by snow and the sunlight through the clouds was just sufficient to highlight the whitened facets of every other detrital face. Beyond the Convent in the southwest was a narrow shadow, a blank in the juxtaposition of Mat Martin Point and Dry Mesa; the shadow was the canyon of the Colorado River. To the east were the spires of Fisher Towers, the tower called the Titan was opposite my position.
I walked north on the saddle, wondering whether Onion Creek would be right below me and whether I could climb down to walk its channel back to my truck. I stepped suddenly, from the protection of rock walls, into the wind, cold and gusting, to face with surprise, offering a little sublime, the lip of the ridge, where far below, as if seen from space, beyond reach, lay Onion Creek. I saw it in sinuous pieces where it meandered its canyon. I was well above the side canyons that extended away from Onion Creek. Those side canyons have hoodoo guards—rock gargoyles that line the rimrock.
My ridge top, too, had hoodoos, but dwarfed, eroded to knee high. I walked down the ridge, hoping it would slope gently back to the wash; it didn’t. There was a sharp promontory at its end above the wash. I back-tracked along the ridge to a gulley that appeared walkable or at least scootable in places. I went down with care, testing the small sandstone slabs as solid footing before giving them weight, if they slid in the gravel, I would have fallen far. I edged around a juniper, and the slope eased. I walked below the promontory of the ridge, over two hills, and back to my wash. Out of the wind, a flat-topped rock provided seat and table for my late lunch of ham and cheese bagel and quartered apple. After lunch, I stuck a chocolate bar in my anorak pocket as a dessert for the walk.
About the bend in the Colorado River west of Dewey Bridge, two Bald Eagles were flying in tight formation, one just off the wing of and slightly behind the other. Flying fast. They turned counter to the river and swept over the one big cottonwood at the river bend. I pulled to the shallow, snowy margin of the road to watch. An SUV came around the corner toward me about the same time and simply stopped in the middle of the road. I cocked around in my seat but lost sight of the eagles as they crossed the river and slipped up the slickrock ridge.
I finished reading yesterday afternoon David Macfarlane’s The Danger Tree. It makes a marvelous family tree by hybridizing—that is, instead of connecting mothers and fathers by a bar from which an inverted T is dropped to array their children, Macfarlane has cross-linked ancestors and himself through wishes and remembrances. Best of all it is a family tree set upon the landscape—or landscapes. The primary landscape is Newfoundland’s interior, where vast expanses of forest provide logging and mill jobs but most of the land’s products and money go to London. There is a tension in Macfarlane story between his family’s devotion to Newfoundland as a place and the disregard for the land promoted by colonial politics and mercantile spirit. Opportunity and money open a rail line through Newfoundland’s interior, but the trains spread fires that burn the forests. The secondary, but equally poignant, landscape is No Man’s Land on the Western Front of the Great War. A generation of Macfarlane’s ancestors faced the muck and stench and sacrifices of the war’s trenches, and three died along with many other Newfoundlanders, a shocking loss for the small population of island.
Macfarlane faced a daunting archeological task in recreating his Newfoundland family. Here’s his description: “But long before I became interested, there was almost nothing left to hold these relics together. They had become isolated from one another, like the remnants of memory left by old age. The family had lost the story.” Macfarlane reconstructs what he can and honestly makes up the rest. It’s a well told and stylish story.
As I finished The Danger Tree, Fed Ex arrived at the door with another box of books. It included Rosemary Lloyd’s Baudelaire’s World, Nigel Leask’s Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing 1770-1840, and Leo Damrosch’s Jean Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. This assemblage will hopefully provide background material for a project.
I had called-in earlier in the week an order for Lesley Chamberlain’s Nietzsche in Turin, which I was surprised to find yesterday in the mailbox. I opened Nietzsche in Turin to find its binding pulling away, which the bookseller had not indicated at ABE nor told me about when I phoned in my order. It’s a Picador hard cover published in 1996. The typeface in the book is also disturbing; it looks superficial, as if frail and adhering barely to the page. Nietzsche is compelling but Chamberlain’s storytelling is overwrought. I’m looking in Nietzsche in Turin for a story: the relationships among Nietzsche’s isolation, insanity, and self-transformation into a god.
Many birds make the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Kingfishers afire. Lightning in a thrush’s song. A caged Skylark brought to babble and translations of its cousin Woodlark. Dappled wings of finches and Flake-doves that on-wing float. Mr. Hopkins’s most evocative bird is his Windhover.
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon . . .
Let me call them sparrow hawks (yes, the American Kestral; Falco sparverius). Dappled not just by dawn but by development, too, they are blue-edged and orange-backed. Masked like a superhero. They flash in the morning sun.
. . . Falcon, in his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
The landscape of the Palouse of southeastern Washington rolls in wheat. It’s a heaven of small rodents for the sparrow hawks that walk the air.
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing.
Hopkins’s phenomenology of the hover describes the sparrow hawk hung above the wheat; its wings are slightly wimpled, beating slightly to hold back.
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
The sparrow hawks are as ubiquitous as electric poles but perched on the wires, and it’s from there they glide for the field.
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding Rebuffed the big wind.
The wind can be big and dust-bearing on the Palouse. No rebuffing that wind; the sparrow hawks huddle. You can see their feathers lifted. You imagine their shoulders lifted, head hunched against it.
Mr. Hopkins’s poem makes the bird more. His language corkscrews along an alliterative slide and is overly lovely, if only it wasn’t religious. Let us forgive him the religious address for he was a priest, and read the “Windhover” aloud (pretend it’s your own podcast).
To Christ our Lord
I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king- dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
Let me admit that about a year ago I was in the midst of a fantasy about moving to Newfoundland. Some might call it delusion, especially since it was the middle of winter.
I’ve never been to Newfoundland, but I have long desired to live in a very beautiful natural landscape; the Newfoundland of my mind has that beauty. I have also a fondness for strong landscapes that affect people as much as people affect them. Strong landscapes are the sort that don’t plow well. Edges appeal, too. By edge, I don’t necessarily mean a coast—the coasts of the U.S. have little appeal aside from their concentration of art and music. An edge is a view and offers walkable perspective. An edge could be a river or the transition to taiga. Edges, I think, are marked by population density (that is, the lack of population density), and the step across the boundary to sparse human population is the move toward a desirable edge. Newfoundland offered a strong landscape, an edge on the prow of the continent, a rough coast, and a sparsely populated interior. My enquiry into Newfoundland was a great winter pleasure. I was, for example, delighted to discover its excellent community of visual artists, especially graphic artists.
A Canadian friend could apprehend neither what seemed my foolish wish nor his laughter. He told me all the Newfoundland jokes and stories of the abysmal, weather-wracked life that he could. His portrayal only made the island more appealing.
I then had a conversation with a former editor of the University of Toronto Press, who recommended several books about Newfoundland. I jotted over dinner names of Newfoundland authors and books about the place. It’s now over a year since that conversation, and my desire to relocate to Newfoundland waned several months ago, but the list of books has stayed with me. Last night I started the first of the Newfoundland list—David Macfarlane’s The Danger Tree.
The Danger Tree in its entry pages is beautiful. It’s the story of the author’s family and plays against memories, those nearly lost, vague memories, the lack of memory. There are willful silences and the projection of photographs. The evocation of the people, ancestors and others, and the boggy land of the place is compelling and touchingly humorous; I lay laughing as I read in bed. And I’m looking forward to reading more just now.
And my desire to move to Newfoundland? It was fish that kept me at my intermountain home. Fish and coconut, I fear, are flavors I can’t stand (this relates undoubtedly to childhood in complex ways). The more I investigated Newfoundland, the more it became clear that avoiding eating fish would be impossible if one lived on the island. And so, to keep my platter free of fish, I gave up the idea of moving to Newfoundland.
The red sand on the margins of Onion Creek today was not frozen, and its moist, thawed surface took a faint impression of my boots. There were patches of snow, which looked icy but collapsed softly under foot. Walking creeks and rivers is a pleasure of winter. I walked the narrow creeks enclosed by second growth woods in coal hollows of southeastern Iowa when I was much younger. That creek ice was often thin. Part of its joy was to test its strength. Under a boot toe would it send out radiating cracks but hold its form or drop through a sharp-cornered pane to the shallow water? The best winter river walking was on the north shore of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota, where the rivers fall fast over the ancient shorelines of the former lake to current lake. The icefalls on many of the rivers limited the good walking; others had smaller falls that could be circumnavigated. I liked the different look of the world from the river, especially when one was accustomed to a view of the forest and river from the woods. One saw from the river a different drape of cedar branches and gathered a broader sense of winter light behind the shadowed white fronts of the birch patches.
There were none of those effects of ice or trees to be seen along Onion Creek. The nude single-leaf ash, these multistemmed clumps standing chest high, were the closest things to trees until I reached tamarisk thickets. There was no ice to admire. The creek was running fast and the channel full. It had been over the main channel recently. Dried vegetation on the gravel banks was matted and partially covered by sand.
Onion Creek runs to the Colorado River through Richardson Amphitheater from Fisher Valley, a high, sagebrush plain caught among the escarpments of mesas. There is snow now among the headwaters of the creek. The days have been warm, however, and the fast water reflects the melt, just as the sand matted vegetation on the gravel banks reflects the warmer days a week or so ago.
Where the banks narrowed I stepped up to walk above the cut. The soil had been well churned by cows, and I altered my steps to avoid cow pies. I stopped at a population of desert trumpets (a buckwheat, Eriogonum inflatum)—both the trumpets of the common name and the inflatum of its specific epithet refer to an ovoid swelling at the top of each branch, just below the point where it forms the next set of branches (technically, I would call this region the distal end of each internode). The dead stems of desert trumpets were well dried in this season, and many branches were fractured or had fallen. Each desert trumpet in the spring produces an array of branches that radiates from a cluster of green leaves. The leaves rest at the surface of the soil, and, in this land of blowing sand, the leaves can be partially covered by tiny dunes that build during the growing season. Each branch arising directly from the cluster of leaves forms a ring of additional branches just above its ovoid swelling, and these secondary branches often repeat the pattern of the first, swelling distally and then forming a ring of tertiary branches. The tips of ultimate branches produce clusters of small, delicately yellow flowers. The flowers and whatever fruits that had formed last summer and fall were long gone. What remained were skeletons, gray arrays of radiating branches. There was, however, at the base of each plant a cluster of small green leaves, next season’s foliage. I kneeled to tease apart a cluster of leaves. Each leaf was little more than a centimeter wide and had its edges tightly rolled under. Sand was lodged under the rolled margin, and I rubbed the grains from the leaf bottoms with my thumb and onto my index finger. I pried leaves away from the apex they surrounded with my thumbnail. The leaf bases and tinier inner leaves were deep yellow, the color of ripe peach meat. I expected to find next spring’s concatenated stems sitting in miniature at the center of the leaf rosette or beside a leaf base but didn’t—this was probably only a consequence of my small sample and quick look. In a few days I’ll examine another desert trumpet leaf rosette under a microscope for a more careful view. I anticipate a view of spring’s green stems and possibly flowers.
I came to a fence short of the creek’s mouth and turned-back to avoid trespassing. On my way back, I crossed sandy flats. Weathered, white boulders, ribbed and hollowed by wind, rested in the sand. They reminded me of the bones of joints and knobby ends of long bones. It was as if the giant bones of the Bunyan family had been exposed here.
NPR’s All Things Considered reported today about shocked Montanans who have found buttercups in flower. NPR interviewed an emeritus professor at the University of Montana who had gone to their herbarium to check collections to determine the earliest dates they had historically been found.
The January flowering of buttercups in the inland Northwest was the subject of my first blog post last winter (see the oldest post archived under botanizing). Like the report from Montana’s herbarium, our collections in the Ownbey Herbarium at Washington State University showed that last year’s January flowering of Ranunculus glaberrimus was the earliest for which we had a record. Unlike the interviewed professor at Montana, I graphed those earliest flowering dates for R. glaberrimus for over 100 years, which showed potentially some periodicity in earliest flowering dates. I also discussed on that first blog post longer term herbarium records analyzed in a published study that showed significantly earlier flowering times over the last 100 years despite periodic fluctuations.
A copy of Marie Stopes’s Love Letters of a Japanese arrived yesterday in the mail. I had ordered the book from The Bookshop Kirkstall in Leeds (UK). It arrived in a brown paper wrapper, in which the book was bound in bubblewrap, which I unwound and unwound and unwound to discover it had the length of an obi.
Marie Stopes became famous for her work on birth control and women’s reproductive rights in the first half of the 20th century. She was educated, however, as a paleobotanist and published several papers on Carboniferous gymnosperms, ferns, and fern allies during the early 1900s.
Her Love Letters was published in 1911 soon after she had married the Canadian botanist Reginald Ruggles Gates. The letters were not from her husband. “Soon after we arrived in London as husband and wife, in March 1911,” Ruggles Gates wrote in 1962, “she handed me one morning a copy of a small volume of love letters just published. . . My reaction to the ‘Love Letters of a Japanese,’ which I believe was the title, was one of mild shock, but I accepted it as one of the minor disabilities of being married to a literary woman.”(1)
Reginald Ruggles Gates looked like the character of Cecil as portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in the Merchant and Ivory film production of A Room With a View. I suspect Ruggles Gates acted like Day’s Cecil in the film. Ruggles Gates was a strong traditionalist, against women’s suffrage, and perhaps intimidated by women’s sexuality.
As Marie, the new wife, handed the freshly published volume to her husband, perhaps at breakfast, we might imagine that she delicately said that the book purports to be the letters that passed between the young woman Mertyl Meredith, who was in Vienna to study art history, and an older, Japanese man, Kenrio Watanabe, an established historian of art who was well acquainted with the literature and philosophy of Europe. The Love Letters of a Japanese purports to be edited by G. N. Mortlake, and Marie must also have said delicately to her new husband that Mortlake was a pseudonym. She must then have told Ruggles Gates that he should know that the letters were those that had passed between herself and Kenjiro Fujii, although she had changed the protagonists’ names and the settings for the letters so that no one else could recognize their affair.
Kenjiro Fujii was a professor at the Imperial University in Tokyo. In 1903-1904, he was on leave at the university in Munich, where he was conducting research in the laboratory of the greatest plant morphologist of the era, Karl Goebel. Marie, who had taken a first class honors degree in botany from University College London in 1903, had gone to Munich to study cycad reproductive structures for a Ph.D. with Goebel. Fujii had recently made the important discovery that the sperm cells of Ginkgo were motile, and his skills and fresh insights on gymnosperm reproduction must have enticed Marie. “I have learnt heaps from him” Marie wrote from Munich to her mother about Fujii. (2)
Biographers face frequently the problem of applying seemingly autobiographical “fiction” to tell a life story. An author’s published fiction is often used to show what might have happened in her/his life rather in the manner of setting a movie projector in shadows to provide flickering illumination. Keith Briant used Love Letters of a Japanese to the extent that his biography of Marie Stopes mistakenly places her in cities at times when she was elsewhere.(3) Ruth Hall, a later biographer of Stopes, found that “the letters [between Stopes and Fujii] that still survive in manuscript appear in Love Letters in exact transcription”;(4) indeed, in the manuscript room of the British Library, one can open on a stand the bound volume that holds the letters exchanged by Marie Stopes and Kenjiro Fujii to compare them against the Library’s copy of the letters in Love Letters of a Japanese—they are identical except for the personal names and the places. If we use Love Letters of a Japanese to understand the affair between Marie and Fujii do we face the problems inherent to autobiographical “fiction”? Marie adds to the dilemma by having her “fictional” narrator G. N. Mortlake begin the book with a section called “In Explanation” in which she tells us:
“These letters are real. There is added to them no fiction, no studied—perchance enhancing, but fictitious—literary effect. And like all real things they have a quality which no artificial counterpart can attain. As in a novel, one follows in these letters the story of the love between a man and a woman; but for those to whom truth is dearer, as well as stranger, than fiction, there is a zest added to these pages from the fact that the story is true and is told in the lovers’ own words; and these lovers were at heart two poets.”(5)
In 1911, when we could have had Love Letters of a Japanese newly in hand, nineteenth century literary tropes remained effective, and what Marie has used is the trope of truth. A sophisticated reader would understand the trope and recognize it is a piece of the fiction, a measure to enhance the tang and tangibility of the story. The claim of truth—these letters are real—acts like a shoe horn to help us slide into the story, to accept the prescience of the author. Yet Marie has doubled the delusion because the letters are real; but she continued to play with our sense of the real in the “Explanation” when she wrote:
“Both the writers of these letters have passed away, and the love may seem scarcely to have been real, yet, as Kenrio Watanabe says in one of his letters: ‘I am rather uncertain about the distinction of reality and memory, which is ideal if anything impressed us so strongly and deeply that we never lose its vision, and [if] it has constantly the sense of reality, is it not by itself reality?’”(6)
Marie shows considerable dexterity in the “Explanation.” By presenting the lovers as dead she not only distances readers from considering that they could possibly be the letters of Mortlake/Stopes but also relocates the action to deeper history, a remove that may have made the thoughts and actions less threatening. The protagonists rendered dead presents also a curious metaphor; it is as if Marie declared that the two people who wrote those letters no longer exist, that both she and Fujii had assumed new lives and new attitudes toward each other.(7) When Marie handed Love Letters of a Japanese to Reginald Ruggles Gates did she mean for him to see this metaphorical death of the earlier Marie/Mertyl?
_____ Notes (1) Draft (dated May 27.62) of essay written by Reginald Ruggles Gates in response to the biography of Marie Stopes by Keith Briant. (2) Letter to her mother, March 1904. (3) Curiously, Reginald Ruggles Gates found Briant’s portrayal accurate of Stopes; he wrote in 1962: “Having read the well-written biography of Marie Stopes by Keith Briant I can confirm that it is a true account of her life as far as his knowledge went. He brings out certain aspects of her later life which were unknown to me, but which confirm my own experience that she as super-sexed to a degree which was almost pathological.” Based on manuscript material written by Gates that is now in the Stopes archive of the British Library, it is clear that Gates found his own portrayal in the Briant biography of Stopes less than accurate. (4) Ruth Hall, 1977. Passionate crusader: the life of Marie Stopes. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. P. 57. (5) G. N. Mortlake (ed.), 1911. Love Letters of a Japanese. Stanley and Paul Co., London. (6) G. N. Mortlake (ed.), 1911. Love Letters of a Japanese. Stanley and Paul Co., London. (7) In his correspondence with Stopes, which was infrequent after she left Japan, Fujii addressed her as Dear Dr. Stopes as if Marie had been transformed at the end of their relationship.