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Winter 2007, Volume 23.2

Essay

 

Christopher CamutoPhoto of Christopher Camuto.

In a Landscape

Land lies in water….
            —Elizabeth Bishop, "The Map"


Christopher Camuto is the author of three books of nonfiction concerned with the history and natural history of the Southern Appalachians—A Fly Fisherman’s Blue Ridge (1990), Another Country: Journeying Toward the Cherokee Mountains (1997), and Hunting from Home: A Year Afield in the Blue Ridge Mountains (2003)—as well as numerous essays and reviews and a handful of poems. For the past five years, he has devoted his time to field work, primarily on the coast of Maine. His next work of nonfiction, Time & Tide in Acadia: Seasons on Mount Desert Island, will be published by W. W. Norton, likely in 2008. Christopher teaches creative writing as well as American and Native American literature at Bucknell University where is he pleased to be associated with the Stadler Center for Poetry and the Bucknell Environmental Center. He is planning other work on the downeast coast of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes, two books about the Italian landscapes of his ancestors, as well as work in poetry and fiction. He is clearing land for a home and restoring the native ecology of an 80-acre woodland farm in the Buffalo Valley of Union County Pennsylvania, the basis of a nonfiction work-in-progress, Works & Days: A Pennsylvania Farm Journal.

Read a conversation with Christopher Camuto published in this issue of Weber Studies.

 

I question more and more why I should have anything to say about what I see, not a productive turn of mind in a nature writer. You can’t publish silence, the only accurate echo of a good walk in a strong place. Poetry might serve better than prose, but in the end the artifice of verse leans more toward the success of language than toward the life of the world. Much as I love words, I’ve yet to see a couplet as elegantly gnarled as the roots of northern white cedar, an arrangement of stanzas as unsettling as a granite sea stack or an enjambment as subtle as the turn of tide in a salt marsh. As a writer of prose, I have less and less desire to get beyond natural facts. The way the coastal energies I admire in this landscape prune life down to its persistent essence—a tattered strip of birch bark quivering in the wind, tufts of usnea flourishing in salt-galled spruce, coverts ruffling on a gull hanging in an evening sea breeze—leaves me not speechless but full of a strong desire not to speak.

An hour spent staring into the transparent mysteries of a tidal pool ought not lead to sentences. My assertions add nothing to the soft click of predation among snails, periwinkles and whelks or to wavering forests of red, green and brown algae more brilliant than spilled paint or to colonies of miniscule blue mussels hidden underneath thick tangles of sodden rockweed. I cannot tighten the holdfast of a kelp. I’d suggest prayer as a response, but belief destroys the usefulness of not knowing, takes the dangerous edge off the future of one’s own consciousness. And, of course, one must pray to something.

Never mind where I am exactly except to note that this island is thought to be one of Samuel de Champlain’s Iles Ranges, islands broadly named when the Frenchman was coasting south in 1604 along the uncertain border of New France and New England. Champlain didn’t dawdle as I do today. An explorer and would-be colonizer with the practical need to know the shape of a largely unknown coast, he was impressed mostly with how far these islands ranged out into what is now the Gulf of Maine—a useful detail for other sailors—and cast only a casual eye on their dark backs "covered with pines, firs, and other trees of an inferior sort."

I’m walking through the pines, firs and inferior trees riding the back of one of the granites with which the coast of Maine is built, granite being a rock of oceanic doggedness well-suited to oppose the pounding of storms and ceaseless rummaging of tides, less successful against what even to rock must be the shocking freeze and thaw of winter and spring. Granite, it’s fair to say, gives shape to the ocean here, conspires with its most obvious as well as its most subtle desires. The tides work constantly, changing what seems to stay the same. Local lobstermen discretely enjoy the way visiting yachtsmen stall sleek boats in the teeth of the six-knot tidal rips these rocky islands can strain out of a 16-foot height of tide in channels that look inviting to the unschooled eye. And I know for a fact that if you get out in the wrong place at the wrong time in a sea kayak, you’ll think the devil has grabbed you by the keel.

The heart of the largest of these islands is as strange and unprofitable as Champlain surmised, a spaghnum bog picketed by a ragged expanse of jack pine that have got their talons into the crown of a granite bald. The granite holds the lens of water the bog depends upon in stony palms, in which the cracks are caulked with cushion moss. The jack pine are indeed inferior trees and, if you stop to watch them reveal themselves, one of the treasures of this foggy, cold—although this is June—and windy place. Pitch pine, whose scaly tenacity I also admire, is a stately tree by comparison. In the stunted jack pines, the idea of a conifer is twisted, root and branch, to a harsh limit of what a pine will do with light and air and the thin film of soil which lichens and mosses have farmed out of glacier-scoured rock. The small, fetally curled cones of the trees are the least promising seed-bearing vessels I have ever seen, an undernourished-looking progeny, the scales of each cone shut against elements more lethal than life-giving a good part of the year. You would need some magnification to read the rings of the years here, so slowly would a tree shaped by ice and redeemed by fire grow. But still the jack pine’s life is neither a mystery nor a miracle—it is, like all things in nature, self-possessed in ways beyond knowing from a human perspective, image and embodiment of life weathered in place to a final refinement.

I’m trying to get to the north coast of this island, but the woods are a distraction. Beyond the jack pine—surrounding them on all sides—is a boreal maritime forest of excellent design. The larger conifers thrive profusely somehow among what not that long ago were barren fields of glacial erratics. The shade is deep enough and complete enough that the boulders cast everywhere look like a later addition than the trees. Red spruce and white pine have come, over time, to occupy the deepest soils and grow the tallest, though red pine, which I much like, also adds stout straight boles to these haunting woods and joins the others in a dense evergreen canopy rich with fog-fed usnea and, from late spring to mid-summer, thick with nesting warblers. Skunky, thick-branched white spruce and fragrant balsam fir do their part in woods that while not tropically diverse are still strangely lush for such a latitude. Ferns and wetland wildflowers thrive. (Please excuse these personifications; respect for presumed otherness—not ignorance of biology and evolution—naturally leads to projection of intention and choice, desire even. I edit them out until excision seems to lead to some other, deeper inaccuracy.) The warblers come more readily to ear than to eye and, up to a point, tempt belief in what is not visible, or at least train the mind toward using one sense without the aid of others. Occasionally an olive shard of this largely hidden life will break loose from the dense crown if you keep your neck craned painfully in that direction. I know some calls—the black-throated green, northern parula, blackburnian, the yellow throat and yellow rump—but many others are beyond not only my vocabulary but beyond my sense of music and grammar. My field journals are full of strange notations I can make no more sense of than the unfamiliar calls themselves.

The trail trends toward the sea a fair way down the island, slowly coming closer to the shore but keeping you in the woods for as long as it can. While I keep an ear cocked for the slur of a boreal chicakadee and an eye peeled for the swoop of a three-toed woodpecker, I can hear an incoming tide fumbling in the rocks and hear the cries of gulls and crows contending against the patient warning of a foghorn. That one mellow bass tone sounds like the prompt note to a cello solo, the way the first tone from a hermit thrush—they are everywhere—introduces, after the slightest of pauses, its fluted song. But no music, except that artless wash of tide, follows from the foghorn’s call. Eventually you become convinced—and satisfied—with that one long tone, its only modulation the way it fades in the too-large space before it sounds again, a Celtic instrument played to full, ambiguous effect. A quiet place, the silence here is complicated.

The trail leaves me disappointed on the shore. Perhaps disoriented is a better word. A disheveled cairn and some refuse mark the spot. I pass through a picket of beach rose and other shoreline vegetation, across sand that is really finely-ground shell and then ankle-turning cobble until I can hop up onto the tan granite ledgework, easy to walk on, that doubles as the edge of the sea and the edge of the land here. I can see out to the nearest offshore ledges, foaming in the tide, the scallop of a bay to my left that arcs to a jut of rock and a long, irregular stretch of rugged coast to my right, scalloped shallowly until it reaches seaward in a strong peninsula that points the way to the mouth of the Bay of Fundy.

The last time I walked here, coming down the shore from the west to reach this spot—searching for the cairn—the day was heavily marked with the sight of seabirds—pelagics whose lives are stranger even than the lives of warblers and three-toed woodpeckers. Black guillemots are a fairly common sight along the North Atlantic coast, but there were rough places on that walk where, if I clambered along the edge of the deep coves of the lower tidal zone and waited quietly, I could watch those fine birds from above, see them dive and swim, their white wing patches flashing oddly down in the sunlit green water as they twisted about like penguins after prey. Farther out there were murres and razorbills, which I had never seen from land.

The independence of these birds is astonishing—they reverse your perspective, appealing to whatever is still marine in us, some engram from deep in our evolutionary past which suggests the sea is enough, give up the land. They may need a few rocky islands far from shore to lay their oddly-shaped eggs on, but they live their lives in the air and on water—great, lonely expanses of both—and in their distinctive shapes and markings you can see and feel how unnecessary most of the earth is to them. The land means nothing in their dark eyes—you can feel that—and along with the shearwaters, petrels and albatrosses they know the oceans in ways we will never fathom, have answers to questions we will never think to ask.

 

That was a year ago. Today I am disappointed in finding only spotted sandpipers and herring gulls at the cove, even though both are birds I enjoy and admire. The fog is slowly burning off, the nearest islands becoming visible, but the long, green swells of the near-shore water are empty. Although I know not to do it, I stand and stare at the ocean for a few minutes as if it owed me something, odd thought, as if it were a stage for my curiosity.

But no one is immune to this first impact of a too-large horizon. I fight a dispirited urge to turn back into the woods, the closeness of which seems warmer with life, and head toward an obvious, arbitrary goal—that last, farthest-reaching jut of land. Walking, of course, is the surest way to break the frame of the picturesque, a way to quickly burn off unearned expectations, move body, mind and soul from out of scenery into nature. I head for what looks like the whitened trunk of a shattered spruce or cedar slanting oddly out of the narrow strip of upper beach a few hundred yards off.

Furtive sparrows dart in and out of the shoreline vegetation—vesper sparrows possibly—but I do not stop the pleasant rhythm of treading the broad ledges and gently sloping whalebacks of rock to wait them out. They are what they are without my knowing. The day, wearing on past noon, remains cold for the season; but the fog disappears, burned off perhaps by the warmth of the land. Under an indifferent, overcast sky the horizon opens to a succession of ledges and islands that overlap east up the coast. Water and rock are the figure and ground of a landscape shaped sharply seaward or deeply landward depending on which way your eye and mind are trending. You have to be a sailor to feel this properly. There are herring gulls about, mostly sooty immature birds waiting on the rocks, as well as crows and ravens co-mingling, as you frequently see them do on this coast, over the edge of the woods. Fifty yards offshore, a female eider leads five or six ducklings on slow patrol. The tide is near full.

The shattered spruce that marks the halfway point of my walk turns out to be the jawbone of a whale. When I was fifty yards from it, my mind gave up the image of a tree. I puzzled about what I was seeing as I approached, but it wasn’t until my final steps that I understood what I was looking at, suddenly saw the shattered jawbone hinged to a whitening cranium, occipital lobes jammed into the sand of the upper beach at the spring tide wrack line. I’m sure I talked aloud to myself as I walked around it, stunned with belated recognition that slowly turned to admiration and gratitude at this unexpected opportunity to whale watch. I can see myself nodding and speaking aloud to no one, trying on sentences: Whale, a whale, a whale marks this shore today. Writing this, I’d add not seabirds, but a whale—these phrases stranded, like the beached whale’s skull, partly in that moment and partly in this, recollection and composition conspiring as Wordsworth suggested we let them.

I was so focused on the skull, it took me a while to realize that the entire whale lay scattered in pieces across fifty yards or so of the upper beach. One long chunk of backbone was still half-covered with flesh and skin, the latter a tough blue wrinkled hide with striations of muscle still visible. I had, luckily, come up from windward and could not stay too long on the lee side of this freshest—or foulest—side of the carcass. I thought it should be covered with flies, but there was nothing moving around it, the best of a feast of whale long since over. Elsewhere there were scattered vertebrae, picked clean, and inch-thick discs the size of dinner plates. The vertebrae were light—maybe 15 or 20 pounds—too airy, it seemed, to have served such a large life, so strange is the geography of bodies. I remember noting how large the triangular passageway for the spinal cord was, and I ran my fingers in the groove where whale thoughts, whatever they are, passed with ease in long, powerful glides. I found the socket by means of which the whale’s head attached to the spine, a few scattered ribs, also picked clean, and one blue flipper, but nothing of the tail.

Judging from the long, sleek shape of the skull and the length of the animal—60 feet by my estimation (I paced off the pieces)—this was a fin whale turning slowly into a skeleton of itself, rotting away and dropping its great bones on the beach, giving up its being slowly, instructively, passionately—like a great windthrown tree. I have seen the long blue backs of fin whales breaching gracefully in the Gulf of Maine, moving with the strange ease of their kind, and disappearing with a gentle thrust of flukes. Impossible for me to say whether this creature washed up dead on a flood tide or, stranded, died—or finished dying—here overlooked by ravens and crows and sparrows hidden in the beach rose. A natural fact with decades of days and nights of ocean travelling echoing silently in it, the whale carcass embodied an authority as strange and righteous as the razorbills and murres that I was privileged to see last year, or the cones of jack pine I studied while waiting for warblers to reveal themselves.

I moved on from the whale site when my presence there seemed to cloy and spent a long afternoon watching harbor seals hauled out on several small rocky islands just off shore from the peninsula that took me as far out to sea as I could get that day. Several dozen adults and maybe a dozen seal pups basked or swam, some mature seals fishing with their young, encouraging instincts by example. On the crown of the seal island, two immature bald eagles picked the bones of something about the size of a seal pup, perhaps a bounty of stillborn seal. Through binoculars I could see them tugging by turns on a long, red backbone. Three mature bald eagles came in and out of view, flying with extraordinary if casual authority, probably sated hours ago with the best of the feast and, I don’t doubt, still full of whale meat. A great black-backed gull waited its turn while cormorants fished the slack high tide waters bringing what they caught to another jagged shard of sea-blackened granite where nests full of crying young waited.

I stayed and watched, listening to the chanting tide, until I had just enough light left for the walk back.

 

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