A few years ago I wrote a story inspired by John Haines titled “A Walk in the Woods With John Haines”. As his words and thoughts continue to provide guidance over the years, I return to this piece and update the images and feelings to reflect the experiences that have defined me.
As nature becomes essential to daily life and getting through the chaos, I have been thinking about John Haines. Some of my most-often used quotes come his book “Fables and Distances” and so I have started reading it again and am reminded the impact his writing has had on my outlook in life.
A Winter Light, by John Haines
We still go about our lives
in shadow, pouring the white cup full
with a hand half in darkness.
Paring potatoes, our heads
vent over a dream—
glazed window through which
the long, yellow sundown looks.
By candle or firelight
your face still holds
a mystery that once
filled caves with the color
of unforgettable beasts.
Photo below shared from Alaska Dispatch News which features a piece about writer/musician John Luther Adams and being influenced by John Haines.
From TWENTY POEMS, Unicorn Press, 1973
I typically read and have been influenced by John Haines nature poems and memoirs, but this poem is timeless.
How strange to think of those street
sand vacant lots, the sandhills
where we played and dug our trenches;
the forts we built, the enemies
we conjured to aim our stick-guns at,
and then went home at evening,
to victory, to safety and sleep.
And now the vast acres of rubble,
the pitched and roofless houses,
upended stonework and sunken bridges.
The dog-packs roaming, digging,
for the one still-unclaimed victim;
the stray sniper aiming at dusk,
and in the roadside fields,
flowers that explode when picked.
The children wandering from one
burned suburb to another,
seeking that which no longer exists:
a neighborhood, a playing field,
a wading pool or a standing swing;
for a kite to fly, a ball to throw,
or just one pigeon to stone.
And through all this haunted vacancy,
from cellars and pits of sand,
come and go as on a fitful wind
such whispers, taunts and pleadings:
the scolding voices of dead parents,
the lessons of teachers no longer
standing, whose classrooms
are blown to ash and smoky air.
And far-off, unheard beyond the drone
of a single hovering aircraft –
in Paris, Zurich, Prague, or London,
the murmur of convening statesmen.
For the Century’s End
by John Haines
Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
On a somewhat grey and dreary day we headed north to the fields and trails near the Wild River, the St. Croix. Alone on sandy trails well suited for horses, we circled the empty field through the forest and made our way to the river. Beneath the grey sky, we felt the presence of life, animals, and trees absent of sound. The two deer that crossed our path did so leisurely as I assured them we are guests here, just passing through.
In previous journeys here through the thick woods, I knew that John Haines was here walking with us, with an eye for details and subtle nuisances. Today he was here also, but we took this in as a whole, all of the nature seen and not seen, all of the light passing through us, with us, and a part of us.
The empty field, the river, forest, trails, sand, and the animals all served as a reminder that this is home, this is birth, this is where we came from.
Cold for so long, unable to speak,
yet your mouth seems framed
on a cry, or a stifled question.
Who placed you here, and left you
to this lonely eternity of ash and ice,
and himself returned to the dust
fields, the church and the temple?
Was it God—the sun-god of the Incas,
the imperial god of the Spaniards?
Or only the priests of that god,
self-elected—voice of the volcano
that speaks once in a hundred years.
And I wonder, with your image before me,
what life might you have lived,
had you lived at all—whose companion,
whose love? To be perhaps no more
than a slave of that earthly master:
a jug of water on your shoulder,
year after stunted year, a bundle
of reeds and corn, kindling
for a fire on whose buried hearth?
There were furies to be fed, then
as now: blood to fatten the sun,
a heart for the lightning to strike.
And now the furies walk the streets,
a swarm in the milling crowd.
They stand to the podium, speak
of their coming ascension …
Through all this drift and clamor
you have survived—in this cramped
and haunted effigy, another entry
on the historian’s dated page.
Under the weight of this mountain—
once a god, now only restless stone,
we find your interrupted life,
placed here among the trilobites
and shells, so late unearthed.
John Haines, “The Ice Child” from For the Century’s End: Poems 1990-1999
I’ve been continuing to read the book The Deep Ecology Movement. This includes an introduction to the movement and a collection of essays with varying thoughts and opinions. Along with finding many similarities to Buddhism, I feel this is a meaningful framework to express nature and humans, and the dependency of each on the other, and the critical task to strike balance.
An important concept that would help to start down the right path is the ecological self. A quote from the essay “Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World” by Arne Naess –
“We may be said to be in, of and for Nature from our very beginning.”
My favorite quote that sums up everything simply and elegantly is from John Haines –
“We speak of nature, of the natural world, as if that were something distinct from ourselves and the social world we appear to have made, seldom noticing that we are in nature and never out of it…”
I first learned of John Haines while taking a class at the Loft Literary Center a few years ago. From the first poem I was hooked. I have every book of his, some first editions, and one signed that I was fortunate to find.
Mr. Haines also wrote many essays about nature, the world at large, and his view from a small rustic cabin located outside of Fairbanks, AK.
Mr. Haines was born on June 29, 1924 and passed away on March 2, 2011. I sadly never got the chance to meet him in person, but continue to read his books and write pieces about him and be inspired by the raw, simple, and powerful pieces he created.
I am particularly fond of “Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer” for poetry and “Fables and Distances” for his essays.
Below are his most easily found books on Amazon.
That is all.
“We speak of nature, of the natural world, as if that were something distinct from ourselves and the social world we appear to have made, seldom noticing that we are in nature and never out of it…” – John Haines, “Fables and Distances”
Gray Weather, by Robinson Jeffers
It is true that, older than man and ages to outlast him, the Pacific surf
Still cheerfully pounds the worn granite drum;
But there’s no storm; and the birds are still, no song; no kind of excess;
Nothing that shines, nothing is dark;
There; is neither joy nor grief nor a person, the sun’s tooth
sheathed in cloud,
And life has no more desires than a stone.
The stormy conditions of time and change are all abrogated, the essential
Violences of survival, pleasure,
Love, wrath and pain, and the curious desire of knowing, all perfectly suspended.
In the cloudy light, in the timeless quietness,
One explores deeper than the nerves or heart of nature, the womb or soul,
To the bone, the careless white bone, the excellence.
I had hoped to showcase poetry each day for National Poetry Month, but other obligations diverted my attention and time. For the last day of April, I have chosen poetry from John Haines – a writer whose work and style, along with his time living in Alaska, really influenced and changed my own style, and in some ways, paid the foundation for a change of direction in my own life.
I was introduced to John Haines in a poetry class I took at the Loft Literary Center in Minnesota, by Thomas R Smith. For that, I will forever be indebted to him.
These selections from from the collection “The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer”, published by Graywolf Press in 1993.
I went to the edge of the wood
in the color of evening,
and rubbed with a piece of horn
against a tree,
believing the great, dark moose
would come, his eyes
on fire with the moon.
I fell asleep in an old white tent.
The October moon rose,
and down a wide, frozen stream
the moose came roaring,
hoarse with rage and desire.
I awoke and stood in the cold
as he slowly circled the camp.
His horns exploded in the brush
with dry trees cracking
and falling; his nostrils flared
as swollen-necked, smelling
of challenge, he stalked by me.
I called him back, and he came
and stood in the shadow
not far away, and gently rubbed
his horns against icy willows.
I heard him breathing softly.
Then with a faint sigh of warning
soundlessly he walked away.
I stood there in the moonlight,
and the darkness and silence
surged back, flowing around me,
full of a wild enchantment,
as though a god had spoken.
By the Denali road, facing
north, a battered chair
in which nothing but the wind
And farther on
toward evening, an old man
with a vague smile,
his rifle rusting in his arms.
The Rain Glass
A winter morning, and the sea
breaks on the harbor wall.
Rain moves up the lonely street
under swaying wires,
blowing across the empty playground;
the air smells
of metal, kelp, and tar.
I hear the thrashing of leaves
against these windows;
the house is cold,
but the shifting glare of a fire
shines on wet asphalt.
Chairs, forms of silent people;
faces blurred in the clouding
of many small mirrors.
I wait in the doorway of a room
with grey walls and distant pictures.