Lying in the hammock on the front porch, looking at the branches of the blue spruce, their craggy shapes against the night sky. They make the shapes whether anyone is there to look at them or not, yet we can only see them with all our preconceptions. Our aesthetic responses, our craving for form, the tension between what is and what we long for, the twanging that the shapes provoke inside us.
Looking at them, thinking about them, I think of the millions of years before human beings existed. Whole continents came and went, rivers cut their way through rock, made canyons, oxbows, alluvial plains, little banks where grasses sheltered crayfish. . . The trees stood up and splayed their branches on the sky. The shapes were there. And then they died, fell into earth, the earth swallowed itself and bent to new shapes we never knew.
There are some ideas here.
When I was a young man I visited an art museum. After spending hours soaking up, soaking in the abstract shapes I went outside where the new spring sun cast the shadow of a branch against the white concrete. I said, what good is art, when the sun and the branch and the wall can give me just as much? My brother said, maybe the art is there to show us how to look. (Eduardo Galeano calls his story “The Function of Art” that ends, “Help me to see.”)
Maybe we can strip some preconceptions. But never all.
And why did I have to think of millions of years, whole continents re-shaped? The same might be said of the trees down the street, standing in the darkness of the park at night, no one there to look at them.
The gymnosperms (of which my front yard spruce is one), the internet tells me, began some three hundred and twenty million years ago. Here’s a bit of prose poetry about that time: “The Carboniferous was marked by the progressive formation of the supercontinent Pangea. The present day Northern Hemisphere landmasses moved towards the equator to form Laurasia and to join the large Southern Hemisphere landmass Gondwana. The collision between Siberia and Eastern Europe created the Ural Mountains, and China was formed with the collision of several microcontinents and Siberia. The collision between Gondwana and Laurasia led to the formation of the Appalachian belt in North America and the Hercynian Mountains in Europe. Gondwana also shifted towards the equator while the continents moved from east to west.” (“Tectonics of the Carboniferous,” UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology.)
Like I said, whole continents. And also “several microcontinents.” I love a microcontinent.
Many years ago, I read Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey and, awed by the numbers, tried to really conceive of something inconceivable: millions upon millions of years. It’s not easy. I was working in a bus station in a small city in Connecticut, and, since I spent a lot of time counting coins, decided to let pennies stand for years. Or maybe it was dimes. It was a futile effort, I knew from the beginning, because I’d have to imagine a whole day as one three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth of a penny, or a dime, and I was having trouble getting through a single hour in that lonely place. But I went ahead and did it anyway. One dime was a year, and that meant a roll of dimes was fifty years; two rolls to a century. OK, the whole thing’s inconceivable (see that microscopic sliver on the edge of ten o’clock? that’s me, right now, trying to imagine something already greater than my lifespan—and I haven’t even scratched the surface of a million yet), but I’m going to keep going, just because. So a couple rolls are a century. That’s about five inches by whatever.
Look, this was all a long time ago. What I remember is this: by the time we got to evolutionary scales, the whole bus station was full of dimes, and by the time we got to the really massive scales of life’s emergence, the rolls stretched down the block, in stacks taller than me, like cord wood stacked by a demented miser. And all that time, a tree’s been standing there, soaking up the rain and sun, making shapes with its branches.
It seems to me that there’s something profound in the tension, the irreconcilable tension and contradiction between our ability to conceive of such things, and our inability to conceive of such things. Our ability to sense the beauty of the branches as they spread against the sky, and our inability to grasp the tiniest fraction of what went on before we emerged to think about it. Something profound and absolutely impossible to grasp.
In the end, I imagine, this tension is the same as that between the name and the thing. (I call it a blue spruce, but I’ve been told it’s many things: noble fir, pine, spruce, etc. And if you haven’t read Jamaica Kincaid’s essay “In History,” I recommend you do so.) It’s the perpetual motion machine of the gap between what is and what’s said, the same insatiability that made me start thinking early on about how to tell the story of a dog, or snake, or any creature without speech. A contradiction in terms, really. Arguably, this is what drives all fiction, perhaps all of language: the delusion that we can imagine ourselves into the eyes of another, even one without eyes.