Writers who know nature

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton observes that reading the work of a good writer with a keen understanding of the natural world can be almost as good as getting out into the spring woods yourself.

(Slayton) One of the pleasures of reading is the discovery, from time to time, of a writer who obviously knows nature well. I’m not really thinking about nature writers per se, but novelists, essayists, poets, both past and present, who know what they are talking about when they get off the pavement and into the woods.

Robert Frost, for example, the first poet laureate of Vermont, knew the woods and wild lands of his adopted New England well, and obviously loved spring.

His poem “Spring Pools” has long been one of my favorites. Many people writing today have never even seen a vernal pool glimmering in the woods before the leaves above are fully open. But Frost had seen and pondered them deeply enough to write a poem about them that is both lyrical and profound.

One of his chilliest lyrics, entitled “Design,” describes a fat and dimpled white spider that has found its way to a white wildflower, and ambushed a white moth. The poet looks down on this apparently random collection with horror, describes them as “assorted characters of death and blight,” and ponders the meaning of the grim vision. But even here, deep in metaphysical angst, Frost is knowledgeable enough about wildflowers to know that he’s looking at an aberration — a white heal-all (a flower that is normally blue.)

You can find similarly acute observations of the natural world in the contemporary poetry of Mary Oliver, who lives part of the year in Bennington and writes beautifully of both turtles and birds, noting in one prose poem: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

The essays of Noel Perrin and John Elder, both of whom know the woods well because of their springtime maple sugar making, are rich in
natural detail, as is the poetry of Hayden Carruth. All three writers are more interested in human affairs, but know the natural world intimately
enough to comment on it easily and accurately.

Of course one would expect to find nature mirrored in the work of Vermont writers. But it’s both surprising and gratifying to find clearly knowledgeable references to the natural world in Shakespeare and to see, in several of his poems and plays, the love he had for the wildflowers and plants he knew as a young man growing up in rural Stratford-Upon-Avon.

“I know a bank whereon the wild Thyme blows,” he writes in the second act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “where oxlips and the nodding violet grows….”

Such passages enrich the imagery of Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, and the sonnets, just as they do the poems of Robert Frost and other writers. But they do something more.

A love of nature is part of our common humanity. Wandering the woods and fields of home, we’ve seen what Shakespeare and the other writers have seen, felt something like what they’ve felt. That brings their writing closer to us, gives us – literally – common ground to stand on and a way to enter into their world.

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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