Posts Tagged 'Whitman'


“Brooklyn with its hills.”
“The ample hills of Brooklyn.”
The view from the morainal hill.

Here’s Whitman again, talking of the borough I’ve lived in for a quarter century. Hills? You ask quizzically if you’ve never walked up Union Street from Carroll Gardens across the Gowanus Canal up to Grand Army Plaza. Whitman was a great walker, and that’s the only way to discover Brooklyn’s Romanesque topography.

The hills are too shallow to really notice by car and the subway simply bores through them. The buildings and grids of roads obscure the topography. Of course, instead of the Eternal City’s seven, we actually have just one, a long, curving hillock that reaches 220 feet above sea-level at its highest. This is the Harbor Hill moraine, the depository of the glacial bulldozer. It’s pieces of upstate, jumbled till, bouldery erratics. It stretches, roughly, from the south of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights through Sunset Park, and Park Slope, and turns east at Prospect Heights. Through Crown Heights and Cypress Hills the great mole hill moves into Queens and then keeps going to the end of Long Island. The names of these neighborhoods have their altitude (if not attitude) written into them, although admittedly “Sunset Park” is a bit ambiguous, although its view isn’t.
An Atlantic Fiddler Crab, on the mucky edge where Brooklyn peters out into Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic.

Both Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery nestle on the divide between moraine and outwash plain. Their eastern-most sections are as flat as Flatbush and Flatlands, names of neighborhoods on the other side of the moraine, out there in the outwash plain that used to stretch a hundred miles south when all that water was locked up in ice. Both Green-Wood and Prospect also have the borough’s highpoints: Battle Hill (220ft) in the cemetery, Lookout Hill (196ft) in Prospect. Combined with Mount Prospect (198ft) above Grand Army Plaza, across Flatbush Avenue from the park, these are the highest spots in the borough. Fiddler better watch out…

A Specimen Day

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Walt Whitman was born this day 200 years ago, “starting from fish-shape Paumanok” or Long Island as the prosaic call it. (What a boring day for geography that was! “It sure is a long island, by nab, so we might as well call it ‘Long,’ right?”).

Whitman was a resident of Brooklyn for 28 years, but only one of the places he lived has survived in the constant urban churn. 99 Ryerson Street is nondescript: no matter, he was living there when the first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. He kept reworking and revising this protean salmagundi of a book, taking it from a dozen poems to over 400 for the “deathbed edition” of 1891. I take my quote above from the last section of “Song of Myself” from that last edition. (I’ll be taking part in the SOM Marathon on 6/2.)

John Burroughs, who supplied the motto of this blog, wrote the first biography of Whitman, Notes on Walt Whatman as Poet and Person published in 1867. Whitman quotes Burroughs in Specimen Days, with some changes and deletions to the original (which was itself edited by Whitman before it was published). The collage-like Specimen Days begins with some delightful reminiscences of the Long Island of the Paumanacker Walt’s youth, by the way, and includes notes on nature very much worth reading.

“Specimen” comes from the Latin specere, to look; the first commandment of the naturalist. So, although Days also includes his writing about of the bloody horrors of the Civil War, he doesn’t mean the clinical or laboratory sense of “specimen,” the usage used almost exclusively today. He means exemplary. “Loafe with me on the grass,” and if you haven’t got meadow, the beach pebbles…

Now, let’s not get too carried away. Whitman both transcends his time and is mired in it. His views of women were quite traditional, even as he befriended feminists and paved the way for a new sensuality, a new sexuality (all kinds: hetero- and homo- sexuality were not then words). He was a cool abolitionist, not a “hot” one. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., notes in the necessary Stony the Roady: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, “Being an advocate of the abolition of slavery was not the same thing as being a proponent of the fundamental equality of black and white people, or the unity of the human species.” As Redemption terrorism literally executed the vestiges of Reconstruction, WW got more and more racist as he aged.

If you’re in or near NYC, there are Whitman exhibits at NYPL, the Grolier Club, and the Morgan. For three weeks in June, they’ll all be running at the same time, so you can see them all in one specimen day. (I’ve written about the exhibits for Fine Books and Collections magazine, out in June).

“… I restore my book to the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life.”(Cover of the 1855 edition, on display at NYPL.)

More Whitman

“Nature marches in procession, in sections, like the corps of an army. All have done much for me, and still do. But for the last two days it has been the great wild bee, the humble-bee, or “bumble,” as the children call him. As I walk, or hobble*, from the farm-house down to the creek, I traverse the before-mention’d lane, fenced by old rails, with many splits, splinters, breaks, holes, &c, the choice habitat of those crooning, hairy insects. Up and down and by and between these rails, they swarm and dart and fly in countless myriads. As I wend slowly along, I am often accompanied with a moving cloud of them. They play a leading part in my morning, midday or sunset rambles, and often dominate the landscape in a way I never before thought of—fill the long lane, not by scores or hundreds only, but by thousands. Large and vivacious and swift, with wonderful momentum and a loud swelling perpetual hum, varied now and then by something almost like a shriek, they dart to and fro, in rapid flashes, chasing each other, and (little things as they are,) conveying to me a new and pronounc’d sense of strength, beauty, vitality and movement. Are they in their mating season? or what is the meaning of this plenitude, swiftness, eagerness, display? As I walk’d, I thought I was follow’d by a particular swarm, but upon observation I saw that it was a rapid succession of changing swarms, one after another.” ~ Walt Whitman, Specimen Days. More Whitman in these e-leaves.

*After a paralytic stroke in 1873.

Whitman also notes the sounds of the grasshoppers, cicadas, katydids, and crickets. It was, after all, a world without the chemical warfare of herbicides/insecticides/fungicides, a world without hydrocarbon-based industrial farming. Insect life was unimaginably rich in comparison to the deserts we’ve made since.

People were proving their modern mettle, though: the last mass Passenger Pigeon hunts were in the 1870s and 1880s. The last great Bison slaughters were in the early 1870s.

In just the last couple days in the Republican assault on America:

Administrator in charge to hurting the poor and disabled is funneling taxpayer money to her GOP cronies.

EPA panel of industry shills advocating for more air pollution.

The militarized budget.

The nominee to head the Department of Interior works for poisoners.

White House foxes in charge of ethical chickens.

Garbage President of the white nationalists mocks asylum-seekers.

The unending lies of Donald Trump.

(Vicious and moronic son Don Don seems to have been unaware that Pulitzer Prizes have been granted to fiction for a century now.)

A Cedar Plum

“DID you ever chance to hear the midnight flight of birds passing through the air and darkness overhead, in countless armies, changing their early or late summer habitat? It is something not to be forgotten. A friend called me up just after 12 last night to mark the peculiar noise of unusually immense flocks migrating north (rather late this year.) In the silence, shadow and delicious odor of the hour, (the natural perfume belonging to the night alone,) I thought it rare music. You could hear the characteristic motion—once or twice “the rush of mighty wings,” but oftener a velvety rustle, long drawn out—sometimes quite near—with continual calls and chirps, and some song-notes. It all lasted from 12 till after 2. Once in a while the species was plainly distinguishable; I could make out the bobolink, tanager, Wilson’s thrush, white-crown’d sparrow, and occasionally from high in the air came the notes of the plover.”

~ Walt Whitman, Specimen Days.

I was told recently that this book is hard to find in print, but here are two versions: the Library of America Whitman: Poetry and Prose includes it, and what patriot is without a copy of this volume? Also, Melville House has a handsome paperback edition of Specimen Days and Collect in its Neversink Library.

The name of this fascinating MH series comes from this passage in Melville’s White Jacket: “I was by no means the only reader of books on board the Neversink. Several other sailors were diligent readers, though their studies did not lie in the way of belles-lettres. Their favourite authors were such as you may find at the book- stalls around Fulton Market; they were slightly physiological in their nature. My book experiences on board of the frigate proved an example of a fact which every book-lover must have experienced before me, namely, that though public libraries have an imposing air, and doubt-less contain invaluable volumes, yet, somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much.”

Both Whitman and Melville celebrate their bicentennial birthdays this year. Backyard & Beyond is on the case(s).

Walt Whitman Sunday

“I find I incorporate gneiss and coal and long-threaded moss and fruits and grains and esculent roots,/And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over.”


Bookmark and Share

Join 685 other subscribers
Nature Blog Network