Coming of age in northwest Tennessee means I will always have a root exposed to those mown cornfields along Highway 22, as you approach Reelfoot Lake—a root sensitive to the bite of a January ice storm, and to the yellowed-out severity of a meager existence among the bluffs (an existence I only imagined, yet it seemed ripe material for stories), overrun with the ghosts of Chickasaw Indians; a root sensitive to endless backroad roaming, often under cover of night, when the mystery was thickest—when the taste in our mouths and the fire in our brains urged us into country cemeteries in hopes of communing with the dead (which we almost convinced ourselves happened); a root bare, like the bald knobs of cypresses, where unspeakable ice sculptures materialize from the winds whipping off the lake; a root exposed to the midnight sounds of unseen, distant animals—coyote laughter drifting across bean fields and who-knows-what splashing in black water.
I cannot deny the imprint of those experiences, coming, as they did, when my young adulthood was forming. There’s a voice in the rural solitudes of northwest Tennessee that speaks only to me, and I don’t need to be there to hear it.
Flitting, twirling, and fluttering are words used to describe what leaves do in a strong wind. But not only are these terms limited and worn from overuse, they’re a bit dainty. They could just as well describe a ballerina. By contrast, what happens to leaves in November is more violent: the ones still clinging to their branches undergo quite a thrashing.
Yet any alternative description I can muster is either too wordy or inaccurate: thin, dry wafers oscillating on threads (Wafers? that’s not right; oscillating? too grandiose.); medallions spinning and flashing (too clunky and metallic, though a little poetic); ripples baring their pale undersides at lightning speed (awfully wordy and more suggestive of water). But these are leaves I’m talking about! All my metaphors imply something other than leaves. Do you see the challenge here?
Writing creatively about wind in trees is hard. One could zoom out and take in the larger form, describing how a great tree sways: somnambulantly from side-to-side, as if dragged back-and-forth through water; bowing in obeisance to Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. (Bow is a good way to describe what a bough does in a strong wind—wink, wink.) One could toss about words like bluster and gale. But now we’re talking more about wind and less about leaves.
One could try and capture the sound, likening it to the hiss of a hundred streams, sustained in the undulating branches above. But there’s that recourse to water again. Or maybe a host of small pages flapping in the breeze. But do pages suggest leaves?
The dilemma remains . . .
At forty-one, I’ve learned to write sentences. But what of those musicians whose brilliance shines before thirty? Those painters on whom greatness rests like a marble monument? Those poets who chart human consciousness, leaving lights on the path for our senseless feet?
I labor a line to death. I spool out and cast about, dabbling with different-colored baits; I let it rest, and then reel it in fast, mimicking the motions of life. But the monster is elusive–the opus, aging. She hides in the dark, beneath the log at the bottom of a book.