Humility, Nature’s Way

Brookline Massachusetts, December 14th

View from my front door

Yesterday was the first snowstorm of this winter season. I love the quality of the light, the way the sound of a city changes, the disruption of life, the patterns of tires and feet, the way a neighborhood becomes unfamiliar and redefined, how everything is conjoined in a commonality.

Snowstorms remind me why I felt comfortable leaving my childhood home in California to spend my adult life on the East Coast. Snow is a powerful reminder of our wee human role in the grand scope of things. Nature speaks, and the only sensible response is to go inside and relish the simple gifts of a roof and warmth. It also alludes to one of my favorite themes in mythology, that small things can change everything. In the Sumerian story of Queen Inanna, she is saved from her imprisonment in hell by fingernail clippings. Because they are small and insignificant, they can get past the gates of Hell unnoticed and return her to her earthly throne. Once again, a billion tiny flakes of frozen water can stop the flow of life for millions of people. To quote one of my favorite bloggers, Will Owen of Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye, humility is a very complex virtue.

There are two poems I love on days like this. The Stevens poem is probably the most famous short poem (and only one sentence) in the English language. Even memorized, I marvel at its complexity. The poem by Strand is simple but profound. Enjoy.

The Snowman

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–Wallace Stevens


Watching snow cover the ground, cover itself,
cover everything that is not you, you see
it is the downward drift of light
upon the sound of air sweeping away the air,
it is the fall of moments into moments, the burial
of sleep, the down of winter, the negative of night.

–Mark Strand

9 Replies to “Humility, Nature’s Way”

  1. It’s become freezing cold here: without snow.

  2. I love the idea of fingernail clippings getting through the gates of hell and the analogy to snowflakes disrupting lives. And I have just this weekend developed a passion for reading Wallace Stevens in relation to a Lydia Davis book review I just posted. And finally, you know that maps post you posted? Well I really loved it and riffed off of it and this thing led to that and I ended up with a whole new blog called Postcards from Bloggerville that you can get to via my regular blog and my visitors get to each have a post of their own describing their mental map of their world. You are invited…

  3. IV, like I said to you in one of my comments, your site is like a wild party. I’ll definitely stop in!

  4. I remember reading John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Snowbound” in school when I was a boy in Texas. Like our second grade lesson on making maple syrup, it seemed like news from another planet. Though the gray slush of Chicago isn’t very special, I don’t think I’ll ever get over seeing snowfall and the familiar world entirely altered by it.

  5. I love your tag “Left speechless.”

    Snow, it’s wonderful. We woke to snow, unbeknownst to us, one morning last week. I was awake, making coffee. My husband came into the kitchen from the bedroom and said, Why is it so quiet? He looked outside and saw why. I love snow.

  6. Elatia Harris says:

    Always good to be reminded of Will’s blog, and to be provoked to wonder: what would aboriginal painters make of snow, with its near-obliteration of territorial markings and invitation to feel re-oriented if not lost?

  7. What a concept–how aboriginal artists would respond to a blanketing of the features they read in such extraordinary detail. Thanks for that thought, Elatia.

  8. I enjoy the poetry of Wallace Stevens. There’s a depth to his writing, and a challenge and mystery in his work…

    Of course my first love remains Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening by Robert Frost.

    The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

    Both Stevens and Wallace capture the feeling of a winter twilight: the snowy isolation, sounds muffled by the snow, the glow of twilight in winter…


  9. Thank you for this additional view, MS.

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