a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Life is a slower falling. And soon, such as gravity is, it is a rising. Sooner or later everything is edible. October, and you fall through the surfaces. You rise underneath. There’s a stick with life’s face on it rendered in lichen and warts.
The creek breaks into four channels as it runs over a boulder. Sunlight makes popcorn on two of the channels, and the wind butters it. The air smells of fern, wet leaves, and wild ginger. It smells of creek and stone, lichen on wood.
Mushrooms rot, dark masses on the ground as though something melted there. Could be deer puke, could be. You cross boulders, duck under limbs. The air is crisp and burned with a coolness like salt. In places the sky is visible over the river, a sky the color of kneeling. You do not kneel now. You touch the river; it shakes your hand, letting go its only grip.
The pressure of roots. Kneadful. The land a network of bridges, a web. Anything with legs is, in essence, a spider – except in the desert, maybe, where there are few trees, few roots. How could the soil feel so abstract, so temporary when it is a hardness of fodder, when it is a sky only more dense?
There’s a gouge in the beech tree as though its bark has ripped, as if stretchmarks — maybe this was a good summer for growth. All the beech leaves are green. Most of the canopy is green and wind-chopped. Bugs sail on that body.
It’s the canopy underfoot that brasses and burgundies, so much gold and purple blood – summer’s postscript. There could be a hundred turtles just under the ground here. The earth is so humped, so sphagnum, so legged, so moving. You sense that it’s all a suspension, a bridge to another bridge and thereforth and go on. The heights are greater than you know and that is lucky, for you walk more recklessly these days, sit, even sprawl with little regard for falling through to the other side and maybe farther, maybe not.
Another October day, crisp and bright and cloudless. The reflection on the river of trees slowly goldening, of the quarried cliff’s scar, of a blue so opaque with shine the bottom of the river leaps from it – these reflections set your marrow to flowing. This is the fourth step towards nowhere. The first three steps are written on the leaves drifting by, but who can say on which leaves has attained that stillness and is too much with you to say.
Air is blood and the world vamps, sucking it anyway it can. The island sinks so it can grow, a choke, a clog. Along its edges, the water drinks, spits.
Meanwhile, two birds flit in a dogwood, the leaves a slow bleeding. They squeak, the birds, they are small and nearly hidden.
The canoe slides on. There’s an island of bent Joe Pye weed and sand, a coarse mixture of sand, the grains like seeds speckled rose, cream, brown, white, blue. Like the buds of tiny flowers on dwarf if not invisible stalks.
You let the sand fall through your fingers and listen as it rubs, grinds with a sensual scratching. Nothing is ever clean. No island is always an island — the silted leaves are a testament.
Friction does not argue. It is a principle, a law, unchanging yet variable according to forces, meaning it means too much to mean or not mean. Besides, the water leaves the sand here; a certain wrinkle in the flow makes it thus.
Elsewhere the island is mud. Elsewhere there are weeds ragged and tragically hued with late green’s wild moods. The weeds hold the island together. The island holds them and each holds itself accordingly.
Splayed shells, freshwater clams open and white like eyes that need no fire, no nerves, no face. Maybe they aren’t sightless. Maybe they see the memory of their late flesh, the mouths that stole that flesh, the teeth or fingers that opened them like this.
The weather is clear for many days. You miss the rain. The river is so clear now and slow. It seems as though the leaves could overwhelm it, falling as they are at a steadier pace. Your eyes almost grow used to the brightness each day. The heavier dew and the cold mornings drive wedges in your hardest stumps. Morning walks mean drenched shoes and socks, mean cold fingers, too.
There are many river oats growing. They bend with the weight of seed. The pods are like basketry, like feathers. There are seven to nine of the flat, segmented growths on each stalk. The light reflected off the river makes a similar crosshatched pattern on pretty much everything – the bottoms of leaves, limbs, trunks. All of it bounces and sways in the breeze.
You’re at a bend in the river. If you face downstream, it bends to the left. A creek enters just before the outside of the bend, water in it gurgling over and through sticks of a beaver lodge. There’s a lot of orange in the water, especially at the boundary of shadow and light. One mosaic on top of another is the surface – the layers of limbs and foliage, the sky, the ripples, the various contortions of darkness and its inverse.
All over the places you regularly wander there are new vistas. Some days the places themselves appear new. Even now you look at the river again and see the rocks at the bottom, small ones the size of a hand and several larger, though none too large to fit in an oven. They resemble bread in color and shape. Like bread, they have been kneaded and baked.
Your canoe’s bow slides on a sandspit that’s almost covered with leaves. Something delightfully raw about fallen beech leaves; the fact that so many hang on and for so long might have a little to do with it. A beaver-gnawed branch lies in the shallows here, and its pointed end, toothmarked, looks downright tasty. The color of the wet wood is as thrilling as the border where the stripped wood meets the bark with an abrupt answering of every question never asked.
The sky says kiss a beaver to discover such questions. Says a kiss is the ultimate in information technology. If the world is a web, why not be wide on it, spiders with no limit to domain. But no high speed, not now. In autumn, the world says give me back, enough chlorophyll, you need it quieter, stiller, colder, pared to the bones.
Transition is the rule in the Piedmont, sprawled and inhabited as it is between the Appalachian foothills and the Coastal Plain. The water passes through; fewer watersheds have their sources here than in the mountains. Large vistas, peaks, and expansive water are not common. In terms of oceanward flow, the transport of nutrients and the collection of them – erosion, silting — the Piedmont is the middle ground. If the mountains collect, provide, and the coast dumps, then the Piedmont delivers.
You watch a polypody fern hang on the cutbank. Though it’s still, it is busy – the green says so. There are seven thousand faces in the mud of the bank and none of them are human, though many look that way. There are new species previewed in the strata and extinct ones, too. Smilax, manic conduit, roots in the berm above the ferns. The spines are green at the base, then yellow, then a heavy umber as though stained with blood, but not. Very few folks, when asked the meaning of life, will point to the smilax. That is a shame. The plant is the heart of so many banks, its roots a kind of fixed parachute and gravity both.
Once you saw spartina in a marsh near the edge of the continent. It had the same color pattern as the smilax’s spines – green, yellow, red. The tides did that, the exposure to salt and air and flow. The ocean that was once here, in the Piedmont, remains in spirit. The siltstains, the gnatswarm midstream, that dissertation on dizziness. Somewhere – maybe in the stickpile near the boxelder — a frog croaks in time with it. Out here even the soloists accompany everything.
The senses are memory, and you remember through their vast catalog of impressions. And maybe memory is the mulch of spirit. You cannot see anything now. It is Saturday. One breath, the next, and the canoe has drifted into the sunlight where it pops and sizzles off the water with glorious vengeance. You see nothing and more. The senses are a deeper woods, always close, always primitive.
There was a time in your childhood, you don’t remember the day or year, when you knew that your senses were the only thinking you were ever going to trust. Only now are you coming to terms with this.
Turning from the light, you see a small spiderweb strung between the leaves of a river oat brown and wilted and hanging over the river as though it leapt but tangled in its own falling. A little spider stands in the middle; it could have quite a time on your thumbnail it is so small.
Midstream, many leaves travel solo. The sun glows bluer and streaked. Birdsong is muffled and fidgety both. You’re filled with buttery, mealy, fermenting smells as of evaporation and rot and mud. The birds crank all at once with their various noises. You cannot see them, but they are flying, they are landing and hopping on your tongue, cleaning your teeth and then your brain with squarks and rattles and cheeps.
The sun makes a white plank on the river under a walnut tree all but stripped of leaf. Only the lowest and apparently newer branches hold substantial foliage. There the leaves are green near the center and brown on the edges. They remind you of a spider’s abdomen – so many spiders have striped coloring like this, though not always green and brown.
Mist slides in swarms of feathering and curl. You don’t see it unless the sun shows it to you and you happen to look. Who can say why or at what and by what forces we happen to look? Talking about grace, the mist inside us and the sun and how much you must not see because you look.
Among October’s diminishments you continue to wander. The days are shorter, the trees barer and larger-appearing. Fewer insects patrol the air. It’s dark at seven and dark again at seven. The dwindling soothes, it just does.
The cycle of seasons is always more dramatic at the cusps, when summer bleeds to fall, fall descends to winter, winter births spring, which soon erupts in summer. Every year is a new generation, always different, always the same. The straightaways of deep summer do not lack drama, but things get pretty crazy and quickly in October, just as they do in March, in June, and in December.
It is largely textural, how you sense the changes. Maybe it is only through texture – the depths of the surface. The sounds, too, are different. One morning, for instance, there are so many crowsounds. Traffic-noise permeates the thinning canopy from farther away. You spook a pair of wood ducks instead of the heron you’ve seen for much of the summer. Leaves snag on the canoe’s bow and throw water in a glorious fan as the boat moves forward. Leaves ricochet off leaves as they fall, whispering something, maybe recipes for a decent life. The thick, grey days foretell snow rather than remnants of tropical storm. Your body shifts, too. You eat differently. You want to sleep more. You grow more interested in the house, in pointing the bricks, cleaning and capping the chimney, gathering wood, getting down in the crawlspace.
You’re beginning to walk with no spiderwebs in your hair. There’s a sour, fermented smell to the air. Seed and fruit replace pollen and blossoms as the season’s gestures of choice. You want to make love in the mornings. You want to hold your love longer after doing so. The distance between you ripens sensually. Sap stays closer to home.
But still you take these jaunts. The river, the woods, the critters, the seeing and not seeing. You need the space, need that gnat, a fuzzy one, drifting on the air. Now it lands on a leaf of a nettle rooted on a log half underwater. The gnat crawls under the leaf, drawing your eye to the silty mess of brown leaf and slow rot that dangles there. The insect flies again. Or it levitates. It could be a ball of flowerstuff, a winged seed; maybe that’s its camouflage or its origin. The gnat flies close to your face now. You’re surprised by its long legs. Will a bug like that survive the Piedmont winter?
Some days the world feels like an eyeball and everything on it just motes, little visuals, tracers, life a big migraine the sun won’t stop tripping out on. If you lived by no calendar, had no numbers or names for the days and months, you’d have to invent them. Flux terrifies. You love flux. You give it a name – “flux” — and other words rise like fish to that gnat. “Terror,” “love,” “spirit,” “breath,” “go,” “thanks.” Your names for October would change each year, depending on the weather, inner and outer. Friends in other regions – they would certainly have different names for the days and months and seasons and perhaps different numbers, too.
Today, the words for October resemble a crow’s call. They smoke off the tongue the way orange oozes greenly from the hackberry at the bend downstream.
The interior is everywhere in October, more apparent with the change of season, more prevalent. Summer is rich in edges, thick with faces and bodies. There’s a guarded sense in summer, as though the heavy foliage, the elaborate flowers and webs and insects hide something deeper. This is not so; the depth is here on the surfaces, on all the surfaces, for in summer there was never only one. By depth: the infinite, the voidspirit that exists at the center and orbits the center both. The ultimate interior ever oozing forth and away – other side of the next other side and the nearer side of the closest.
Now there is less mass. Vistas appear. You could not see through the goldenrod a month ago. You could not see the great log six feet beyond the edge of the river. Is there more now? Is there less? There’s a shift in mass, at least visually. Depth replaces mass. There is more perspective – you see through the stalks to more stalks and then through them to see through the limbs. So on swells. The eyes adjust but are no more active than in July when you stared at the textures and patterns of the goldenrod’s growth.
You can always look up. Being on the river allows in many cases a vista unceilinged by branches. There are clouds, the various languages of blue. You like looking up now and then, as though the sky’s unhindered by season. If the woods are a fast forward, the ground the play, then the sky is the pause. The sky is no slower though, no less playful. It makes a different kind of dizzy than the woods.
Another morning, another paddle up the little river. Two turtles plop from logs with a splash. A maple has gone to flare in the last day or two – like it’s been smoldering, all coals for a while, and then the wind spoke to it, said the right thing.
Jays are foghorns. There is no fog, but there is cloud. The river is clouded, the sky is clouded. There’s a boulder in the water near the edge of the river; you’ve come to using it to gauge the river level. Leaves hurry past the stone. There are faint dimples in the water, creases as if distressed glass. Slick brown silt rings the rock several inches from the riverline.
Another outcrop, probably cousin to the rock in the water, an extrusion of the same vein, stands on the bank. It’s garlanded with weeds, a collage of lichen and moss and fallen leaf. Farther in, the bank’s interior gets steep quick. Granite lumps speckle the slope. You could be staring at a loaf of rich, multigrain bread torn open. There are so many cavities and nooks, fall’s color parade a multitude of fruit and seed milled and milling.
So it goes. When you can, you hop in your boat and paddle. Or you start walking. You watch the water where the woods and the sky mingle, and sometimes you see beneath the reflection. The interior is everywhere, surface or source or not. And so is the source everywhere. You are never lost, but you’re always getting lost. The whole outing might take an hour. You don’t think about it the rest of the day. It comes back to you all day. Things you don’t know you felt or saw, tasted or heard – they come back, they linger, they go.
The dew seems to thicken with the cooler mornings. It’s a sloppy, wet slog through the weeds at the edge of the woods. You wonder if such a buildup of moisture is a prerequisite for first frost. You see little creeks run through the lawns and edgeplaces as you bike to the bridge, off to the side of which your canoe is stashed, less and less camouflaged by foliage. Each night it’s as if a lick of atmosphere has descended to form its own system close to the ground.
One morning you sit against a chestnut oak atop the bluff above the floodplain. The river is mist and shimmer, a few streaks of it visible through the growth. There are three large poplars at the foot of the bluff – you’re looking down, out, and up at various parts of them when something crazy happens. There are all these birds squeaking and fluttering through the limbs. You are soaking up their activity, their song, their agile, need-corniced movements – a trajectory, the sum of their motions like conception or just taking another breath – you are sitting here in your hooded sweatshirt, watching the trees, birds, the patches of sunshine, the wild ginger’s milky patterns, when a ruckus of feathers erupts ten feet to your left. There’s another big chestnut oak there. What you see is a hawk’s fanned tail just as it lifts prone and digs its talons into a songbird mid-flight. They hit the leaves briefly and don’t stay there. The hawk takes the little bird – there are so many trees you can’t tell what kind of bird — down to the floodplain’s floor. All the while the hawk keeps belting an alarming, aggressive call. For a moment the voice seems to belong to the victim, but the vocals last too long.
Twilight, and yellow apple sky at the rim of the powerline cut. Scrub oak a frizzy outline against the sky. There’s a new moon, a sapling blackjack oak. The above contains a star, too, no, two. Things get arthritic this time of day, the sky drained of all but the most distant light. Things constrict. This time of year is the year’s evening. Soon will be the dusk days. No more dog days, these. Wood duck days and roadkilled fox. Who can say when there will be frost? October wears you tight. If you are warm, it is because you burn. Inward is a messier woods. Laughter lives there like gravity, like love, opens you to bugs and crickets, the passing plane. No green as deep as that which the laurel leaves wear now up here on the slopes above the river. And through them the morsels of a sky so purple it ferments, devouring the moon’s pale sugar.
To experience the nature of the Piedmont woods, you have to participate. You have to want it, at least a little bit, even if you need it. Either way, it doesn’t want you. It doesn’t need you. Glorious sights or what are commonly marketed as such – peaks, gorges, rugged cliffs and coasts, are not the reality here. But a simple piece of driftwood is never so simple; its every notch and burl and groove become miraculous.
The eyes are daddy long legs bouncing from one thing to the next. The color and pattern of the river oats against the bank – you drink them. And you swallow the warts on the hackberry. The land is its parts and each part is a sum and part of a sum.
You’re in a grove of laurel. It’s a den – curly, lichen-fuzzy branches like an infinity, a closeness, an imprisonment of wonder, of world. The river traffics almost directly below – a bit more erosion and this would be a cliff more than a slope. The laurel’s roots hold and keep hold. There is much green in the nucleus here, green and brown, the evergreen of the laurel’s leather tongues, the frosty lime of lichen, and barkbrown. A squirrel with a fat acorn in its jaw skitters loudly through the grove and comes to sit on a branch not three feet from you. Beyond the furry critter it is hard not to watch the parade of yellow leaves on the river. A small river and but a fraction of it visible from there, yet so many leaves.
If you take the narrow, inadequate definition of place as being that which you see, then even this one is neverending. For you see the grey, wet, heavy sky and sourwood leaves like a tarnishment before it. How did you get here? You were headed home from the store. The seeds are everywhere and a tick is crawling on your jeans – a tick in October! You don’t know there are so many seeds until the leaves begin to drop. You could try to describe the color of a certain small tree above you. You could say variegated or tobacco, say color of allergies, of polyp or red snapper (which are always pink and even then of an orangey sort).
The rain approaches more slowly now. Gone are the sprung traps of summer’s afternoon boomers and drenchers. The urgent masses of last month’s tropical storms are gone, too – somewhere else. Now the sky grows cloudy, grey, dense, and stays that way for a few days, the sun perhaps breaking through here and there. And then the rain falls, if at all, slowly.
The cloudtrees, too, seem to be losing their leaves. The air turns mild. You hope it will rain. The color in the trees is highly charged against the dark sky. The leafshapes are more distinct with the different colors oozing from the different trees. The voracity of hues astonishes, how they maw, hungry wavelengths. In summer the gash of red clay at an overturned tree’s base was a shocking contrast to the green flood. Now you hardly notice red clay unless you’re slipping on it or it’s one of the impressions you conjure to comprehend the beech leaves’ serrations.
Upstream there’s a tree so on fire it burns blue. Of course it’s red, a deepness of red that suggests purple and yellow both. It isn’t the only garish tree of the lot. The hardwoods that retain a solid measure of their summer green are in the minority now. Brassy, copperish hues dominate.
You’re not the only one ripped on October’s broth. The squirrels among the branches, cheeks fat with nuts, their entire a motion a sublimation of the land. Leaf litter sprawls on the equally littersome shrubs and weeds. Who could doubt permanence amongst such vigorous disappearance. You love how in scraggle and dwindle there is, such is.
Thorpe Moeckel teaches in the writing program at Hollins University. He is the author of five books and a few chapbooks. His work has been recipient of NEA, Javits, Hoyns, Sustainable Arts, and Kenan Fellowships. His latest book, Arcadia Road: A Trilogy, was published in fall 2015 by Etruscan Press.