Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/15/2011

. . . upon whose bosom snow has lain . . .

A surprise in the woods

A surprise in the woods

A college friend used to say that Joyce Kilmer wrote the most successful poem in American Literature.

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair,
Upon whose bosom snow has lain,
Who intimately lives with rain. . .
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Successful because it absolutely proves its premise.  The poem is not as lovely as a tree. Many of my generation had to memorize it in grammar school (you didn’t think I went to the bother to look it up, did you?). Ugh!

Yesterday I picked up a couple pieces of driftwood small enough to carry in my pocket on my favorite beach in the Port Orford area. The beach extends south from Cape Blanco. The lighthouse is in view from the entire beach. I walked the length of the beach without meeting another person. I met one person on the short hike down from the parking area—one of the half-dozen guys surfing. I asked him how the surfing was. He said it was great because the wind wasn’t blowing as it almost always does.

Today I’ll drive to Bandon (26 miles) to look for a light-weight hooded jacket so I can stay at the beach as long as I want. Hooded for protection from the sun. Ah, the sun. It was as clear and as hot as Malibu or La Jolla yesterday. The sand too hot to walk on barefoot, my dermatologist cringing.

The trees

The trees

I would have more driftwood pieces, but I had to leave the beach before I got to the lighthouse promontory—too much sun even wearing my new “Oregon Coast” baseball cap and slathered with the strongest sunblock I could find. The beach resembled Hawaiian havens of sun and surf, but for most people one sunny day in a week is not enough to warrant a plane ticket and a rented car.

I wonder where the driftwood came from. A botanist could most likely tell me though the wooden slivers are but fragments of trees. Grain and color remain, easy, I should think, for a botanist to identify. Is the wood from the Siskiyou National Forest ten miles inland or from Sendai?

The Siskiyou National Forest. When I left the beach, because I had spent only a fraction of the time there I intended, I headed for the National Park Service Elk River fish hatchery up the road a piece. I’ve noticed the signs many times, but have always had something more urgent (urgent? this week?) to do. But yesterday I had time. The hatchery is on Elk River Road. When I arrived at the hatchery, the road itself seemed more interesting. I drove.

I drove about twenty miles up the road.

I drove into the Siskiyou National Forest without knowing it. The only sign I saw was one that said the county road was ending and the road from there on had no center stripes, so keep right and watch for oncoming traffic. I wanted to stop somewhere and walk around because, even though I didn’t know it was the National Forest, I could plainly see it was a forest. I could see both the forest and the trees.

The first wonder I came to was a little waterfall beside the road. It flows into what I suppose is the Elk River, (the road follows this river as far as I drove). A few miles up the road, I came to a dirt road marked 5502. I drove up it. This was definitely “up,” and a rough, rocky mountain road. I assume it’s a Forest Service fire road. I saw no keep out sign, so I didn’t. I drove about two miles into the forest. Alone. Fantastic. But I finally decided this couldn’t be good for my rental car and turned around. I want to go back with proper hiking gear and explore. Virgin forest. No tourists.

It’s not important for me to write down all I did—stopping here and there, driving into and out of National Forest campgrounds (the signs told me I was in the Siskiyou). But I did stop at the end of one bridge (over another tributary to Elk River) where I saw a paved path (a road I had enough sense not to take the rental car down). It was a “day-use” picnic area with one table, and perfectly accessible rocks to frolic on under the bridge. I did, for about an hour, and have pictures to prove it.

The forest

The forest

The long-discredited poet whom Joyce Kilmer, I’m pretty sure, was trying to emulate, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that

As the eye scans the open volume of nature, the lessons that it reads there, pass into the mind; and thus we receive those gradual impressions, which go far to form the mental character . . . by intercourse and long familiarity [with] our native scenery [nature] comes to exert so strong an influence upon the mind . . . that the features of intellect are moulded after those of nature (1).

I hope no one asks me what the lessons are that I’ve read in nature this week. And I hope no one mistakes my disorganized little essays as attempts to write a poem lovely as a tree. What I know about trees, for example is that they are one of the great wonders of the natural world. How one-celled organisms evolved into the grandeur of the variety of seemingly ageless conifers, trees in the western United States is—again I search for a non-Hallmark word—dumbfounding. (As I tried to take one picture of one of those giant trees, either it moved or I shook the camera; it’s a blurry mess.)

Robert Frost, a poetic descendent of Longfellow whose poetry is (in my opinion) unique—personal and “moulded after. . . nature” (at least in part) said for poets

. . . it is our business to give people the thing that will make them say, ‘Oh yes I know what you mean.’ It is never to tell them something they don’t know, but something they know and hadn’t thought of saying. It must be something they recognize (2).

Some old guy on Cape Blanco Beach

Some old guy on Cape Blanco Beach

Between me and the poet are two differences. First, I don’t have a clue how to write poetry (and virtually nothing I write is “literature”). Second, I write to find something I know, not people. I come to this coast of Oregon to find what I already know. That I am part of something in the ocean, sunsets, sunrises, and trees. As Alice said of “Jabberwocky,” it puts me in mind of something, I’m just not sure what.  I don’t know if all of this puts me in touch with God or a god. But I think Matthew Orr may be right that

Perhaps there is so much disagreement on whether “nature is enough” because the author (if any) of our world—like Frost—is in love with being misunderstood (3).
(1) Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “The Literary Spirit of Our Country” The United States Library Gazette. 1 April 1824.24-28. Reprinted in Longfellow, Poems and Other Writings. New York: Library of America, 2000. 791-95. Quoted in Willis, Lloyd. “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, United States National Literature, and the Canonical Erasure of Material Nature.” ATQ 20.4 (2006): 629-646.
(2) Frost, Robert. Letter to John Bartlett. Quoted in Orr, Matthew.  “Is Nature Enough? Robert Frost Replies in ‘The Most Of It’.”  Zygon 40.3 (September 2005), 759-767.
(3) Orr ibid.


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