Lay of the Land

The Kenyon Review blog posted yesterday a challenge from W. H. Auden to writers of criticism and evaluation: to describe our ideals, so that readers can judge our judgments. In this journal, I plan to talk about books I like and why I like them, about writing and conversation, about the places I walk and the people I meet in them, about whims and facts and stories that are new to me — and I invite you to evaluate it.

Auden describes his ideal place in a list. Here are my answers to his categories.

A living one, a system of systems. People walk barefoot there, and plants grow — lady’s slipper, pipsissewa, chestnut trees a man can walk through upright when they fall and hollow. The Mohican language classifies words as animate or inanimate, having or not having a soul, as other languages call words male or female; in it, mountains are animate.

Snow in winter, up to thigh deep. Raw springs that draw out marsh mallow. Heat lightening in summer, and cool nights. Frost in fall to turn the hard rock maple scarlet.

Ethnic Origins of Inhabitants
Any. Many.

One with a single word for ‘sympathetic joy in another’s happiness’. One with a hundred words for friendship, companionship and kinship, and no classifications for ‘weapon’. One with poetic forms that play on sound patterns, elaborate puns, similes. One whose poetry focuses on presence more than absence and whose verb tenses focus on present more than past.

Weights & Measures
Based on blacksmith’s tools a century old and how much land one man can farm in a day and how far hands can reach.

Many, in touch with each other. They are formed around storytelling, singing, planting, and the drive to walk up to another body and take hold. They have writing centuries’ old, reinterpreted and reopened and hard. They tell stories not about how to die, but about how to live knowing we will.

Size of Capital
O. Or, large enough for a library of 400,000 volumes, a school of translators, and an influential poet.

Form of Government
One that can tell the difference between a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse.

Sources of Natural Power
Wind, water, hot springs, light

Economic Activities
Conservation, education, private incentive

Means of Transportation
Walking, horseback, row boat and sail: motion with rhythm to it.

Small buildings, low to the ground, communal, sunlit, well-insulated and durable, the colors of aged wood, adobe, distant hills and Joshua trees.

Domestic Furniture and Equipment
Like outside, like inside.

Formal Dress
Flowing trousers, open-necked shirts, brilliant red and green and blue and gold.

Sources of Public Information
Conversation, argument, story, local newspapers and town meetings.

Public Statues
Women laughing with their heads thrown back, wood ducks, lighthouse keepers, the young and the old. Many are bare and bronze, but they do not make their naked bodies into shields; they make shields into naked bodies.

Public Entertainments
Plays outside, dancing on lawns, music played together sprawled on the grass, building from a note, a rhythm, outward.


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5 Responses to “Lay of the Land”

  1. rbarenblat Says:

    I’m particularly moved by

    Sources of Natural Power
    Wind, water, hot springs, light

    which speaks to me on a variety of levels. Obviously on the one hand it’s a physical answer to a physical question; OTOH, it feels to me (on the level of poetry) like so much more than that.

  2. ilona Says:

    Greetings – I was introduced to your site by the Velveteen Rabbi. Loved this posting, in particular how you described the form of government…made me chuckle.

  3. springfarmalmanac Says:

    Hi Ilona, and thanks! Abraham Lincoln really gets the credit for that distinction; he always says things so succinctly.

  4. TheElementary Says:

    Hello there,
    I was stirred by your writing. I haven’t, in fact, been so moved since I read parts of ‘The Gentle Art of Tramping’ by Stephen Graham.
    “large enough for a library of 400,000 volumes, a school of translators, and an influential poet.”
    -absolutely wonderful work.

    You are positively ‘bookmarked.’

  5. springfarmalmanac Says:

    Thank you! ‘The Gentle Art of Tramping’ sounds warm and relaxed, and I’m honored and glad of the comparison. That description of a city is taken from Cordoba in 900 AD, before the Umayyad empire fell. They had a paper factory too, and women worked in the libraries.

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