“A leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” the young Walt Whitman sang in one of the finest poems from his Song of Myself– the aria of a self that appeared to him then, as it always appears to the young, boundless and invincible. However when a paralytic stroke felled him years later on, unpeeling his creaturely limitations and his temporality, he leaned on the like reverence of nature as he considered what makes life worth living:
In period and in size, our human lives unfold between the scale of leaves and the scale of stars, amidst an incredible world born by myriad chance occasions any one of which, if ever so somewhat various, could have occasioned a lifeless rocky world, or no world at all– no trees and no songbirds, no Whitman and no Nina Simone, no love poems and no love– just an Earth-sized patch of pure spacetime, austere and cold.
After you have exhausted what there stays in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on– have discovered that none of these finally satisfy, or completely use– what stays? Nature stays; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a guy or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons– the sun by day and the stars of paradise by night.
What emerges from the consummately balanced incantations and illustrated pages is a charm versus the curse of civilization, of exploitation, of apathy– menstruation by which we unwilded beings have actually concerned see the wild world, in the poignant picture of the poet Denise Levertov, as a world parallel to our own, different, a place to layover to less and less often, even in our imagination. These painted verses shimmer and sing with a magical liveliness that renders the wild world not parallel, not foreign, but proximate, beckoning, native to our own souls.
A century after the fantastic nature author Henry Beston firmly insisted that we need “a wiser and perhaps a more magical principle of animals,” observing how “in a world older and more total than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never obtained, living by voices we will never hear,” Macfarlane and Morris bring us the secret and wisdom of wild things as complementary and consolatory to our tame incompleteness.
Out on the hill, old Oak still stands: stag-headed, fire-struck, bare-crowned, stubbornly holding its ground.
Poplar is the whispering tree, Rowan is the sheltering tree, Willow is the weeping tree– and Oak is the waiting tree.
Three hundred years to grow, three hundred more to grow, 3 hundred years to die– 9 a century alive.
A century and a half after Whitman, author Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris– 2 poets of nature in the vastest Baldwinian sense– compose one such living praise in The Lost Spells (public library). A charming buddy to their first collaboration– The Lost Words, an illustrated dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming the language of nature as an inspired act of nerve and resistance after the Oxford Childrens Dictionary dropped dozens of words connected to the natural world– this lyrical invocation in verse and watercolor summons the spirit of the living things that make this world a world, the animals whose lives mark seasons and distribute dates: the magnificent “criminal gang” of the swifts that have actually crossed deserts and oceans to fill the sky each spring, the ancient oak “stubbornly holding its ground” every year, century after century.
I am Red Fox– how do you see me?
A bloom of rust at your visions edge, The shadow that slips through a hole in the hedge, My 2 green eyes in your headlights rush, A scatter of plumes, the suggestion of a brush.
The moment one fathoms this, it appears absolutely nothing less than an essential sacrilege not to go through our days– these alms from possibility– in a state of continuous ecstasy over every living thing we experience, not to respect every owl and every oak and every leaf of lawn as a living praise.
Complement The Lost Spells, to the lushness of which no screen does justice, with naturalist Sy Montgomerys poetic narrative of what thirteen animals taught her about being an excellent creature, then review Macfarlanes captivating narrative journey into the covert universe listed below the world we stroll and Morriss enchanting pictorial journey into the surprise universe beyond the waking world.
Illustrations thanks to Groundwood Books; photos by Maria Popova