As I’ve mentioned (indirectly) my latest project has to do with erosion and erasure as a process of language erosion. Recently some friends and I went camping at Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland (the skinny northern part). The landforms we were bouldering to and around, Wolf Rock and Chimney Rock, were ultimately the result of erosion. The mountains themselves used to be much much higher, but have cascaded around themselves over time, with massive beautiful white stacks of rock (quartzite) remaining while softer materials have eroded away. The resulting rock structures are stunning stacks, deep crevices, and massive boulders.
Here are a few shots from the trip:
Here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland it is very flat. This is very unlike Northern Virginia where, despite the fact that I lived in sprawling, traffic-laden suburbia, I could get to a trail in five minutes (20 for a more significant terrain changes). In my last year of graduate school I would claim my hikes “research” for the “project” that would become the manuscript (which I am now sending out to first book contests and open reading periods…). Thus the “field notes” of the earlier days of this blog. It became a regular component of my life. I felt I’d linked up with a long chain of walker/wanderer poets, channeling Ammons… tomorrow a new walk is a new walk… and Whitman… I swear the earth shall surely be complete to him or her who shall be complete… and, as always, Dickinson… I dwell in Possibility. These hikes were especially cleansing with the end to my degree in sight and no sense of where I’d land at the end of it all. The trial of the hike bent anxiety to reason. The flux felt positive at the end of those days.
I was fortunate to land in a new location quite ripe for the contemplative life. There is no need to seek out the solace that escaping to wilderness provided. Here walks are routine… to campus, to the coffee shop, to the waterfront… so movement makes a living. There is, instead, a need to push farther past one location and into another, to see more than sunshine, to feel more than what the breeze will bring me. I have no desire to drive my car, so I have to run.
I am not what you would call “a Runner” with a capital “R,” but here I have had the desire to traverse this flat landscape on foot and with speed. I follow the river for a while and turn away. I traverse the obstacle course of brick sidewalks upturned sharply by sprawling root systems from trees too close to pathways. One night on my run a deer ran up to the edge of the road and stopped. I stopped, too. We stared at each other for a while. Then we both kept on running.
As I turn toward my next project I wonder what these individual (or collective) instances of running will bring for my poetics, as distinguished from the simultaneously wild and carefully pruned, arduously built poems that followed those hikes. The air is different — I bring it to me on a run. The environment is not something I am enveloped in, it is something I traverse. I have an agency outside of determining or reaching the point of axis at the summit or around a ridge or crest or gorge. Will the poems, too, take on more action on the part of the “I”?
I think we cannot help but be informed by our surroundings, and our location in them, and our ability or desire to seek out new ways of experiencing a landscape. Perhaps I have some inherent compulsion to experience different landscapes in different ways. This is, perhaps, the flat way. The cornfield way. The river way.
[These notes are post-climb of Mt. Ascutney in Windsor, Vermont, reflective -- some field note type things, some poetry-related musings toward the end... a little all over the place, but that's what my mind is like... welcome!]
My parents now live in the mountains of New Hampshire, just across the border from VT. Any hill you can find will inevitably offer some spectacular views of Vermont’s Green Mountains. When I visited earlier this summer there was one day that was cooler than the others (yes, is it incredibly hot nearly everywhere this summer) so I drove the fifteen minutes across state borders to Mt. Ascutney (which rises roughly 3100 feet above sea level) for a hike. I’d been anxious for some New England trails for a while, so this was the day to do it.
When I checked in with the park ranger’s station at entrance to the park he gave me (for a mere $3) my pass to hang in my car and a quick nod. “You’re the only one to check in today.” The thought that I’d have the mountain to myself for the day was both exciting and a little terrifying (if something should happen, thank god I checked in and didn’t go for any of the other routes that don’t require it!). I didn’t have all day so I drove two miles up the mountain road to start my ascent 2.5 miles from the summit. I was at once reminded of the beauty of New England forests and trails… granite rocks with bright green moss creeping upwards… sheets of birch bark shed from their trees, curled up and discarded like a failed draft or consumed by the landscape, taken in… and evergreens. Once you reach a certain elevation not much can grow except the stubborn short evergreen shrubs (I wish I knew the names of things)… I had forgotten this sense of summit from other New England peaks. All else is stripped away. The bouldering you have to do toward the end can be slick as the granite has been rubbed to near sheen by weathering and foot traffic.
I learned that day that Ascutney is what is called a “monadnock” – an elevated portion of land that exists due to the resilience of its rock foundation. The rest of the landmass (peneplain) around it has eroded away over time. As the Ascutney guide says:
I’ve since taken up a new obsession… all summer I’ve been reading and investigating geomorphology and the conditions under which mountains are created from resistance instead of plate tectonics or living volcano. There is no connection to the range. What is our attraction to the singular? Is it our independence, our own need to stand out against a crowd? To take the path of most resistance and prevail? My attraction to the idea of a monadnock literally and metaphorically is troublesome… in general I find comfort with poets who take issue with individual genius and respond instead with collage and quotation and collaboration. The singular is dissolved, the reader engaged, the “Poet” just an agent of the action, an architect for some future experience. But then I think the poet is temporal, the language is the granite. Is every great poem in some sense a monadnock? We can’t see to that point — it takes time for other work to erode. Ok, I feel a bit better now. Onward…
What about erasure? It has been offered as a poet’s highlighter of the ways in which they read (DBQ), as problematic when determined from other well-known literary sources (RS), as a product of the “demands of re-contextualization” (TMcD), as poem “world-making and unmaking” (BMcH)… McHale in his chapter on erasure in Theory Into Poetry poses the question “how does one go about building a world using materials under erasure?” Well, what if the process could be more like the process of an emerging Monadnock? That instead of being built, the erosion-resistant language (to the poet maker, the language that persists) is what persists? That the new poem is not a reduction, but a heightening?
I think I might have found my next project.
[Note: I visited Central Park on Friday, November 6th from around 9:30 am to about 4:30 pm… I did not take many notes in comparison to the photographs I took. I am starting to write the sequence that is born of this, and from Olmsted's lecture "The Justifying Value of a Park." I do not want the poems to be tourist poems - you might want to visit after this post, but not after reading the Central Park sequence... but it was important for me to visit. It'll have something to do with signage and centers, and construction and decay, and beginnings. I've been turning Dickinson's line "The Zeroes taught Us -- Phosphorous" around in my head for literally years now. This was Olmsted's zero. This park was America's zero, the first public park and entirely constructed].
[Locale 1: The Fountain]
I don’t even know where to begin. I accessed the Park from the south, by the ballparks, past the childrens’ dairy, down the mall – to arrive here. So many signs designating restoration, where to walk, where not to walk. ‘Passive activities encouraged.’ [I keep cycling this instruction around in my mind. It bothers me to be so directed… it's as if to say, "This is just a reminder, but picnics are nice. So is sitting on a bench with a good book" as if we need this reminder to do these things in our lives. Passive activities encouraged]. So many runners [on paths, not on areas designated to "passive activities"].
So many tourists. I wonder how many people use the park regularly who actually live in NYC [my sense is that the park has become cliché, not something to be romanticized by the city's inhabitants. Just a place to cut through or to avoid on Saturdays when the tourists are out in full force. It requires restoration, was allowed to become run down, no resurgance via Conservancy until the 80s, and most restoration took place much much later].
The park does not strike the city from the sky but there is so much before the buildings [on the website, www.centralparknyc.org I learned that 500 trees had been felled due to a significant storm – that this is the first time in 30 years you can see the Empire State Building from The Great Hill]. I feel it built because I know Olmsted… but my favorite parts feel unconstructed, even though I know they were designed.
The way the sun strikes the brick gleaming like copper. There is a sheen to things. The fall colors play against each other and with each other. The breeze pulls at the water falling from the fountain. So many dogs – and dog owners speaking to other dog owners. The breeze brings leaves to me, they click across the brick and across my shoe.
Across the lake there is no city to be seen. Respite. Everywhere we are instructed by signage – unlike B oston’s Franklin Park, the Country Park, built for promenade not for wandering. Walk down a line. Feel the trees at your side. Sense shade and shadow playing at the senses. Take a photograph – keep it in your pocket. Make a moment. I would guess Olmsted and Vaux would encourage keeping by repetition. Know a place in the mind. The effect of this willow along the walk pulls me in with its difference—a few here and there, dotting horizons. Stand here as axis, pivot, consider, feel the breeze. Hold a hand. Hear a child’s laughter.
The sun is warming. I could stay all day. Who appreciates this more? The citizens or the visitors? Intended democratic space—and maybe it is because I’m here at 10am on a Friday… but the people around me are privileged. Mothers who can afford to stay home with child [or have nannies], others who can afford to walk their dogs, go jogging, take leisurely mornings. Now a man with a large portfolio case—an artist. Dogs doing more looking than their walkers.
Here the park is very sculpted. Feels different from Boston, which feels grown. The Country Park being the crowning achievement this just being the beginning [Central Park was the design that started Olmsted's career as a landscape architect, and coined the phrase]. This bench, stone cold, a part of the landscape. Invites. Benches everywhere—everywhere—though I chose a rock for my coffee and croissant this morning.
The birds here are fearless. They are so clearly used to us. Many other [people] sitting peruse brochures and take photographs. The man next to me sat, reflected for a few minutes, then left. So many maps. I knew there was a lake –but it came to me through the tiles tunnel as a surprise. At the bend, something elese. At the bend, an at once familiar and new green. Why do we want photos proving our presence? I took some self portraits [guilty]. Remember that day by that fountain –we were there. We were present. We went to a place and that’s what it looked like that day.
A park’s landscape is effected by what is stasis and what changes. The fountain moves but all else is same—then the trees. Bright yellow and orange and brown. I must have missed the red. The breeze. The people passing. The water, mostly still, but always rippling. The finches and pigeons. The clouds—if you manage to look up from all the other splendor. So many languages in my ears.
[Locale 2: Southern Rocks, by the Ballparks]
At lunchtime all kinds of people are out –easily reached from the edges. The playground is full of screaming children. the faces around me are diverse—and I feel them local, somehow. This is where they go, midday… that said… I’ve also seen the number of rickshaws and carriages increase. I suppose these passages were meant for carriages so it is oddly fitting—not sure Olmsted would have approved of the price.
This woman [science teacher] – “This was all molten rock” talking to a group of kids. “Something pushed it this way. See holes where they were going to blow it up” “Look at these intrusions.” “This is a different kind of rock than the bedrock.” Kids saying “whoa this is cool!” “texture” “This is weathering – this rock is disappearing right in front of us. Turning to dust.” “Rain, sand, pollution…” “abrasion” “friction” “I love these weird pattern.” “this rock got beat up. It got beat up bad.”
[Locale 3: Café]
I spent the entire day walking the park and didn’t even make it to the northern-most end. I got to the reservoir and couldn’t make it past the tennis courts. Then it’s a 20 block walk back to Random House where Peggy [my friend living in Brooklyn] works. Entirely worth it, though. The sun, however, was going down and I could no longer sit outside to write. At one point, past the Ramble, by the lake but not within sight of it, I could not see the city. But then there were so few people on the interior – or maybe it’s just that wide open spaces make them all more visible, when the great lawn stretched out in front of me.
I can barely think well enough to articulate the strength with which I felt Olmsted and Vaux with me [I felt Olmsted most in the Ramble, the stretch of meandering paths... I heard someone say when looking at a map, "see, that's where we got turned around, in all those paths winding around. We don't want to go back in there"]. So man of the restoration plaques were as late as the late 90s –the photograph boards showing the state of things prior was sad—though it could have been worse. The workers, fortunately, were not invisible. All with the Conservancy jackets on, all types I would not otherwise expect to see [in contrast to those visiting]. I took photos of them thinking so many people probably try to get them to not intrude in on the shot. What obstructs the view: homeless people sleeping in the sun, blue tarps holding back, rickshaw drivers hanging out in groups. There were so many photographers, runners, dog walkers, tourists… and on the outskirts, people who actually look like they live here.
[My thoughts after this are even more repetitive and not worth sharing... but will feed the poems... if you managed to get here, thanks for reading]
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]