Slow Down, Slow Down! That’s what I say—what say you? Welcome to our Poetry Slow Down, KRXA 540AM Think for yourself radio, what a trust in who your self is, what the doctor ordered for our society! I’m Professor Barbara Mossberg, your host here, I’m being broadcast to you live from Yosemite National Park, where I’m lecturing tonite at the hundred year old LeConte Memorial Lodge, the Sierra Club’s park headquarters, on, you guessed right, you evolved listener, poetry! My talk is called Tree-mendous, the role of poetry in the fact that trees are here AT ALL, and we will begin with old-school campfire program song, Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree, which ends, O How Happy We Will Be, and expresses our age old conviction of our relationship with trees, linked to our happiness! And on that note, we’re hearing from our listeners Chuck Gibilterra and Elaine Bolduc on the topic of Yosemite, lyric postcards literally re-freshing its meaning, making me experience it in new ways, after going for 63 years! . . . and we’re hearing John Muir—speaking of Sierra Club park headquarters and Leconte Memorial Lodge—, Muir, who as a lyric voice you hear about a lot on this show, and on my Huffington Post blog, and lectures in our communities, was the founding president of the Sierra Club and mentored by Joseph LeConte, Professor Joe, and we’ll hear about just why, I believe, John Muir was so effective in the poetry HE wrote about Yosemite that made people of his time and ours see through his eyes an enthralled vision, an attitude, of wonder, of awe, of gratitude, and exhilaration, exclamations of wild excitement and enthusiasm and rapture, that made people understand what we are seeing, made us SEE, what we have here, in these here woods, What led to his vision of Yosemite so expressed in his writing—writing that he HATED to do, I won’t lie to you—he sufferedi—but he felt if the beauty and sanctity of these forests were to be preserved people had to see it his way—with happiness and love . . . and there was no better way to bring about this change of heart regarding the wilderness than to write about it. He believed in the Word. The Word, that is, rooted in poetry. And I want to share with you a story about why I think he saw our world the way he did—and what it is about how he wrote about it that changed our own vision and way of seeing, and led to preservation laws that were very difficult to come by—you can imagine—trees, rivers, rocks, valleys: people can make money from these; we always have over the history of our earth. To make this park, to preserve it, we had to persuade people to give up their mining and ranching and agriculture and quarries and logging, and commercial developments, given over to The People by Congress and an act signed by President Lincoln, still, just give it up . . . and keep a wilderness place as . . . just fields and rocks and river and trees . . . it was not an easy process, it was a fight, a campaign battle, of many, many years, John Muir a leader in the fray . . . as a writer . . . Well, he did not start out as a leader and activist and author . . . . but what made him effective as a writer, I think, was that he had the capacity to use his way of seeing to make himself happy—and thus, he shows us a way to be happy, a possibility of being happy, through being present in wilderness, looking about, and for us, maybe it is in seeing our world this way, wherever we are, wherever our Yosemite is . . . whatever our Yosemites are . . . because it’s not that John Muir was this happy go lucky guy, or that he had this fortunate life—objectively—he had a very difficult family life—his father was what today might be called a piece of work—certainly he would be cited by Social Service agencies for abuse of his children especially John—even in those days, the 1840s, 1850s, neighbors complained about the father’s treatment of John, which almost killed Muir, and certainly impaired his health . . . he beat Muir, for such things as not memorizing correctly the day’s Bible lesson; he forced Muir to work in the fields from morning to night—Muir couldn’t go to school. He wouldn’t give Muir money for school when Muir was admitted to the new University of Wisconsin, or let Muir read the books he wanted to—neighbors and friends secretly lent him books, or read to him as he worked in the fields. He could not afford to stay in school, once he was admitted as a special student who was home-schooled, we would say today, by himself and the village who looked out for him with sympathy . . . He finally got his father’s permission to rise early, but only on the condition that he not lose any work hours, so Muir rose at 1:30 am, until he he had to go work. And even though he did things like teach Sunday School, and lived frugally—on dry toast and tea—he could not afford to stay in school. He took industrial jobs. And one day his cornea was pierced in an accident, and he lost his sight for . . .
Stay tuned for the whole program on the vision of happiness, and what poetry has to do with it: we’ll hear from The Bible, Milton, Thoreau, Oliver, Wordsworth, and how Muir tranforms the scene into the words of splendor, magnificence, beauty, glorious, words we use for something precious, revered, respected, held in awe, beheld. Poet’s words. Muir’s vision, restored to him, saves him. It saves his spirit, it literally saves his life. The words in his brain, from reading Homer and Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Thoreau, all the Romantics, are words which treasure and thus make treasure in the scene, and Muir takes these words from the Lake District, and ancient Biblical gardens, and a Concord pond, and applies them to his local wilderness. And his vision is one that invokes happiness: he is enjoying himself! Reading his poetry on wilderness, we experience happiness ourselves . . .
Meanwhile, back at camp, our listeners who have written about Yosemite, Charles Gilbeterra and Elaine Bolduc, so take this marshmellow and be ready for s’more, poetry on happiness and what there is to see in this world . . . .—
And this capacity to transform world’s mud to gold, this alchemy, I think, is what made John Muir take his fears for his blindness, his loneliness, and build on them a happiness and joy in seeing our world that is not an innocent easy natural state of bliss, not happy go lucky. He leapt for joy; he rejoiced; he waved his arms; he brought to what he saw a mind respecting the forces and processes that make a plant grow, or mountain form, or water bird sing, or star shine, a knowledge of science that to him was evidence of a Creator of a world of wonder—a humility in the awe, the be-holding, the gazing—seeing. And I submit to you, our Poetry Slow Down, that this capacity in him for discovering a way to happiness was learned by reading poetry, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Milton, Bobby Burns, whom
he carried around in his backpack and in his mind, and sung at the drop of a hat, poetry of people who slowed down and looked up at the stars, at the trees, at the river, and gave us ways to see, to think.
I am thinking, being here in Yosemite, where I first sang campfire songs around the fire with Ranger interpreters, of the campfire song, Tell me why: tell me why the stars do shine, tell me why the ivy twines, tell me why the sky’s so blue, and I will tell you why I love you. This song is a song of the spirit that made the Yosemite we know today—wondering, why the stars shine, why the sky’s blue, why the ivy twines—which comes from noticing, paying attention, slowing down enough to think about the fact that stars do shine, ivy does twine, sky is blue, to notice facts and behaviors of
our world, and THEN wonder why, how, which gets us all tangled with creation, and in the process, our own creative processes, in first, reaching out to others, tell me, the first way we ever had of knowing, of sharing knowledge, of learning. . . and connecting this sense of wonder about what we see to the mystery of love for each other. I will tell YOU . . . a love poem here grounded in the mystery of miracle of our world. That’s the way John Muir saw Yosemite, and Charles Gilbiterra, and Elaine Buldoc, and that’s the way so many think of it now, because of words of the poets such as these . . . I will tell YOU . . . and this reminds me of another campfire song, which in fact I am going to end my lecture tonite at the LeConte Memorial Lodge, having us all sing, You Are My Sunshine, a song
that really is accurate from a physics standpoint: we really are living parts of star, of the chemicals a star put forth, the carbon and nitrogen, and we reflect back to one another this shine, when we tell . . . that’s how YOU can make me happy, when skies are gray . . . it’s the telling of poetry what we see, what is there in each of us and our world, it is the noticing. In John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, a novel about a woman struggling with cancer, (he’s one half of the Vlog Brothers), the philosopher wise guy says in the conclusion, The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn’t actually invent anything. He
just noticed that people with cowpox didn’t get smallpox.” And of course there is Mary Oliver, A Summer Day, I DO know how to pay attention . . . and HER paying attention leads to a gratitude for living that is so intense, a happiness, and like the song Tell me why, SHE says, TELL ME, how do YOU plan to spend your one wild and precious life?
People come to Yosemite, a national park, a park preserved for people to commune with trees and rocks and water and falls and sky, to breathe the air and feel refreshed, because someone noticed, through the lens of the poets, and wrote about it, TOLD us what he saw, patiently, taking his time, slowing it down to get it right for us, so we see too . . .
And so now, O Poetry Slow Down, I’m going to go to the tree where my father’s ashes are, that he and I always photographed, a so-called dead tree in a meadow, white against the blue sky, limbs raised, where I pour beer in memory at its grassy base, and to Happy Isles, where my mom loved to sit and look at water and sky and trees and rocks, 70 years ago, in an outfit she sewed herself in a basement in Queens, New York, –Thornton Wilder said we honor the dead not with grief but gratitude, and the words of the poet, to whom I am grateful for noticing . . .
Here is Thomas Traherne in his Centuries, quoted by Thomas Merton in Mystics and Zen Masters, . . . “You will never enjoy the world aright til the sea itself floweth in your veins, til you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars, and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and then more so. . . your spirit infinitely comprehending all, a center in eternity comprehending all, and filled all about you in an endless manner with infinite riches: which shine before you and surround you with divine and heavenly enjoyments.” And he goes on in a theology of praise: “By an act of the understanding therefore be present now with all the creatures among whom you live and hear them in their beings and operations praising God . . . some of them vocally, others in the ministry, all of them naturally, and continually.”
This is what e.e. cummings said in i thank You God for most this amazing/day:for the leaping greenly spirit of trees/ and this blue true dream of sky and for everything/ which is natural which is infinite which is yes. . . and John Muir, and Mary Oliver, and Gary Snyder, and Gerald Stern, and William Blake, and William Shakespeare, and Wordsworth, and Milton . . . .
These words were in Muir’s mind as he lay in darkness not knowing if he would see again in person the splendor in the grass, and in his mind as he beheld the wildflower Blake said expressed heaven, and Milton’s words, whom Muir must have thought of especially as he lay in darkness with no sight, as Milton wrote about his own blindness, here is Adam giving Eve a wake-up call: in poetry, natch . . .
Milton was so important to Muir—who knew, being in Yosemite, how much we owe to John Milton’s epic poetry about Paradise?
And here is an eight year old, from her journal—I KNOW-
“And all the times I was picking up potatoes, I did have conversations with them. Too, I did have thinks of all their growing days there in the ground, and all the things they did hear. Earth-voices are glad voices, and earth-songs come up from the ground through the plants; and in their flowering, and in the days before these days are come, they do tell the earth-songs to the wind … I have thinks these potatoes growing here did have knowings of star-songs.” - Opel Whiteley, 8 years of age, The Singing Creek where the Willows Grow – The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley, Penguin, 1994.
I thought of Isaiah:
For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. And Psalms 65:12 The grasslands of the desert overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness.
“Some keep the Sabbath going to Church, I keep it staying at Home – With a bobolink for a Chorister, And an Orchard, for a Dome.” - Emily Dickinson,
“And oh if there be an Elysium on earth, It is this, it is this!” - Thomas Moore. 1779-1852
And that’s the spirit, I think, we can bring to each of our lives today, whatever THIS is, some Yosemite of the mind, wherever you’re looking in YOUR mind’s eye. Slow
down to see it, the poetry in it, the treasure, for which we can feel grateful and GLAD . . . that’s how I’m seeing you right now, in MY mind’s eye, your slowing down to think for yourself, to see our world happening before our eyes, as Einstein says, there are two ways to see our world, one is to think nothing is a miracle, and one is to think EVERYthing ‘s a miracle, well it may be rocket science but he was a poet, he did write poetry, and e=mc2 is a metaphor, this is that, YOU are MY sunshine, the stars are in your eyes, and here’s looking at you, kid , and if you Tell ME why, I’ll tell you why –I love you—our time—this day—this moment of Yosemite for all of us. . . this THIS—that makes us love and want to save world–this is Professor Barbara Mossberg, we’ve been produced today by Hal Ginsberg for KRXA 540AM, our podcast is by Sara Hughes at Barbara Mossberg.com, thank you Charles Gilbeterra, and Elaine Bolduc, keep writing, keep telling, keep the gladness coming that you share with us . . . thank you our Poetry Slow Down! Happy Aisles—I’m on my way!
© Barbara Mossberg 2012