March 19, 2018

The Deep Dive

I’m so used to the pressure of fast-moving fiction. “Does this scene advance the action?” “Should I pare down this description?” Now and then I’m reminded, though, of the need to take a dive. A deep, deep dive.

Interconnectedness is not something we always grasp. But in writing, we’re struggling to understand, to make sense of, the interconnections of people, events, timelines. A deep dive into nature can give new vocabulary. The Brits, never slouches at nature-writing, offer some virtuoso examples. One is Robert MacFarlane (The Old Ways, The Wild Places, Landmarks). My copy of The Wild Places is tattered at the back from mad attempts to scribble down just a few of his phrases. For instance, he quotes a friend’s description of the rare moment we’ve each sometimes felt while hiking, climbing, walking: the moment when “the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.” He reminds us that we must remember that “our minds are shaped by our physical experience of being in the world.” He urges exploration of “the undiscovered country of the nearby.”

And he can nail a description. Sleeping out one night in the moonlight he wakes to “millions of lunar photons pelting” onto his face, giving him “an eyeful of silver.” His description places humans right where we belong, on our planet and in the cosmos. A vivid, exact, resonant phrase.

Another deep diver is Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. In Findings, fascinated one spring in the Orkneys by a pair of nesting peregrines, the male and female sitting separated by a dozen feet on their separate rock ledges, she describes the male: “when the sunlight glanced [on] his undersides they were pale and banded like rippled sycamore.” Yes, the mottled sycamore, silver, tan, gray. How did she seize that phrase, a tree for a bird? It is exact though. I see what she meant.

Salutary, a deep dive into worlds we can’t see. Behavior-changing, even. Never again will I plant a lone tree after reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. He calls trees “social beings,” where most individuals in the same species may share nutrients through their connected root systems. So J.R.R. Tolkien was prescient in describing the slow speech of his Ents at their Ent-moots: apparently tree roots signal each other not only by chemical compounds sent through the fungal networks around their root tips, but by electrical impulses that travel at very slow tree speed: one/third of an inch per second, instead of the milliseconds humans would register. Beeches, spruce and oaks signal neighbors when bitten. So if an oak is chewed by insects, all oaks in the area begin to pump bitter tannin through their veins.

The Wildlife Management Plan we signed onto out here in northwest Hays County, where live oaks abound, requires planting native trees and oaks other than live oaks. The goal: reduce the risk of oak wilt. So, filled with virtue, we’ve planted one-offs of the chinquapin oak, eve’s lace, osage orange, etc., carefully fenced to prevent the deer from over-browsing. Now we know those trees have been pining (heh) from loneliness. Grab the shovel, sink the fenceposts, stretch the wire! Now the lonesome redbud has a new friend, not too far up the hill, and the lonesome chinquapin is sharing its little fenced enclosure with another chinquapin. Another deep dive into secret worlds. Trees have their own plans, their own slow conversations, their own social policies.

I’m seventeen, standing at the end of the diving board at Barton Springs, staring down at the bluegreen water. Yes, so clear, but also opaque. A brilliantly bluegreen surface, reflecting live oaks, bird flight, the endless blue sky of summer. Just a few feet out, the water shivers and shimmers, the only clue that from the door twelve feet down, opening the limestone floor of the springs, millions of gallons of water surge up to feed this pool. A stray cumulus cloud passes over the sun as, one jump, two jumps, I dive, as deep as I can, until my face hits the uprush of water power, bubble power, shooting up from the door in the floor.

It’s a secret world, the water below the surface. The feel of that water opens the door to thinking about the depth of limestone with its chutes and ladders, cracks and fractures, caves and crannies, beneath Austin. This karst world holds such surprise that I could only blink when a matter-of-fact City of Austin employee—charged with spelunking and mapping the water channels—announced that though we’re in the Colorado River watershed, sinkholes in the bottom of the Blanco send water out of the Guadalupe watershed and all the way to Barton Springs.

At my back I always hear the reader’s impatience hovering near. But I long for the deep dive, the sitting still to watch and listen and wonder, and for a resultant precise resonant description that might connect a character with this minute and also cosmic star-time. Even, or especially, in a murder mystery.

This blog first appeared in Writing Wranglers and Warriors,