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Through a Green Lens: An Out-Take

November 3, 2016

Dr. Robert Michael Pyle, author and lepidopterist, shares with us today an essay that wasn't selected for the final draft of his new book, Through a Green Lens. With the book spanning his entire career as a writer, difficult decisions had to be made concerning which pieces would and would not reach republication through the Press. The piece we share with you today, Ripples Through a Pool of Meltwater, explores his experience with the Northwest Forgotten Language tour in the Columbia River Gorge. Pyle provides readers with insight into the choice not to include Ripples Through a Pool of Meltwater and a reflection on the essay itself.

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Through a Green Lens: Fifty Years of Writing for Nature brings together 47 essays selected from my entire life's work as a writer, to date. All but one (the first, just out of high school) have been published previously, and almost all in the periodical press. A few came from anthologies or books for which I wrote forewords or chapters, but none from my own stand-alone books (a reader drawn from these will comprise a future collection). As there were many more pieces to pick from than we could possibly include, it was necessary to make hard choices. We wanted both coherence and diversity, without too much overlap or repetition. We wanted to include only pieces that could argue for themselves that they had a reason to live on. We wanted the whole to be concise enough so as not to suggest a telephone book.

This meant that there would be a good many out-takes. Some of these were judged to be too ephemeral, dated, or narrow for general interest. Others were held back for another book of longer, philosophical essays. But there remained a residue of pieces I might have liked to share again with a broader audience than those who saw them in the first place.

One such essay was called Ripples Through a Pool of Meltwater. It was originally published in 1995 in a pre-blog newsletter associated with Orion Magazine called the Orion Society Notebook. I rejected it from the book partly because of its length, although we did include some other very short pieces; and because its subject, the late, great barnstorming whistle-stops conducted by shifting knots of Orion writers to celebrate literature and the land seem a little narrow without an explanation of its history (such as its name, which came from W.S. Merwin's poem, Witness). But rereading it now, I find I still like some of its words, its images, and its conclusion--which captures, I think, just what we were trying to accomplish on those occasional magic carpet capers. It is short enough to include here in its entirety.

 

Ripples Through a Pool of Meltwater

When consummate Cascadian naturalist David Lukas led the Northwest Forgotten Language tourists up the Eagle Creek Trail in the Columbia River Gorge, the deep green mosses and the canyon's tracheae of ferns and liverworts breathed a moist awareness of life and regeneration into all of us, writers, students, and guests. When we reached the waterfall, sunstruck that February morning, I felt a distinct connection between the readers and the listeners, the text and the field, the Tour and the world. At the base of the plummet, rough ripples spread through a pool of meltwater. Days later, recuperating from the sweet rigors of the minstrelsy, that image returned to me. I realized that, as the wavelets went out into Eagle Creek, so spreads the gentle impact of the Forgotten Language visits: barely noticeable in the general clamor, yet insistent and cumulative in their influence far beyond the source.

In all the stops where I've been privileged to read for the Forgotten Language Tour, the field forays have affected me as much as the readings and the interchange they bring. I think of a remnant of old-growth forest as deep in rain as moss, on a bluff above Willapa Bay. A reclaimed urban landfill in Seattle, once again a vibrant habitat. A hardwood copse in western New York, colored like melted crayons heavy on the red. A Sonoran arroyo studded with saguaros, daubed with orange mariposa lilies and black buckeye butterflies. We've engaged the ground at least a little everywhere we've gone, even on horseback in Monument Valley, where our Navajo guides sang a prayer as raven circled overhead.

Yet these are no junkets; the field trips refresh from grueling schedules, but comprise in themselves a key component of the Tour. Absent contact with the land, the words become sterile. Composted by the green tissues, brown soils, and moving parts of the biome, fine writings come alive, able to move others and make them care.

This is what I hope we bring to those who hear us: a keen sense of the power of a language that must not be forgotten after all, and a parallel understanding that the words grow out of the land, where we must return to give them meaning. Beyond that, I believe our visits have the potential to stimulate action--application of the ethic implicit in the bond between the Orion writer and reader, reader and listener-- in direct ways that honor communities and help to preserve the fabric of the landscapes on which they depend.

In The Gift, Vladimir Nabokov tells of physical sensations that are "utterly incomprehensible, like the words in a forgotten language." It is the job of these itinerant storytellers to render the world and its parts comprehensible, to find the land-word bridge to understanding. If we can help a few people to remember the language we need, they will tell it to others... and who knows what could happen next?

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