Thursday, June 13, 2013

justice to the smooth narrow leaf

On Saturday as I was reading the introduction to The Incredible Journey by the Australian author Catherine Martin I copied down part of a paragraph, and on Sunday while the excerpt was still sticky in my mind I found Tom on Wuthering Expectations quoting a piece of speech from The Passionate Pilgrim by Henry James, "Out of England, it's but a garish world," which seemed so contrary to Martin that I added her to the comments on that post, since she said that the English countryside was "strong" and "metallic," and she supported the bushland and the eucalyptus leaf:

Eyes accustomed to the strong -- almost metallic -- verdure of Northern lands, to the picturesquely rent, cleft, furrowed and scalloped leaves of deciduous trees, could not do justice to the smooth narrow leaf, evasive in its hues of grey-green and grey-blue, ranging in shape from the faint crescent of a moon one night old to the round curve of a reaping hook. A leaf exquisite in its grave simplicity as a lotus bud on the shrine of Gotama.

Then she says,

It is as if all the contrasts in the life of European and Australian trees were gathered up in their leaves. Those that slip from their buds in Spring to fall in discoloured clouds in Autumn can well afford to indulge in fantastically ornate edges. But how far other it is with those that often have to face rainless years, to live through droughts that suck the life out of the earth, till it is barren as the sea-shore, bleached and sinister-looking as if overtaken by the fulfilment of the dark prophecy: “on tree and herb shall a blight descend, and the land shall become a desert.”

Deserts -- wrote John C. Van Dyke -- the Southwest American desert -- is beautiful -- and he supported it against the Old World too -- which makes me think that a prejudice against dessicated landscapes is not solely an Australian problem, it is in America, and maybe other places.

True enough, there is much rich color at Venice, at Cairo, at Constantinople. Its beauty need not be denied; and yet it is an artificial, a chemical color, caused by the disintegration of matter -- the decay of stone, wood, and iron torn from the neighboring mountains. It is Nature after a poor fashion -- Nature subordinated to the will of man. Once more ride over the enchanted mesas of Arizona at sunrise or at sunset, with the ragged mountains of Mexico to the south of you and the broken spurs of the great sierra round about you; and all the glory of the old shall be as nothing to the gold and purple and burning crimson of the new world.

(The Desert, 1901)

Myself thinking then of the bushes I've seen while I was travelling through the burning Nevada desert, small bushes, miles of small bushes, brown-green creosote and roughly higher than your knee, sagebrush, sagebrush, spreading across the Big Smoky Valley and around the towns of Goldfield and Beatty on the long way south from Elko to Las Vegas through "a forever geology of heat and shale," to quote the Australian thriller writer Andrew Croome (I'm borrowing that from a post on Whispering Gums), though the portion he describes is fairly short; it runs between the city and the Creech Airforce Base; if he had driven further he would have seen things that were not friendly to a forever geology of heat and shale, he would have seen a pink trailer that is also a brothel, plastic bags on fences, multiple adulterations, for nobody is ever able to leave the desert alone, hurling mattresses into it, skulls of cattle, mine shafts; the small-town casinos where we stopped once, because, as M. pointed out, the handy thing about casinos is that you can use the toilets without anyone asking you to buy. We wee for free.

"Pee" they say instead of "wee" in the musical Urinetown, which had a run with the Nevada Conservatory Theatre in early May -- I think "pee" is the American version of the word -- "It's a privilege to pee," sang Joan Sobel operatically in the role of Pennywise -- she came to town to play Carlotta in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom at the Venetian; the man who played the chief of police had been Pumba in The Lion King at the MGM Grand -- and when I search the internet to make sure I'm getting the name of the company right I discover Carol Cling in the Review-Journal writing, "After all, you can still use a casino restroom without having to ante up in advance," surprising me with the time-delayed unity of our minds: it was an ordinary thought after all.

All the creosote bushes looking fundamentally identical from the window of car or train but if I opened the door and walked through them what differences there, the same with gum leaves. From the car what meditation on sameness, at close range what a zoo of different vegetable ideas, the same and the different under one roof or skin of floral cells, and people stood together in the desert like that might seem the same way.

Loveable singly or unmarshalled
they are merciless in a gang.

That's Les Murray on eucalypts.


  1. I've never been against Macdonalds, because they also let you pee/wee. Is one dilemma of setting out on an artistic project the question of whether to approach it from afar or right up close, do you think? I suppose I'm thinking of the visual arts - or am I? Maybe writers of fiction have to make a similar decision. I don't know. Burble, burble, burble. The one certain thing is that that is a v nice bit of Les Murray (aren't they all?)

  2. I think I saw you quote the same Les Murray once. It's Eucalypts in Exile. As for artistic projects, maybe you wouldn't know until you'd finished it whether your approach had been far off of up close; you wouldn't know how close you were to the thing until you could see the thing, and you wouldn't be able to see the thing until you'd finished the thing. And how would you measure?

    1. Well, if you were doing a painting, I suppose you would ie if you chose to make a detailed drawing of a rock rather than a landscape.

  3. There really are desert people and anti-desert people, mountain people and the reverse. The old idea of sublimity is that mountains and deserts are frightening, and they certainly used to be more dangerous than they are now. But the psychology is more complicated; there is a wide distribution of response.

    That John C. Van Dyke fellow sounds almost exactly like Ruskin.

    I am happy, as always, to fail to predict where my little squib could go. That Les Murray bit is outstanding.

    1. Van Dyke is excellent. I'm up to page one hundred and fourteen of a yellow paperback copy from an LDS publishing house called Peregrine Smith and so far he hasn't been issuing any aesthetic Ruskin-manifestos, but his love for the desert seems to be a love of being crushed or flattened or overwhelmed by colours in the sky, or by killer weather, or by hallucinatory scenery, "the poetry of its wide-spread chaos, the sublimity of its lonely desolation," or by silence, "The desert is overwhelmingly silent." He's observant, he'll describe the way the edge of a cumulus cloud changes colour at sunset, but he doesn't like little "pretty" things that want him to pay attention to them. "There is not a thing about it that is "pretty," and not a spot upon it that is "picturesque" in any Berkshire-Valley sense." He likes big inexorable masses. He gets scathing about himself. He's like a little chirrup. "You perhaps think to break the spell by raising your voice in a cry; but you will not do so again." Crying out at night, his own voice is one of those pretty extraneous things that he doesn't respect.

      That bit of Murray reminds me of a theme he's been circling around for years, the idea of being picked on. It's not there anywhere else in the poem, then suddenly it pops up. He's the opposite of Van Dyke in his own way, he wouldn't like nature coming at him in a merciless gang or large mass; he wants it touchable and singular. "Their humans, meeting them abroad, | often grab and sniff their hands." That's how he sees them.

  4. '"Pee" they say instead of "wee" in the musical Urinetown'

    "Pee" is abbreviation/euphemism for "piss"- I don't think it's connected to "wee" (origin unknown according to my dictionary) except by rime.

    1. It's a word for the same thing -- that's the connection. You pee, you wee, you're performing the same action. So: "instead of."

  5. Just because I can, Dani at DinnerAtCaphs quoted this from M Barnard Eldershaw's Plaque with Laurel:
    "if they had planted gumtrees in Commonwealth Avenue Canberra wouldn’t have been Canberra at all. The gumtrees would have laughed and laughed and laughed at all the by-laws and red-tape and the tin-pot bureaucratic gods, till Canberra fell down like a card-house. They had to get tame exotic trees to keep them in countenance."
    Merciless gums!

    1. Ruthless roots. There's that line in the Murray about the tree tipping over to expose "the black star of that trick."

      I went looking for Dani's review -- I'll link --