Tuesday, April 13, 2010

under my elm

this book, “under my elm: country discoveries and reflections” by david grayson, is full of the writer’s musings, journal entries, anecdotes, field notes, letters, observations, ideas, opinions, beliefs, passions...totally self-indulgent and random, with no particular structure, basically amounting to a hardcover blog from 1942.

one of the most important themes in the book, i think, was that of mortality (and the chance of posterity) in the face of perpetuity--it reads like the author was growing old and wanted to empty his mind onto the page before the end. some chapters didn’t interest me much, but i felt obligated to read them; it was as though i was taking part in the tree metaphor on page 145 (transcribed below), the book being the author’s seed, and by reading its entirety i allowed one elm to grow on my land, assuming a very personal, integral position in the writer’s effort to live on through his words.

i’ve read hundreds of books by dead folks and never realized such a sense of responsibility and connection before. maybe i reacted that way because it’s long out of print and forgotten, and looked so lonely there on the bookshelf at the thrift store (with a 50-cent price sticker affixed to its cover, no less). maybe it was because i identified with many of the writer’s thoughts and opinions in a more vibrant and intimate way than i typically identify with older works. maybe it was because for the first time in my life i’m starting to care what will be thought of me, or if i’ll be thought of at all, after i die.

the following are some of my favorite passages from the book. consider this post david grayson’s posthumous blog.

I don’t know what it is, but there is something about steady manual labor like this, alone in the fields, that gives one a curious deep satisfaction....The mind sets itself the minute task it has to do and goes off somewhere to its own high pastures, serene uplands, to rest and play. The hours pass magically: the sun that was so low when the work began rides high in the heavens--and suddenly the mind comes home again. It comes home refreshed, stimulated, happy. Yesterday it did not return until I had nearly finished my work in the field. It seemed to cry out: “What, asleep! Listen to the bobolinks.”

I straightened up quickly and realized that I had been working for several hours without hearing or seeing much of anything--this literally. The whole world now became flooded with delightful sounds, not only the bobolinks, but a hundred other voices both of nature and human nature, so that I had a deep and indescribably friendly feeling toward all things. I thought it good and beautiful to be there and alive. Even the grass clinging wetly to my legs as I walked seemed consciously holding me close to the earth; and the shovel held warmly, even painfully in my blistered hands, was proof that I had at last become part of a universal process. These sensations, even as I set them down, seem difficult to express, but they were there, and they were true and sound. (11-12)

I took to imagining myself suddenly reduced in size to a hop-o’-my-thumb explorer in this vast forest, crossing the Africa of wilderness between the orchard and the edge of the cornfield. I marveled at the enormous prehistoric animals I saw clinging like sloths to the branches of some of the larger trees (slugs, you know) and would have shot at them with my trusty rifle if I had one. Here and there great serpents thrust their heads out of the earth (they looked like the angleworms of another world), and there were strange and fearsome creatures flying through the air or hiding among the foliage--a beetle as big as an elephant and a spider that looked like an eagle.

I knelt there fascinated for an hour or more, and came away thinking how we go blindly about our dull tasks, our eyes and ears and nose closed to the wonders of the world, not knowing where to turn for joy. (14)

In going to nature, we are so often obtuse, so often arrogant, so little humble, that we do not listen and look for the shy, deep things that are so often the most significant. We bring back only what we took with us--our own selfish absorptions and humdrum interests and moralities. There is a harmony in nature, if we can come to hear it, and a rhythm, if we can learn to adapt ourselves to it, that will give us a strange and blessed new tranquility of soul. (21)

I had been in many an old bookstore before this and bought many an old book that I did not need, nor really want. This was before I was converted and had accepted the true faith of the booklover--which consists in being obsessed by one bright particular subject in which moments of complete rationality he suspects is not of supreme importance in the world, but which, at the time, completely absorbs him. (53)

This Charles Butler, for his time, was a thorough-going scholar....He was irritated, as some of us are to this day, by the “capriciousness of English orthography” and made the highly sensible proposal that “men should write altogether according to the sound now generally received.” He became such an enthusiast that he translated his own book on the honeybee into his strange new spelling. I have a copy of it (printed at Oxford in 1634) which is extremely difficult to read. In the middle of it, the words all in his phonetic spelling, is a stave of musical notes arranged in triple time to represent the humming of bees at the great moment of their swarming. It is arranged with “Mean and “Tenor” facing one way, and “Bassus” and “Contratenor” the other way, so that four singers, holding the book between them and facing one another, can all join at one time in humming like bees. (65)

In the long run, possession of land must be based upon efficiency of use. As population in the world increases and large food production becomes more vital, the holding of land unused or inefficiently used by private owners will become more and more intolerable. At present, there is inefficiency at every turn, leakages everywhere. (85)

As I walked down the land, I had a moving sense of the land coming alive under my very eyes. The earth was indeed brown and bare, but it gave off a faint, sweet, unforgettable odor--or was it merely an imaginary emanation?--of stirring life. I stood there looking across the fields--with such a feeling of sympathy, and of understanding, as I cannot describe. They wanted me, they longed for me, those acres. They had been waiting, hoping I would come. (113)

There must have been many thousands, if not millions, of seeds from that one tree. What a struggle for perpetuity! What a gambler’s fling for immortality! And yet of all of this enormous spermal prodigality, will a single seed, in these well-controlled gardens and meadows and hedgerows, find a chance to germinate and grow?--let alone produce another elm tree a hundred years old? (145)

I cannot say I love men--mankind--miscellaneously. I see him too vividly; there is far too much and too many of him; it spreads me out too thin. I think I can say honestly that I am interested in all men: I wonder about them; I like to look at them; I enjoy hearing or reading about them, whether they are of this age or another; but there are only a few men here and there whom I have met with the full intensity of life and have therefore come to love. (152)

In the valley the apple trees were beginning to blossom; on the hills we were among the first glories of the spring woods. The shadbush was a white mist upon the woody hillsides. The earlier spicebush, with its gleam of gold, was passing, but the fragrant sassafras, especially on southern slopes, was at its best. Here and there in old fields we saw the ruddy spring glow of the high-bush huckleberries, and along the hedges and the fences the pin cherries, with their neatly rounded blossom clusters, were beginning to come out. I think no moment of the year is like this, so disturbingly beautiful. (168)

An old pasture in spring, all silence and sunshine, I love well, and the bluets and the dandelions that grow there, and the alders and willows that edge the low spots. All this I love well.

The shadbush is in bloom on Pelham Road, and in my garden, daffodils and poets’ narcissus. The Chinese magnolias are lustrous in many a pampered garden.

I am never less alone than when I am alone... (177)

I saw Mother Bumblebee visiting the bloom of the tall white clematis, and a hummingbird--morsel of animate rainbow, quite unbelievable in its magic, if I had not been there to see--among the yellow foxgloves and purple larkspurs. (178)

I should like my notebook to appear to be exactly what it is--as though I had just stepped in, excited, from the fields, eager to put down what I have heard or seen or felt or thought.

The beauty of a notebook is that it need not be final--everything fresh, immediate, unfinished, like life itself. No conclusions: glimpses. Sometimes I run down in the middle of a sentence and stop with a dash. I suspect periods, but I like commas and semicolons, since they imply that there is still much to be said. I know I use too many exclamation points, but the fact is, I am so astonished by some of the things I see and hear of a spring morning that it is only an exclamation point that will relieve my feelings!

I have a beautiful idea on page 36, I doubt it on page 42, change it beyond recognition on page 110--and on page 303, having entirely forgotten what I said before, re-express it as a beautiful idea in terms exactly similar to those on page 36. Which shows! What does it show?

One who has never tried it does not know that he can double the yield of life--add immeasurably to his understanding and his joy--by fitting words to his adventures. To live interestingly and deeply, and to tell oneself about it afterward, is to squeeze the last drop of nectar from the wild grapes of experience. (190-191)

Looking back, I have this to regret, that too often when I loved, I did not say so.

The price of intense living, enjoyment, is fatigue. One dies of living. (199)

Whenever words fly up at me from the printed page, as I read, I intercept them instantly, knowing they are for me. I turn them over carefully in my mind and cling to them hard. Sometimes I commit them to memory or copy them down in my notebooks as a permanent possession, often to be taken out for my pleasure, thought about, gloated over. If men are made up largely of what they select as they go through life, as I firmly believe, these passages I have so gladly intercepted not only represent what I admire or what I like, they are in reality a part of Me, myself. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, for earth or for heaven, they are representative of what I am. (205-206)

So often, listening to the arguments of politicians (when I must), I recall a remark made long ago by a wise man:

“How can great minds be produced in a country,” asks John Stuart Mill, “where the test of great minds is agreeing in the opinion of small minds?” (213)

“They are happy,” says William Penn, in Fruits of Solitude, “that live retiredly....They that must be enjoyed by every Body, can never enjoy themselves as they should.” (215)

Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself! Do I grope for intangible things? Very well, then, being what I am, I grope for intangible things. Nothing that I see finally satisfies me; I have far yet to go. I think the only thing really worth noting about me is that which will not be satisfied. I am most interesting where I am most insatiable. (270)


Jessica said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. I read it yesterday throughout my work day, like deep breaths from a tall mountain. What an amazing little book.

Emily said...

you're so welcome, i'm glad you connected with it too. i don't know if this would interest you, but i looked up charles butler and found the entire text of his 1609 bee book "the feminine monarchie" scanned into google books, available for free download as a PDF. not as romantic as plucking it from the dungeon of an "ancient bookshop in the city of edinburgh," of course, but cool anyway. i read little bits of it and it seems awesome.

JJ Beazley said...

Superb post, Em. Moving. Beautiful words. And pics better than ever.

be said...

"I know I use too many exclamation points, but the fact is, I am so astonished by some of the things I see and hear of a spring morning that it is only an exclamation point that will relieve my feelings!"

i love this! hehe:)
but really, every excerpt was phenomenal! it's awesome that you've shared it here for more people to experience!

Emily said...

thank you jeff. but don’t you mean, “superb post(humous), david”?

be--i love that quote too! i completely share his feelings on punctuation, except that when i’m journaling/blogging i usually prefer the ellipsis (or slightly improper comma usage) over the semicolon, because semicolons feel formal and academic. they annoy me, i’m suspicious of them, so when i’m writing for pleasure i mostly skip them. like kurt vonnegut wrote, “all they do is show you’ve been to college.”

JJ Beazley said...

I meant both, Em. Two lovely minds at work. And I'll bet you take better pictures than he did.