I like to write, or at least draft my poems, in the open air—not all of them, but as many as I can. Like plein-air painters, it helps me to have my bottom on a stone or a stump, even better to be situated on a bed of moss or sprawled comfortably on a late fall leaf-bed.
To the west of my house, in the 41,000 acres that comprise Pennsylvania State Game Lands 108 and 158, there’s a crease in the mountains along the Allegheny Front where a stream seeps from the ground and starts following gravity’s trail beneath the branches of eastern hemlock and rhododendron. This stream nurses the lives of native brook trout, a fish that’s lived in these waters for thousands of years—never stocked, perpetuating themselves in the cold, clean water that they demand. It’s a fish of such beauty and mystery—How can they survive, hide themselves away, in such small pools?—that I never tire of seeing one rise, seemingly from the rock bed of the stream itself, transmogrified into flesh and air as they snatch the fly I’ve drifted down the pool.
This crease, along this stream, is one of the places I write because the sound of water helps me. I also write on a south-facing talus slope covered in lowbush huckleberries, where hawks drift over my head on thermals. And there are other places in the woods where I go to sit, to be quiet, to observe a fisher or black bear or bobcat. It’s amazing what you can see if you stay still for long enough.
And while I often write of the beauty in these places, their restorative powers, their rightfulness and right to exist, I must confess that I also write frantically, attempting to quell my anxiety so it won’t consume me as I try to take in with my eyes, my ears, the olfactory powers of my rather pronounced nose, the particularities and peculiarities of these woods, wondering about how I can get others to care about them, to fall in love with them, to maybe want to save this ground for what it is, not what it was in some mythic, pastoral past.
Sadly, I’m failing at this task. One glance at this small corner of the world and you’ll notice the ridiculous amount of trash that’s dumped along the road; the rumblings of fracking trucks thirty miles to the north; an interstate scaling the ridges, pyrite exposed in its making, polluting streambeds in the valley; and the frightening presence of the wooly adelgid, a non-native, invasive species from Asia that sucks the sap from hemlock, bringing them not so much to their knees but fully onto their bellies or backs, dead as the clear-cut wood that littered these grounds more than a hundred years ago.
Of course, writing is about rewriting, too, about revision, about reimagining and reworking what I might have jotted down in that blessedly open air, about reflecting on the sacredness of all places, saying hallelujah at the same time I may wish to rage at our sins of commission and omission, kvetching at my culpability in the degradation.
And the place I get some of this work done is at my desk at home, an oak behemoth made in the 1940s by the Jasper Office Furniture Company, which I bought at a sidewalk sale in graduate school for $25 because it was water damaged and falling apart.
From my chair I look out two windows that face south, framing a stand of tamaracks that in late October take on a golden sheen just before their needles are swept away for the year. I also watch black cherry trees bloom early in spring before the leaves emerge, as well as serviceberry trees with their white petals promising the sweetness of their purplish red fruit in June. A redbud tree sits at the corner of our house, just to the left of one of my windows, and I often rest on my office floor beneath the windowsill to watch goldfinches, catbirds, cowbirds, cardinals, blue jays, red-winged blackbirds, even northern flickers, and, yes, the occasional broad-winged hawk who has come to dine on the smaller birds at our feeder.
Above my desk is an Ansel Adams photo of an aspen grove, a broadside of a poem that Dan Gerber sent me entitled “Often I Imagine the Earth,” and a lithograph that Kurt Vonnegut mailed me a few months before he died called “A Tree Trying to Tell Me Something.” (I’m still listening to that tree Kurt sketched with his green pen, as well as to all the other trees I love. Their language is far more complex than we ever could imagine, and I doubt I’ll ever be fluent.)
I have my talismans for writing, too, artifacts that help me get the job done. A carved black bear with sad eyes and a Buddha belly stands on its haunches behind me. A church pew to stack books on or sit in when I’m tired of pecking at the keys on my keyboard. And shelves and shelves—some made by my dead father, some made by me—holding field guides for most every sort of creature or plant or tree that lives here in the northeast, as well as books by writers that have made me think putting pen to paper (or hand to keyboard) actually matters.
Despite all of this, I’m still very unsure about the source of poems, about where they come from and why they show up. I suppose all I know is that, on certain days, when I’m in the woods or back home at my desk, if I’m lucky, I find one tugging at the end of my line.
Todd Davis is the author of four books of poems, including In the Kingdom of the Ditch and The Least of These. He teaches at Penn State University’s Altoona College. A conversation between Todd and the poet Derek Sheffield appeared on the Orion blog last month, and Todd’s poem “Turning the Compost at 50” was published in the July/August 2013 issue of Orion.