“We live and love and die accompanied by grasses.”
The phrase companion grasses, Teare says, “is meant to indicate that I’m attempting to see humans as companions to the non-animal, nonhuman species of the natural world.”
The book was written as meditations inspired by long hikes he took through the rugged terrain of Northern California. In it, he questions one of the most deeply-ingrained ideas in literature about our relationship to nature: that human nature is, paradoxically, unnatural.
To get at how deeply this idea of the human being as separated from nature goes, take the book of Genesis, where nature is presented as a harmonious paradise from which our human forebears were ejected because of a hunger for knowledge, into a harsh environment painfully deaf to our hardship. The gist of it is that we were once a part of nature, but aren’t anymore, because we are different from it, primarily through our desire to understand things. Nature then becomes capital-n Nature: both dangerous and indifferent to us, as well as an idealized location or state that we wish we could get back to.
Other writers have approached our seeming unnaturalness in other ways. In the romantic pastorals of Wordsworth, long considered the king of nature poetry, nature is often depicted as a tonic, a harmonious answer to the din of cities:
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration
Though a beautiful sentiment, Wordsworth is relying on the tacit idea that the move toward industrial-centered culture and cities is inherently un-natural, putting us at odds with a purer condition that is Natural. It isn’t that Wordsworth’s pining for a simpler, agricultural way of life is wrong, or that anyone could argue with the idea that cities are loud and dirty and pollution has a negative impact on the environment… it’s that the underlying idea that human beings are doing this because they are un-Natural that is interesting, and that puts us in a position to shirk our responsibility by believing that we are different.
Much of the best-known nature literature follows variations on this theme. Because we perceive the landscape as both dangerous and indifferent, we treat it as a god, a slave, or a scrim: a thing that must be worshipped, tamed, or used as a mirror of our own motivations. Walt Whitman, reflecting his own orgiastic desires, makes of nature a smorgasbord that elevates nature and trumps anything human-made as ideals of perfection:
the poems of my body and of mortality… a leaf of grass is no less than the journey
the pismire is equally perfect And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
The music of Whitman’s words can hypnotize the reader into missing his underlying assumption: again, that Nature is apart from us, and somehow we are not natural if we are comparing the man-made to the miraculous mouse. And in answer to Whitman’s blazing, there is Theodore Roethke, turning over rocks and finding beneath them a kind of terror in the “otherness” of self in comparison to nature:
A man goes far to find out what he is-
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
In Companion Grasses, Brian Teare asks similar questions. What is this thing that makes me feel, out here in nature, not of it? Is it our restless minds?
doubt entered the field
in the form of a body
always grass at edge
— transcendent reason : mind forsaking
matter it finds impossible questions
–doubt a terrible field
to live in whose laws
are made by a god
without cause or qualities
But Teare goes a step further, recognizing that what may lie at the heart of that feeling of separation, the fall from Eden, the “otherness” that seems to be reflected in all we do as humans is a result of our basic human method for shaping reality: through language.
starting small with grasses
flowers then trees we don’t know nor rocks
days to recite the names of them all
seems heaven enough to us
To name things, to find language to describe what we experience — this is how we make anything outside ourselves real. Perception is only a blank state of being, it’s when we put a name to a thing that we begin to force the separation of self from landscape that makes us recognize ourselves as independent beings: going from something to someone. The need to recognize “other” as aside from “self” is what gives us a personal identity. It also inherently makes us feel alien — especially from a “nature” that neither needs a personal identity nor recognizes ours.
But, Teare asks, this tendency to self-reflect, to bifurcate, to abstract — is this really a uniquely human trait? Does it really separate us or alienate us from nature, and is it really an unnatural act?
because what is
language that “categories of thought
embodied in individual living forms” thread through us
things equally — matter a sidereal charity
& doesn’t it bract doesn’t it sepal & send seed splitting sheath
into soil doesn’t our flesh the very fossils tremble bedrock
Nature, rather than a personified force, might be better considered, as Teare’s title suggests, a companion, and our relationship with it dictated by recognizing not our differences, but our similarities. Are veins of blood so different from tributaries of rivers? Is the way grass in the wind might blow dark on one side, and flip to silver on the other so different from the way we might turn a dark thought in our heads to see the brighter aspect from another perspective?
Teare, in his wanderings through the landscape, is bringing back to us a record of how nature is not inherently good or bad, pure or corrupt, but an ongoing dialogue dictated by our human way of grasping reality and meaning: eternally crossing back and forth between the internal and the external, teeter-tottering between the boundary of idea and reality:
it is easier to ask now
if grammar better follows nature to die in cycle than culture
in ruin the gaps are different arent’ they –but neither
better explains how to say
anything where to put each word
so it lives differenty in relation
to the real as it dies what is it
to be the leap from matter
to a transcendental grammar
Omnidawn Publishing, April 2013
- Read some poems by Teare: Poets.org | Poetry Foundation | Reading Between A and B
- Read some interviews and watch more videos here
Brian Teare lived and taught in the Bay area for over a decade. He now lives and teaches in Philadelphia where he runs his own micropress, Albion Books. Companion Grasses is his fifth full-length book of poetry.
When not riding her big wheel on Portrero hill or doing the wild stoat dance, LJ Moore captains a pirate ship powered by rubber bands around the San Francisco Bay. Her poetry has appeared in many publications, but her dream is to see it in skywriting over Montana. Check out her new book in progress, set to dubstep and electronica, at ljmoore.wordpress.com.