Saturday, September 26, 2009
A man who cannot forget the Rhodora.
I had the chance to pay a visit to my Father’s brother Richard this week and we had a wonderful visit. He is in his eighties and a Cushman eccentric to say the least but we have always understood each other about what we have in common; our family, and its wonderful heritage, the love of the out of doors (especially floundering), and a deep appreciation for art, beauty and his magnificent mother, who spent a lot of quality time with both of us. This is my paternal grandmother about whom my song “Gulf Coast Queen” was written. Now we also share the hole left in our hearts upon the passing of my father, and his mentor and captain.
Educated in the East, Grandmother Cushman was a true Southern lady and a gifted chef and always carried a torch for the arts. She read everything she had in print to Richard, the youngest of three, for many hours every day, and for many months when he was just a little boy, as he was a sickly child and missed a lot of school. He had a remarkable memory, and memorized many poems, which he has loved all of his life. Later in college he amazed his university professors with the wealth of literature stored in his mind.
As he talked for hours about obscure Texas history and geology and rifled off several poems during our visit, I felt as if I was visiting with the last man of the Twentieth Century, as he tried to impart to me all that was about to be lost from our culture. He seems to think that I can fathom the loss at hand. He nearly came to tears as he described the junking of his car, a well-intentioned act of prevention by his children, and what was lost with it; Items of sentimental value, papers, perhaps even money stashed away. But most importantly, the geologist’s hammer belonging to Eric Kuhnley, one of the great geologists in Texas and the world…
Feeling wholly unworthy, I enter this Blog in recognition of what is passing away. I have never read much Emerson, and never cared much, believe it or not, for poetry. But Uncle Richard stirred and challenged me to listen and imagine during his perfect recital of this poem, a personal favorite of his, and to try to let it inspire an artwork of my own, and save a moment of our collective past. Perhaps it will.
On being asked, whence is the flower.
IN May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! If the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Perhaps most significantly, a proof of the power of art and its impact on children, Richard memorized this poem as a boy, and loved it all these years, yet confessed he has never actually seen a rhodora. It was the deeper meanings of the poem which sank so deep. As I compare his generation with our own, I fear we are losing our taste for gentle, sweet beauty, and the God who fosters it.
(Rhodora grows in New York, this photo stolen from an excellent Yankee photographer)