‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’ (John Muir)


For the past month I’ve been working almost daily on a long essay, or series of essays—I’m not sure which yet; I have some ideas of eventual form but it will depend on what I find out, where the ideas lead me. It’s writing that takes me back nearly four and half decades and some of it is painful. Things happened and I’m revisiting them. For a little while, it felt like an aspect of myself was taken from me, if that doesn’t sound too dramatic. In the back of my mind, for years, there’s been a small voice asking me what I’m going to do about it. Something extraordinary was given to me, too. I need to say that. And over the years, what was taken and given has changed. Sometimes writing is like swimming in deep and unknown water. How deep is it? What else is there? What about the currents? A strong swimmer knows she has the ability to stay afloat, buoyant in the turbulence, if it arrives. I’m not a good swimmer but I am strong and at this point in the writing, I am ready for the deep.

I said I am still figuring out the form for this work. Because it’s about paintings, I might trying to “curate” the arrangement of sections to reflect how they might appear in a gallery. But chronological or thematic? Sparse or cluttered? And it’s also about time: then and now. 1978 and the present, with pauses along the way. It’s also about perspective. Two voices, at least two, talking through the decades. Maybe three voices. A call and response? I want music in this writing. In some ways it’s a fugue. It’s contrapuntal.

I gave a presentation a few weeks ago on the essay and when I read my notes now, about essays in general, I see that in some ways I was working through how to organize this writing in particular. It doesn’t matter how long it is. Essays can be brief and they can go on forever. They can start with some paint on the tip of a brush in 1978 and like a fugue, they can introduce the subject, in several voices, in several pitches, they can provide a connecting passage or episode, the voices alternating, building, repeating and returning, false entries, strettos responding and interrupting, and then they can conclude with a coda, reminding us of the themes, the variations.

This different seeing allows us to find essays in unlikely places. A mode of expression rather than a genre? Can a poem be an essay if it attempts, if its thinking is reflective, if it pursues the shape and restless nature of consciousness? Can an essay be embedded in a novel, a libretto, an oratorio? Can we borrow the term to use when we find ourselves reading something that is finally essayistic in a field guide, an instruction manual, notes on maps or finding aids in archives or museums? I think we can. And if we are resourceful, we’ll tuck these bright scraps into our carrier bag, our gathering basket, and wait until we have critical mass. The gardeners and magpie quilters among us know about accumulating materials in our compost bins and our stash baskets. A red square, three lengths of blue, yellow flocked with provencal flowers. A piece of ticking. Comfrey leaves, the mashed remains of grapes after making jelly, long curls of apple peel. We look and look and then one day we see something of our lives. The yellow cotton becomes the stars over our houses, the compost is an autumn’s worth of kitchen scraps – the dinners we had with friends, jam making, the pears we forgot to eat. Maybe like John Muir, we recognise that ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’

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