Describing trees

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(HOST) Watching the leaves emerge again this spring, commentator Bill Shutkin has been reminded that simply appreciating the world around us doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand it.

(SHUTKIN) I remember reading once that Norman Mailer, when asked about the complexity of American culture at a writers’ conference, responded, “When I think about it, I start talking in a southern accent.”

Mailer’s characteristically brash remark has stayed with me through the years, recalling as it does, the stubborn insistence of a Scarlet O’Hara or a Blanche DuBois to meet any difficulty with a kind of simplistic romanticism. Something about the idea of resisting the urge to analyze, of defying the desire to understand. Perhaps, however noxiously, Mailer was saying that, when the world throws you a curve ball, reach for a mint julep.

Whatever Mailer had in mind, I’ve been wrestling lately with the tension between my own need to explain the world, and my competing impulse to accept it as it is, on its own terms.

We live, Wallace Stevens wrote, in “an old chaos of the sun.” Stevens was right: the world is chaotic, with its countless moving parts and myriad dimensions. And we are its explorers, its diviners, constantly seeking to bring order to the chaos. And yet the system prevails, of its own momentum and mysterious logic.

Perhaps human art, science and even religion, as powerful and wondrous as they are, must yield to a greater, totalizing force called Nature or the Universe.

Not so long ago, I came across this short poem by Robert Hass. It’s called “The Problem of Describing Trees.”

The aspen glitters in the wind
And that delights us.
The leaf flutters, turning
Because that motion in the heat of summer
Protects its cells from drawing out.
Likewise the leaf of the cottonwood.
The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem
And the tree danced.
The tree capitalized.
There are limits to saying,
In language,
what the tree did.
It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.
Dance with me, dancer.
Oh, I will.
Aspens doing something in the wind.

Walking the bottomlands near my house the other day, I observed some aspens as they began to leaf out and I thought of Hass’s poem. I stopped dead in my tracks and, with all my will, tried to avoid thinking about them, analyzing them. Instead, with my eyes closed, I started to meditate. I just was, there in the middle of the wood, a tiny glimmer in the sun’s chaos, and for a moment, a burden was lifted, high into the canopy.

Opening my eyes, I had to laugh. None other than a mint julep came rushing to my mind. Without the southern accent, I might add.

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at M.I.T. He spoke from our studio at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester.

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