there is a wilderness
there is a wilderness at edge of house
in small unmanaged shadows of neglect
where paint begins unseen to loosen or
a few weeds grow or unpruned boughs dip low
it can be glimpsed through unwashed windows where
things show not totally themselves and at
the backs of fallow cupboards or in shade
beneath trees left to sprout at will
through holes in fallen fences or around
the rumpled rooms of those allowed to dally
only when flown there by the untamed wind
it trusts will it readily root in pots
or blow the breath of time into the sweet
uncultivated cup of your hand
I thought of this (uncharacteristically, for me, formal) poem, published in The Lyric in 2005, when Harvey Taylor told me about his annual trips to Northern Ontario in order to reconnect with that creative center that sometimes only wilderness can provide. I know that many do this to immerse themselves in what cannot so easily be accessed in our routine, urban lives. My explorations of the natural world did not start until I was grown up. I did not come from a family of outdoor people, though one set of my grandparents were farmers.
In my younger years, BC (before children), I had opportunities to camp in such places as the Apostle Islands and the mountains of New Mexico. After our girls were born, I introduced them to milder forms of camping, which still offered moments of that deep flow that only extended time in nature can provide. Things settle into easier rhythms; needs become simpler and well-defined; your inner chatter quiets; you re-learn listening. It’s no wonder that many artists have sought inspiration in nature.
The parameters of my life no longer allow for such deep immersion, so I have sought it in other ways. I seek out wildness wherever possible, preferring an unkempt, serendipitous garden to a carefully landscaped one. On walks in the country, I seek out quiet, “barren” places where only mullein, chicory, and other “weeds” will grow. One favorite place of mine was Lizard Mound County Park, which I visited in order silently to commune with nature, especially birds, for over 30 years, until recently when that county decided to raze hundreds of trees around what, to me, were the most sacred areas. The website indicated that their intention was to more closely replicate the original setting of the mounds (and to make way for picknickers).
Increase Lapham, whose last name is famous in Milwaukee, was the first to study America’s effigy, burial mounds as well as many of the other flora and fauna that have since become endangered. Yesterday, my friend Sandy and I attended a reading by Martha Bergland and Paul G. Hayes from their excellent, recently-published book The Life of Increase Lapham, early chronicler of plants, rocks, rivers, mounds and all things Wisconsin.
In 1836, Lapham arrived in Milwaukee to stay with Byron Kilbourn on what was later to be named Juneau Street on the west side of the Milwaukee River. From this vantage point, writes Bergland, “Increase could look south down the river and see smoke curling up from wigwams and a canoe here and there gliding among the wild rice marshes.” Such a sentence brings home the immense loss of wilderness right here in Milwaukee within little more than the span of two lifetimes.
Before the reading, Sandy and I walked around the Lynden Sculpture Gardens near where the reading was held. I must say that the many-colored dragonflies, frogs, turtles and kingfishers in the water-lily-studded pond interested me more than the bronze, steel, and aluminum sculptures around it. I think Lapham would have agreed with me, though I am less interested than he in classifying them. I reflect on such things in my poem “The Beautiful Unnamed,” inspired by a four-day “retreat” last August to the Christine Center in Willard, Ws. There I was able (aside from the needs of my dog, Elliot) to do nothing but walk, read and write. That poem will be published by Literary Mama in early November of this year.
Yes, there are parks like the Runway Dog Park on Rawson Avenue, one of Eliot’s and my favorite early-morning places.
And who knew that behind Amato Automotive on 76th street is a vacant, paved lot with lots of weeds? His nose and my eyes discovered it while waiting for our car. I was rewarded when two red-tailed hawks flew down low to get a look at us.
Last October, on a trip to my birthplace in Kansas, I visited Quivira, a huge bird refuge two miles from my grandparents’ house. That pilgrimage also resulted in a poem, “Quivira,” which will be included in this fall’s issue of Great Lakes Review.
But sometimes we don’t actually have to GO into the wilderness to reap its benefits. The wild can be found anywhere if we’re not too distracted or too afraid to look. Here is an unpublished poem (actually inspired by a “wild” singer) from a year or two ago, set around an imaginary campfire on an imagined, solitary camping trip:
Time Keeps Movin’ On
There’s a fire inside every one of us…I better use it till the day I die—
Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues
Janis, my earbuds zing with your
blood-tingling voice on this cool
fall afternoon as I watch a seed
float high, in no particular hurry,
over my smoking campfire.
You sing, answers—they don’t come with age,
but it’s not that answers haven’t come:
it’s more the need for them has waned, along
with the bright girl who once asked.
But the fire, yes: that hot fire,
banked in hard times, still burns
if I blow on its coals with
the bellows of my need, sending its sparks,
tonight in no particular hurry, to rise
up to the hidden rim of darkness high,
and still higher, over the dimming,