On Bittersweet

Every time I walk in the woods, most like­ly in a state park I have close at hand, I have this expe­ri­ence. At improb­a­ble rates, the sounds and sights I meet with seem mean­ing­ful, while nev­er ceas­ing to be essen­tial­ly drab. Each time one reg­is­ters, I bring out my phone and record it, know­ing that after a year, prob­a­bly after a month, they will not say any­thing to me; more pic­tures of tan­gle, more swatch­es of far-off bird­song, tak­ing up my stor­age space.

This is par­tial­ly down to a lack of lit­er­a­cy, of not know­ing where to start with ques­tions – how to dis­tin­guish one alarmed call from anoth­er, one gray bark from the next. But what I see in the field is not only a pass­ing dis­tinc­tion, but a mov­ing shift in the norm I’m immersed in; I know I’m not grasp­ing at every­thing. I notice that I tend to pick up on bit­ter­sweet where it gets thick, draped in loops way up over the hick­o­ry. If I am tempt­ed to look past it, or spit at it and walk on, because it should not be there, because it has tak­en some­one else’s space; because the sign near­by said that in the spring the chest­nut flow­ers would have coat­ed the hills white; I also get arrest­ed by it in the mid­dle of the upright trees, draw­ing itself with hap­py strokes as though with a char­coal lump. Maybe because I don’t know chest­nut flow­ers well enough to miss them, or I sus­pect they wouldn’t be any more spe­cial than hack­ber­ries or beech leaves, I will take the bit­ter­sweet in their place.

Aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence is only the music made from con­text – how one mode of expe­ri­ence knocks against anoth­er, gen­tly or oth­er­wise. The shar­ing of aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence is dis­tinct enough from the liv­ing of it to deserve its own name. Expe­ri­ence pho­tograph­ing things tells you that often you can only hope to luck into a good sub­sti­tute, in a sin­gle frame, of the actu­al pro­ces­sion of expe­ri­ence; and that this cap­ture is like­ly to be mis­tak­en by all par­ties involved as a sam­ple of the whole, when it can only iso­late one band of its spec­trum, the way it leapt in a flash from the parade. Seen that way, it is dis­mal how con­ver­sa­tion, how the shar­ing of aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence, is out of true, and is ever devi­at­ing toward the metagame – toward human sto­ries, toward spec­i­fi­ca­tions, toward the sta­tis­ti­cal record. I ask how you cap­tured the egret on water, and leave out the cold dawn that led up to it. Poet­ic han­dling seems your best bet for zip­ping up the vibe and hand­ing it on; but it has its own pull toward orna­ment­ing what­ev­er it touch­es, such that what­ev­er you get on the oth­er end has been passed over with a Midas touch, a table­ful at hand of hard fruit.

Scenes at Chestnut Ridge Metro Park, Carroll, Ohio.
"The vision of a little stand of holly off on its own."
Is it diverging or not?

A sculp­tured club of hol­low trunk. The vision of a lit­tle stand of hol­ly off on its own. A hol­low dug in a grav­el hill. Not near­ly incom­mu­ni­ca­ble, but each one its own lit­tle quag­mire. Not rar­i­ty, not form, only the sense of a flash of tan­ag­er in the woods.

Maybe it isn’t odd that it seems more pos­si­ble to make mean­ing in the field than to car­ry it out and share it. The rangers here have laid out a field to one side of the path that drops from the ridge, with a few bench­es along the edge – point­ed at the path, not the field, in socia­ble Ohio fash­ion. I walk the straights laid out between squares of prairie restora­tion, and feel through trip­ping what I can’t even see from near­by – the field has been grubbed recent­ly, and thick lit­tle cut trunks are every­where under the grass, along with down­trod­den rose canes. For all their faults, for all their over­built look­outs and yawn­ing lawns, the rangers are respon­si­ble for mak­ing it max­i­mal­ly pos­si­ble for many peo­ple to have the same unsayable expe­ri­ence in the woods, what we can only ges­ture at with the words hik­ing,” or vis­i­ta­tion,” or (god knows) for­est bathing,” or nature study.”

(February 2023)