The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Reading this book will change the way you see trees. In folktales and childhood stories, sometimes trees are characters with personalities and relationships, not merely commodities for the mill. Wohlleben tells a story of science that enchants our giant neighbors again.

It turns out that as trees breathe,  they communicate with each other, turn their arms to the rain, resist threats, and face danger together. Trees shelter their young, hold hands (sort of) and are faithful to fallen neighbors, feeding the stumps of missing friends with their own roots. Trees exhibit individual differences, adapt to the seasons and to local environments, share resources and protect their own kind.

This is another new nature book in which a scientist/naturalist presents her/his biology and chemistry results, from years of careful observation and sympathetic analysis, giving his subjects the gift of deep thought and imaginative narration. Wohlleben describes our neighbors, the trees, not as “other” but as fellow, related creatures of earth. In their apparent impassive stillness, trees alter our human sense of time and of the span of generations. They might even stun us, and quiet us, into a new kind of humility and wonder.

The Maximum Security Book Club, Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison by Mikita Brottman

When we look back on our lives, it’s tempting to seek out paths, patterns, influential figures and standout moments of revelation…Something I’ve learned from literature is that trajectories appear only in retrospect. In the present all we see are the ordinary ups and downs of everyday affairs.  p. 61

As I drove home that day, I figured most of the men hadn’t really been able to follow much of the text [Macbeth], but I wasn’t worried. When I’d first read the play myself, I remember being fascinated by the images conjured up b the strange words on the page. I had the feeling I was somehow reading through the language to the direct emotion beneath.  p. 115

Botticelli and Matisse at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

It’s pure 15th century spirit, Catholic Florentine faith on display in the special exhibit of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) at the MFA. Centering myths and big faith narratives that wrapped around Botticelli’s world, and the lives of his patrons, were his themes. Augustine and Venus and Mary are featured in giant, gorgeous panels and canvasses.

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Sandro Botticelli Venus

Sandro Botticelli - The Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Book) - Google Art Project.jpg

One floor below Botticelli is a special show of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) in his studio. Here there are no myths or faith-stories to be seen, only chosen and picked-up pieces of ordinary life. We see his beautiful and quirky collection of objects–vases and vessels, faces and bodies, rearranged, and posed, so that the spirit of the shapes and colors interact and emerge in combination and contrast.

Image result for Matisse gold fish and woman

Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau

The Origin of the Species was published in 1859 and taken up by naturalists, social reformers and writers. The book was read and discussed with enthusiasm by the free-thinking transcendentalists in and around Concord, and it nearly blew Henry David Thoreau’s mind.  Randall Fuller tells a good story of a big idea taking root in America.

For example, he shows how the book effected Louisa May Alcott.

…she was interested in Darwin’s work for the same reason the Concord transcendentalists were: because it provided a rigorous scientific argument that suggested that all people were linked by inheritance and destined for progressive improvement. These ideas are at the heart of Louisa’s abolitionist party. p. 123

Thoreau inhaled it.

…no American read the Origin of the Species with as much care and insight as Henry David Thoreau…Throughout the first week of February, he copied extracts from the Origin. Those notes…comprise six notebook pages in a nearly illegible scrawl. They tell the story of someone who must have read with hushed attention, someone attuned to every nuance and involution in the book. p. 136

Image result for Henry David Thoreau

The Whole Harmonium, The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani

The Sun This March

The exceeding brightness of this early sun
Makes me conceive how dark I have become,

And re-illumines things that used to turn
To gold in broadest blue, and be a part

Of a turning spirit in an earlier self.
That, too, returns from out the winter’s air,

Like an hallucination come to daze
The corner of the eye. Our element,

Cold is our element and winter’s air
Brings voices as of lions coming down.

Oh! Rabbi, rabbi, fend my soul for me
And true savant of the this dark nature be.

–Wallace Stevens 1879-1955

My review of Paul Mariani’s biography of Wallace Stevens is in the current issue of The Christian Century.

Three Darks Come Down Together by Robert Francis

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 etching by David Utiger

Robert Francis 1901-1987 was born in Pennsylvania and lived in Amherst, Massachusetts most of his life.

Three Darks Come Down Together

Three darks come down together,
Thee darks close in around me:
Day dark, year dark, dark weather.

They whisper and conspire,
They search me and they sound me
Hugging my private fire.

Day done, year done, storm blowing,
Three darknesses impound me
With dark of white snow snowing.

Three darks gang up to end me,
To browbeat and dumbfound me.
Three future lights defend me.

J. S. Bach: F# Minor Toccata a poem by Bill Holm

Image result for Bill Holm

Today, on Bach’s birthday, a poem by Bill Holm, 1943-2009, who lived most of his life in the region of Minnesota where I grew up, and a recording by Glen Gould.

J. S. Bach: F# Minor Toccata

This music weeps, not for sin
but rather for the black fact
that we must all die, but not one
of us knows what comes after.
This music leaps from key to key
as if it had no clear place to arrive,
making up its life, one bar at a time.
But when you come at last to the real theme,
strict, inexorable, and bleak,
you must play it slow and sad,
with melancholy dignity, or you miss
all its grim wisdom.
In three pages, it says, the universe collapses,
and you—still only halfway home.

Derek Walcott 1930-2017

Derek Walcott was at Boston University during my graduate study there. I always thought of him as Shakespeare incarnate on St. Lucia or some other Caribbean island.

The Sea is History

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, likea light at the end of a tunnel,

the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:

Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,

that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor

the plangent harp of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,

and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages

looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,

brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw

of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?

Sir, it is locked in them sea sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;

strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,

past the gothic windows of sea fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;

and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,

and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,

and that was Lamentations –
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;

then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,

and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God

as His son set, and that was the New Testament.

Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation –

jubilation, O jubilation –
vanishing swiftly
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,

but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;

then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,

fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,

and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns

and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo

of History, really beginning.

The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams at the American Repertory Theater

Amanda Plummer (Hannah) looking down on James Earl Jones (Nonno) in his wheelchair on stage

In 1961 Tennessee Williams was near the end of his rope emotionally and vocationally. This tropical stage drama and movie story–The Night Of The Iguana–was written out of that time and condition. A line in the program notes says that it is William’s most autobiographical play. It is a religious passion play. A Southern Protestant, Williams was working out Christian constraints of morality and behavior from a hilltop rainforest setting.

A shamed Episcopal priest, Larry Shannon, leaves his American parish and finds work as a  guide for a cut-rate excursion company in Mexico. He reroutes his tour group of female Baptist college teachers to an out-of-the-way hotel in the jungle.

Emotions and passions spill all over the hotel veranda. The fragile, cracking Rev. Shannon is the center of the story. Sex and booze, the ministrations of nature, even the glory of military victory, are sampled as remedies for the discomfort of existence.  As the characters try to move forward, each one is tethered to the past. An iguana, caught and roped by the two Mexican cliff divers/service-boys, and held for further torture and slaughter, scratches for release.

Tennessee Williams 1911-1983

The only characters that are free (in addition to those gigalo nature-boy servants) are Hanna Jelkes (played by Amanda Plummer), an itinerant Nantucket painter, and her ancient poet grandfather (played by James Earl Jones). The traveling pair,  dressed in white, have no money, and few belongings, but they have their art, their commitment to each other,  a kind regard for those around them, and wonder at the world (symbolized by the sea).

Forever Words by Johnny Cash, edited by Paul Muldoon

John Carter Cash found unpublished lyrics and poems among tall stacks of documents and papers in his father’s homes. After Johnny Cash died in 2003, Paul Muldoon, poetry editor of The New Yorker, helped John Carter Cash sort the poems and collect some of them into this volume. The poems appear with images of a few of the original handwritten pages, and photographs of Johnny Cash.

His biographies tell that as a boy Johnny Cash was drawn to self-expression through writing, and that he read literary poetry, certainly an unusual interest for a youngster in rural Alabama in the years of the Great Depression. He aspired to fame as a performer, not to fame through perfection in composition. Throughout his life Cash kept performing and kept feeding his performances with the products of the hard work of writing. His son tells that at family gatherings his father would disappear, and be found in a quiet room, writing.

Many of the poems in this book are interesting to us simply because Johnny Cash wrote them. Cash probably hoped to find tunes for most of them  and to sing them. But some of them stand out, not as great poems but as honest creations of a reflective, spiritual person trying to package memories, thoughts and emotions in poems.

Sometimes adult career paths are set in daydreams of early childhood.  Cash’s biographers tell that from an early age he wanted to be a singer and an entertainer. His song Tennessee Flattop Box, released in the early sixties, is a musical statement of who Cash wanted to become when he was young, and of what he became as an adult: a boy with his guitar, singing and playing for an audience.

People came from miles around.
And all the girls
from there to Austin
were slippin’ away from home
and puttin’ jewelry in hock
to take the trip
to go and listen
to the little dark-haired boy
who played the Tennessee flat top box.

I reviewed the book for The Christian Century.