The constant struggle when writing about the farm is specificity. In other words, how is it possible to write about a particular pasture, or a particular cow, or a particular summer day?
About noon yesterday I walked into the woods. It was very hot. My dog Oban was with me, and I was fixing the waterline.
In college I was for a time preoccupied with the descriptive limitations of language. In large part this grew out of frustrations with my own inadequacies - I was writing a novel, and the gulf between the vision and experience of the thing in my mind and what I managed to put down on the page was stark and depressing.
I was in the woods yesterday, working on the waterline. Despite the shade of the hemlocks it was blazing hot, and Oban panted beside me.
The problem as I saw it was in the tension between the broad gesture and the detail, and my utter lack of mastery of the interplay between them. Over lunch one day I sat on a bench staring at a small crimson maple, and I thought that I might be able to describe it in a way that would give a reader some idea of what it looked like with its leaves fluttering and just starting to fall in the warm air. I could perhaps describe a single veined leaf attached to a twig or letting loose to drift away, but how could I write about tens or hundred or thousands? I mean, I knew I could in theory produce a novel length description of a single tree, listing each characteristic in minute detail, but besides being unreadable, it would have less to do with the actual experience of seeing the thing than if I simply called it a shaggy red lollipop.
Sweat pricked my arms and my shirt stuck along my spine. The waterline hadn’t been fully primed, and burps of air interrupted the gushing water. Oban had scrounged up a deer skull, years old to judge by the green rime around its eye socket, and he chewed at its snout.
I now think this is a small, technical component of a larger dilemma. In creative writing there are three distinct iterations of the same thing. There is the idea in the author’s mind, whether it’s a remembered experience or a fictional scene, the words that externalize it, and then, at least in theory, a reader who translates it for herself. Due to the limitations of the medium, there are imprecisions at each of these stages. If the goal is a forensic description of a particular tree from a particular, fixed perspective, a photograph will do a better job. But if the goal is to describe the experience of seeing a tree and the context in which the tree exists, or to link the tree to an idea or a history, writing is the best tool we have.
In the woods there are everywhere reminders of death - the old deer skull Oban dragged from the underbrush to chew on, the feathers in a broad circle over a sideways trunk where something ate a pigeon, the stumps, fungus, the mucky decay in the seep of water. But this ubiquity, strangely, lessens the significance of mortality. It becomes something to be perhaps noted in passing, while doing so mundane a task as getting an air bubble out of a waterline.
In the pursuit of meshing ideas and things with the imagery and experience of a place, there is a constant danger (as the above paragraph shows, particularly the final two sentences) of receding into abstraction, or at least into an intellectual remove afforded by an overly mannered turn of phrase.
The line hadn’t been fully primed, and I was trying to get the air out of it so I could water the garden. The day was still, which left the hemlock woods quiet, and the alternating burps of bubbles and water sounded almost obscene, as if the hydrant was vomiting. Nearby was a fallen log on which some predator - the goshawk I’d seen last week, I hoped - had plucked and killed a pigeon, leaving a perfect circle of grey feathers and a few toothpick bones. With his side teeth Oban gnawed the skull of a deer, dead from the killing cold that had gripped the farm two January’s ago. Now it was hot, my shirt starting to stick to my back despite the shades of leaves and needles.
Sometimes I think there is an irreducible kernel of something in my mind, a platonic form that can be almost perfectly translated to a page and then almost perfectly understood by a reader. That is, I sometimes think there is a real presence apart from me that I can imbue a text with. Other times it seems the opposite must be the case, that words are a messy but decent enough way to communicate a whole stew of ideas, experience, and history, that the real alchemy is in the misinterpretations as much as the correct understanding at each level, from writer to page and from page to reader. I would say that it’s some of both, but they’re kind of mutually exclusive views of how the universe works and what it means to be human. Either way it’s hard.