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Poetry of Nature | Mid-Summer | Geoff Oelsner

This is the August 2022 letter from the Poetry of Nature program.

Through this program we are able to share A Year of Poetic Medicine with our participants.


If you are interested in receiving monthly reminders & access to these nature-focused poetry prompts and letters you may subscribe to the letters-only option for Poetry of Nature here.


Learn more about Poetry of Nature 2023 here.


A photo of a very vibrant Flame Skinner on a thin reed-like plant.

Geoff Oelsner’s PONderings


Dear PON Friends, I’ve been living with the question: What does it mean to me to be a nature poet during this dark time of accelerating climate change? That question kept on percolating this month as I worked in our garden and forest permaculture plots every morning in the cool before dawn. About a week ago, I got to thinking about my longtime friend and mentor Robert Sudlow (1920-2010), a Kansas landscape artist whose spiritual communion with the earth carried great reverence and tangible blessing power. I realized that Bob’s life and work constitute one viable response to my question, recast as: What does it mean to you to be a contemporary poet writing about nature-- a creator whose work offers truthful and meaningful impressions and expressions of nature now? As part of my approach to this query, I’ll share excerpts from Robert Sudlow’s journals that I transcribed after his death, and images of his paintings. I hope my selections transmit something of the sensitivity and energy that make his life and art such a compelling inspiration to me as a fundamentally nature-focused poet.


A folk painting of a shadow on hay with green grass at the upper left hand side of the painting.

I visited Bob from age fifteen in 1964 until his death and hung out with him as he painted in his native Kansas fields, in the nearby Flint Hills, in California redwoods and in his studio on a hill outside Lawrence, Kansas. These immersions in nature with him left me more transparent, less separate for days afterward. The entries in his journals reflect Bob’s communion with the Earth. He made sketches and wrote entries in them while painting outdoors . He wrote many passages of distress and foreboding as he witnessed human destruction of the land. He celebrated the beauties and sanctities of the places he painted. He wrote wonderingly about the times he was eclipsed by the Spirit as he painted, seeing the face of G-d in all he saw and what he saw he was. I felt how he radiated the peace and blessing he saw, and happily absorbed something of that medicine. I could feel the baraka [Arabic for blessing-- seen in Islam as an indwelling spiritual force in saints, charismatic leaders, and some natural objects] of his artistic process precipitate joy and blessing in the places where he painted, infusing them with love and wordless praise. I’ve collected some of Bob’s paintings over the years and include photos of four below my text. You can google “paintings by Robert Sudlow” to see many, many more. I already shared some of Bob’s journal entries last year in my November “Attunements” letter to our Poetry of Nature group. Here are some other entries from Robert Sudlow's journal beginning April 17, 1997, when he was painting in the Flint Hills of Kansas at age 77. I warmly invite you to take them as writing prompts and inspirations for your own keen observations of the natural world in your neck of the woods:


April 17, 1997

A sky permeating earth.


Matfield Green Cotter Creek noon. The sparkle of eternity—a glimpse of the birthing of season...the iridescent stream flowing among the buds and rocks...a zen koan in the wind. A bright changeful sky. Gulf of formless clouds. The vestiges of smoke linger. How full of hope the birds and the springing hillside.


Blue shadows. Pale sun. The hills are immersed in silver light. Quick life comes forth with trepidation, fearing the worst. Yet the pulse will not be denied and we have spring willing or not. Bright surface of the world—the place and time of testing. The wine press and harvest come later.


April 19, 1997

Tom [a younger Kansas landscape painter—G.O.] and I paint the pond at Pearson's farm west of Baldwin. Hot afternoon with tuning of frogs/the splash of fish/a long held tone, a frog song of endless monotone, a wordless reading in the scriptures of Nature—carrying the afternoon into evening in seamless rapture or a mindless hypnosis or AUM.


The reflecting water of murky hue yet carries the sky's glint untarnished. Directly overhead the tiny red speck of Mars. The comet Hale Bop low in the west, now dimmed by a nearly full moon. Incomprehensible that this immensity can in any way be breached by man's hand—measured—or photographed or even touched by ingenuity. The night keeps watch.


Sunday morning

Time lapses. Only a few moments hours of awareness spared from nonsense. The sun an hour's climb to the zenith measures the ascent and descent of sense. Up a silver stairway in the east then his easy slide toward darkness. How calm, serene and glorious this morning!


Busy fools in my head and in the valley. Brightness spreads and glory is given incrementally.


Sunday noon distilled—afloat disengaged walking in light while sleeping. Testing the air...chickadee tuning.


Dusk Sunday. A solitary robin song, or a noisy truck on the road of dust. Held in transparent and liquid stillness—till the frog gives voice as a distant dog barks.


To cease from motion—emptiness is daunting. It is a void to be avoided, a blank agenda, a rounding of earth's corner, where a center gathers, a pinnacle...and time circles.


Monday pond

Mists that drip—a moisture shrouded landscape. A slight chill yet, dense in blossoms, bird choruses and nest seeking bluebirds. Rice's field now spread with violet henbit. It would be a shame to die now...this close to the truth.


Monday with Tom east of Dover—a milky sky gray with green budding trees—fields green dusted over burnt grass. Warm and almost windless. 40 X 45 canvas. Tom had to sit in his chair. A terrific power working under bland light. Confused me with hidden energies—a hide and seek of ever-changing patterns.


The mockingbird now rises to our hill (last year he remained in the valley). A liquid serenade in the treetops is an infinite source. As the spring ripens it drives me constantly to start new canvases. They pile up in the studio, perhaps with some hidden potency—or perhaps empty gestures—at the present it is too soon to tell.


The Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I understand obliquely —the sacrament is now. Hidden then recalled in unexpected times of defenselessness.


Spring mornings I arise beside Barbara [Bob’s second wife—G.O.] dulled by sleep and touched with arthritis—dull to the light of dawn, awakened by a Beethoven quartet, welcoming life again.


A painting of a stream and a rock wall in a field with dead trees on the left hand side and in the distance.

May 2, 1997

A time when the sun is horizon split. In azure clarity, a pale unknown sky. Cooling of newly formed leaves. Tiny hands now clearly formed, now motionless...the toad at the pool tuning for a late serenade. A swift arrow a thought flight of a wing whistling dove a far tractor—strangely how alien the activity of man remains. In spite of the day's events the sun falls through a throne of liquid gray—casting golden rays, transfiguring the elm—blessing everyone who may take a moment to look—in spite of human businesses.


Granite giants buried yet still living presences. One a split boulder sent/rent when the Temple was torn asunder. Lichen surfaces. Calligraphy of weather marks from the age of ice—visitors from the north. Teeth of mountains, clinkers from volcanic upheaval—orange rust purple granulated smooth or polished...all are unique and should be given names of old gods, earth spirits.


Matfield Green, Friday noon

Painting on the banks of the South Fork Cottonwood.


From the quivering grass stems—sailing clouds—hawks in the sky and rocks on the hills—all things are tuned to the present wind and light. We also become a part of the intensity of the place.


The obvious dream—as the house dissolved, the roof fell in, walls collapsed, and floor gave way, the angel said Now I take your life away—where are you when even soul's roof beams fall?


Sunday, May 3

The space between thoughts grows more wide—let them become isles of enchantment!


Wide glades of leafy morning, without theatrics sun rises and day begins with promises too delicate for fulfillment. As youth becomes maturity and ripeness turns rot, truth is not necessarily betrayed.


9 AM A time of silent and jeweled rising unheard invisible harmony—no wonder our flesh fails. Rooted in concepts and illusions no light can enter. Long shadows that point eastwards then puddle at our feet, so quickly that memory fails.


1:30 PM A concrete city, the enemy of life underground—feet, eyes, soles, souls suffer meaning/neoning, identity, and disorientation. A hostile city, a mutated species.


May 4 Monday Dusk 8:30 PM Tower

[“Tower” denotes a viewing and retreat place farther up the hill from Bob and Barbara’s home near Lawrence—G.O.]


A late pale blush before night. A moment of exhalation, a long release of breath. Earth still: returning its afternoon warmth into hovering air—tiny insects rising, invisible thronging life, shadows silent, growing more dense—the whippoorwill...a web of place, season, and hour when the observer becomes absorbed in space.


Tuesday 8:15 PM Bloody red sunset

The red winged blackbird at the window feeder displayed shoulder patches of such a brilliant red it seemed illuminated—against black wing feathers.


Lazy island clouds...vague islands in the evening sky, slowly drifting north.


A spring celebration...all instinctive, with some substance. Without resonance and echoes we become shallow tunes. I wonder if I falter, become an empty shell.


Speaking too much drains the spirit—a leaky bucket. Hearing too much produces noise and I forget how to listen.


Sunday

Hemp strands woven into rope, weight, mass, anchor, mooring, to lift up, gravitas, substance, the substance, matrix, the self, actually that dreams, weaves in the air, a filler of a void, a sermon that is forgotten.


Monday sunset 8:20 PM

Vast aisles of clouds gesture toward the molten sunball. Evening seems fraught in profundity, yet I cannot speak it. Beyond telling, the daily sign.


Tuesday 8:35 PM Tower

At dawn the sun blazed, as from paradise. Freshness and delight poured from the east. Too daunting for sleepy eyes.


Tonight at closure the dusk deepens to a luminous gloom. The whippoorwill approaches as darkness takes the woodlands. The cry holds only expectancy and impatience.


Though cloudless motes of moisture bring the sky near, silver-gray and permeable the heavens are just above the treetops. Space seems to condense. A singing toad in our pond, plaintive and clear (with jeweled eyes and warty throat). Evening midges hang still against the light, then as individual insects merge into the illusion of a mist, an animate cloud just an arm's length away.


The calling whippoorwill is a fisherman, casting his cry near and then far—fishing for a mate in the darkness.


Sunday morning May 13

Blowing brightness. Pentecost. The rushing wind and the gift of tongues.


7 PM - Mountains rising in the northwest...the monumental cloud banks and distant rumbles carrying their fretful winds across the waiting landscape, the greenness almost acid in intensity. Somewhere in the west torrents are falling. Swifts sail across canopies of vapor. Tendrils of high cirrus, like fine silks, ruffles in the heights. The great indifference of weather, dwarfing our miniature gardens, worrying our ways in waiting. Tongues of worship.


Supplications of mercy. Hymns of praise find resonance in the sky, yet they seem so feeble.


The first cuckoo arrives.


Monday. Clear still evening. 8:30 PM Sunset and moonrise 10 degrees.

Little pond world holding great immensities...fish breaking the surface, quail calls, blackbird, new reeds green all the mare's tails now hovering near the last sun—orange tasseled. The sunlight of the lost day now touches a high vapor trail. Hills lie still as in an old stage set. All at once the peepers awake. The little fish jump. The sparrow seeks its nest. A killdeer calls. The frogs grow silent. Time will not wait. Only a luminous present seems to linger, yet I see only obliquely and after the fact.


Present illusions pale beside history. The inscribed distillations of past lie heavily upon senses, and we are neither here nor there... it is a prolonged dream.


Saturday AM May 24

A close moist sky sits low with windless calm waiting for change. The bird calls are tentative. Slow to awaken the dusty earth grows thirsty for rain. In foolish movements the weekend Memorial Day recreations, grave visitations...the quick and dead dreaming.



Geoff here. I marvel at the ways Bob experienced the felt sense of the land and sky, the time and place, and a bright abiding faith in the face of time's erosions, something like what William Wordsworth wrote in his poem:


Ode: Intimations of Immortality


Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind;

In the primal sympathy

Which having been must ever be;

In the soothing thoughts that spring

Out of human suffering;

In the faith that looks through death...


Again, my question-- in itself another possible prompt: What does it mean to you to be a contemporary poet or artist of any kind—a creator whose work offers truthful and meaningful impressions and expressions of the natural world as it is now?


I hope you enjoyed all this good midwestern word medicine and that it may catalyze something of the communion I find so relevant to my experience of being a poet of, for and AS nature. Four of Robert Sudlow’s paintings await you, below.


Please Touch the Earth with Love,

Geoff Oelsner

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