Notable Books by North Carolina Writers: September, 2005
Bird Songs of the Mesozoic: A Day Hiker's Guide to the Nearby Wild, by David Brendan Hopes
(Minneapolis, MN:Milkweed Editions, 2005)
V. S. Naipaul, the internationally renowned author, recently questioned fiction's relevance in today's world. Nonfiction, he seems to think, is where the important work is being done. When a writer such as Naipaul, himself a fiction writer, offers up such an opinion, I may question it, but I think seriously about the issue.I too believe that some of our most urgent literary work is being done in the genre of the personal essay, particularly in the area of what we call "nature writing."Several of our best writers in this genre began as poets—Janisse Ray and Annie Dillard, for example—and others, such as Barry Lopez, Edward Abbey, and Terry Tempest Williams, often engage the poetic voice in their prose.
And then there is our own David Brendan Hopes, whose new book, Bird Songs of the Mesozoic: A Day Hiker's Guide to the Nearby Wild, expands the genre of creative nonfiction with a lyrical expansiveness that only a poet could deliver. Mr. Hopes is one of our most exuberant and verbally gifted writers.His poetry has won him national awards and his prose has been published in some of the country's most prestigious magazines. He is a visual artist and playwright, as well as an aficionado of Asheville's cultural and artistic scene.
His new book, for example, is named after a rock band he heard downtown one night. Mr. Hopes can talk about music as easily as he discusses flora and fauna and the eccentricities of Homo sapiens. His first book of poetry, The Glacier's Daughters (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), and his two earlier books of essays, A Sense of the Morning (Dodd Mead, 1988) and A Childhood in the Milky Way (Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 1999), captivated me with their tenderness, their humor, and their fluidity of detail and language.
Mr. Hopes's new book follows his tracks as a day-hiker through both exterior and interior landscapes. In one of his most riveting essays, he walks along the Bent Creek Wilderness trail on which a young woman named Karen Styles was murdered more than a decade ago while out for a morning jog on Halloween. Those of us living in the area followed the story closely and many of us are still haunted by it, as Mr. Hopes obviously is.He begins his essay with commonplace detail—the season and its hiking pleasures, his pulled muscles from too much rope-jumping the day before—and then gradually leads us into his own heart of darkness.
As for why this poet also writes nature essays, Mr. Hopes says in his introduction:
Long ago I sat in my grandmother's garden and listened while she recited poetry from her Irish heart or read it from a book that had the poets' portraits in vignettes on the top of the page.At the time I was a rabid and independent reader of schoolboy science books . . . . I think I have recorded elsewhere that it never crossed my mind that her poems and my bits of science were different things. The poems were discoveries, as a new species of an interesting pile of bones were discoveries, and in the poets' portraits I looked for evidence of their having been afield, where the great mysteries were waiting to be confronted.Even as some people listen to Chopin and others to Merle Haggard, the world speaks in many voices so that everybody has a chance to hear.
The perceptive will have noticed that I am going the long way around to explain why a poet should be writing a nature book. The excuse is simple.Long ago, in my grandmother's garden, I learned two languages.When the world presents its wonders to me, I must pass them on, and when I do, I never know—initially at least—which language I am speaking.
In describing the music of the band whose name he chose as his title, Mr. Hopes recalls a performance in a Lexington Avenue cafe called Vincent's Ear.
The music was strange and wonderful, summoning to mind dinosaurean forests, unthinkable ringing with the calls of birds vanished not only from he world but almost from the imagination, bell-like, honeyed, and voluptuous. . . . hope that's what it sounded like back then among the cycads and the carnosaurs.Longing tells me it must have.
In a later chapter, he observes:
I can't explain why I am in love with minute particularity.Maybe just my bad eyes, maybe my conviction that though masses and categories remain, it is the particular that can be tragically lost.
Here, then, are a few of my favorite excerpts from Bird Songs of the Mesozoic.—Kathryn Stripling Byer
From "The Anniversary":
Bloodroot is my favorite wildflower, at least until the trillium blooms a few weeks later.Trillium I can grow in my garden back home:the bloodroot keeps giving up, which but adds a twinge of the unrequited to my liking.Now that I see this patch, now that my eye knows what to look for, I note the entire forest floor is whitened with them, a tiny snow clinging to the declivities under ridges, to the narrow ecosystems between the roots of trees. Such bounty is at once blessed and a bit daunting.I fight back the swelling conviction that I must rise up, race through the undergrowth, looking at everything, seeing every flower, nodding, acknowledging, or some precious energy of the season will be wasted.People who go around saying, "Live every day as though it were your last" don't appreciate the magnitude of what that requires."
From "The Well of Memory":
I sit in the shade planning a book of the plants, putting in their properties and virtues.I'm half asleep so their beautiful names hover between the waking world and the world of dreams. I call them at first randomly, but then properly, and when they hear their proper appellations, they answer.I am a Platonist because I have heard things answer to their proper names.
Angelica: by the sea, by the running water, tall, celery-like in the stalk, celery-like to taste, but better.Flowers like a tattered cloud, like a round hill shot with snow.Good for digestion, a body cleanser.
Balm of Gilead: flat leaves shaking in the least wind, crowded together in the meadow light, before the forest giants come. The giants of the open places, away to the west, where they shake like rigged masts under the thunderheads.
Dogwood: the ancient one, older than the hills it grows upon, pushed aside by the dragons of the prime. Snow after the snow in the depths of the forest.
Elderberry: purple stain on the mouth, on the shirt, of one hungry for the bittersweet drupes, the taste of sweet and smoke and water and purple. The Indians hollowed the twigs, blew through them for flutes, "the tree of music." Vitamins packed close as purple in an amethyst.
Fern: even the dogwoods call this one "grandmother." The old ones thought its seeds, being invisible, granted invisibility. Out of the wet rock, out of the waste places, it could restore a world, if this world passes away.
Hickory: the autumn shimmerer, bronze gold, the treasure of the squirrels.My grandfather had a triple-trunked pignut that was the tallest tree in the world.
Lilac: by Grandmother's back porch, climbable by the child one was, the hanging grape shapes of white and lavender and—yes—of lilac, the spring perfume that haunts all springs to come.
Queen Anne's Lace: the wild carrot, dust with the summer of Midwestern roads, the flowers, yes, like lace, enduring in the vase, in the child's hand, one purple petal like one drop of blood, for remembrance.
Tulip: the tree, I mean, the magnolia's launch toward heaven, clean boled, the sky spearer, the ancient one, marching south with the glaciers, north with the coming of the ten-thousand-year delayed spring.
Violet: five petaled, white, purple, blue, yellow, striped, near black, nodding modestly under the blare of the trilliums, the white tremor of the bloodroots.The tombs of saints, opened, exude an odor of violet.
Oh, I hear the voice of a child in the garden of dreams say, Let us start
again. . . let's do it over!Anemone, bloodroot, cattail dodder. . . .
I was going to write that the word "refuge" has an entirely different meaning now, but in fact it has exactly the same meaning it always did: it's just that we, rather than creeping walls of ice, have forced everybody into them. There are no wild places on earth that are not to some degree refuges, in that there is peril for creatures to leave them. . . . Regardless of our green rhetoric, we slaughter and push back what inconveniences us, even in their last refuges. We hand-wring about leaving some fragment of tundra or rain forest, which once seemed—which seemed even in my little lifetime to be—illimitable.We level the homes of the bears and pumas and flying foxes, and then wax hysterical when we find them too close to our homes—which we have built on the ashes of theirs—and they have nowhere else to go.We pull out our rifles and poisons, as though we were still the ones in danger.
Poetry announces itself to me as a rhythm to which a tune might be set,
a tune to which words might be set, though the relationship to sound must be
understood as metaphorical, for it all happens only in the profoundest silence.
David Brendan Hopes hikes frequently in the Pisgah National Forest and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. A professor of literature and language at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, he has written two previous books of nonfiction, A Sense of the Morningand his memoir, A Childhood in the Milky Way. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Audubon Magazine, Image, and The Sun, among other publications.Recent poetry appears in the fall, 2005, issue of The Texas Poetry Journal.The excerpts presented here are from his most recent book, Bird Songs of the Mesozoic: A Day Hiker's Guide to the Nearby Wild (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2005) and are copyright © 2005 by David Brendan Hopes.They are reproduced with permission from Milkweed Editions (www.milkweed.org).