Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
-T. S. Eliot, from The Waste Land
He groped for a doorless land of faery, that illimitable haunted country that opened somewhere below a leaf or a stone.
-Thomas Wolfe, from Look Homeward Angel
We do not want merely to see beauty. We want something else which can hardly be put into words - to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses, and nymphs and elves.
-C.S. Lewis, from Transposition and Other Addresses
This month I’ve been mulling over the fact that my life is (no less than) two-thirds gone. And that is an optimistic appraisal of the prospects for my longevity. Something about the month of April encourages the contemplation of mortality. Maybe it has to do with the rapid emergence of new life from a desolate landscape. The transformation occurs so quickly in April it can remind us how our own lives hurtle forward from seed to flower to fruit and to the inevitable phase of life’s cycle, death.
Pardon me for calling death a phase, but I’m struggling to find the right words. No, death is not the aberration, the exception, the interruption that comes later on. It isn’t easy to get beyond the way life and death have been dichotomized, posed as opposites. The inseparable unity of life and death, their ongoing coexistence, has occupied human thought for a long, long time, and it remains the ultimate mystery.
April has always been a favorite month of mine, and now more than ever thanks to my fairly recent interest in wildflowers. Living in the Southern Appalachians, I could spend all day every day of the month of April searching for the rainbow of spring blooms and still have more to see. When the page turns on April, I feel the regret of knowing I missed so much. The month sped by and now it’s gone. I’m not guaranteed even one more April, and if I’m fortunate enough to experience thirty more, that seems precious few for the great joy they bring.
In the spring of 1862, Henry David Thoreau must have known it was his final April. When he died on the 6th day of May, the early flowers were still filling in the New England woods that he loved. His mourners fashioned a wreath of wild andromeda to lay upon his coffin, a humble gesture befitting the man who had said “For Joy I could embrace the earth. I shall delight to be buried in it.”
An incident he mentioned in the conclusion of Walden illustrates his take on life and death:
Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts — from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb — heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board — may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!
It was an April day that led Thoreau to see the coming of spring as a green fire:
The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire — "et primitus oritur herba imbribus primoribus evocata"— as if the earth sent forth an inward heat to greet the returning sun; not yellow but green is the color of its flame; — the symbol of perpetual youth, the grass-blade, like a long green ribbon, streams from the sod into the summer, checked indeed by the frost, but anon pushing on again, lifting its spear of last year's hay with the fresh life below. It grows as steadily as the rill oozes out of the ground. It is almost identical with that, for in the growing days of June, when the rills are dry, the grass-blades are their channels, and from year to year the herds drink at this perennial green stream, and the mower draws from it betimes their winter supply. So our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity.
Living here, I enjoy a front-row seat for one of the greatest conflagrations of green fire in the world. No place on the entire planet (outside of the tropics) has greater plant diversity than the Southern Appalachians. And of the many distinct plant communities one might encounter during, let’s say, a one-hour drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, no ecological neighborhood holds more abundance than the rich cove forest.
In Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests, Stephanie Jeffries and Thomas Wentworth catalog the traits of several ecological systems. As soon as I read their description of the cove forest, I pictured one particular place not far from home:
Diverse, cathedral-like stands of stately trees tower well over 100 ft above an open understory that features a stunning diversity of herbaceous plants. Cove forest soils are generally deep, and soil moisture is abundant. The herbaceous layer is remarkable for its diversity of spring wildflowers (before canopy leaf-out), when trilliums, spring beauties, trout lily, mayapple, and many others are in full bloom. Blue cohosh, common black cohosh, wood-nettle, bland sweet cicely, and yellow mandarin are among the best herbaceous indicators of rich cove forests.
Yes, I know such a place, and the more I recalled visits there in Aprils past, the more it exerted a magnetic pull on me. The drawing card of that cove is a forest service trail leading up the hill to an impressive waterfall. But for me, the real stars are the spring flowers that line the path. There may be another short trail where you could view a larger number of different wildflowers, but if there is, I haven’t found it yet. Again this year, it was everything I remembered, and more.
Bringing along a camera sabotaged my original plan of walking the entire trail to the waterfall and back before dark. At some point in the past, I might have called myself a nature photographer. But I managed to acquire just enough proficiency to appreciate the gigantic chasm that separated me from photographers with real talent. The humbling light-bulb moment came during a workshop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. After the instructor shared a slide show of his stunning camera work I was inspired, alright. I was inspired to pitch my Nikon into the nearby rapids of the Nantahala River.
Excellence as a wildflower photographer demands infinite patience, relentless determination, and meticulous attention to details. An expensive macro lens helps, too. Though I come up empty on all those requirements, I still enjoy toting my camera along on spring wildflower expeditions. Truth be told, I could be called a producer of “plant pornography,” zooming in for intimate closeups of the engorged reproductive parts of organisms at the peak of their procreative powers. Whew! Of course, that is precisely what the profusion of spring wildflowers is all about - a botanical sex show.
Setting aside the prurient aspects, these trips are a good opportunity to develop the most essential skill of an accomplished photographer, the ability to see. By bringing the camera, I search for the best shot, the ideal subject, the pleasing composition. I slow down. I pay attention. I get closer to the ground. Peering through the lens I start to see things that I would have remained blind to, otherwise. I slow down. Thirty minutes is not too long to spend with one flower when you are learning what it means to see what is there.
So if I am fortunate enough to capture an image worth printing, framing and hanging on the wall, that’s fine. And if not, the less tangible results are more rewarding anyhow. Ralph Waldo Emerson touched upon something like this in his eulogy of Thoreau:
His interest in the flower or the bird lay very deep in his mind, was connected with Nature,—and the meaning of Nature was never attempted to be defined by him. He would not offer a memoir of his observations to the Natural History Society. "Why should I? To detach the description from its connections in my mind would make it no longer true or valuable to me: and they do not wish what belongs to it." His power of observation seemed to indicate additional senses. He saw as with a microscope, heard as with ear-trumpet, and his memory was a photographic register of all he saw and heard. And yet none knew better than he that it is not the fact that imports, but the impression or effect of the fact on your mind. Every fact lay in glory in his mind, a type of the order and beauty of the whole.
April in the cove, crawling around on my belly to get the best camera angle on a clump of wild orchids is when the cares of “the world” fall away, and I find a bliss, a transcendent experience, that I seldom find anywhere else. Though nothing seems more certain or solid than that experience, it has an elusive quality to it. Bittersweet longing is inseparable from the joyous contentment of the moment. Only recently, I learned that this mysterious enigma is something C. S. Lewis explored throughout his writings. Over and over, he sought different ways to express the inexpressible about such moments. He wrote in The Problem of Pain:
You have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw - but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported . . . All the things that have deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it - tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest - if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself - you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say 'Here at last is the thing I was made for.' We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want . . . which we shall still desire on our deathbeds . . . Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it - made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.
Though we lack a word for it in English, the German term “sehnsucht” comes close to this concept. William Wordsworth’s poetry frequently reflected, or at least hinted at, the theme of sehnsucht, as in the closing lines from Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood:
And O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquish'd one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripp'd lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Without using the word itself, C. S. Lewis offers as helpful a definition as one is liable to find for ‘sehnsucht” in Surprised by Joy:
In a sense, the central story of my life is about nothing else, it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic; and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally be called unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.
Another April ends and I regret not spending more time in the cove. I know the longing will stay with me all year, and next April the cove will draw me back again for a few moments of joy, respite from what Thoreau called the “dead dry life of society.”
As one whose life is mostly gone, I don’t claim a great stockpile of wisdom. This I have observed - we spend the first part of our lives acquiring and accumulating. We grab on to people and things as if our lives depend on it. Then, unless we’re unusually slippery truants from the school of life, we spend the rest of our years learning to let go of the people and things we grasped so tightly, as they slip away one by one by one, until we learn to let go of mortality itself.
What would it mean to let go of the desire for another April in the cove? Am I attached to that place so tightly because it teaches me, in some paradoxical way, that my own mortality is insignificant? In Lewis’s novel, Till We Have Faces, the characters have this conversation:
“I have always — at least, ever since I can remember — had a kind of longing for death."
“Ah, Psyche," I said, "have I made you so little happy as that?"
“No, no no," she said. "You don't understand. Not that kind of longing. It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine … where you couldn't see Glome or the palace. Do you remember? The colour and the smell, and looking at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche come! But I couldn't (not yet) come and I didn't know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home.”
Or as Lewis puts it another time:
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
And that just about sums up what I learned this month, on a walk through the rich cove forest, in a place not far from here.
That is more than enough pretentious yammering from me. Here’s another Wordsworth passage, from Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey:
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
Flower photos from top -
Smooth Solomon's Seal