There have been several instances lately that have returned me to childhood. For some reason during our camping excursion I started interrupting all otherwise pleasant camp songs with “Mahna Mahna!” from that classic sketch/song, originally premiering on the Ed Sullivan Show, and then on the premier of The Muppet Show… in 1969. I had yet to be born, but the Muppets were still such a constant in my childhood… partially as passed down after my older brother grew up with the Muppets. To this day, my brother and I get “Mahna Mahna!” stuck in our heads for weeks at a time, interrupting any moment of silence with the key phrase of the song… and it’s every bit as funny as it was the first time. I am guilty of posting these videos on Facebook but have been thanked by many friends for bringing the song into their heads in the midsts of midterms and just our adult lives in general.
In addition, my cousin is about to have a baby, and for her baby shower I purchased some of the classic books from childhood to send to her (since I was unable to make the shower itself, being that it was in Maine and I am in D.C…. Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Clifford the Big Red Dog have been sitting on my coffee table ready for me to send them to her… but I almost don’t want to part with them (or want to immediately go out and purchase them again, for myself). Goodnight Moon is especially nostalgia-inducing… the images are so burned in my memory. I must have made my mother read it to me hundreds of times, and I probably read it on my own when I was able at least a hundred times more. These books are what instilled in me a love of story, and a love for the particulars… Goodnight light, And the red balloon, Goodnight bears, Goodnight chairs…
Then of course there is the film version of Where the Wild Things Are, put together by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers. I found myself smiling foolishly through all of the fun parts, and my heart breaking a little in the sadder moments…. I was very much reminded not that I was a Wild Thing as a child myself, but of the activities which were most soothing and completing for my little kid soul… making igloos in snow banks, playing that the floor was lava and we couldn’t touch it, the building of forts and playing with any number of stuffed animals, already building stories for them in my imagination… fortunately my brother was (sometimes) more than happy to play these games with me and I did not spiral into total wildness… but I can see and feel the residuals of this experience in my tendencies now (since seeing the film I have had this extreme desire to run around and crash into things, and very playfully jumped around a lot on my last hiking excursion… which, not surprisingly, made the day a whole lot of fun).
These artifacts from my very young self have conjured in me a renewed sense of awe in my every day life. It’s not quite nostalgia, and not quite sentimentality, just a good reminder to keep my eyes as wide open and laughter as available as those days so long ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in relation to my continued experience with Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect whose prose works are the source material for the collection of poems I am writing. I am working, at the moment, with his autobiographical passages. It even turns out he took some “tours” in some of the places I’ve lived in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. It turns out we had a similar childhood – while we certainly read a lot, we both consider our significant education to have come from the ability to wander and our time out of doors. There is something comforting to know my source material has the same “source material” I did, despite that none of the things I am now referring to existed at the moment… so much else still translates across childhoods… whatever else teaches us to build things and laugh a lot, to notice… I wonder if all of us who maintain a sense of awe for leaf and breeze in our adult lives came from this kind of “education”.
Nature has always been the one thing that can return me to that feeling I remember so clearly as a mark of my childhood. Certainly the idea of parks and recreation is a way, of sorts, to make sure this experience is available to everyone throughout their lives. A park is a place set aside for play, for wandering, for sheer experience of the day in absense of life’s other stresses. Olmsted truly believed a park could counter any negative psychological or physiological effects of a city… the stresses of our otherwise well-occupied lives. Parks are places that can open us up to “a pleasurable wakefulness of the mind” as Olmsted put it. That pleasurable wakefulness has returned to me lately, through these artifacts and through Olmsted, and I could not be more grateful for it.
Location: Shenandoah National Park (in reflection)
[These notes were taken a week after a long weekend's worth of camping and hiking in the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. I did not bring my notebook on my hikes as I'd intended, as I was having too much fun with friends and just generally enjoying everything around me… but I figured it was worth seeing what I could muster for your, and my, benefit. Brackets are added/edited material. Otherwise these are the way the notes formed on the page...]
[Locale 1: Overall Run, from Matthew's Arm Campground back via the Traces trail, Saturday Oct. 10th]
Hike[d] down to an overlook. Hear[d] a bear. This is wilderness not park. Rather than set aside it is preserved. I could not help but look up all the time (and nearly trip). The leaves closest to sun change first and the best colors are up there. There is something to say about the leaves being so vibrant before they fall, before the death of things and the silence of winter. I have never bothered to know the names of things, what kind of tree beyond evergreen and not. A lack of evergreen around here, lack in Shenandoah. It’s going to gray. the branches are so gray already – pale and spiney stretch out toward the path, shifting gaze and filtering sunlight. On a gray day there are no shadows, just forever woods, tree upon tree upon tree. Man interferes where fallen trees block the path but otherwise influence/maintenance is unseen. Oh, and also signage telling where the trail is heading [which is needed so we can make our way].
A park differs from wilderness in that wilderness is set aside not designed. A distance to get there. Not necessarily democratic. The enjoyment of a park can be felt without you being there walking through it. 500 acres [of Franklin Park] feels small compared to this. $15 entry fee. Wilderness is uncultivated. I feel a general awe for what Nature provides all on its own – in a park I feel a general appreciation for those though thought enough before me to keep the city from overwhelming all green space knowing all along pipes and sewers and built bridges, even groupings of trees, were designed. To see old photographs of the making of Franklin park is frightening. It is all torn apart and bulldozed – a clean slate. But Olmsted always considered what would occur over time, knowing the shape of the land was out of his hands. All he provided was a foundation, with consideration for growth and consumption – consideration for life.
In wilderness the foothold is our footsteps. Is the land we traverse because other have walked a path before us. In Scotland the walking paths were once practical – from hamlet to hamlet for the delivery of goods and resources and friendship… not sure about these.
On Overall Run the stream that once fed a waterfall is reduced to a trickle. Summer’s rain did not feed it familiar from the last occasion of my looking at it. A mere trickle. In ponds you can restock the fish. We swear we hear a bear. All these spectators out to see the fall and it [the waterfall] is missing. The trek back [was] slightly sad and the sun [was] going down.
We take photographs of each other and the expansive landscape [the "impossible Nature" as my housemate describes it]. It seems impossible – mountains that stretch farther than our gaze. Again, the trees are coloring, but there are just so many of them. We stop to examine fungus and root, caterpillar and leaves upon leaves upon leaves. We have a trajectory – a way out and a way back – so we gauge our path by giving ourselves markers –stopping to inspect the scenery. I think Olmsted would want this of his parks but brought to us by wandering instead of trajectory. Paths or roads are splintered out so there is a choice or a loop or a long arrival [in a park]. Fewer bends than paths. Pockets of things. Getting away instead of getting to. But on the trail we are so surrounded there is little sense of place until emerging at an overlook. A park is all about place. Sensing where you are and where you are not. Escaping the city but all the while knowing its presence affects the immediate experience. A park is a built thing –with consideration for sight and scenery, but with anticipation of ground. A new found plan with attention to how things might grow.
[Locale 2: Little Devil's Stair & Keyser Run, Sunday Oct. 11th]
Rock scramble. Reminds me of the white mountains in NH tromping over stream and brook and begging being. I kept wandering off to stare up at things (again). The canopy, the small waterfalls, the rockface of the gorge the stream had carved over years and years and years. All glimpses framed by golden leafed things and blue sky. Horizon masked by the treeline.
Maybe a park is all about horizon. Where land meets sky and the middle ground that fascilitates this meeting. We descend down into the gorge and pretend as though it is not difficult. We return on the fire road. A slow steady incline. We find pleasure in the difficulty, in the achievement. [I hung back from the group to process things... it made the trip longer]. The park is not about progress. It is the antithesis of labor. It is escapism. It is forgetting about the other things requiring progress. A momentary trajectory is not always progress or in pursuit of progress. The leaves shift as the breeze moves them –we can hear them but the current doesn’t always strike our cheeks. The sense of place is different. This is new. A park almost instantly becomes familiar–especially [now] after [I have spent] so much time hanging out with Olmsted’s writing. Sometimes knowing increases meaning. Sometimes investigation requires zoning out for a while. Attention is a form of homage. I paid homage the entire time.
[Note: I wrote these long-hand in a college-ruled composition notebook while out at Royal Lake in Fairfax, VA. This is not an Olmsted park, but it is super close to my house and helps me to think of things related. I simply typed things up... not sure if I'll share more of these things?]
Locale 1 [just a bit through the wooded part of the path to the right past the kayaks, up and down some hilly bits, peeking out over water]:
Olmsted wouldn’t have minded this place. “Sufficient” shade and sunlight. What I love is that a landscape is never static. The breeze and the shifting sun as we move in its orbit and on our axis make virtually nothing constant… [in flux yet slow]. The trees and shrubs do not appear to be glowing or dying and yet the breeze brings to me a brown leaf already fallen, as evidence of autumn. The area is ‘landscaped’ – - [then] there are boards preventing erosion from foot traffic and exercise stations and sloped hills they mow for whatever reason… but it barely intrudes. I hear nothing but the birds and insects—and I guess somewhere a distant plane. But this place was built – a manmade (I believe) reservoir [created by dam and flood control]. The way nature has taken over is its greatest attribute. There is a paved way that stops at nothing—at lake. The sun feels good but I can only bear it for so long—walking helps. Meandering helps. This is what parks are put aside for. There is a path, but only because it is natural to want to follow water, to see what is around a bend.
Locale 2 [little alcove with trees and branches, seeking water]:
A walk is an exploratory process. [I] see something else every time you revisit a place. A new walk (Ammons) for sure. It’s about change and consistency. [I] come back to a landscape and it feels familiar even despite change over many years. To keep takes maintenance but if we let it grow…
This is less built than Olmsted’s parks, than some of them—and yet from what I can gather Olmsted’s designs did require removal and replanting—albeit within the region’s own supplies [no foreign plants]. Scenery is about a point of vision. It is all [below] horizon. [I] forget about sky except what sun does to shadows. See a leaf fall. See an acorn drop into water. The geese are constants. There’s no way sound is ever silent. Tree limbs hand into my sight line and leaves shift like broken metronomes still trying to keep time. [I] attempt containment but forget what is at [my] back. [I've] calculated a level of pleasure based on what is in view—sad to see waste or unfortunate the “weeds” invade. The idea of weed is interesting. There is a sense of interruption even though that is their “job”. They grow and consume.
What is in our minds? No one runs with ipods here. [I] occupy [my] mind with sight or breeze or the only opportunity something other than what [I] choose is interrupting [my] vision. There are no imperatives to our experience—I should say “my” since I am the only in the company of strangers. I feel the flesh pronoun. These set aside lands truly are democratic. We all have access – even the violent.
Olmsted’s concept of shutting out other landscapes is fascinating. In the Fens you cannot see the park, let alone the city. Here some tall shrubs comfortable in water block my view of soccer fields… almost. And then, like meadow, I see a goal peeking out from betweeen trees.
We give a name of park to the ground. A place to stop—a place to cease other things for a while. A place to build something else. Still a place set aside, even in distance from our usual selves… a place to go to like wilderness, not our present location constantly— unlike wilderness, accessible. Close by. Everyone has or should have a park. I seek them out. It is the first thing I find.
[Additional Notes: (1) brackets are added later when typing up notes... I realized I started flexing universal... I think as a poet I'm always anxious of the "I" and want to claim shared experience... but who am I to do that? So I revise. (2) images are not from the locations I was writing from, and are a bit blue in color as they were taken from my camera phone]
Well, there goes blogging Fall For the Book… I kind of made it happen.
Saturday’s Fellows reading, featuring the thesis and completion fellowship honorees and hosted by So To Speak, was a lovely event in Old Town Fairfax. It was supposed to be outside in the courtyard, but it was raining so it was moved to the gallery space currently exhibiting lots of paintings of animals looking creepy. I don’t think that was the intended theme, just the theme that emerged organically. It was otherwise a lovely space… oh, except that we were competing with an industrial air conditioner. I couldn’t internalize the words I was saying, but people said it was OK. I read from The Elements and two poems recounting the trajectory of my mfa… one from first year forms, “Shiver” and one from second year “Catching the Bones.” Both are still out with a few publications that are so far hesitating to reject me… please publish me!!!
I read alongside fellow Fellows Rebecca McGill, Hannah Vanderhart, Priyanka Champaneri, and Allyson Armistead. Everyone read such amazing work and I felt truly honored to be reading alongside such talented people. A very humbling experience. Thanks to all who made it out to hear us, despite the weather!
After that was the Breakthrough Poets reading at the Firehouse Grille (now Miller’s Tavern?), including Cathy Eisenhower, Reb Livingston, Chris Nealon, and Mel Nichols. It was an incredible line up and a great time… but I think we were all a little exhausted at that point… but I wanted to make sure to get out and hear Reb in thanks for her contribution to the panel discussion, and was also pleased to hear Cathy read ASS which we published in Phoebe last year. Mel is always so entertaining and I’d never heard Chris Nealon before but he was pretty incredible – a real wit there that I think is tough to acheive though he did so brilliantly.
Now… coming up… LOUD FIRE!!!
The reading series formerly known as the Candid Yak, which was run by myself and Rebecca McGill for two years, has now been passed on to the capable hands of Aubrey Lenahan, Walt Seale, and Nicole Lee (and other helping friends)… The first Loud Fire is tomorrow, October 2nd, in THE SPACE in Old Town Fairfax. Here are the deets:
Attend a captivating reading by several Masters of the Fine Arts of Poetry, Fiction, and Non-Fiction.
On Friday, Oct 2, we will feature:
Alison Strub – poetry
Paul Zaic – fiction
Ben Wilkins – non-fiction
and an Open Mic for all!
at no other than:
the SPACE at Old Town Village
3955 Chainbridge Rd. Fairfax, VA
above the Metro Diner & across from Panera
Bring your favorite beverage to this smoke-free venue and support your writerly classmates!
Although I, sadly, will be heading up to Allentown for my college reunion (eek), I encourage people to go and support my friends… and would someone please take some video so I can be there vicariously after the fact?