Sometimes, when I haven’t been out of doors for a few days, I begin to get a little tetchy. Confined and cooped up, I need to escape for a few hours to remedy my growing impatience and lethargy. And a walk into town won’t do, either. It has to be somewhere wild, or at least green, in a park or over fields or something. Recently feeling so afflicted, I escaped to our local woods, buzzing with life as they are at this time of year. While I was there, I saw a young guy, oblivious to my presence, walking through the trees with headphones on. There seemed something contradictory about this, something perverse. Even pointless. It is like going scuba diving blindfolded.
As he walked ahead, disengaged, the wind was blowing through the long swathes of grass that surrounded him, and, although the seasons were different, they overlapped in the following lines from Capote’s The Grass Harp that came to mind:
Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons: go to see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices…
… Do you hear? that is the grass harp, always telling a story-it knows the stories of all the people on the hill, of all the people who ever lived, and when we are dead it will tell ours, too.
Elsewhere in the book, there are other such passages of wonderful prose, elaborating further:
But the wind is us-it gathers and remembers all our voices, then sends them talking and telling through the leaves and the fields…
… On such a night, now that it was September, the autumn winds would be curving through the taut red grass, releasing all the gone voices, and I wondered if he was singing among them, the old man in whose bed I lay falling asleep.
I don’t know what the lad was listening to. It could have been something utterly divine, some of the most moving music ever created by man. But could it be more beautiful, more evocative, than the grass harp, singing and speaking all around him, the birds, and the trees adding layer upon layer to that great symphony?
Maybe he was listening to The Sex Pistols, or Anthrax. One man’s meat and all that. But still, there’s a time and place. I’ve never seen a sunflower headbang.
When we tune out, we disconnect. All around us, the natural world shares both our stories and our fate. It celebrates and laments, and provides a window of inspiration.
The wind got up; the swathes danced; the harp played on.The man vanished from sight, rounding the bend of the river. Capote’s final paragraph, as I sat on the hill, taking it all in:
It was as though neither of us had known where we were headed. Quietly astonished, we surveyed the view from the cemetery hill, and arm in arm descended to the summer-burned, September-burnished field. A waterfall of color flowed across the dry and strumming leaves; and I wanted then for the Judge to hear what Dolly had told me: that it was a grass harp, gathering, telling, a harp of voices remembering a story. We listened.