During the past several weeks I’ve been drafting some thoughts I’ve had for a number of years regarding the way we learn from nature and from other people’s thoughts and writing. My Humanities Moment is a poetic description of a memory I had that was prompted by a poem from Alfred Tennyson — “Flower in the crannied wall.” The moment when this poem, this memory, and this essay came together is an example of the boundless and unpredictable infectiousness that operates between the minds of people and the objects and symbols of the natural world. I explain how the little flower in Tennyson’s poem prompts my own memory of a little tree resiliently hanging onto its life in a canyon wall. While writing, this tree acquired more meaning for me when I addressed it in a personal way, almost as if to both a teacher and interlocutor. Prompted by Tennyson, I came to see in this tree the meaning and expression of human life and the nature of our struggle in defying the forces that oppose us and bring us to despair. I wrote this essay resembling the form of free verse, as I thought that was the best way to convey the tone and intimacy of my humanities moment. My moment is about the multi-lateral connection that is preserved by words and memory between the past and the present, between the natural world and the human world, and between human minds separated by the centuries.
A Poem Remembered, a World Created
I read a poem by Tennyson the other day. A very short poem. Only six lines:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
Sometimes a very short poem can capture the desire of the human race. This flower took my mind to a tree I once saw growing in a rock. So I wanted to try what Tennyson did:
Little pinion growing in the cliff, how you hang, how you droop, parch and slant. How you survive. I watch you crouch so high at the sun, and defeat it by your years. The needles of your humility still stay green. Each day you face the fall. And each day you cling to that sheer rock. The peace that city dwellers seek emanates not from you, but only the repose that comes from fear. The pain of the wilderness speaks in your sun-bleached bark. Without consolation is this heat. You preserve the mystery of existence and give no assurance that nature is my friend. The grandness of your story is found in the scarcity of your speech. Words from you are dumb, reminding me that I am not home in this world. I must be honest in your presence. You dare even as you stick. The passage of time, with its change and continuity, never escape your sight. You may tire of the cycles — the filling and drying of the winding creeks, the wetting and burning of the sand, or the traces of green, then yellow, of the trees and grass below. But you abandon them not. The hope you have comes only in these colors. For you do not see water itself. In you is that long war against gravity, against wind and the breaking of ice, against the fracture of rocks that choke a little more of your soil each year. In you is the secret of striving. Something whispers that what God would tell me he tells me through you. The clench of your roots teach me that the world is not meant to disintegrate, but to fight, to withstand, to last. Together we testify what will adds unto nature. You are the ambition of our poetry, the conceit to capture meaning behind the surface. We need you to see ourselves, and we need you to point us beyond ourselves. Little pinion, I speak to you in my memory. When I saw you those decades ago, a seed from your cone blew toward me and planted in my heart. That seed has grown into a sequoia of significance. I had neglected you until I read a poem by a man over the ocean, a man who lived in green and did not know this arid west, nor these mountains of rock. His soft flower became the pluck of your pine. And so across time and across this globe, the union between your kind and mine has solidified. Before you were a tree, but now you are a world.