“A good poem is the beginning of the world,” said Lonner Holden. We were talking about Writing Highway 395 and the compelling beauty of the trees and lakes and mountains and glacial moraines and the air. “There are no rules, as long as the poem awakens the essence of your own experience. It is the emergence of language.”
I’m utterly caught, when I write, in keeping up with the flow of cliches and half-thoughts and odd images surging through me. “Chasing,” as Stan Rice put it, “a rabbit running through the woods,” probably barefoot. If I thought about “the essence of my own experience” I’d stop in my tracks. Nevertheless, that ideal and “the beginning of the world” must fuel the engine that spews forth those words. As fast as a wild rabbit runs.
Do prose writers have this same insight? Their sense might be different, since a poet may aim directly at the experience and a prose writer might bring us there by outlining the territory. But the answer is still “Yes.” And while the magic, for instance, in Costa Rica comes parading out of the jungle, at June Lake the world seems bigger, less obvious, and at the same time more intricate. Probably because the geology is uncovered and the dimensions are huge. We have to search out and integrate what’s happening. We have to read nature as if it’s a screen that has many dimensions, and we don’t know which one we’re in.
For one thing, the ground is not level. Not asphalt, not cement, not wood, not tile. It’s dirt and pine cones and loam and rock, ridge angles and ravines and talus slopes and alluvial fans and glacial fill, all expressions of recent and ancient history. And yes, an occasional path following, or cutting across, the contours. We become aware, in less than the space of one step, that we need to look before putting our foot on the earth.
For another, it’s three dimensions. We discover, when we look up at the trees and then at mountains much higher, in another world with its feet at our feet, that we live in three dimensions. The world is three dimensions everywhere, of course, but mostly we live in the fiction of two. Our length and breadth contains itself within a narrow vertical layer, from head-high to the bottoms of our feet.
In the Sierra you have to read nature. Nature doesn’t let you not read it.
Do we go for a hike? Do these boulders mark the edge of a glacier? Are those bear hairs stuck in the bark of a Jeffrey pine? That bird call, is that a scrub jay or a wandering itinerant? Bird calls abound. The birds are in the trees and in the brush, with no jungle to conceal them, but they’re no easier to see for that. They’re hidden in plain sight.
I treasure the moment our cliches get busted. Writing “the beginning of the world” doesn’t let us listen inside, lazily, to the Crazy Child and then write great stuff. Oh, if things could be so simple! We have to read the air, read the landscape, read the animals, read the plants, and read the rocks to be present. Then we may feel something arise.
“This pocked, and smooth, and studded amber landscape waiting to be explored. Her terrain, enduring yet delicate, ancient yet infantile, to be tread lightly and earnestly upon with great trepidation, wonder, and gratitude.” Lonner extends his metaphor and it fits, to a “T,” the eastern Sierra. “The risking of one’s familiar ground is one’s ticket to enter such a wild and unbridled land.”
Ah, that’s key. Our familiar ground, probably our comfortable ground, is what we give up at the gate. The gate to the mountains and to the source of our writing.
Lest we inflate the journey, remember John Wieners, when his admirers marveled how smoothly he descended into the depths. He replied, yes, he was able to go there “and come up with what, answers? No. Poems.”