Monday, 26 November 2012

Live in the Layers

In September 2011 a massive felling operation started in the forest where I live. I understand that pine trees are regarded as a crop and that harvest time had approached. However, it was still hard to watch a landscape I was so accustomed to, change so drastically.
During the cutting many of the small paths were ploughed up and widened, and, in my opinion, spoiled. These paths were my familiar running routes and for a long while I couldn’t bear to run on them, to such an extent that some parts of the forest became like a stranger to me. This September I decided that, for better or worse, I would reacquaint myself with the changed forest. My decision was inspired  and supported by these lines from a Stanley Kunitz poem - “live in the layers not on the litter”.

About his own work, Kunitz has said: “The poem comes in the form of a blessing—‘like rapture breaking on the mind,’ as I tried to phrase it in my youth. Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.”

Stanley Kunitz

The Layers
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face,
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden
Stanley Kunitz - life-long gardener

I would love to know what "live in the layers, not on the litter" means to you. 



  1. It's beautiful. I suppose to me it's a reminder to keep looking at the horizon while my feet are on the ground, to appreciate the sound of the stream for what it is instead of background noise, and the quality and timbre of the dark and firelight instead.

    1. Hi,
      Love that - appreciating the quality of our different experiences, being in the moment with it all.

  2. 'Living in the layers' makes me think about something I'm noticing in my mum and trying to avoid.
    I am always trying to work towards a time where I have balanced everything perfectly and have the luxury of time and stability free from financial woes. But to achieve this, I will have said goodbye to so much; my children being dependent on me, my 'prime' the chaos which stops me from feeling lost... mother has the time, possessions and stability she used to crave, but she looks back on the times she worried and wishes she'd enjoyed the moment more.

    It's a cliché, but seeing the beauty in your everyday life is imperative. I must try harder!

    1. Hi,
      I was reading something yesterday that said how we will look back on these present moments and realise how "perfect" they were. I absolutely agree when you say that seeing the beauty in everyday life is imperative. I always come back to Larkin's "What are days for/days are where we live."

  3. Thank you for this.

    You ask: I would love to know what "live in the layers, not on the litter" means to you.

    Hard to respond to.... litter fills the room, fills the garden, fills the heart. But perhaps like my plants, my salad greens and bulbs just planted, it is the litter, the mulch, that makes them and us it layers itself..changing, breaking down, turning to enriched life..fine crumble to grow on.

    1. Hi
      I think that's the wonder of poetry - so many layers to live in! Living in the forest, witnessing the fall and slow decay of the leaves is a part of everyday life. The enrichment of that breakdown is vital as you said. Another way I look at the Kunitz lines is to live with that whole process as it is happening rather than wait for the end result in a sort os suspended animation.

  4. Thanks for this thought provoking poem. Living in the layers sounds like something I try to achieve when meditating. As a beginner (actually, not a beginner rather an 'every-now-and-again-when-I-remember-to-do-it' meditator) it's that 'in-the-gap' moment when the dross of the day, the stuff that bungs up your mind, slips away and there is......nothing. It happened to me once! I sympathise with how you felt when your wood was chopped down and how you couldn't jog in it for a while, I'm the same at this time of year when the dreaded hedge flailing machine comes creeping along our lane, devouring the hedges, clearing them of berries just as the redwings and fieldfares come down from Scandinavia to feast. I can't walk that way for a few weeks and have to change my route. I wrote a letter poem about it, which helped me a little! Well done for your blogs in November. Hope to see you in Wrexham. Sarah x

  5. Hi Sarah,
    I don't understand either why our human activity has to be out of synch with nature. I've noticed too how brutalised the hedges look after the cutting - is the machinery they use any different? Did you send your letter poem to anyone concerned with the timing of this cutting?! Yes, hope to see you in Wrexham.