A great, cool thing happened this morning. Lately, before I get started with work in the morning, I’ve been doing this exercise meant to improve my “precision of natural description” — which means, basically, I stare at some point in the yard and try to describe what I see as fully as I can without lapsing into metaphor. It’s all very low stakes. Just something to do while waking up and drinking coffee. But last night I was reading Martin Chuzzlewit before bed and was struck by this description of a landscape near Salisbury:
On the motionless branches of some trees, autumn berries hung like clusters of coral beads, as in some fabled orchards where the fruits were jewels; others, stripped of all their garniture, stood, each the centre of its little heap of bright red leaves, watching their slow decay; others again, still wearing theirs, had them all crunched and crackled up, as though they had been burnt; about the stems some were piled, in ruddy mounts, the apples they had borne that year; while others (hardy evergreens this class) showed somewhat stern and gloomy in their vigour, as charged by nature with the admonition that it is not to her more sensitive and joyous favourites she grants the longest term of life.
The passage is precise about the different stages of the berries (maybe too precise), but it’s the line about the evergreens as “stern and gloomy in their vigour” that leapt out — because it’s impressionistic but true. That is how evergreens come across in a crowd. And so this morning I was staring particularly hard at the trees in our backyard trying to describe them a little less lazily than usual. It was early and still dark out. There’s been rain so it was misty, especially around the woods, and as I was staring at the trees (“tall, green, leafy”) a snout materialized in the mist, then some strong shoulders — and well, it was not a dog, it was a bear (“big and brown”).
Bears frequent our neighborhood — as I’ve mentioned, we live near the forest, and there’s an orchard up the street that the bears are also fond of — but I haven’t seen one in a couple years. The neighborhood itself is fairly Southern suburban: a lot of ranches and split-levels, school buses and pick-ups, a couple bouffants, one excellent mullet, several aged beagles and a pit bull named Ashanti. I took a walk the other week and the two most pronounced scents in the air were fabric softener and cigarette smoke, which just about sums it up. So it’s still surprising, even though it shouldn’t be, whenever a bear comes ambling through. What I was mostly surprised about, though, is how electric I went on seeing it, even though I was inside the house. Also surprising — and this amazes me every time I’ve seen one — is how fast a bear can clip along, despite its size, even when, as this one was, it’s in no particular hurry. You want to say a bear “lumbers” but it doesn’t.
One last link to Martin Chuzzlewit. Last week I finished Great Expectations and was casting around for which Dickens to read next. I chose MC because of this line that I had read somewhere: “For there is a poetry in wildness, and every alligator basking in the slime is in himself an Epic, self-contained.” Which if it is true of alligators is also true of bears.