When the Spirit Moves You, Go With It
November 18, 2010
Back in November 2002 I was a poet-in-residence at the Millay Colony in upstate New York. I went up there with the kernels of a big, ambitious new project in mind — my poetic sequence called “Dwelling.”
One day, November 17th to be exact, I took a break from writing and went for a hike in the woods. In the middle of the woods I had a kind of vision of my childhood.
I was in the woods with Gladys Taylor, who we called Aunt Gladys and who looked after me those days. Really, I was her protegé. (I have two slim books of stories she wrote about my exploits as a toddler.)
Suddenly, as rarely happens, I had one of those bolts of inspiration and was compelled to run back to my studio. I sat down at the desk, grabbed my notebook, and wrote furiously. Some 250 lines later, I put down my pencil and went to the communal dining hall. When I got back after dinner and read what I had written, I thought some of it was pretty good.
The best of it was the story of Gladys’s “education” of me — I always say that everything I learned, I learned from Gladys Taylor.
Wanting to acknowledge Gladys in a dedication, I looked up her birth date on the Social Security Death Index (she died in 1986). It turned out, I was writing the poem on what would have been her 100th birthday! (This past Wednesday would have been her 108th.)
As a dear friend of mine said to me once, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining mysterious.”
Here is my poem, which was a runner-up for the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award a few years ago:
“What dwelling shall receive me?…The earth is all before me.”
–Wordsworth, “The Prelude”
I am a child, crawling around in the leaves
With Gladys Taylor while she names the trees,
parts the grasses, digs into the earth with a gardener’s trowel.
She picks out worms and slugs, millipedes
And springtails, which we see with a “Berlese funnel.”
Busy decomposers working their busy tasks,
Turning waste into energy, leaf litter into soil again.
Gladys names things for me: “That oak,
That maple there, that sassafras, smell its roots.”
“Root beer!” I exclaim,
Her laughter peeling away into the hills. Later,
With Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study
On the table next to the unending jigsaw puzzle,
Gladys opens to “The Oaks,” reading or reciting:
“The symbol of strength since man first gazed
Upon its noble proportions…” Then she sings Virgil,
Full in the midst of his own strength he stands
Stretching his brawny arms and leafy hands,
His shade protects the plains, his head the hills commands.
Leaves and acorns spread across the table,
Each divided to its source, as if cataloguing specimens:
The white and chestnut oaks, red and scarlet,
Every oak in the neighborhood, sketching the leaves,
Tracing and coloring them. Then questions, such questions:
“Where did we see this one growing?” “How tall?”
“Are the branches crooked or straight?”
“Round leaves or pointy?”
And then a game of matching
Acorn to leaf; a most difficult lesson — as difficult
As those jigsaw puzzles for a boy lacking patience
Or attention. Outdoors again, to learn attention,
Naming the birds that came to eat at the feeder:
Chickadee, sparrow, nuthatch, tufted titmouse,
The ubiquitous jay.
“The mockingbird, hear
How he makes fun of all the other birds.” Now
Thrasher, now robin, the sweet sweet sweet,
Very merry cheer of the song sparrow,
Or the flicker’s whicka whicka wick-a-wick.
Then a jay’s piercing caw, a cat’s meow,
This was all the mocker’s doing! And wide-eyed,
I stare, as Gladys seems to call birds to her side.
“The robin tells us when it’s going to rain,
Not just when spring is come,” she says. “Look
How he sings as he waits for worms to surface.”
That summer, rowing around the pond
By Brookfield’s floating bridge, I saw a beaver
Slap the water with its tail, and then swim around the boat,
As if in warning. Under water a moment later he went,
Only to appear twenty yards away, scrambling up the bank,
Back to his busy work. “Busy as a beaver,” Gladys laughs.
Then a serious tone, “You know that beavers gathered
The mud with which the earth was made?”
(I later learned this was Indian legend; to her
There was little difference among the ways of knowing.)
All around the pond the beavers made of the creek,
The sharp points of their handiwork: birches broken
For succulent shoots, twigs, leaves and bark bared.
“When they hear running water, they’ve just got
To get back to work!” Beavers moving across
The water, noses up, branches in their teeth,
Building or repairing dams or adding to their lodges,
Lodges that look like huts Indians might have used.
I watched for them — beavers and Indians — when
Out on the water, and once I remember a beaver
Jumping clear out of the water over the bow of the rowboat!
Later, wading in the mud shallows by the pond’s pebbly edge,
I came out of the water to find leeches covering my feet,
Filling the spaces between my toes. Screaming, fascinated,
I learned that they sucked blood, little bloodsuckers,
A kind of worm, which were once used to reduce fever.
That was me to Gladys Taylor’s teaching,
Wanting to soak up everything she had to give me.
We picked pea pods out of the garden, shelled
On the spot, our thumbs a sort prying-spoon,
And ate blackberries by the bushel or bellyful,
Probably blueberries, too, I don’t know. And
Seeing the milkweed grown fat with its milk,
I popped it open, squirting the white viscous
Juice at my brother. Gladys always found
A caterpillar on the milkweed leaves, tiger stripes
Of black, white, and yellow. “Monarchs,” she said,
“The most beautiful butterfly you’ll ever see.”
I looked incredulously at the caterpillar, believing,
Because she was Gladys, but not believing her,
That this wiggly, worm-like thing could be a butterfly.
Later, she found a chrysalis and took the leaf
And twig from which it hung. She placed it atop
A jar on the picnic table, and each day we waited
— waited for what? I didn’t know. Until one day,
It was empty, a hollow, blue-green emerald shell,
And I almost cried. “Look, out in the meadow,”
She instructed. Hundreds, it seemed like
Thousands, of monarch butterflies flitting about,
From flower to flower!
Was easier to study. We put it in a jar with a twig
And fresh grass every day; it curled and slept and ate
Until one day it climbed, climbed to the top
Of the twig and spun a cocoon from its own hairs.
There it stayed for weeks, until at last I thought it dead.
But then, emerging from its silky capsule, a hideous sight:
Gray, tawny, dull–a tiger moth! Nothing like the cute
And fuzzy reddish-brown and black teddy bear we’d found.
“This is magic,” said Gladys. “Nature’s magic.”
And I believed her, believe her still, that there is some magic
In nature speaking within us when we are in it, of it, let it in–
Science may explain this all away, physics or biology,
But nothing will shake my faith in this:
That the force of nature, the inner fire, anima mundi,
Gaia, or whatever you may call it, is alive within each
Being and everything with which we share this earth.
My Mother Earth was Gladys Taylor, and she
Taught me these things, and about poetry and art,
In the few, brief years we had together. Gladys
Taught me how to look at the world — to pay attention.
Thus began my education from Nature’s bosom:
A woman, childless herself (I believe) who,
In her dungarees and work-shirt, took a child
Under her wing and gave him gold,
Gave him his desire for dwelling on this earth.
(For Gladys Taylor, 17 November 1902-1 January 1986)
–Scott Edward Anderson