|Rosemary's Spring in April|
Names, of course, matter. The Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan reminds her readers that determining the appropriate name for a living kind or earthly element is a crucial part of our human vocation. We need, she argues, to be very careful about how we name things and how we use those names once they have been found. In English, for instance, we have come to name our home the Earth. That's a pretty important name and, as names go, this one has its charms. But it also gives the impression that our planet's surface is mainly composed of soil and stone. It's all about the land. But between puddles and bogs and springs and streams and ponds and lakes and seas and oceans, not to mention the innumerable aquifers underlying even deserts, we could just as well have named our planet the Waters. Indeed our bodies are more water than anything else, a feature we share with most earthly living kinds. We humans then are precisely the proverbial fish out of water, except that we've also learned the trick of bringing the waters along with us in our only semi-solid flesh.
Rosemary's Spring and the marshy bottom land it feeds into is a fiesta of salamanders and frogs and toads, of sphagnum moss and skunk cabbage, of spring beauties and unpleasant nettles. The poet Catherine Carter, who grew up with the spring, has written a poem about it that I cannot get off my mind.
By this spring you cannot stand
to drink like a man. If you would drink,
crouch on your muddy knees,
four-legged, or lie
flat on the ground braced on wet hands
in the swale. Set your lips to clear
water, but shallow, not even
an inch. Move your dry
tongue to swallow, and taste oak leaves
and darkness. The spring
is a puddle that seeps
from the ground; dip it up
and you get mud. You must
be an animal here,
prostrate yourself. This spring will bear
no hand, no cup.
I love this poem because it insists that one should not just stand there and take in what one sees. Instead one is to get off one's own hind limbs and ether crouch or prostrate one's body upon the earth. The activity involves a lowering of one's regard, a bending down of one's skeletal frame, a nearing of one's lips to the face, literally the surface of an earthly element. In this act, one is cautioned against becoming so consumed with the swollen tongue, its perpetual obsession for quenching its thirst, that the waters become muddied, and one's drinking is spoiled.
Simply put, Carter's poem is liturgical. It asks its reader to engage in an action that is solemnly heedful of another. In doing so one is reminded that drinking water from a spring is a form of prayer.
The specificity of Carter's liturgy is also instructive. Other waters call for other rubrics. For instance, in Linda Hogan's essay, "What Holds the Water, What Holds the Light," the dappling of desert sandstone with ephemeral pools of water after a heavy rain is celebrated. "Along the way," she writes, "my friend and I stopped at a cluster of large boulders to drink fresh rain collected in a hollow bowl that had been worn into stone over slow centuries. Bending over the stone, smelling earth up close, we drank sky off the surface of water." Here the genius of the waters of a particular country, of a certain place under the sun, to shape one's all-too-human doings is as filled with light as the seep of water in Carter's poem is troubled by darkness. The heteroglossia of water, tis many registers of instruction, call for liturgical improvisation and renewed interventions.
|Birch, Holly and Oak Leaves in the Waters|