You Must Know Things by Their Moving Away
From leavings, you may learn the animals. Look for tracks of bobcat in mud and dust. Droppings and, in them, details of what fruit (the pits) or meat (the fur) was the fox’s feast. Flattened places in front of the berry bushes where a bear stood, reaching. Burrow into which a beaver bowed. Path into brush deer filed along, too slender for your feet to follow. From far off, you recognize ways your family moves— their walks, their talking gestures, even with backs turned. Likewise with birds, you can see whether they are calm or fidgeting on the branch without ever coming close enough to view markings, then how the wings look in flight. You must know things by their moving away. The hand motions of your husband will stay (as long as he does lift them) the same, after his first, young face has been furrowed and replaced. Concentrate on the silhouette slipping into shadow, all that can be glimpsed from your distance. Be glad of the field guide, so-named because it was the first book among the bulky volumes of science with this intent: Here is a small thing you may carry with you.
Not a Song
It’s the signature sound, the way I know the woods I am in: the pileated woodpecker percussing, beating beak on trunk. Of course, there’s traffic and construction I’m not deaf to. This is not an idyll, this is no denial of what’s true. Just a word for the bird with a red cap she keeps in hiding. Bird much about, but little seen. A strategy learned to live alongside the likes of me. In a disturbed place, with people piercing green’s boundaries. Where she’s adapted to patchy trees, punctuating the run-on of engines with her efforts’ short reports. This is not about singing, but a battering. The lyric, her soundtrack, contemporary. What is more timely than a piece so compromised, and concessionary? The material with which the bird works is rotten and hollow. She pounds. An echo, a harmony with a dying thing, resounds.
Do not look on north slopes. Do not look in mature, moist forests in the autumn season. This is how you would find it, and you should not find it. It should not be harvested anymore; too much already has been. Roots dug, baring their shape, like a person, but so little, and shriveled. Do not look for Jack in the pulpit, trillium, Solomon’s seal, or cohosh— the companion plants. The woman’s companion— he is the man she had most wanted to seek her, for whom she wished her hand a palmate leaf worth pursuit. Though when he took it, turned husband, it became he who sees her face, unprepared in the mornings, wearing the easily slipped on sorrowful expression, preceding appearances put on for any not the one known. Do not look on north slopes. Ginseng has been over-gathered hundreds of year. Time enough to teach it not to be where it is hunted. Or to kill it back where it was thickest and best. Collectors in the woods would be wise to think of seasons ahead, not hunt so hard. And, observer in our intimacy, of habit and body, frailty and flaw, it may be better to turn back before finding more. If I close a door in the house that is ours together, it is to save you from me, too much discovery.
Is it silk with which spiders weave connecting strands across space, and bind their young to belly and jaw to be carried close? Or that by which spiderlings balloon away, disperse, casting threads into wind, to travel far from kin, because they eat their own kind? Is it the way webs cling to me, with a substance from spider’s arms, from spigots purposed to spin a stickiness that catches and holds? Or how I flail to be free, coming out of grass as from a fight so bad someone leaves home claiming, I won’t see you again? Is it saying how like the jewelweed I look, with arms flung up against words or web, whatever they fail to ward off? Or that the jewelweed pods are exploding, seeds also flinging themselves away, as far as possible from their flower as they may? Is there a difference, does the same spider make silk and venom, wrap her victim tight, and babies too, and the plant that moves furthest, most forward its family? I will never stop loving mine, among living things, the best and that is not the same as believing we are, by some goodness, distinguished.
After Time Spent Studying an Antique Specimen Collection
If it could be that the tropical birds offered their feathers easily, understanding the need for warm colors in northern winters. The mounted mammals shrugged off their skins like gentlemen loaning their coats to cold ladies, so obliged to make a little sacrifice to be representatives of the species, in entirety. And when I was away working on some project that would serve a larger purpose, be lasting, nothing was lost. Moments were not measures of the missed. As in the mink diorama, for 200 years suspending the instant when the animal had just emerged from swimming by shellacking the quick-drying fur to look wet. Though I would not want it to be times your face was tear-wet that were extended. Though I wish I had been the one to wipe it dry.
Fringe and Flourish
It looks like a purse, proposed the man naming the pocketbook mussel. It looks like false eyelashes, suggested another of the soft tissue a female flaps from her shell to be fanned by the water. To flutter on the bottom, in the river’s bed. To say something about what strikes us, we speak of what it is not. This is no failing of language. Figurative language was the first language. Without the want to get at more than objects a hand can gesture towards and grasp, words would not have been shaped by mouths, moving to sculpt a missing material. * And with her sway and sashay the mussel means to make herself mistaken, a metaphor. The bit of her body batted by the current looks like a little fish to a bigger fish on the hunt for food. It lures him, and she looses her young, parasites that populate his flesh. Taking his tissue and turning it into mussels. They too, in time, masquerade as other, like their mother. Who never touches any of them again, which, for her, can’t be called wrong. Some young are firmly held; some are free in the water, floating wide. * Some meanings are set; the substance of some is more lyrical, and liquid. How much of mollusk will reach fish, of animal reach man, of woman— it is uncertain. There are distances it is a stretch to span. But the mussel unfurls her fingers. She widens her eyes. That are faux eyes, markings on a decoy. That are decorative fringe, not fingers. That make us see and sense and speak with words. Our airy flourishes set adrift amid the amazements with a foot in the mud of this earth.
Combined, Our Hands Count Four
Males are bold. Females are cryptically colored. So the book says of birds. Of course, too familiar, the female expressing nothing, eggs her end goal. As for spiders, She lives in a camouflaged, silk-lined tube. The male is wandering hunter and does not make webs. What the males weave are bindings, about the bodies of females they will hold until they are old enough to mate. The sex an act conducted with an organ like a boxing glove. Though there is also the male bird gathering bouquets of twigs. Or bigger and better than that, let’s say, curating displays of nesting materials for his partner to pick among. And many branches of behavior can be made the example. Such as spiders’ eight limbs that they, before coupling, engage in leg play. Exceptions among men who try to be tender. And how, between married humans there is said to be happiness with touch by half that many hands, total, the rest of their lives. Here is a demonstration of deep love, then: Buzzards as the selection for the conclusion. Because they’re monogamous and guard eggs as a pair, gathered close, though they are winged for flight, in what we can choose to call a clutch.
-after the first field guide, by Mrs. William Starr Dana, 1893
I was looking for lives unlike ours, learning another kingdom, turning my attention to leaves, asking, Simple, or compound? Alternate, or opposite? To the first field guide, the author a personality on the pages, exclaiming of composite flowers, blossoms joined and so better pollinated: In unity there is strength! Then to the study of her life: losing her child, being widowed, and in mourning, in the Victorian style, in veils, allowed little but to go walking by herself. Becoming expert in the offerings of fields, which were plants. I had wanted to stay out, wandering away from people, skipping meals and commitments. But who can be so free? Here, I carry with me, saying I seek new species, a human story, a widow’s book. The title wistful: How to Know the Wildflowers. The identifying inquiries—Simple, or compound? Alternate, or opposite?—also asking, In what way does one relate to another? Attach? Is it too late for me to join the dinner party, in serving others, and accepting plates? In conversation and expectation? How could I leave the husband I have so often to himself at our long, bare table? May I begin to fill it by bringing a bouquet of foliage gathered?