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Of Poetry, and Science,
and Growing Old on the Floodplain

Bill Meredith

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again…
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow. …
     A. E. Housman

April is past, and with it went my favorite time of the year, when everything in nature is reborn. I look forward to it because the majority of trees and wildflowers bloom then. Some, of course, will last on into May, and some will come into bloom in summer and fall, but the profusion and exuberance of April are not matched by any other month. But even if there were no other flowers, April would still be special because of the weeping cherry in our yard. It blooms faithfully in the second week of April, and every year it reminds me of the poem quoted above. Housman wrote those lines as a young man, but their meaning to me increases as my own youth slips deeper into memory.

Most people probably would be surprised to find that poetry and science both depend on the same methods. I was reminded of this recently when Ted Kooser, the Poet Laureate of the United States, was interviewed on Jim Lehrer's "Newshour." Kooser is a most unlikely poet; he earned his living most of his life by selling insurance, but he understands the essence of his craft. When asked what advice he would give to aspiring young poets, he gave a one-word answer: "Read." Then, when asked how he got ideas for his poems, he said he goes for walks and does not come back until he has seen something new. Hearing this, I reflected that I could not think of better advice for an aspiring young scientist. Reading tells us what has been done in the past and what questions remain to be answered, and curiosity about new things is essential for the growth of the mind. These are the fundamental requirements of science… and indeed of every field of study.

I went for a Sunday walk a couple of weeks ago to one of my favorite places, the floodplain along Toms Creek. My mind was preoccupied with the cherry tree, Housman and Kooser, so I may have been a bit more observant than usual that day. Entering the woods onto a trail that had been kept clear through the winter by the nightly passage of countless hooved and clawed feet, I saw a footprint… a woman's shoe, judging from the length and narrowness of it, made two or three days earlier. Musing on who she was and what she might have been thinking as she passed, I came upon a half-full pack of cigarettes on the ground; and the right side of my brain visualized her hearing a bird or seeing a flower and flinging the cigarettes into the air, inspired by the beauty of the setting to kick the habit and live a new life… if I had the gift, there would have been a poem to describe the scene. But then the left side resumed control and reminded me that, more likely, the pack had simply dropped from her pocket by accident… or maybe someone else had dropped them.

When I reached the creek I found it had changed since my last visit. The debris of the previous year… sticks, logs, old tires, plastic containers… had been swept away by the March floods, and the stream ran clear and clean. At the place where the beavers climb up the bank on their nightly forays, there was a dead mole; probably a fox had pounced on it and then decided it didn't taste good. It clearly had been dead for a while, but as I watched, its tail moved. Inside its body, worms were eating away at it… the eternal cycle of death producing life, and the germ of another poem.

All over the floodplain, the remains of last year's grass and weeds were covered by a fresh layer of silt, deposited there by the same floods that cleaned the creek. It is a process of renewal and enrichment that produces a uniquely fertile, spongy soil and sustains a delightful variety of wildflowers. I counted 24 species of them; once I would have known all their Latin names, but several have slipped away through the pores of an aging memory. Many of them are native species with mouth-filling names like dog-tooth violet, cut-leaf toothwort, Dutchman's breeches, or Solomon's Seal; others are immigrants, like dandelions. Some are escapees from lawns and gardens upstream; there are patches of daffodils, daylilies and snowdrops that are healthier than the ones in my own yard… more poems waiting to be invited.

The old sycamore tree that once supported a suspension bridge still stands by the creek. Near it is a smaller sycamore; jutting out at a right angle from its trunk, some 20 feet above the ground, is a pine two-by-four. It is the remnant of someone's deer stand from years ago; the tree has grown around it, pine and sycamore fused into one. Ted Kooser could do something with that.

The ground was covered with tiny seedlings that I recognized. I could see in my mind the plants they would grow into: juicy, branching stems, four or five feet high, with yellow, pitcher-shaped flowers… but their name would not come to me. I walked on, increasingly nagged by the name, and ten minutes later it appeared: jewel-weed, a plant I have known since childhood. I was relieved to have captured the word before it got completely out of my head, but it was a disturbing reminder that, unlike the floodplain, the mind and body are not renewable. It happens more frequently now. The stick I used to carry to poke at things was replaced a few years ago by a cane that is necessary to support an arthritic hip; ears that once detected sounds of 16,000 cycles per second can no longer hear brown creepers; eyes that once picked out the color patterns of migrating warblers now have trouble telling them from splashes of sunlight on leaves.

My threescore years and ten were used up some time ago; as my friend, Ben Jones, frequently reminds me, I am now living on grace. But serendipity can still happen. As I left the floodplain and turned toward home, I found a wild cherry tree in full bloom. I had seen it there before, but never at this exact time of year; and it was hung with snow, just as Housman promised. Grace will do.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith