Landscape Loved by Wallace Stevens
If you could fly over yards and yards
of green lace lining the Gulf and Space
Coasts, you would see low-lying bands
of land seeding the sea with pockets blue –
beaded with water, and you’d wonder how
one more word could fit into the shell –
shaped pattern, hemmed with canals, and
not unravel beneath the weight of so many
people pushing the delicate fabric, poking
the intricate design, picking at flaws not
found in winter-bound spools of wool.
That landscape is more than familiar; it’s personal. I grew up near the Gulf Coast; I’m familiar with the Space Coast. I’ve flown over area enough to recognize those “low-lying bands of land seeding the sea.” And I know those coastal skies, close cousins to the skies you find in the great Dutch paintings.
Before Stevens, who lived in Connecticut for most of his live, discovered Florida, he fell in love with the landscape of the western North America, specifically the Canadian Rockies and British Columbia. In Can Poetry Save the Earth: A Field Guide to Nature Poems, John Felstiner describes the impact of landscape on the 24-year-old Stevens in 1903, freshly graduated from law school and taking a six-week hunting trip in western Canada: “Besides their campfire, his Canadian journal records two fires burning: ‘One, the moon, lights mountainous camels moving, without bells, to the wide North; another, the twilight, lights the pine tops and the flaring patches of snow.”
Since poetry was first written, the landscape has exerted a powerful impact. And while I’ve seen some remarkable landscapes in my life, it is a relatively tame one, and one close by, that exerts a pull on my own imagination.
Forty miles southwest of St. Louis sits the Shaw Nature Reserve, known to St. Louisans as “the arboretum” (its name until it was changed a few years ago; no one except officials of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which owns and operates it, calls it by its formal name). In 1925, the Garden needed clean air for its collection of orchids, and it found it 40 miles away, purchasing five adjacent farms. Today, the site comprises 2, 400 acres of some of the most diverse landscape you can find – steep hills, river bluffs, wetlands, prairie, wildflowers. Winding their way through the landscape are 14 miles of trails.
So this isn’t “pristine wilderness” so much as it is “managed wilderness.” I’ve walked trails with my family, with my sons and, more often these past few years, by myself. No heavy-duty equipment or preparation is needed; a lunch in a backpack is more than sufficient.
When I’m with others, we usually walk past the wildflower garden and man-made pond, but when I’m alone I stick to what’s called the Brush Creek Trail, following it until it aligns with the rolling acres of prairie. Then it’s a long but relatively uphill climb to the trail house (with bathrooms and tables to eat my lunch). Then I either take the Goddard River Trail (the long way around and the trail that seems the most remote) or the Wildflower Trail. Walking either will eventually me you to the great gravel bars of the Meramec River.
I come for the silence, the absolute poetry of the silence. I can walk for miles and hear only the sounds of my shoes on the trail. I pass the occasional walker, and I nod and smile, but to see other visitors is rare. Silence reigns even at the river, but I can climb the steep bluffs and reach what’s called the Bluff Overlook, and hear cows on farms atop the opposite bluff across the river. The Bluff Overlook is the place to sit, sometimes to think or to pray, but mostly just to sit. Sometimes I open a book of poetry and read it aloud to myself and the woods; the birds don’t seem that interested.
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
The silence and solitude of the landscape is its own poetry, a renewal.
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