Thoreau’s Lines A Tattoo (Temporary but Permanent on the Inside) (“put it on your bicep, Dr. B!)”, or a Whitman “flag of my disposition,” and what those words together mean in our times. A show of green sleuthing as we explore the role of poetry in laws on behalf of wilderness and freedom. How can a few words change the world—literally, our lives, our physical world? Come, let’s into the woods, and think about what nature has to teach us, the lessons we need to live with each other on this earth, from trees, brooks, stones, and . . . everything (“. . . which is natural which is infinite which is yes”—e.e. cummings).

Sweet are the uses of adversity,

Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,

Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,

Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

I would not change it. (The Forest of Arden, Act Two, Scene 1, As You Like It, Shakespeare)

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”

James Wright, swinging in a hammock, contemplating the scene around him, a mundane scene of pine trees, sunlight, butterfly, chicken hawk, horse manure, says, “I have wasted my life.” Is it because he’s swinging, gazing at the scene, not being productive, wasting time, like this, writing poems, or is it because he has not done this enough? Mary Oliver asks us, tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Thoreau doesn’t want to waste a second, and for him, it’s being awake at all times, except when we’re sleeping, it’s being in the woods, whatever woods are to you—for him, actual woods, out of the way, out of the fray, at his time, but for him, the happening place, and it was all about being attentive, as Mary Oliver, and James Wright, describe, as Walt Whitman’s child notices the grass . . . At this time in our country’s leadership transition, and the role of poetry in bringing us about, shaping a civic culture of consciousness, of conscience—-I think of Thoreau in the 1840s, influenced by Emerson in the 1830s, calling The Poet to our country, and saying, yes, you will be considered churlish and a fool, own it, embrace it, and you will be land-lord, air-lord, sea-lord . . .

Events, actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves. Who can doubt, that poetry will revive and lead in a new age. For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.

What words do we need now? At a time when slavery was legal, when the U.S. entered a war with Mexico to acquire Texas to get another slave state, when we were on the threshold of destroying the bulk of America’s forests, Thoreau took Emerson’s words to heart; he sat in the front row as they were delivered in person. He is known both for inspiring environmental activism on behalf of valuing and preserving what is wild—in the form of wilderness—and civic activism on behalf of valuing and promoting and sustaining what is free—in the form of political freedom. For him these were inextricable. And so we have Abraham Lincoln, known for signing both the Emancipation Proclamation leading to the 13th amendment, and the Yosemite Grant, legislation freeing slaves in southern states—leading finally to the 13th amendment in the abolition of legal slavery, and the National Parks legislation preserving original natural wild spaces—both for the first time on earth. What is the connection in his mind, between these two revolutionary acts? Freedom, for people considered and treated as “other,” used and exploited, controlled, confined, and preservation of nature considered “wild,” defined in our official dictionaries as “other,” used, and, not being used, as in cut down or dammed or corralled, considered a threat to civilization, unruly, disruptive, difficult to control, ungovernable, disorderly . . . wild—harsh, fierce, rowdy, outrageous, not tame or domesticated, not cultivated, remote and barren, rough, desolate, uninhabited, untidy, overwhelmed, stormy, not carefully thought out, offensive term: revolutionary imagination was at work here in two kinds of laws reversing and upending these perceptions of fellow human beings and earth fellow creatures.

Ah, Poetry Slow Down, this brings us whoosh, straight to poetry, slowing down with the strange and often difficult way of expressing what it is to be alive on earth—how we can see it with new eyes, new values—a new way of thinking!


Let’s begin with Whitman, what say you? How he talks about lowly grass, in his Song of Myself, Leaves of Grass . . .let’s slow it down, and see what’s going on, because we can get a clue as to how words can change how we see!

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full


How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it

is any more than he.


I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful

green stuff woven.


Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we

may see and remark, and say Whose?


Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe

of the vegetation.


Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow


Growing among black folks as among white,

Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the

same, I receive them the same.


And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.


Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,

It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;

It may be you are from old people and from women, and

from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,

And here you are the mother’s laps.


This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old


Darker than the colorless beards of old men,

Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.


O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!

And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths

for nothing.


I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men

and women,

And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring

taken soon out of their laps.


What do you think has become of the young and old men?

What do you think has become of the women and



They are alive and well somewhere;

The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait

at the end to arrest it,

And ceased the moment life appeared.


All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and



We’ll go through this remarkable poem as a way to hear how language is transforming in our understanding and valuing of earth and each other. I’m thinking now of the experiment by the scientist in Portland, Oregon as we saunter with Thoreau, flag wave with Whitman, hear sermons with Shakespeare, sleuth poems from Abraham Lincoln’s playbook, including those on a scattering of mice, ravens, leaves and trees, stirring poetry that inspired his own rhetoric that changed the landscape and laws of our country in wild and free ways. What happens when we identify ourselves as one with nature? What’s on your tattoo? What flag are you waving?

Emerson loved Lincoln—the poet spirit in him; when he was killed, Emerson gave his eulogy—being moved to say, We meet under the gloom of a calamity which darkens down over the minds of good men in all civil society, as the fearful tidings travel over sea, over land, from country to country, like the shadow of an uncalculated eclipse over the planet.—Emerson’s Elegy to Abraham Lincoln. But as Emerson said in “The Poet,” we poet in Lincoln lives on. What is at stake in having such a poet? Dr. Masaru Emoto gives us a way to think about the power of making connections among ourselves and our earth through language.

What are the issues here—perhaps we love the idea that thinking changes the actual reality—but what we do have chapter and verse for is the influence on thinking by words, words struggling to express ideas about our world. We’ll take a few examples of the favorite poems Lincoln read, and memorized by heart, literally and metaphorically, and see what’s there, and what could have led him to sign two such seemingly different and revolutionary kinds of legislation changing lives and earth itself. Then, we’ll look at two poems that celebrate metaphor, our ability to problem-solve most hopefully, to see each other, ourselves, and our earth positively and in new ways, all interconnected with common cause, one by Billy Collins, and one by the Bard, Sonnet 73, tricky ways that can change each of our lives, in terms of how we think about our most hopeless problems and aspirations for how we want to live, with love and dignity—and hope. We can wave Whitman’s flag of his disposition, hopeful green stuff. We’ll invoke the wild and free in each of us, through poetry!

With Professor Barbara Mossberg
Produced by Zappa Johns
January 22, 2017
© Barbara Mossberg 2017

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