On the Trail

I pass the sign, “Entering Wilderness,”
            and sit down on a rock. So this
is what it’s like. Below, the little water
            spills from one shelf to another
along the fault of a catastrophe

although gingerly, this step, that one, pool
            and pouring, smooth light visible
over original granite, stone before
            life, stone that was and is again.

I’m told intense compression can re-set
            rock’s crystal radiometric clock,
old minerals alleging themselves as fresh.
            I was also told to lift mine eyes
to the hills from which would come some help.

I’m 68, and it’s been a long time
            since rock swelled up into mountain,
although this snow-melt’s one day old, running
 in rubble through immensities.
Water learns quickly how to make the best
            of every accident and here
the pines have finally assumed the pose
they prefer to adopt for years
while, under rock, springs wait to erupt.

Learning ignorance, without help, I leave
to follow the course of millions
of intricate decisions in the world.

(Birmingham Poetry Review, #33, Summer/Fall, 2006)


On the Big South fork of the Poudre River, where I often hike, there is a sign that proclaims one is entering a wilderness area. It’s impossible for me to pass that sign without thinking that on one side is civilization, on the other wilderness, which of course is not true. I found it humorous to imagine seeing that sign and promptly sitting down to examine what the wilderness is like. The speaker of the poem then thinks, as I often do, of geology and particularly the issue of time. I am often confronted with the immediacy of the present (this snow-melt) and the massive ‘deep time’ of the geologic past of mountain building.

In the 5th stanza, I couldn’t keep from falling into ‘the pathetic fallacy,’ giving inanimate objects a human touch (such as ‘water’ that ‘learns’, pines’ that ‘prefer’). I know this is not scientifically true and yet I feel that saying it anyway creates a certain feeling or attitude. Of course, many times such ruminations seeking wisdom turn into a knowledge only of one’s “ignorance.”  The speaker leaves in the last stanza, somewhat attune to nature: that is, the river has made “millions of intricate decisions” in how it will pass over or around rocks in the stream bed and the speaker, following the streambed back down, follows those decisions as ignorantly as the water.

Regarding the form of the lines, I knew I was already working with alternating lines of about 10 syllables and lines of 8, so I indented the shorter lines on a regular basis with no other intention. The 10-syllable English line produced the famous ‘iambic pentameter’ of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, to name a few. The iambic tetrameter line (4 accents and 8 syllables) is more familiar to us from Robert Frost (“Whose woods these are, I think I know”). I don’t mean that I am writing in an iambic meter strictly (although the 1st line of the 3rd stanza, to give just one example, is strict iambic pentameter) but that I’m varying and adjusting accents in what I see as ‘traditional’ line lengths.

Regarding stanza form, the poem alternates 5-line and 4-line stanzas, mostly a matter of a new thought, like a paragraph in prose. The last is “only” 3 lines and I labored to expand it one more for symmetry’s sake but found only wordiness and had to let it stand.