The northeast wind is whipping over the Santa Monica mountains again tonight; clothes crackle, and book-covers warp. Tingling and tense and bare seems the earth. And once again my thoughts go back to the mother of Song Ok. This foster-mother of a Korean War orphan in Seoul sent me a letter one October which began: “Korean autumn sky is high and clear.” The phrase hit me with an inexplicable flash of recognition. What a wonder, I thought, that someone else, an unknown lady in a far land, had also seen that marvelous heightening and clearing of the sky as autumn comes on. Mother of Song Ok, I never met you, nor can I even guess what has happened to you and your orphan-daughter; but your co-appreciation with me was an instant of genuine communication. There are not too many such instants in a lifetime.
A lifetime, lived in Los Angeles mostly; in the endless suburbs, in the smog often, in hurry always. What in this is there to love, what to communicate? Wisconsin-bred, and early attuned to quiet lake-shores, when I first arrived in Southern California as a college student I felt no kinship of spirit with this place — it seemed a kind of tepid cliché. For the first five years, I felt almost no seasons, no weather, only a play of unending half-summers, half-winters.
Then gradually, and with great surprise, I found myself growing palpably sensitive to small, subtle changes and signs and alivenesses within this arid place; these all the more fascinating because they had been at first totally unnoticed. Four seasons (with their accompanying emotions) began to emerge — seasons quite unlike the spring, summer, autumn, and winter I had known in the Midwest, though related to them. The dry, sometimes fiercely hot Santa Ana (or “Santana”) east winds that begin in September or October and bring desert air down to the sea. The months of intermittent heavy rains, from November to early April. The interminable weeks of “low clouds and fog” that make May and June hard to endure. And the brief time of true summer in late July and all through August, when humid Gulf of Mexico air drifts in with rumors of thunderstorms.
Robert Frost somewhere poses the question, “…what to make of a diminished thing?” Here, and increasingly across the land, much is diminished; our labors, and the machines our labors produce, isolate us from long thoughts and from the deep refreshments of the natural world. One answer, or the beginning of one, may lie in love for the small things that remain: the affectionate ear that gleans a day's-worth of beauty from hearing a meadow-lark’s song above traffic noise, in the parking lot.
These poems and essays are gleaned from many such moments, lived in the rhythm of California’s diminished seasons. They span more than fifty years of time, during which I traveled much in thought with Robert Frost and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, John Muir and Mary Austin—all good company—and, later, with Matsuo Basho and his haiku-writing friends of old Japan. To these and all gentle poets who tread softly between earth and sky, this book is dedicated.
WORDS WITH WINGS