Only Things Endure

 The summer before I moved to Philadelphia to begin teaching at Bryn Mawr, Charles Wright’s poetry arrested me. He evoked familiar places – Appalachia, northern Italy, the mountain West – but this was only the first thread of connection. He probed the place of human beings in the cosmos. He sought resonance with the ten thousand tings around him. He joked to break the spell of his earnestness, but even this came with a sense of existential questioning and inquiry. What are we doing here? What can we say of time’s painful passage? How can we bear all the losses accumulating around us?

The poems of Wright’s Scar Tissue sank especially deep, and none more than the title poem. There Wright meditates on the ephemerality of human things and the enduring presence of the nonhuman. Time, he begins, is a straight line for us, but for the landscape, it is all circling, “the snake’s tail in the snake’s mouth.” Time in landscape turns endlessly like a vast wheel. Then these lines – 

“Hard to imagine that no one counts, / that only things endure.” We barricade ourselves against the dusk; we need to be shown how the dirt works, “its sift, the aftermath and the in between . . . litter’s lapse and the pebble’s gleam.”

That summer I was rerading Herodotus, contemplating an essay inquiring into his understanding of the non-human world: the terrains and rivers and animals and climates that shaped the lives and peoples of the Histories. Herodotus felt close to Wright’s sentiments about landscape. Human beings were the heroes of his stories, but they weren’t the only ones on stage. Storms and mountains and wildernesses had lives of their own. Herodotus dedicated himself to telling stories about these things, like the plane trees that inspired the cover of my book. He had a sense for how only things endured.

I was reading Wright and rereading Herodotus that summer on Vancouver Island, where I’d rented an apartment north of Sooke, a town 30 minutes up the coast from Victoria. The apartment was above a workshop off the main house, which overlooked the Strait of Juan de Fuca and southward toward the crest of the Olympic Mountains. I rose each morning to write while the fog purled outside my open window. As it cleared I’d walk down to a rocky beach where seals observed my strolling and river otters scrambled up creek beds overhung with cedars and fir trees. After lunch the sun usually emerged and I took my Herodotus into the garden beneath my apartment. An iron chair sat beneath a small peach tree; the peaches’ scent and the white and red Oxford translation of the Histories that I read during those weeks are now forever intertwined.