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[with poems by Carl Phillips, Janice Harrington, Ross Gay]

Green is God’s best idea.

Yesterday afternoon Linda and I drove up the Blue Ridge Parkway for a hike at Doughton Park. Crossing Air Bellows Gap (elevation 1,135 m / 3,724 ft) we noticed the new leaves still flashed mint, gold, orange, pink, some foreshadowing their autumn hues. Once we’d climbed up to the overlook at Bluff Mountain, though, we saw the hardwoods down in Basin Cove fully decked in rich deep emerald and kelly, gradations of green from full summer in the bottoms to pale spring at ridgecrest. Which is all just to say: Go, little Chloroplasts, Go!

The first chloroplast was born about 2 billion years ago when an ancient cell engulfed an ancient cyanobacterium. And then didn’t digest it! The cyanobacterium became a tiny green internal organelle and its chlorophyll turned sunlight into sugar for the big cell; the big cell provided a safe home for the cb. They became first plant cell – a match made in heaven! In another mere billion years or so of reproducing like mad (and cranking out oxygen as a waste product), the earth’s atmosphere changed from having zero oxygen to having oxygen enough to support the development of the first animals. Of which you and I, of course, are two. Thank you, Green!

Postscript re: good ideas and all – Linda and I had parked beneath an oak tree. When we’d finished our five miles (including detour around a herd of steers that grazes on NPS land to keep the balds bald) I opened the car door and raised a visible cloud. Swelling eyes, paroxysms of coughing, nose gusher: oak tree in flower = pollen.

To make a seed you need an ovum and pollen. Every green thing that doesn’t make seeds makes spores instead and is a fern (well, OK, or moss, or liverwort, or lichen, or . . . ). Spores work pretty well but about 400 million years ago the gymnosperms appeared (conifers, ginkgo) and brought with them the first pollen, and when plants became smart enough to make flowers about 135 million years ago (angiosperms) the variety of living things on earth really skyrocketed. Go, Flowers, Go! So if you’ll hand me a tissue, God, I’ll grudge you this: pollen might be your second best idea.

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The Cure

The tree stood dying – dying slowly, in the ususal manner
of trees, slowly, but now without its clusters of spring leaves
taking shape again, already. The limbs that held them tossed,

shifted, the light fell as it does, through them, though it
sometimes looked as if the light were being shaken, as if
by the branches – the light, like leaves, had it been autumn,

scattering down: singly, in fistfuls. Nothing about it to do
with happiness, or glamour. Not sadness either. That much
I could see, finally. I could see, and want to see. The tree

was itself, its branches were branches, shaking, they shook
in the wind like possibility, like impatient escorts bored with
their own restlessness, like hooves in the wake of desire, in

the wake of the dream of it, and like the branches they were.
A sound in the branches like that of luck when it turns, or is
luck itself a fixed thing, around which I myself turn or don’t,

I remember asking – meaning to ask. Where had I been, for
what felt like forever? Where was I? The tree was itself, and
dying; it resembled, with each scattering of light, all the more

persuasively the kind of argument that can at last let go of them,
all the lovely-enough particulars that, for a time, adorned it:
force is force. The tree was itself. The light fell here and there,

through it. Like history. No – history doesn’t fall, we fall
through history, the tree is history, I remember thinking, trying
not to think it, as I lay exhausted down in its crippled shadow.

Carl Phillips

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Today’s selected poems are from Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, © 2009 University of Georgia Press, Athens GA.

Carl Phillips is the author of nine books of poetry, most recently Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems 1986-2006 and Riding Westward. A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, he teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

Janice Harrington (b. 1956) grew up in Alabama and Nebraska. After working as a public librarian and as a professional storyteller, Harrington now teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has also written award-winning children’s books.

Ross Gay was born in 1974 in Youngstown, Ohio. He is a Cave Canem Fellow and a recipient of a grant from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts. He teaches poetry at Indiana University in Bloomington and gives readings and workshops in various venues across the country.

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What There Was

Pine, catalpa, pin oak, persimmon,
but not tree.

Hummingbird, hoot owl, martin, crow,
but not bird

Cannas, honeysuckle, cockscomb, rose,
but not flower.

Wood smoke, corn, dust, outhouse,
but not stench.

A spider spinning in a rain barrel,
the silver dipper by the back porch,
tadpoles shimmying against a concrete bank,
but not silence.

A cotton row, a bucket lowered into a well,
a red dirt road, a winging crow,
but not distance.

A rooster crowing in the evening,
wasps humming beneath the eaves, hounds
baying, hot grease, but not music.

My mother running away at fifteen,
my grandmother lifting a truck to save a life,
an uncle at Pearly Harbor, Webster sitting
at the back of the bus when he looked as white
as they did, but not stories.

The entrails of a slaughtered sow, the child born
with a goat’s face, the cousin laid on a railroad
track, the fire that burned it all, but not death.

This poem, a snuff tin sated with the hair
of all our dead, my mother’s nighttime talks
with her dead father, my great-grandmother’s
clothes passed down, passed down, but not memory.

Janice N. Harrington

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Thank You

If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
Thank you.

Ross Gay

 

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Doughton Park Tree, 2022-05-17A

 

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[an essayette by poet Ross Gay and a poem by Bill Griffin]

Joy is Such a Human Madness: The Duff Between Us

Or, like this: in healthy forests, which we might imagine to exist mostly above ground, and be wrong in our imagining, given as the bulk of the tree, the roots, are reaching through the earth below, there exists a constant communication between those roots and mycelium, where often the ill or weak or stressed are supported by the strong and surplused.

By which I mean a tree over there needs nitrogen, and a nearby tree has extra, so the hyphae (so close to hyphen, the handshake of the punctuation world), the fungal ambulances, ferry it over. Constantly. This tree to that. That to this. And that in a tablespoon of rich fungal duff (a delight: the phrase fungal duff, meaning a healthy forest soil, swirling with the living the dead make) are miles and miles of hyphae, handshakes, who get a little sugar for their work. The pronoun who turned the mushrooms into people, yes it did. Evolved the people into mushrooms.

Because in trying to articulate what, perhaps, joy is, it has occurred to me that among other things–the trees and the mushrooms have shown me this–joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away. If we sink a spoon into that fact, into the duff between us, we will find it teeming. It will look like all the books ever written. It will look like all the nerves in a body. We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that, once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flower and food. Might be joy.

from The Book of Delights, Ross Gay, Algonquin books of Chapel Hill, © 2019

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My daughter Margaret gave me this book by Ross Gay for my birthday in 2020 and it’s been waiting patiently with its companions on the to-be-read-someday shelf until this month. I flipped it open and read a couple of the daily musings on delight (a page or two, observations and reflections that Ross decided half-way through the project to call essayettes). They are like a Whitman’s Sampler – once you’ve opened the box you know you’re going to eat every one.

So I’ve left the book beside the couch and picked it up when random minutes offered themselves unfilled. It’s hard to read just one or two, though – coffee has cooled and soup has threatened to boil over.

This particular entry, though, stopped me in my tracks. I read it over and over. Not only because it followed the amazing interview with Merlin Sheldrake I had just discovered in the May issue of The Sun, all about mycorrhizal networks and sentient fungi and the meaning of life and everything, but because of the way Ross Gay interweaves joy and sorrow and delight and death. Maybe he is right, as many of his essayettes seem to suggest – if we face the one thing we all share in common, which is death, and even God forbid talk about it, maybe we can discover that it is possible to step past the fear into a space that reveals joy – delight – every day.

Which is to say: Hey, life is suffering – along the way let’s you and I share a little delight.

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Rule #1 No Hurting

I tell you this while you whack me
with your little plastic hammer: what I mean
is no hurting other people, not that you
could really damage me
with those little boy hands I love
but sometimes it does sting. Maybe I’m worried
about your buddies at playschool: hitting
begets automatic time out. Or do I mean
your Mom and Dad: see their tears
when you fall? When you are bruised?
And pain you can’t see: someday
you are bound to bruise their hearts.

How we do hurt each other, and how
could it be otherwise, two souls
all entangled while we stumble,
lash out, grab for help, and I
won’t tell you now but I know this:
you will hurt me too, although I
will have handed you the knife
of loving you and hoping
life won’t leave its scars.
But this is what Rule #1 doesn’t mean:
No hurting inside. I’m sorry, Grandson,
no platitudes about for your own good
you will suffer because you too
are human and our world makes no
distinction. Just remember Rule #2:
I will cry with you.

Bill Griffin

from Tar River Poetry, Vol. 55, Nr. 2; Spring, 2015

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Additional links for Ross Gay:

Review of The Book of Delights

Books

The On Being Project

 

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