May 21, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Field and Forest

I recently heard the argument that the Australian poet Judith Wright’s “Australia, 1970” is the first environmentalist poem. Since then I’ve been thinking about what an environmentalist poem is, and how it differs from the nature poem. Take Randall Jarrell’s “Field and Forest” (one of my favorite poems of his). For all of its delving into the dream life of a farmer, is this poem really more about the land itself? Can we call this an environmental poem?

When you look down from your airplanes you see lines,

Roads, ruts, braided into a net or a web–

Where people go, what people do: the ways of life.

Heaven says to the farmer: “What’s your field?”

And he answers: “Farming,” with a field,

Or: “Dairy-farming,” with a herd of cows.

They seem a boy’s toy cows, seen from this high.

Seen from this high,

The fields have a terrible monotony.

But between the lighter patches there are dark ones.

A farmer is separated from a farmer

By what farmers have in common: forests,

Those dark things–what the fields were to begin with.

At night a fox comes out of the forest, eats his chickens.

At night the deer come out of the forest, eat his crops.

If he could he’d make farm out of all the forest,

But it isn’t worth it: some of it’s marsh, some rocks,

There are things there you couldn’t get rid of

With a bulldozer, even–not with dynamite.

Besides, he likes it. He had a cave there, as a boy;

He hunts there now. It’s a waste of land,

But it would be a waste of time, waste of money,

To make it into anything but what it is.

At night, from the airplane, all you see is lights,

A few lights, the lights of houses, headlights

And darkness. Somewhere below, beside a light,

The farmer, naked, takes out his false teeth:

He doesn’t eat now. Takes of his spectacles:

He doesn’t see now. Shuts his eyes.

If he were able to he’d shut his ears,

And as it is, he doesn’t hear with them.

Plainly, he’s taken out his tongue: he doesn’t talk.

His arms and legs: at least, he doesn’t move them.

They are knotted together, curled up, like a child’s.

And after he has taken off the thoughts

It has taken him his life to learn,

He takes off, last of all, the world.

When you take off everything what’s left? A wish,

A blind wish; and yet the wish isn’t blind,

What the wish wants to see, it sees.

There in the middle of the forest is the cave

And there, curled up inside it, is the fox.

He stands looking at it.

Around him the fields are sleeping: the fields dream.

At night there are no more farmers, no more farms.

At night the fields dream, the fields are the forest.

The boy stands looking at the fox

As if, if he looked long enough–

he looks at it.

Or is it the fox that’s looking at the boy?

The trees can’t tell the two of them apart.

The poem begins from a God’s eye view: the dun geometrics of the Midwest from above. The second stanza introduces the idea of nature subjugated by humans. When “Heaven” (God? Sky?) asks the farmer what his field is, he answers “Farming.” The question seems to beg a noun (corn), or an adjective (fertile), but instead we get a verb. By defining the field as farming it is as if it has no intrinsic value other than its agricultural production. It is stripped of wildness and given “use.” This tamed, endless checkerboard is seen as “terrible” by Jarrell.

But the landscape is not all fields: there are, inexplicably, pockets of forest left separating the farms. These forests (not really forests, mostly, but stands of trees) have a drawn, unconquered look to them. Next to the groomed rows of earth, they show, in life and in the poem, the shadow of what the land was. They are intimidating. Stories grow around them. They are the subconscious of the land, roots and guilt, witness and wish. For the farmer in the poem, they are dead space, a “waste of land” yet one that is allowed to endure because of the trouble it would be to tear them down. They also represent memory for him–the cave of his youth.

By stanza 6, the camera pans in to our single farmer figure, naked and decrepit. He does not eat; he does not see, talk or move. If he could stop hearing, he would. This succession of bodily negations makes him a neutral vessel, a vegetable of sorts, but one who has chosen his inert state, his taking off the mantle of the world. His stance is fetal, which takes him back to childhood.

And what do the comatose have? Wishes, blind wishes, but blind in the sense that they are hopeless, not in the sense they that do not present a concrete vision. The farmer’s wish shows him this: his childhood cave, with the fox curled inside. In this dark, the fields and the forest, the tame and the wild, are indistinguishable, are one. Jarrell begins to unfold an ultimate realization in the mind of the farmer. The farmer, desperate, emptied, is a boy once more, staring at the fox and realizing“nothing. His seeking is turned, in the space of a line break, to merely looking. What ends the poem is what the trees see, ancient and detached. They cannot tell the difference between a boy and a fox. Their existence is pure, unmuddied by moral or emotional conflict. The farmer and his journey back to the wild, back to what could nourish his soul and jolt him out of sensory impoverishment (for surely this withdrawal from the world is the result of his own obsession with the known, to tame the world into submission, and therefore leaves him with nothing to hear, see, etc. because he is damned to be the master of his own reality) mean nothing to the trees. This turn to the trees shows Jarrell’s (I believe otherwise unarticulated) care for the natural world, and for its value.