In a recent post on lichens, I quoted from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” I also mentioned that Whitman’s poetry echoes 13th-century Japanese Zen Master Dogen, who wrote: “There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass.” These sages question the modern propositions that big is more impressive than small, that sentience is only a human quality, that loafing around is a waste of time.
My last climb for August would be Windham High Peak, and as I began to plan the hike, I suddenly recalled that unlike many Catskill mountains, the path to Windham is lined with grass. There would be, it seemed, the opportunity to achieve three goals with one hike: to reach the summit, to observe the grasses along the way (and perhaps identify a species or two), and to reflect on Whitman’s message.
I’d wanted to bring some friends along, but various distractions precluded this goal, and when Sunday morning finally rolled around, it was me and Odie the family Labradoodle. We drove north on a cool summer morning, arrived at the trailhead off Route 23, and headed out onto the Long Path which is coaligned here with the blue-blazed Escarpment Trail. Our first steps took us past a profusion of wildflowers, including stalks of curly dock that had turned a toasty brown in the sun, sprays of white daisy fleabane, and bristly purple knapweed, and then we entered the forest.
As a barefoot hiker, I move slowly and look down, and often the surroundings pass by in a blur, but it also happens that nearby trees reveal themselves to me through the debris they drop upon the path. And now I found the ground was covered with small, round, pale green “drupes” (fruits that contain a pit) about a quarter-inch in diameter. These reminded me of the drupes that hang beneath the leaves of the Basswood tree, but there was no Basswood to be seen in the immediate vicinity. This was a puzzle. But after a minute, through a gap in the canopy high above, I caught sight of a single heart-shaped Basswood leaf, and the culprit was identified. Farther along, we entered one of several groves of Norway spruce and red pine planted during reforestation projects in the 1930s, and now the trail was covered with long green cones, some of which had been gnawed to the core.
Exiting the spruce-pine grove, I began to notice tussocks of grass along the path. Upon examination, some blades of grass were wide, while others were narrow — not a significant discovery, but more than I’d ever bothered to notice before.
A little while later, the trail passed into a forest of maples and a few oaks (small acorns dotting the ground). Now the grass flowed in waves across the forest floor, luxuriating in the warm morning sunshine that peeked in through gaps in the foliage. Not too steep, not too rocky, just enough light — this must be as good an environment for grass as the rugged Catskill mountains can provide.
As we neared the summit, I paused to examine some of the various grasses growing along the trail and was able (with some help afterwards) to identify one species as bladder sedge and another as bottlebrush grass.
Bottlebrush grass (Elymus histrix)
But everything else was a mystery. Grass comes in so many shapes and sizes, with endless variations in leaf shape and seed configurations. True grasses can be distinguished from sedges and rushes by the shape of the stem, but after that the complexity and variety is overwhelming.
We sauntered slowly along the grassy trail and didn’t arrive at the summit until noon. One vantage point looked out to the south at the distinctive profile of the Blackhead Range. Given enough time, these mountains “walk” across the landscape just like we do, or so Dogen argued. But right now they just stared at Odie and me, quite impassively. Even if you imagined them as sentient beings, surely our journey would be too quick for them to perceive or too insignificant to draw their interest; we would appear to them like insects, or sparks dancing in the breeze.
It was time to take a break on the summit and ponder Whitman, but first there were some clusters of bright red berries that could not be ignored. Some of these were cherries, I was pretty sure of this, but even so took only the smallest nibble of one – -and found it to be quite astringent, a mouth-puckering sensation like unripe persimmon. These were evidently Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana), not Black Cherries (Prunus serotina), and afterwards I read that they are not ripe until they turn black. Hobblebush and Mountain Ash also produce clusters of red berries, and I’ve read they are edible, but I left them alone.
With some exceptions, red berries are a phenomenon of late summer, a natural harvest bounty, and they signal that summer will soon be drawing to a close — just in case you had missed the orange and red maple leaves already surfacing on the trails.
I sat down on an eastern-facing summit ledge and made an effort to admire the views, but at first it was hard to relax. That’s the runner in me, I suppose, preferring always to be in motion. But after a little bit I let go. Now that I had allowed myself to become a stationary object, time itself seemed to be flowing around and past me.
Below the ledge vultures wheeled in the wind, and one hung in place nearly motionless. Two chipping sparrows flashed past trilling in alarm — and a moment later a falcon came cruising along in the currents.
I’m often struck by how clouds seem to move across the sky in a purposeful and deliberate manner, as inexorable as the prevailing wind. But when I stared closely and long enough, it turned out the clouds were tumbling along: continuously expanding, extending, breaking apart, coalescing, reforming.
Walt Whitman is regarded today as one of the great poets of the English language, on par with Shakespeare according to some critics, the “poet of Democracy” in the words of his friend John Burroughs. But during the 19th century, his poetry was considered beyond radical. Some thought it obscene, and it was more than even Ralph Waldo Emerson could take. The Song of Myself opens by immediately throwing the concept of “individual self” onto the table:
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
As you read along in the poem, you find that Whitman is telling the stories of rich and poor, white and black, men and women, and even animals. His sense of self expands to include not only his peers, but all of the natural world, and he takes a wild, sensual delight in being part of nature:
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
Since the sense of self incorporates all of life, time loses its sting:
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.
One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself,
And whether I come to my own to-day or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.
My foothold is tenon’d and mortis’d in granite,
I laugh at what you call dissolution,
And I know the amplitude of time
I picture Whitman leaning on an elbow and observing a blade of grass, and time grinds to a halt. Whereas in modern society, time often feels like it is flying past so quickly that we’ll never achieve our goals. Could it be that the modern sense of self is mostly a whip that drives us to be productive? Or that we have internalized as a core component of our identity, the factory clock? (which anarchist John Zerzan describes as “the symbol and fountainhead of the order, discipline and repression required to create an industrial proletariat.”)
Other thinkers have questioned the modern perception of time and self. Erwin Schrodinger (1887-1961), Nobel Prize winner and one of the fathers of quantum theory, criticized the moral attitude of modern science, which measures the motion of atomic particles, but has nothing to say about the self or subjective experience. “We do not belong to this material world that science constructs for us,” he wrote. “We are not in it, we are outside. We are only spectators.” He went on to give an admittedly imperfect simile of a child building a tower out of blocks: he can build one tower or another, but not two at once — Schrodinger’s point was that we can attempt to understand the outer world, or the inner world, but not both at the same time.
The scientific world-picture vouchsafes a very complete understanding of all that happens— it makes it just a little too understandable. It allows you to imagine the total display as that of a mechanical clockwork, which for all that science knows could go on just the same as it does, without there being consciousness, will, endeavour, pain and delight and responsibility connected with it— though they actually are. And the reason for this disconcerting situation is just this, that, for the purpose of constructing the picture of the external world, we have used the greatly simplifying device of cutting our own personality out, removing it; hence it is gone, it has evaporated, it is ostensibly not needed. In particular, and most importantly, this is the reason why the scientific world-view contains of itself no ethical values, no aesthetical values, not a word about our own ultimate scope or destination, and no God, if you please. Whence came I, whither go I? Science cannot tell us a word about why music delights us, of why and how an old song can move us to tears.
— Erwin Schrodinger, “Nature and the Greeks”
In his book, “The Nature of Life,” Schrodinger concludes that modern scientific theory, including the field of quantum mechanics he helped develop, “strongly suggests the indestructibility of Mind by Time.”
How strange to find a radical poet and a quantum physicist making the same point.
As I sat on the eastern-facing ledge on the summit of Windham, pondering the concepts of self and time, a small fast-moving jet slipped above me, lanced out across the valley, and punched into a cloud, disappearing from a view. A little while later, sunlight glinted upon the long wings of a glider turning in lazy circles far off in the distance. Coincidentally just the day before, while out working on a Shawangunk trail, a glider had passed directly overhead, so close that the air could be heard rushing over its wings.
It was time to go, but I lingered. The sun came out, and a bee landed on one of the few remaining white flowers of a meadowsweet bush perched on the summit ledge, and then the wind rustled its leaves.
Odie was asleep. On previous hikes, he would whine when we stopped, always anxious to get moving again, but time has passed and he is now ten years old.
On the way back down to the trailhead I glanced at my watch and saw we were running late. We hopped in the car and flew along the highway until traffic slowed us down.
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.