The Past in Pastoral

Winter, a crowd of January bark. Chinaberry, ligustrum, nandina: which matters more, beautiful names or the fact that they’re nonnative species? Name aside, nandina is an imperfectly lovely shrub for about two weeks a year, when it pushes out too-little pink or white buds on brushy branches with sharp-tipped red and green leaves. Its berries are poisonous to songbirds. Nonetheless, you can spend time with nandina, even grow to appreciate it. A poet wants beauty—beautiful names, beautiful plants, beautiful scenes—but an environmentally minded poet, who knows that the nandina’s roots displace other plants in the surrounding soil, knows that uncomplicated beauty is tough to come by.

Below the skeletal canopy: leaves, stalwart grasses, a boy in black clothing cutting through the woods on his way to work at a restaurant whose name is on his shirt. The Greenbelt, as we call it, is undevelopable land on the floodplain, swamped by the creek every spring and bordered on one side by train tracks riding high on a gravelly embankment. When a freight train passes: a grinding of train cars piled high with car chassis or tawny rocks. The train cars’ graffitied sides begin their hypnotism, follow me, follow me, but my eyes prefer the trees. Close and quivering in the wind, high in a denuded hackberry, flashes a green sprig that is—small round leaves, thick stems, pearly berries, oh boy—a mistletoe. Underneath, I purse my lips because I love the idea of a plant-powered kiss. Which matters more, love or the fact that mistletoe is parasitic, gorging on the tree it grows on? I eye the greedy tree lover, easiest to see in winter. Mistle­toe might be a mirror.

“Come live with me and be my love,” the Greenbelt sings to me. The line comes from Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”—a pastoral poem, as its speaker is a shepherd and its content includes sheep. Wooing, the shepherd imagines dressing his beloved in garments from the pasture: a flower hat, a gown of myrtle leaves and lambswool, and a “belt of straw and Ivy buds, / With Coral clasps and Amber studs.” An extractive sartorial fantasy, the outfit pairs coral with straw, wool with leaves. The poem sidesteps the realities of not only ecosystems but also sheep herding: exposure, loneliness, sheep stench, sheep shit. All that baa-ing. If someone were to dress me in garments from the Greenbelt, I would wear a nandina gown—tattered crimson leaves, a bit of blight, too-small buds that bloom in April if I time it right—trimmed in fur pulled from the hungriest garbage-eating coyotes, a belt of poison ivy buds with beer tab clasps and pebble studs.

It was also night when my daughters and I left the party, and I used the flashlight on my phone to navigate us across the puddle, over the tracks, and through the woods.

The woods are parkland, by which I mean they are public, but we are not supposed to cross the train tracks, a trespass that circumvents a mile walk to a six-year-old’s birthday party. One Saturday, my daughters and I scrambled up the loose rock embankment, stepping over the rails and ties, scrambled down the other side, crossed a dirty puddle, and climbed over the type of metal guardrail that borders highways to end up at the back of an apartment complex. “Whose woods these are I think I know” comes from another pastoral. It’s night when Robert Frost’s traveler pauses a little too long in the woods he doesn’t own, thinking about property, how a woods someone owns can be faithless, abetting intimacies and trespasses. It was also night when my daughters and I left the party, and I used the flashlight on my phone to navigate us across the puddle, over the tracks, and through the woods. Our crossing was cold and quick and then we were back in our neighborhood and walking home for bedtime. At night, the Greenbelt is a sleeping ground of tattered tents, tarps, and tipped-over shopping carts for sunburned and underfed women and men, who carry their possessions in plastic bags, backpacks, and dingy strollers when they move through the city, through land they do not own. 

The pastoral stakes a claim on a place, no matter who owns it, visits it, works in it, lives in it, or sleeps in it. The pastoral craves intimacy but discovers that environments are not promiscuous enough to let them all the way in. Map your lost fields and meadows, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space told me. I wrote a note to myself: Make a map of your lost fields and meadows, and the note followed me from state to state, occupying a slip of paper or fluttering on a Post-it and finally floating in various Word documents in my computer, where it commanded me to do something I can’t. How can I map what never was or will be? I was too busy experiencing what happened in my lost fields or meadows to note their particular fence lines and low muddy places, their hummocks and stones. The pastoral poet enacts an excursion from the city to the countryside, pretending that their lost fields and meadows aren’t lost, no, no: the grasses that once echoed their wants can be reassembled. Though the words are etymologically unrelated, is it any wonder that the word past is in pastoral? The pastoral holds an experience that soothes and shines more in memory than it did in the moment. The past in the pastoral is comfortable (pastoral comes from the Latin for shepherd, whose job is care), whereas the present is uneasy and the future, frightening. To dig into the etymology of past is to find the words passage and passing and imagine something carrying and carried away, like a train. The pastoral chases the impossible dream of describing a place after the experience of it has passed, yet in truth, both the place and the experience are gone. 

“Will no one tell me what she sings?—” the poet asks. He’s frustrated, but he must enjoy the frustration, because he doesn’t draw close enough to hear her song. If he did, he might see the split on the girl’s thumb where the cold has broken down the tissue of her skin.

One poet follows a rocky road up a hill toward racing clouds. His coat has a ragged hem and its pockets are stretched from holding sticks that he collects from roadsides to feed the fireplace at home in the evening. But now it’s daytime. There’s a field of spring barley and a young girl alone in it, swinging her scythe and singing a work song that distance makes unintelligible. The wind from the firth musses her yellow hair. “Will no one tell me what she sings?—” the poet asks. He’s frustrated, but he must enjoy the frustration, because he doesn’t draw close enough to hear her song. If he did, he might see the split on the girl’s thumb where the cold has broken down the tissue of her skin, the calluses on her palms, or a sore on her lip. While writing “The Solitary Reaper,” if William Wordsworth had gotten close enough to the reaper to hear her song, she wouldn’t be solitary anymore. Her words would mix with his. Predicated on distance and impression, the pastoral invited Wordsworth to overwrite the reaper’s words and hardship, the contours of the barley field she labored in but in all likelihood didn’t own. The poet will never know her field song. He goes home to write his poem by the fire. The only song, a tourist’s song, is his.

The field has other voices. In his eerie story “The Sound Machine,” Roald Dahl describes a machine through whose headphones a man hears roses screaming when his neighbor cuts them: “A throatless, inhuman shriek, sharp and short, very clear and cold. The note itself possessed a very minor, metallic quality that he had never heard before.” He takes an axe to a tree in a nearby park early one morning and, through his headphones there, hears a deep sorrowful moan. The most interesting poetry about the natural world is like that machine in Dahl’s story, a machine that lets us listen to all the little voices in the air. This kind of poetry acknowledges an obligation to listen and mourn our lost fields and meadows, our species, weathers, glaciers, and shorelines, gone. Dahl’s sound machine is “about three feet long, the shape of a child’s coffin.” The first time the protagonist takes it out of the shed and onto the close-cropped lawn, it’s so heavy that he must hold it with both hands.

Now gone: the field I walked into after the rain, age seven or eight, carrying a rainbow-colored eraser shaped like a clothespin, impossibly small and beautiful and, like a real clothespin, held shut by two metal arms and a small coiled metal spring. The grass swiped at my dungarees with a rasping sound and soaked them damp and dark up to my knees. I realized that the eraser was no longer in my hand and was somewhere deep in the mud and grasses that smelled like honey. The field, now gone, where I first saw the flattened dry whorl of a deer’s bed in the grass; the fields, now gone, where I ran after a softball and sometimes caught it, and the fields, now gone, where I ran after a soccer ball and sometimes kicked it; the field, now gone, that held a dappled dark-gray pony named Topaz, also gone, to whom I fed circular mints from a blue and green paper-and-foil sleeve, letting his breath create a mist over my palm and inner wrist; the field, now gone, where crop circles appeared overnight, vaguely hiero­glyphic patterns of flattened grasses that the farmers said had been made by aliens; the high school soccer field, now gone, where a kisser and I went to kiss at night; the lacrosse field, the football field, the baseball field, the field hockey field: gone, gone, gone, gone. I was even farther afield when I crushed the grasses and was swallowed, but only for a few minutes, by a man who was not my friend. In another time and place, in another meadow that’s gone, an herbalist taught me how to harvest purple wildflowers called elephant-head lousewort for a tincture. That was the meadow in which I said yes to someone, and then, later, when that meadow was covered with snow, it was already gone as I pulled my daughters, my hearts, across it in sleds