A poet on the verge of science

Posted Aug. 21, 2011, at 10:27 p.m.

“Wildness within Walking Distance: Poland Spring Maine” by Robert M. Chute; with color photo illustrations; Just Write Books, Topsham, Maine, 2011; 74 pages, perfect bound, $19.95.

In “Wildness within Walking Distance,” Robert Chute’s recent collection of poems and photos on Maine’s land and lifescapes, we are invited at almost every turn to think about Henry David Thoreau. This kind of obtrusive allusiveness can lead in a number of different directions, many of whose pretensions and complete failures of understanding can make you wince. But I am happy to report that in this book, the explicit invocations of the grandfather of our philosophic understanding of the woods are not only appropriate, but potent.

Each of three sections — “Earth,” “Water” and “Stone” — is introduced with a quotation from Thoreau. In fact, after the prose introduction where we learn that the author’s family has inhabited Maine since the 18th century and that he has traveled widely here in his own backyards, the first words we hear are Thoreau’s: “As a single footstep will not make a path on the Earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

Now inside these sentences are core elements of Thoreau’s thinking about humans’ relationships to the natural world. Interpreting them is an activity for the living room or classroom, not a book review. But I can tell you that the selection of these words to open the volume is either a stroke of fantastic novice luck or the mark of a reader with an understanding of Thoreau. The poems tell us: It’s the latter.

They are all set in the woods, fields and ruins found in walks around the author’s house in Poland, and they reflect not only an appreciation of the subtle beauties of the Maine woods, but a deeply felt sense of their wildness. The poems are not just effectively descriptive in plain, straightforward language, but they also evoke those faint whispers that all naturalists, amateur and professional, detect in the crack between civilization and the wilderness. “Transience,” a poem about the fleeting and ever-present whispers of time, begins:

In woods that seem the middle of nowhere,

an ice age boulder lost ten thousand

years ago – but someone found it,

drilled, split off an eight-foot slab

then left it here. Not always the middle

of nowhere. These trees are a temporal

illusion in a hillside cow-cropped field

with a clear view of the house.

And as a scientist and retired professor of biology with decades of devotion to natural facts, Chute provides accompanying photo-evidence of the slab and boulder. This is the poetic mind operating flush against the scientific mind.

Further on, “Every Poet Trembles on the Verge of Science” (a sentence from Thoreau’s journal, I think) fictionalizes a moment recounted by Thoreau in which an experience of the natural beauty of a pond is evoked by a scientifically precise observation of detail.

He wanted to record the scene

in its isolate simplicity, not writing

inertia, surface tension, or diffraction,

but thoughts creep in unbidden

as he notes: stem of Pontederia bent

by illusion. Cohesive drops. Broken light.

These poems in a way are distillations of Thoreau’s observation, simplified. Anyone with an ear for the woods and a sense, as Thoreau put it, that facts should not be undervalued since they one day flower in truths, will take to this plain but deep-running verse.

Robert Chute of Poland is professor emeritus in biology from Bates College. Among his other books are “Thirteen Moons” and “Coming Home,” and his blog, “A Poet on the Verge of Science,” is at http://scientificpoet.blogspot.com. “Wildness within Walking Distance” is available from Just Write Books at www.jstwrite.com.

Dana Wilde’s collection of essays “ The Other End of the Driveway: An Amateur Naturalist’s Observations in the Maine Woods,” is available in paperback and electronically from Booklocker.com.

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