Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
From our kitchen window we can see the rhododendron tree nestled in front of a towering fir that seems to enfold it. When both trees are green they’re hard to distinguish. In early June, the rhododendrons flower and make a vivid purple sphere that seems to hover like a stray cloud against the green field of the fir. That’s the moment that marks the beginning of summer for me, though the solstice is weeks off.
This year the lower branches of the tree didn’t flower, which sliced off the bottom of the sphere, giving it a slightly deflated look, like a flat tire. They didn’t flower because, towards the end of our long winter, the deer would come and nibble at the incipient buds, standing upright on their hind legs and straining their necks to get at the last bits of edible herbage in the snowy landscape. They stripped every branch within their reach.
The lower boughs may yet regenerate, though it’s hard to know what will or won’t regenerate these days. I take the flattened sphere as an apt emblem of the pressures exerted on the environment by all the forces we can’t see, the stressors that are compromising the familiar cycle of the seasons, shuffling the classical four in unaccustomed ways, and adding into the mix: “Fire Season” and “Hurricane Season” and “Drought Season” – our new perennials.
The other week I heard a radio interview with the proprietress of a farm based on the principles of “regenerative farming,” practices meant to help counter global warming. But she was not talking of reversing, or even containing, climate change – rather about accommodating it and finding “best practices” for emerging conditions that will be inhospitable to agriculture as we’ve known it. We’ve gone too far, she was saying, and there’s no holding back the consequences now.
What to make of the lovely commencement of summer in the face of that? The rhododendron’s purple cloud; the iridescent green moss along the Smith Hill rock cut; the red poppies that flare so vividly for their brief day? The season seems to wobble with a sense of precarity, a sense that all is not what it seems.
In his great novel of environmental distress, “The Overstory,” Richard Powers depicts a man driving west through Idaho, traversing a continuous corridor of huge fir and spruce. He stops and walks into the forest. Instead of the deep shadow he expects to find within dense growth, he sees light streaming across the trunks. Going a bit further, he steps through to a vast tract of clear-cut forest that had been disguised by the fringe of trees along the road: “You can’t even call it a clearing. Call it the moon. A stumpy desolation spreads in front of him…” When he stops at a gas station and asks about what he’s seen, he’s told the trees along the roadside are called “beauty strips” or “vista corridors,” left there to mask what’s happening on their far side.
A “beauty strip” is an evocative metaphor for something that both entices and obscures perception. There’s a lot happening to our environment that we can’t see because it’s happening on a scale that beggars perception. Yes, the summer is beautiful; we want to drink it in – this year especially! Its return is comforting. Yet I wonder if that sense of comfort, of assured familiarity and repetition that inheres in the very cycle of the seasons, isn’t itself a type of “beauty strip.” The cycle feels eternal because that’s what cycles do – they repeat. The rhododendrons bloom again, at the same time as last year, and the year before that. But “cyclical” doesn’t necessarily mean eternal; our eternal verities may have little to do with eternity or veracity. Our world is the product of changing conditions that are in the process of being superseded by further changes, destabilizing and unaccountable when measured against the scales by which we are accustomed to measure.
Powers’ book ends on a delicate note, which holds out a tenuous sense of hope. One of the characters is gathering shards of wood from a tract of clear-cutting and placing them in a pattern. The design is too big to be taken in from the ground, but from overhead, from a perspective that’s not earthbound, it can be read as the word “STILL.” I hear the adverb, not the adjective, in that word – “still” as something that continues into the future, and in that I hear an echo of the classic haiku by Issa: “The world of dew / Is a world of dew / And yet, and yet…”
Jonathan Shimkin, writer and editor, may be contacted at email@example.com, or via his website: jonathanshimkin.weebly.com