“It is still the first week in January, and I’ve got great plans.
I’ve been thinking about seeing.” ~Annie Dillard
I believe in roaming the ground where we are mapped. Of course every diligent writer spends her share of time revising and typing up notes indoors, but my poems begin in the looking. Often I see what isn’t quite there, and trace the outlines into something real. One day I climbed to the top of a stepped waterfall and dove into a pool in the Gihon River. I talked to a teenager with disabilities while we swam the shallows and I sensed his joy at being in the water. Before rolling down the hill, I traced a sight line along the valley, that infinite blue dome. The tops of the mountains rose in a great green way to meet it, collapsing me inward. I often begin walking without much in my pockets, just one rough-edged piece of notebook paper folded in quarters or sometimes a book. When I wade in rivers, I compose lines in my head; let them ring in me like bells as I run back to write them down before I forget.
In August 2013 I found myself wading in the bend of the Gihon, which flows through downtown Johnson, Vermont, into the sun-clear water where minnows wrapped themselves loosely around my ankles. I was writing “en plein air,” a method the Impressionists popularized, which means to create art in nature. In Vermont for an artist residency, I was surprised to be the only writer there who regularly drafted outside, though a couple of the visual artists took walks to forage for supplies, becoming quite good gatherers. Instead of walking through the forests, I waded in the river almost daily, waving to passers-by on the bridge above as they headed to lunch in our dining room. One resident yelled down, “You’re such a water baby!” Some days I could be seen climbing up nearby hills and rolling down like a child. My methods must have seemed quite oddball to the others who mostly wrote in their studios. I thought, does embracing one’s identity as a writer necessarily lead to such a staid existence, hunching always over a keyboard?
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says she composed much of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in “a study carrel—in the Hollins College library.” I was shocked to read this—the book is one of the most environmentally alive works of 20th century literature. However, she wrote the first notes for Pilgrim on index cards while immersed in the semi-solitude of Virginia’s Blue Mountains. Dillard is the one who, perhaps paradoxically, nudges me from my desk to find the beautiful and the strange. In Pilgrim she urges, “There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.” So I leave the house to plant and pick up pennies. There is no other creation myth but this.
I am a naturalist, but also a wimp. At home, I walk to parks that are within a few miles of my house and seek out their microscopic treasures. These are places I’ve frequented since childhood. Even in my hometown there are “free surprises” to be found. In fact, one 10 by 10 foot square of Illinois’ DuPage River, bounded only by a tiny island on one side and a covered bridge on the other, has yielded at least five poems in the past few years. During a recent snowfall, I played tag with a grove of willow trees behind my mother’s house. The willows, though stationary, are surprisingly good at this game. I leaped along, the trees my safe houses as the flakes whorled. Dillard describes babies’ sight as “the color patches of infancy.” My eyes dizzy and dampen after I grab my coat and walk out under that expanse of sky. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek urges me to “see” myself, in perspective and in perpetuity, as a part of this land where I am. I may be an interloper, but I try to come into the curve. I quiet myself. I act as a fish when called to be; I am a deer when called to be.
This year Zachary Johnson, a local artist, asked me to compose a poem for installation in the Fox Valley Park District, in the far western reaches of Chicagoland where we both were raised. Zachary’s only stipulation was that the poem should interact with the land, in this case a prairie on the banks of the Fox River that served as a home for Potawatomie tribes hundreds of years ago. He didn’t want the poem to focus on the people who use that land now, mainly hikers, cyclists, and park district employees. Zachary hoped to find a local Native American poet to write about the preserve on the opposite side of the Fox River, which had also been Potawatomie territory. Banners with our poems would be hung along the bicycle paths leading to each prairie the next summer. I was to be a detail in that landscape, a fish eye lens. In other words, writing en plein air was required for this commission.
I arrive at Red Oak Nature Center on a Sunday afternoon in late September and cross a set of railroad tracks that slash against the foreground of the park. After checking in at the visitors’ center, I am handed a map to the prairie where the Potawatomie lived. Slowly I walk through the woods with my pen, following a set of hoof prints spray-painted on the path for a Girl Scout field trip days before. Perhaps as the girls were, I am too eager to fulfill my duties here. Dillard whispers to me, “pat the puppy; …watch the mountain,” or in other words, be present in this moment. Be “more alive than all the world,” she reminds. Yet, the walk is endless through a seam of trees from within which I cannot distinguish the horizon. A tiny inlet on the right finally catches my gaze, if only for its light. I head into a cul-de-sac of prairie grass, spot mushrooms on the path and goldfinches fluttering from bluestem to branch. No one has wandered here for a while.
Faded and water damaged placards unread for months offer some helpful information on what I see: species names, notes on the eating habits of the wildlife. The “fox is an opportunistic feeder” reads one sign. The urge from Pilgrim to “climb up the blank blue dome…[and] claw a rent in the top,” surfaces. I begin to notice this hole of sky, light’s circlets within the leaves, and the tiny patches of blank ground leading down to the river. A fox slinks along the bank, casting his murderous sights across the flatland and onto me. I steal through the grass, an intruder en plein air, following until I notice the tracks’ endpoint. Here it is silent. I see into the mirror of the river. The fur, the scruff of the neck, and two green eyes stare back as I crumple, dazed, toward the bank to write it.
Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications (2015). She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry and lyric essays, including Sight Lines (Speaking of Marvels Press, 2016), Heart Radicals (ELJ Publications, 2016), A Detail in the Landscape (Eating Dog Press, 2014), and The Canopy (MWC Press, 2012). Sandra’s poetry appears widely in Subtropics, Ecotone, Green Mountains Review, Word Riot, Blackbird, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. Her essays can be found at The Rumpus, Words Without Borders, Mid-American Review, Whiskey Island, and other venues. Sandra holds an MFA in Creative Writing−Poetry from George Mason University, and currently is a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at Aurora University outside of her hometown of Chicago.
Leslie LaChance edits Mixitini Matrix: A Journal of Creative Collaboration, has curated The Wardrobe for Sundress Publications and written poetry reviews for Stirring: A Literary Collection. Her poems have appeared in literary journals, and her chapbook, How She Got That Way, was published in the quartet volume Mend & Hone by Toadlily Press in 2013. She teaches literature and writing at Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, and if she is not teaching, writing, or editing, she has probably just gone to make some more espresso.