For years, I’ve been trying to write an essay about reading natural history in the winter. That essay began one spring or early summer in upstate New York when it became apparent to me that a simple list could invoke emotions—expectations, sorrows—with no direct correlation to any of the things named or described.
The essay began before writing began—more on that in a minute. But when I did finally begin writing, I was in the early years of graduate school in California, and the most recent multi-year drought had yet to prevent farmers from planting their fields in the middle of the state. It was winter, then, in California, and the hill we lived on was so green it was difficult to imagine it becoming its summer color again: tawdry gold, spicy with feral radish.
Now, where I am writing, it is towards the end of another unseasonably warm October in Massachusetts. Or now, where I am rewriting in Massachusetts, it is snowing in April. And again, returning to this still unsettled series of reflections, mid-June, many years later, on the verge of moving back to California, everything on the East Coast, a riot of green. And finally, in California again, another wet, green winter, the sound of it rushing over rocks toward the Pacific.
California had given me a different kind of seasonal disorder from the dull winter headaches I’d grown up with. Those required artificial light boxes. These produced irises in winter. And that disjuncture—this fullness inside a time I felt should be barren—taught me something about seasons. How, stitched to the running onward of historical time, there is something disruptive, disordering, in their manifestations, so that, though spring is entirely expected, still, it startles and delights, and nothing can prepare us for New England’s blank chill. California’s failure to graft effectively onto the seasons I’d known, that were harsher than seasons in England but still recognizable across the Atlantic, alerted me for the first time to seasons within seasons.
Wallace Stevens, who never left New England, said there was a season after winter and before spring. But English doesn’t often go there. Other languages do a better job of getting at seasons in-between. In Japanese, there are traditionally twenty-four seasons, the year unfolding along a series of small recursions. Spring begins when winds melt ice, turns around the equinox with distant thunder, and peaks with peonies. German has a nachsommer, a summer after summer. In New England, this is Indian Summer, as if that stolen season could only be accounted for by a covert confession of cultural displacement. In French, there’s a spring before spring: avant-printemps, which Francis Ponge documented from a house in the countryside in the early 1950s in a book which wasn’t published until the Paris political “Spring” of 1968. There’s a belatedness and a prescience in the in-betweenness of seasons that wrests us from history, directing attention toward possible worlds: “then” or “then.” And seasons are also that past or future eventfulness that rattles us in the guise of an ice storm, here and now. This essay is about how writing takes place within scenes of experience, and in the presence of other writing, which, through the friction of living on language, produces that seasonal jolt: the unsettling impulse of then within now.
Reading first: within that earlier California winter, I was reading about gardening in antebellum New England. I wasn’t a very responsible reader back then, even if a very responsive one. I didn’t know yet why I was reading so much about gardens. Now I can say with assurance: I was excavating texts for the seasons of my childhood. California was full of plants colonized from around the globe: fresh and frilly with eucalyptus and bottlebrush from Australia, spiky with South American ice plants along the coast. But I missed the flowers I’d known the names of as a child the way I missed old friends: crocus, lilac, peony.
Looking for New England, though, I found California in my reading. I’d happened upon a list published in The Horticultural Register and Gardener’s Magazine of flowers blooming and fading in a garden in Boston on “the 29th of October, 1835.” That list began with a California poppy, a perennial rarely, if ever, seen in eastern gardens today, and ended with another plant, the bright, droopy, blue star of lobelia. After each scientific name, the authors noted the stage at which they discovered each species that October day, which was itself a warm one, though more “favourabl[y]” so: individuals were “in perfection,” “going off,” “just opened,” “bearing seed,” “some lingering stragglers still pretty,” “very gay,” “hardly yet in perfection,” and so on.
Eschscholtzia Californica, in perfection.
Convolvulus major and minor, the last in perfection.
China asters, many varieties, going off.
Chrysanthemum tricolor and indica, several varieties, just opened.
Indian pinks, great varieties, in perfection.
Dahlias, several varieties in perfection, including several seedlings from
seed sown in the open ground in May.
Marvel of Peru, six varieties, in perfection.
Balsams, going off.
Salvia splendens, in great beauty bearing seed.
S. Prismatica, in perfection.
S. Angustifolia, in perfection.
Canna indica, red and yellow, second shew of bloom in perfection.
Commelina caelestis, in perfection.
Talinum ciliatum, in perfection every sunny day.
Anagallis indica, a few of its beautiful blue flowers.
Dracocephalum speciosum, going off.
Marygold, varieties, in perfection.
Petunia nyctaginiflora, in perfection.
Golden rods, going off.
Sevia Serrata, in perfection.
Reseda odorata, mignonette in great perfection.
Sweet peas, some lingering stragglers still pretty.
Gladiolus natalensis, in beauty.
Violas, heartsease in profusion, very gay.
Iberis odorata in perfection.
Stock gilliflower, rose colored, very spicy odor, in perfection, new.
Verbena aubletia, in perfection.
Ximenesia enceloides, going off.
Coreopsis lanceolata, the last flowers, elegant, yet in beauty.
Jacobea, several colors, hardly yet in perfection.
Galinsogea tribolata, in perfection. We have given this a bad character in our article in the preceding number, it is just to say that it increases in beauty as the autumn advances.
Nicotiana repanda, in perfection.
Browallia elata, blue and white, in perfection.
Silene, several varieties, going off.
Orobus niger, going off.
Calceolaria pinnata, in perfection.
Silver hawkweed, a few flowers.
Picridium tingitanum, a few flowers but perfect.
Hibiscus trionum, a few flowers small.
Centaurea sweet sultan, in beauty, C. Cyanus also.
Delphinium ajacis, the double branching larkspur, in great beauty, 4 feet high, one plant with 30 branches of beautiful blue flowers.
Madia Splendens, in beauty.
Malope grandiflora and trifida, in perfection.
Zinnia, varieties, going off.
Poppy, picotee, second blooms, small but yet handsome.
Ammobium alatum, a few blooms left.
Zeranthemum annuum, yellow and white, in perfection, lucidum going off.
Oenothera, several varieties, particularly tetraptera, in perfection.
Coronilla securidaca, in perfection.
Eutoca multiflora, just going off.
Lopezia coronata and racemosa, in great beauty.
Plectocephalus americanus, great American Thistle, in perfection.
Gilia Capitata, in perfection.
Lobelia gracilis, in perfection.
Some of these, I still don’t know how to picture. Some were as common as hostas from Asia, on front lawns where I am from. Some, like California poppies, have become less common. But my discovery of the list then was not about an encounter with particularity, or even history, but of accumulation. Yes, I could have said to Kierkegaard, a repetition is possible. A sequence is a moving thing.
At that time, I could still identify with Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry: that you know what it is when you feel the top of your skull flying off and you get so chilly from that wound that no tropic breeze could ever thaw you. For me, that feeling was more of being dropped from a great height so that the Earth, when I arrived there, was greedy for lungs.
That list, stuttering around perfection, of a half-dead garden on the other side of the country more than a century ago on the edge of a new season, gave me that feeling. Which made me realize: how barren and barely a thing was a poem.
In his essay “The Poet,” written in the vicinity of Boston a decade after the compilation of this list, Ralph Waldo Emerson describes how “bare lists of words are found suggestive, to an imaginative and excited mind.” A list in a gardening manual can act on a reader like a poem. But this action depends on other surrounding conditions. My responsiveness to this particular list was the result not only of an ongoing seasonal disorder induced and maintained by geographic displacement, but also by an encounter with a previous list.
Its conditions were this: someone I had known all my life and yet never really known, someone my mother had known all her life and yet never really known, was dying. She was a great lover of the natural world, particularly of birds and plants. This was one thing we did know about her. She would ask my grandfather to stop by the side of the road on family vacations in the West so she could cup them in her hands. I wish I had an image of this memory that was never mine. A woman, palming something living along the side of the road. To tell you the name of the flower she was sheltering, I would need to ask her—but she is, as I was saying, no longer alive. Meanwhile, my grandfather would grumble because there was a destination and because he was a philosophy professor. He wrote books about ethics and education, subjects I find, when philosophically treated, too exhausting to keep up with. He wrote me long letters that were lectures disguised as intimations.
There are many books that I would like to read that I have not read, a fact which some days I attribute to laziness or distraction, and other days, to the fact that I am a relatively busy person and am trying to be a decent parent and partner and keep a relatively clean house and attend to the underappreciated edges of things, in addition to getting my reading done. All of this is a way of saying: I have never read my grandfather’s books and I doubt I ever will.
But, as you will perhaps have gathered, it was my grandmother, Rosemary, whose list I encountered, which changed my understanding of what poetry was or could be. Generally, I was afraid of her. Not because she was unkind. But because she didn’t say things. The things she had to say were disguised in bird feeders and poppies. The last time I saw her she gave me a jar of honey. I still have the jar though the honey is gone.
As a rule, I only appreciated her gifts after the fact. The blue glass bowls she gave me when I was eight and utterly uninterested in kitchens, and that I have been baking with since leaving home. Meaning, she was a precocious giver, a personality flaw I can relate to, now that I have a child to whom I give books that exceed an appropriate reading level. Like William Blake. Or Over and Over by Charlotte Zolotow, which is a picture book from the 1950s about mostly Christian holidays and the seasons and a little girl who is so little that she “doesn’t understand what time is.” Though everyone else did, my grandmother rarely gave me books and never gave me this one, but it was one of my mother’s favorites. One of my favorites, too. Which means, over and over, reading happened. Reading happened to us.
In Over and Over, there is a yellow crocus the little girl remembers, but doesn’t remember where or when she saw it last. The ones that came up in our side yard were deep purple with yellow cores. Though this was one of the flowers I missed most, it isn’t a New World plant, native neither to the Northeast or California. Memory seems personal, but it accumulates collectively, through centuries. The fact that the history of these common denizens disappears within the human names and dates and atrocities of history means that, like this little girl, very few of us have a handle on what time is, how it snaps continually against geography.
Recently, when rereading this children’s book over and over at bedtime, I realized how much the little girl in this picture book is like Isabel in Herman Melville’s novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities, a character who also has difficulty with time. Isabel narrates events out of order: men scale trees over an ocean and then they are in the rigging between masts of a ship; bodies are carried out through windows and then they are dead.
When I was living in California, I became obsessed with her disorders, which she calls “bewilderingness”: both her backward narration, and how her story sticks like a bur, the only first-person voicing, in the unfolding plot of Pierre, and the fact that she only comes to know herself through the identification of things living and dying around her. I am not a cat she comes to accept. Not a snake, or a lightning bolt. Not a blasted tree. Therefore, I must be human. This deduction of humanness from the non-human surround makes an experiential sense. Whatever I am has to do with that crocus, that chipmunk, that orchard and marsh.
This is different from saying I carry such things or places with me. It’s closer to being infused with an inhumanness gifted by these non-human encounters. The dissertation about Isabel I spent years writing and rewriting and erasing eventually had to be abandoned. How many drawers are filled with abandoned books about Pierre, my advisor said. Writing about Isabel, I had thought I was writing about this inhuman heart to the human, that makes narration impossible, which might make a claim for poetry, as a different way of telling. Now, I’d say that the vectors of motivating indirection that compelled that reading were also about seasons, and geography, and reading. In Isabel’s narrative disorders, I recognized my own seasonal disorder. From a windowless office-garage in California, I stared at Google Earth images of the Berkshires, looking for August with its heat-lightning there.
In Pierre, Melville describes the feelings Isabel produces in others, and that she certainly produced in me, as an “ineffable correlativeness”: a feeling that this connects to this that can’t be fully verified because feeling is inevitably in excess of the facts; the head a gaping hole and a cold wind blowing through. Isabel’s story focuses on her childhood. And Pierre describes Isabel as childish, even as he’s ineffably attracted to her. These suggestions of incest—Isabel is Pierre’s half-sister—contributed to the definitive failure of Pierre, and the end of Melville’s viable run as an acknowledged author. But the attribution of sexual allure to a child-like waif is rampant in nineteenth-century literature and wouldn’t by itself have caused alarm. In fact, the other love-object in Pierre, the Romantically-named Lucy, is, like Wordsworth’s Lucy, bright and child-like and doomed.
In the nineteenth century, women were childlike by association, in that they made and cared for children and because, in their economic, and often physical, weaknesses, they needed to be cared for, too. Women who wrote, or appeared in poems in the period, almost inevitably position themselves, or are positioned, in relation to this childishness: either as nurturing mother (see Lydia Sigourney), or unavailable and therefore ultimately innocent temptress (see Frances Osgood), or child-bride (this type appears generally in novels and poems by men—see Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe). Women sometimes also wrote from the perspective of children for children, but these poets remain, for the most part, firmly archived in periodicals and albums, interesting only to scholars. Emily Dickinson is one of the only nineteenth-century poets who is still widely read who writes as a child, though not for children.
In his first encounter with her, Thomas Wentworth Higginson either picks up on, or projects, that child-like quality of nineteenth-century femininity onto this poetess. Reporting their meeting in a letter to his wife, Higginson refers repeatedly to Dickinson’s “quaint” and “child- like” demeanor: she enters the room with “pattering footstep like that of a child”; places daylilies in his hand “in a childlike way”; and apologizes, “in childlike fashion, ‘Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers, and hardly know what I say.’”
But she does know what she says. In the course of their conversation, she says many memorable things regarding poetry, most memorably, that statement I’ve already referenced several times: that poetry is ice and headlessness. Dickinson’s readings are responsive. The nineteenth-century poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes would call them “physiological”; a twentieth-century critic might call them a “psychoaesthetics”; a twenty-first-century poet: a “(soma)tic ritual.” The body, in all its irrational histrionics, gets involved. Poetry is recognizable not by its form, but in its effects. This is fundamentally a childish method of reading. It’s the way I read before I was trained to read otherwise. In thinking about reading natural history in the winter, I’ve been trying to take seriously that earlier, pre-educated, readerly sensibility. Because I think it does get at something crucial: the way surroundings—seasons, geography, the amorphousness of experience—infiltrate books. The narrative experiments of the early twentieth century—stream of consciousness and all that—aimed to show how psychology pervades everything. I’m interested in how everything pervades psychology, mediated by language, especially in its barest forms. A poem, or a list, makes space for the world to enter in ways that narrative excludes.
Dickinson defines reading natural history in the winter in a letter to Higginson in 1877. Masquerading as a child again, she writes: “When Flowers annually died and I was a child, I used to read Dr. Hitchcock’s Book on the Flowers of North America. This comforted their Absence – assuring me they lived.” Dickinson’s formulation of reading natural history in the winter hinges on what isn’t there, on “Absence.” Despite the appearance of a possessive pronoun before its introduction, “their Absence” has multiple possessors: “Flowers,” deactivated by winter, or the reader, who feels that empty space of dormancy acutely, and, in compensation, turns to a book. There is also the absence of the childish reader Dickinson once was within the adult writer she has become. That absence—of then within now—is a hallway of mirrors: she remembers reading that was remembering. This circularity makes a reader seasonal, too.
In “My Out-Door Study,” an essay first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1861 and reprinted in multiple volumes across the remainder of the nineteenth century, Higginson also refers to the benefit gleaned from reading natural history in the winter: “Even the driest and barest book of Natural History is good and nutritious,” he writes, “if it represents genuine acquaintance.” Although Higginson was elsewhere a booster for the pursuit of regional science, the potentials he identifies in the reading of natural history fall outside the goal of forwarding nationalist knowledge of American backyards. Whereas the naturalist ventures into the field in search of new discoveries, the “good” that comes of natural history reading derives from preexistent “acquaintance.” A reader simply revisits scenes and species she already knows: “one can find summer in January by poring over the Latin catalogues of Massachusetts plants and animals in Hitchcock’s Report,” Higginson writes. One can find California in Massachusetts while reading natural history in a California winter a century after the fact.
There is also an absent book in Dickinson’s letter. The book through which she mediates both “Absence” and assurance—Edward Hitchcock’s “Book on the Flowers of North America”—isn’t actual: a “barest” book so bare it never existed at all. Hitchcock published a Report on the Geology, Mineralogy, Botany, and Zoology of Massachusetts in 1833, an initial survey that led to a more comprehensive survey of the commonwealth, commissioned by the legislature and conducted by a team of naturalists between 1839 and 1846. Or earlier, the year before Dickinson was born, the Junior Class at Amherst, who had followed Hitchcock into the field in search of specimens and listened to his botany lectures, paid for the printing of his Catalogue of Plants Growing Without Cultivation in the Vicinity of Amherst College in 1829.
Dickinson may be misremembering, or reimagining, the scale of either of these studies, expanding Amherst or Massachusetts to the scope of North America, an extension from the local to the general that is not so surprising for a poet who elsewhere called Amherst “Eden.” Hitchcock catalogues “Plants”; Dickinson remembers, or imagines, more particularly, “Flowers.” And while Hitchcock records his findings in a scientific Catalogue, Dickinson remembers a more generic “Book.”
Hitchcock’s “Reports,” in their variant verisimilitudes, connect to another important mid-nineteenth-century articulation of reading natural history in the winter: Henry David Thoreau’s first published essay, “Natural History of Massachusetts,” a review for the July 1842 issue of The Dial of the collective endeavor of Hitchcock’s Report. Thoreau begins that essay: “Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading.” He continues: “I read in Audubon with a thrill of delight, when the snow covers the ground, of the magnolia, and the Florida Keys, and their warm sea breezes; of the fence-rail, and the cotton-tree, and the migrations of the rice-bird; of the breaking up of winter in Labrador, and the melting of the snow on the forks of the Missouri; and owe an accession of health to these reminiscences of luxuriant nature.” While Dickinson finds things—beloved flowers—in the absence of winter, and Higginson finds one season slotted in another—summer in winter—Thoreau finds geography interrupting time and place—Florida and Canada and the Midwest in Massachusetts. Traveling through Keys and along melting ice-flows, Thoreau improves his health through “reminiscences” of scenes he has never actually seen. For Thoreau, reading natural history in the winter is an act of imagination; for Higginson: memory and recovery.
For Dickinson: both/and.
Reading natural history in the winter recreates the scene of writing, flooding the bareness of transcription with the fullness of everything living and dying outside books. The book, or the poem, or the list, becomes a window. The window opens onto time and place. Mt. Greylock, which Melville could see from his window while writing Moby Dick and Pierre, and to which he dedicated that latter novel. Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville likewise considered through the veil of fiction, and to whom he gave his Whale. California; Amherst. The fullness of the scene of reading is a window that moves through and mediates time and space, like a “Short Talk” by Anne Carson, “On Reading,” that I began reading the year before I discovered the list of flowers, some of them in perfection, in a Boston garden in October 1835; the year after my grandmother died.
Carson’s prose-poem begins with the simplest of plots: parents, children, journeying together, divided by what they love and hate. “Some fathers hate to read but love to take the family on trips. Some children hate trips but love to read.” What happens next is not narrative. Instead of story, the sheer factualness of context interrupts a well-appraised realism: a young reader sees “the stupendous clear-cut shoulders of the Rockies from between paragraphs of Madame Bovary.” These merge: mountain and woman, the geologic and the embodied, the present of reading and memories of that present-past. Ever after, that reader does “not look at hair on female flesh without thinking, Deciduous?”
Reading is one of the only technologies flexible enough to respond to what it feels like to read in a world in which the material transformations of time are faltering. Even as climate change revises the seasons— infiltrating their motions with vacancies and pre-maturities—the seasons remain inhuman, anti-narrative, both in and out of time. Their predictability is not the predictability of romance, but of a refrain. Their bells ring not for weddings but for the repeatability of lives and deaths. Spring, spring, spring again.
It’s not just spring, though. There is something excessive in all responsiveness to seasons, to lists of natural history, or to poems. That excess arises because the conditions of present environments can be so demanding that they override memory or imagination. So, winter lasts forever. “I now know,” writes Jamaica Kincaid, reading gardening catalogues in a bathtub in Vermont in early March in the 1990s as I was just across the state border, a teenager reading sonnets in the bathtub in the winter, “that spring will never come.” Reading natural history in the winter focuses that excess, as winter, or other seasons, or other climatological effects, infiltrate attention. That divided attention, like so many of the radical writing practices of the twentieth and twenty-first century, is capaciously open to what lives outside of books as well as in them; reading natural history in the winter resists closure, calls out. But lyrically. It encounters the self through the ways a self is situated: irregularly composed.
When I read the “fir flanks” of Carson’s Emma’s Rockies, I was also reading Eliot’s Prufrock’s aversions: “I have known the arms already, known them all, / Arms that are braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!).” And the half-empty Oakland apartment I lived in my first semester of graduate school, and the springtime in New York years earlier, all the running up and down stairs and the magnolia trees shedding on the way toward indecency and rapture and Eliot’s lines flickering through it all.
At a recent professional meeting, a professor of material science—he defined his field to me afterwards as “how to build a habitable planet”—described a hike he had taken with colleagues and friends over a long weekend in the dark. Sitting on top of a mountain before dawn, ragged lines of firs, perhaps, skirting the edge of a rocky opening, or a fire-tower splitting the stars into quadrants and angles, he found himself reflecting on the forgetfulness of his students. If only he could teach them here, he thought, deliver a lecture on top of a mountain at night (read a poem in a bus shelter in autumn), how much more might they remember. Something about the context, he thought, seared content, fused it with experience, locked it away in some salvageable memory vault.
I remember Don Quixote better than Thucydides, not because it was fiction rather than history, but because I fell asleep while reading by an open window. I remember the fourth book of the Aeneid not only because Dido’s ravaging grief is terrifying and gorgeous, not only because the neat civilizing boundaries of the city are invaded by deer and other wild beasts, but also because I was rushing up Amsterdam Avenue to meet someone I hadn’t seen in a year but thought I was still probably in love with. Animation of even the most elaborate of literary endeavors depends not only on reading, but also on the contexts of reading. Stevens on a suburban golf course at night; Sartre in a seedy park; Said on a beach, surrounded by topless spring-breakers. Reading takes place.
The last time I saw my grandparents together, they were living in a home that was not their home. When they’d packed up that old white farmhouse in western New York, Rosemary had thrown away all the slides of family vacations to the West without consulting anyone. But she’d never documented all those roadside flowers, so what was there to hold onto? Before that, when we were born, she’d planted a tree. I was the ornamental hardwood, peeling and tarnished, outside the window of the room where she slept alone.
Now, she’d asked the gardeners to leave the little hill she could easily see from another window alone so it could seed itself. She wrote the names of little things she knew by sight:
Dandelions Daisies Hawkweed Moth Mullein Equisetum Dianthus Thistle Coltsfoot
Queen Anne’s Lace Poppy
Wood Sorrell Butterfly Milkweed
Evening Lychnis Curley (?)
St. John’s wort Blue Eyed Grass (?)
Birds Foot Trefoil (?)
Black Medic (?)
She actually wrote the final entry like that, full of dashes, like Dickinson had infected this pale blue flower.
There’s something sentimental about grandparents, and seasons, flowers, and poetry, which is why nineteenth-century poets, and especially women, wrote about all these topics, and were considered children.
But my grandparents were hard, twentieth-century, Midwestern people who didn’t demonstrate much love toward each other and who I couldn’t ever bring myself to really love. I spent part of one summer living with them to attend a writing course at the university where my grandfather worked. After writing, I’d spend so long lying on the lacey bedspread of the guest room staring out a window at a gray barn to avoid talking to them that when I finally came downstairs (to go out- side to the garden and fields), I had a doily emblazoned on my cheek.
That last time I saw them, I’d recently finished college, and I’d written some things that someone had liked: a long essay on poetry as a performance of illness and dying in Dickinson and Shakespeare and Donne. And poems. This essay is another version of that essay, and maybe I only have one essay ever to write, over and over. I don’t remember any of the poems, though I wanted, above all, to be a poet.
My grandfather, the professor, was full of praise about the essay. Dismissive of the poems. What word did he use to dismiss them? It may have been “childish.” And then, Rosemary, with her list that was a poem. In the nineteenth-century sentimental language of the flowers, Rosemary stands for remembrance, an evergreen from a warmer place, that won’t let go when winter arrives.
Maybe this is an essay about why I never could become a poet or a professor or a gardener. Or about why reading the unliterary is like writing poems. It was summer then, or early spring, when everything still is nearly dead. Why reading and writing poetry is really like nothing at all.
This essay is excerpted from Green, Green, Green, a collection of essays published by Nightboat.