Kolleen: Nature – the “phenomena of the natural world” – has inspired countless numbers of writers, artists, poets, and painters. It has also inspired scientists, designers, researchers, and explorers, and all human beings looking to discover more about the vast and fascinating world that we live in.
In the first act of our double feature, “Design by Nature,” Emma writes about the poetry of Jack Gilbert and Rainer Maria Rilke – poets who were inspired by the connectivity, harmony, and stillness of the natural world. Christian also talks about his work as a photographer, and the interesting combination of urban facilities within landscape photography.
It’s easy to forget about nature when most of us live in cities, cooped up in nondescript buildings with harsh fluorescent lighting. So, take a walk. Look at the tree branches cutting across the sky instead of telephone poles, and try to imagine how once upon a time, the buildings around you never existed, and there was only greenery.
Jack Gilbert is a poet of gratitudes. His poems are landscapes of lone wanderings, of understanding, of pain at life’s kind and wrenching quietness—“It’s baffling,” he says, “the sweetness of what we’re allowed” (NPR, 2006). To Gilbert, then, the natural world becomes a place inextricably linked with solitude and complex joy. In his collection The Great Fires, containing poems written in the decade following his wife’s death, he grieves in wooded walks, in the wild, in “explicating the twilight”: he sounds his own depths along with the woods’. “The wild up here is not creatures, wooded, / tangled wild,” he writes in “Foraging for Wood on the Mountain”; “It is absence wild. / Barren, empty, stone wild. Worn-away wild.” He feels the same wildnesses in himself, in realizing the impossibility of truly understanding anything or resonating within any crevice of why. Nature offers answers that Gilbert cannot help but trust, though they are inexplicable. His poem “Married” slips into that vein:
I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came,
there was no way to be sure which were
hers, and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.
In that way, his loss is rooted, empathized, connected to a growth unstoppable.
Gilbert’s ultimate action resides in enclosing a gratitude larger than anything that could combat it. In “Night Songs and Day Songs” he is Orpheus missing his Eurydice; the poem ends in speaking “Of how fine it was out there in the stony fields, / eating and grieving and solitary year after year.” Grief transmutes into paradoxical gladness: “Truth becomes visible, / the architecture of the soul begins to show through. / God has put off his panoply and is at home with us.” Gilbert inhabits a quiet space, characterized by “This loving, / this relishing, our gladness, this being” which “puts down roots” even where the natural landscape is one of leafless black trees and “flowers gone” (“Half the Truth”). In a solitude marked by loss, Gilbert refuses to succumb to stillness as stagnancy, choosing rather stillness as peace. In his poem “To See If Something Comes Next,” he writes: “There is nothing here at the top of the valley. / Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell / of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.” His place is empty; he wonders “if something comes next” and then realizes the moving sweetness of being alone. “Maybe, he thinks, it is like the Noh: whenever / the script says dances, whatever the actor does next / is a dance,” he writes. His life is humming movement for its own sake, an art in itself: “If he stands still, he is dancing.”
Christian: The lines, compositions and colors of nature are always what catch my eye – perhaps this is why I am a landscape photographer, because these photos create a special setting. All these things have to do with some kind of design. I think my predilection for nature photography applies to the common properties of design in our urban life. It’s all about a good combination of symmetries and perspectives or just an accidental arrangement of trees or hills. That’s what I love some places for!
Moreover, I like to use the interplay of urban and natural in my photographs: a cable through a forest can create a fantastic setting when it’s fading into a wall of fog. Where it leads, you can’t see. Also, a simple geometric house in a wide landscape creates a lonely feeling of isolation in a photograph.
Another opportunity that photography offers is the possibility of consolidating small parts of the busy world into a border. You can decide what will be in the photograph. With the right viewpoint, any small green place can be made to look spectacular.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus were composed in one inspired and gasping string through February of 1922. They comprise a document of connectivity—with nature, with death, with understanding, with the inevitable. Rilke writes in the Sonnet I of the second part: “How many regions in space have already been / inside me. There are winds that seem like my wandering son. // Do you recognize me, air, full of places I once absorbed?” He then parallels his sense of union with art’s inspiration, speaking of “You who were the smooth bark, / roundness, and leaf of my words.” He links nature’s gift of art and emotion as well in his assurance that the earth, “with sounds that nonetheless praise, / can sing the heart born into the whole” (II, II). Rilke’s sonnets seep amazed gratitude and little thankfulnesses; we cannot “reach down to where the seed is slowly / transmuted into summer” — and yet we do not need to, for “The earth bestows” (I, XII). Even its smallest components form our humble wholes, as Rilke writes in Sonnet XIV of the first part:
We are involved with flower, leaf, and fruit.
They speak not just the language of one year.
From darkness a bright phenomenon appears
and still reflects, perhaps, the jealous glint
of the dead, who fill the earth. How can we know
what part they play within the ancient cycle?
Long since, it has been their job to make the soil
vigorous with the force of their free marrow.
But have they done it willingly? we ask…
Does this fruit, formed by heavy slaves, push up
like a clenched fist, to threaten us, their masters?
Or in fact are they the masters, as they sleep
beside the roots and grant us, from their riches,
this hybrid Thing of speechless strength and kisses?
Rilke clearly makes no claim to his own supremacy, nor does he assert his dominance over the earth that he is so thankful for. Rather, he is simply grateful that it allows him to exist, to feel, to kiss. The earth, too, holds and softens our grief in its vast arms—“Don’t be afraid to suffer,” Rilke says; “return / that heaviness to the earth’s own weight; / heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas” (I, IV). To transform oneself within nature is to be soothed: “And the transfigured Daphne, / as she feels herself become laurel, wants you to change into wind” (II, XII).
In nature Rilke sees an amalgamation of abilities and flowings which we simply cannot comprehend, though we are incontrovertibly a part. “The water is strange,” he wrote in a sonnet fragment which translator Stephen Mitchell terms the eighth, “and the water is yours.” The last line of the piece is a gentle order, a rich necessity: “Your task is to love what you don’t understand.” Here, too, we are resident in a harmonious dichotomy of the large unself and the small, important self. Sonnet XII in the second part — the last in Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus — ends with a proud, humble, full possession of identity:
And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.
Sources: “Jack Gilbert: Notes from a Poet’s Well-Observed Life” by Debbie Elliott, The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 by Jack Gilbert, Photography by Christian Kluge, The Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke