Commonplace Discoveries: Lew Welch
A Talk by Philip Whalen
I don’t know what was happening at the time Lew wrote this poem, Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen; I presume it must have been around the time that he was down here at Greeley. They asked him to do a summer poetry thing at Colorado State; he seems to have manufactured this poem around that time. I don’t know how it got into its present position [page 123, 1973 edition] in Ring of Bone, I’ll have to ask Donald Allen that. “The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings” comes first, then there’s the “Olema Satori” poem, then there’s the “Sausalito Trash Prayer” …
Tamalpais is the mountain that’s just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco as you’re going north. The old road went through Sausalito and then on up to Mill Valley and Santa Rosa and so on, going north toward Oregon. But now a big freeway just continues as you come off the Golden Gate Bridge, you zoom on this big freeway and across overpasses and you don’t go through Mill Valley or a hundred other small places. After you go through the tunnel that goes through the little mountains directly above Sausalito, you come out the other side of the Waldo tunnel at the top of the Waldo Grade and you can start seeing Mt. Tamalpais, which dominates the center of Marin County. It’s only about 2300 feet high, it’s not a high mountain, but since it’s coming up right off the coastal plain it looks quite imposing. The Indians thought that it looked like a sleeping lady; I think that’s what Tamalpais means.
It’s been of interest to us to construct it very slowly into a magic mountain or to restore its magic by very traditional means—not black magic, but magic magic. We started this process around 1959 by performing circumambulation of it and reciting sutras at various points around it. Actually Locke McCorkle started and then the rest of us continued from time to time. There was one time when Ginsberg and Snyder and I actually set up specific altar spots around the mountain. It’s funny, that sort of formal trip was done first in maybe 1964 and we all wrote poems on that occasion, at each of those places. It wasn’t until much later that the Zen Center was given, at a greatly reduced price, the Green Gulch Farm, which is right at the bottom of Mt. Tamalpais and more or less includes Muir Beach where the wobbly rock is that Lew writes a long poem about in here [Ring Of Bone]. It was a place where we had gone in the early ’50s to collect mussels and roast them on the seashore, drink wine, and laugh a lot, before Gary went to Japan the first time in 1956.
Marin County is very interesting, you’ve probably read a lot of nonsense about it in the press; it’s even been satirized by the comic strip called Farley – and it’s very funny. It is, to a large extent, ridiculous what happens there. But physically it’s quite beautiful, it’s extremely varied landscape. In places where there are little valleys, little gulches, or little canyons, there will usually be water and redwood trees. Then you come out of the little gulch or canyon and up onto a ridge or a meadow and there’s a sudden change of vegetation, there are California Live Oaks and brush, grass, more typical California hot and dry quasi desert. If you get over right on the ocean side, again there is a mixture of Live Oaks and Cypresses and meadows; and then in among the rocks you’ll find kinds of succulent plants growing, kinds of sedum and what are popularly called “hen and chicks”, things people usually see in someone’s cactus collection. So you have all these kinds of things going on within a very short distance from each other, a strange feeling. There’s one open hillside in the village of Tiburon which is now protected by the State, it has more kinds of California wildflowers than almost any place else in the State, and nobody knows why. If you visit there in the spring season, you can see kinds of plants that you can’t see anyplace else; it’s a very strange botanical phenomenon.
If you live outdoors enough and stay alone enough and walk around enough, you tune in on landscape and it becomes important to you; and you like places, you like the way things go together. When Lewie wasn’t too distracted with dope and alcohol and problems of all kinds about money, he always enjoyed himself out of doors and spent a lot of time out of doors. He was always making wonderful commonplace discoveries that made it possible for him to write poems like this one. But the time between the discovery and the manufacture of the poem, I don’t know how long that would be. He tended to work things over mentally for a long time before he ever actually wrote anything down. He would have it in his head, and be adjusting it and thinking about it and then getting new ideas about it and rearranging it in his head some more and adding to it maybe, before he ever set down even a fragmentary version on paper. Then that in turn would be altered considerably before he finally would have a typewritten version, that he would tell you was no good. Then somebody would ask him for a poem and he would finally recopy that typewritten version with maybe another change or so and send it out. That’s what would appear in print.
I first saw this poem in the shape of a printed broadside. I can’t remember who printed it, whether Clifford Burke [of Cranium Press] did it or a guy in Berkeley with Straight Arrow. Anyway, it’s quite a handsome broadside. What we’ve got now is “Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen:”
All the years I overlooked them in the
racket of the rest, this
symbiotic splash of plant and fungus feeding
on rock, on sun, a little moisture, air–
tiny acid-factories, dissolving
salt from living rocks and
Here they are blooming!
Trail rock, talus and scree, all dusted with it:
rust, ivory, brilliant yellow-green, and
cliffs like murals!
Huge panels streaked and patched, quietly
with shooting-stars and lupine at the base.
Closer, with the glass, a city of cups!
Clumps of mushrooms and where do the
plants begin? Why are they doing this?
In this big sky and all around me peaks &
the melting glaciers, why am I made to
kneel and peer at Tiny?
These are the stamps on the final envelope.
How can the poisons reach them?
In such thin air, how can they care for the
loss of a million breaths?
What, possibly, could make their ground more bare?
Let it all die.
The hushed globe will wait and wait for
what is now so small and slow to
open it again.
As now, indeed, it opens it again, this
In this poem he’s got a whole complicated set of notions going on. Does everybody know what lichen looks like, what lichen is? It’s flat, you look at it and you just see flat, sometimes it looks like a splash of paint, and you don’t think about it, you see color and you say oh, that’s lichen. Actually they’re quite primitive plants and they grow in the most untoward appearing places. They grow in the Arctic and in the desert; all sorts of places where you wouldn’t expect to find anything, there are lichen happening. They go through phases of dormancy when they turn all kind of black and dusty and look like they’re totally dead. Then if the seasons change and a certain amount of moisture comes around they start lighting up again and opening up and functioning. They’re able to survive quite severe changes in climate and seasonal changes without perishing. They really are very successful creatures. They are successful perhaps, we’re told in biology class, because of the fact that they are a symbiotic arrangement; they are two things that live together to make one apparent organism. In this case it is a fungus and a kind of algae; an algae and a fungus mixed up together make a lichen. Goodness knows how that got started. If you have any interest in the start of such phenomena, incidentally, there’s a marvelous book written by a very smart woman at Yale University, called The Evolution of the Nucleated Cell [Origin of Eukaryotic Cells, by Lynn Margulis Yale University Press, 1970]. It’s all about how at first there was undifferentiated protoplasm rolling around in the ocean, organizing itself out of the chemicals in the water. Nobody knows why yet, but for some reason protoplasm started building up out of amino acids rolling around in the water, perhaps because of an electrical discharge. After a while they learned to clump together and make what we think of as protein molecules; of course protein molecules are what living material is made out of. Presently I think, according to this lady’s theory, there became different kinds of protein molecules; some of them were more complicated than others and at some point these two different kinds of viable protoplasm got together to make a symbiote. The first known symbiote was a nuclear cell. The animal or creature, whatever you want to call it, that became the nucleus joined up with this hitherto unnucleated but growing undifferentiated protoplasm; so you began having a cell that was distinguishable, it acquired a wall and the nucleus had the function of conveying the genes and so on, so that the thing reproduced itself as such, as an amoeba for example. And everything continued on from there. Among the kinds of amino acids and whatnot in various protoplasms, supposedly the materials we now know as RNA and DNA started going at some point; maybe they were responsible for the symbiosis of the first primitive nucleated cells. Anyway, it’s an interesting book to look at.
(A curious literary manifestation of this rather complicated book is a play by Michael McClure called The Feather which has been produced in Berkeley. I saw a performance late in 1971. It’s one of the more entertaining of his Gargoyle Cartoons, you’ll find it in the book called Gargoyle Cartoons.)
So, lichen go back a long time in the history of the development of plants; they are quite ancient ones that are still around. Usually things develop and then fade away; but we have other curious hangovers, like cockroaches, for example, which have been the same for a good many million of years. They seem to be perfectly adapted to doing anything and everything. I think in the mammalian order things like rats have succeeded where many others have failed.
So Lew Welch says, “all these years I overlooked them in the racket of the rest, this symbiotic splash of plant and fungus feeding on rock on sun, a little moisture, air, tiny acid-factories, dissolving salt from living rocks and eating them.” I think that there might be a mistake there, he might have written “salts.” That’s one of the things that happens if you have a lichen sitting on something. In the process of its taking in moisture and carbon dioxide it excretes acid, which attacks the rock it’s sitting on; the acid in turn breaks down the goody and makes it into something else. So he sees them as tiny acid factories dissolving salts from living rocks and eating them. It isn’t usually fashionable to think of rocks as being alive. We like to think of the planet, we like to think of nature as being controllable and as being dead—it’s just matter, you can treat it any way you want to; rocks are simply stuff you can throw around. He says they’re alive and they’re being devoured by these little plants. He doesn’t say what the rocks think about it, he just says this is happening. I do remember “living rock” as a phrase, something I carved from the living rock; somebody was talking about the city of Petra in Arabia, or maybe they were talking about the caves at Ajanta, carved from the living rock in India. It’s a literary phrase, in so far as the rocks at Ajanta were all carved into relief statues, so they looked alive. But Lew is talking about the rocks being alive, being devoured just like animals eat each other. So it’s a life process, it’s not simply a chemical process, it’s life going on.
“Here they are blooming! Trail rock, talus and scree, all dusted with it.” What is the difference between talus and scree? I don’t know where we get that word, talus means something like field, I think, in Latin; and scree, I don’t know where we get that either. It might be a funny English word, maybe borrowed from Welsh, like many mountain climbing terms are. If you read books about mountain climbing, you find people talking about cwms for example, [pronounced “cooms”], meaning a little valley. Because many English people who became celebrated mountain climbers practiced or learned some of their basic techniques on the mountains in Wales where they do rock climbing—which is quite as dangerous and difficult as any in the world, partly because of the nature of the rock and partly because of the foggy climate, which makes it impossible for you to see where you’re going a lot of the time and makes the rocks wet. Then of course they would go on to climb in the Alps and end up in the Himalaya.
So he says these colors are there, “cliffs like murals.” I can’t remember seeing an entire cliff painted by lichen quite that elaborately, but Lewie says he did, and there it is. “Huge panels streaked and patched, quietly with shooting-stars and lupine at the base.” The shooting-star is the flower that I was taught to call “bird bill” up in Oregon. Actually it’s a kind of native cyclamen which grows in Europe and the United States. Lupine is a kind of a thatch plant that has very handsome spikes of blue and white flowers, yellow sometimes.
“Closer, with the glass, a city of cups.” If you look at lichen under a magnifying glass quite often you’ll see they have a kind of cup shape where they grow quite closely together; you might see that if you have a small pocket glass. You see a whole raft of them, he says you see a city. “City of cups” is quite a lovely phrase. It brings to my mind the tarot deck, one of the suits of the tarot is cups. I don’t know whether he had that in the back of his mind or not, he was never terribly interested in all that kind of stuff.
“Clumps of mushrooms and where do the plants begin? Why are they doing this? In this big sky and all around me peaks & the melting glaciers, why am I made to kneel and peer at Tiny?” This is something that’s quite unusual in contemporary American English, to have an object be given a pet name; people used to do it in more sentimental poetry in the Nineteenth Century. I don’t think there’s a sentimentality here, but there certainly is an affection.
What do you think are the answers to these questions? Do you think that Lewie knew what the answers were? Where do the plants begin? That is to say, you can’t see when you’re looking down with your hand glass at it, where they start and leave off and if there are other mosses and mushrooms and things mixed in with them, you can’t tell where things begin and end. And, as I was saying, the beginning of anything is floating around in some ocean a long time ago. We all begin together, actually, although we never remember that. “Where do the plants begin, why are they doing this?” Well, they’re doing this for the same reason that everybody else does everything, they’re all full of those curious chemicals, that double helix unwinding itself to make what we think of as life and death and history.
“In this big sky and all around me peaks & the melting glaciers, why am I made to kneel and peer at Tiny?” Human and otherwise, we like to look at things. This of course is part of our training when we’re quite small; we’re told, look at that, isn’t that pretty. I can remember distinctly seeing a number of things that were pointed out to me as pretty which I could not for the life of me connect with that word or with the emotion of the person who was explaining to me that it was “pretty,” meaning that it was of value and that it was nice and they liked it a whole lot and that I ought to, etc. Well, if you say so. We’d be driving someplace and people would point out the window and say, look at that view over there, it’s just gorgeous. I would look out the window—you look out a window and what do you see out of it? Traveling in the window, when you’re in a car, you see the fence posts speeding past, the telegraph posts, or you might suddenly see a cow standing in a field. The way of looking out a window and seeing it composed as a landscape was a faculty which I had to develop much later, I certainly didn’t possess it when I was small. It wasn’t until much later that my eyes began failing, so I don’t think it could have been nearsightedness at that age. It was a simple disconnection between language and experience, between what was real and what wasn’t, some lapse in communication on my part or on the part of my parents. In any case it was very difficult to indoctrinate me with proper feelings. Many proper feelings I have never been able to acquire, I’m sorry to say. So in many ways I’m a failure. The habit of going to pieces at Christmas time, for example, I have a great deal of trouble with that; I cannot be terribly interested in the joy that you’re supposed to have. Various other things of that kind, especially the public examples that everyone is supposed to participate in, have always been difficult. Things like, let’s all sing now; I’m just sitting there, fuck. Sing, schming. I love to sing, I’ll sing in the bathtub or if I’m by myself or with two or three other people, sometimes I include some song in a poem; but not if somebody says, all right now we’re all going to, because we’re glad or because it’s fun, aren’t we having fun? This of course was usually accompanied, when I was with my family, when I was small, with threats and accusations of ingratitude, which were very hard to live down.
So the reason we look at things is we’re told that things are pretty or ugly or certain things are to be looked at and certain things are not to be looked at; we’re programmed to respond to things in a certain way. Why am I made to kneel and peer at Tiny? Ideally, I suppose, as far as I’m concerned, because Lewie was a friend of mine, I think that he was looking because he was interested, and because he was attracted by the color and, ultimately, because he was always, like all of us, looking for himself. We never look for ourselves in the middle, we always look outside for everything, because outside is where reality is, we think, and that’s what we’re told we ought to have and we ought to go for it: it’s outside there, it’s better, it’s wonderful, it’s expensive, it’s hard to get, and everybody ought to have it. I think that in this case—Lewie being a poet and being excited by seeing this cluster, this city of cups that doesn’t start or stop anywhere—what’s happening is all of a sudden he’s really turned on, really excited, and so he’s looking, looking to see out there and always, because he doesn’t understand himself too well, looking for himself.
Then he says, “These are the stamps on the final envelope.” That’s a great piece of news and I think at that point the poem should have stopped (just between you and me; you’re not supposed to listen, Lewie, in heaven). But I think that he has delivered his whole message right there. He could have moved that line, maybe, to where it says “Let it all die,” and moved that line down at the bottom. In any case, that’s the poem almost, in that one line. Like the title, “These are the stamps on the final envelope” is a splendid poem. But he’s telling you why—it’s interesting. And suggesting of course that it would be a good idea if you went out and looked at some lichen once in a while, and found out that it was possible to be turned on by looking at these otherwise ignoble or who cares kind of creatures. The thing is, if you do, you’ll find out more than you bargained for. These are the stamps on the final envelope.
Of course he explains about the final envelope, “How can the poisons reach them? In such thin air, how can they care for the loss of a million breaths? What, possibly, could make their ground more bare?” which is quite beautiful, an interesting way of arranging sounds. And of course it’s talking about the air that’s killing us all; the lichens are likely to survive is what he’s saying, I suppose. How can the poisons reach them? they’ll just turn them into more lichens, likely, something we’re not able to do to ourselves. “How can they care for the loss of a million breaths?” That is to say, if a whole lot of animals and people died, they would just continue to operate anyway. “What possibly could make their ground more bare?” That is to say, their ground being bare rock, which he suddenly forgets is living; what possibly could make their ground more bare is the disappearance of themselves, I suppose. What could make it more bare? Well, of course, being burnt and disintegrated by the forces of a fusion bomb would make it barer for a while, certainly if it turned into glass. “The hushed globe will wait,” that is, hushed because there’s no more breathing going on, “the hushed globe will wait and wait for what is now so small and slow to open it again.” Although if the places where the rocks are all fused into glass in spots, as quite often happens where there’s that intense kind of heat that is produced by a hydrogen bomb or a nuclear explosion, it’s unlikely that a lichen is going to attach itself to a piece of glass – it hasn’t happened yet and the possibilities of its happening are slim, unless there’s some mutation in which a lichen decides that it would like to go into the business of dissolving silicon salts out of glass and living on that. “The hushed globe will wait and wait for what is now so small and slow to open it again.” Lichens grow at a very low rate. They’re small, as he says, and it takes years for them to get into a patch big enough for you to notice. The globe of the world will break down again, crack open, by this stuff as “indeed, it opens it again, this scentless velvet, crumbler-of-the-rocks, this Lichen.”
As you know, when the lichens break down the rocks, part of the salts they eat and then the silicon parts and other bits that are indigestible simply become what we call sand. Then eventually the body of the lichen plant itself dissolves away into humus, eventually that’s the basis of where other things can grow. Even while the lichen is still alive quite often fern spores and other seeds get involved with it and start growing because there’s that moisture there and there’s a hole, a spot for them to grab onto in the actual body of the lichen. So a lot of other plants get started from that patch of lichen on otherwise bare stone. “It opens it again, this scentless velvet, crumbler-of-the-rocks.” If you touch some kinds of lichen it feels quite soft. The thing that’s interesting is, it comes up about how the rocks are breaking up and even with the phrase, “this lichen”—there’s a poem that is doing very much the same thing, written by a dear friend of Lewie. Not me and not Allen Ginsberg, somebody older. There’s a trip that William Carlos Williams goes into about saxifrage, about the stone crop, the one that breaks the rocks. Maybe Lew was remembering Williams’ poem, but I kind of doubt it. He knew the poem of course, but this one is a kind of grand-child of that saxifrage poem, which is rather short.
So on the one hand he foresees some eventual catastrophe that is going to take away a million breaths and then he says, “Let it all die,” because it’ll all start over supposedly, in some way. The idea of the destruction and renewal of the universe is an ancient religious notion we still are stuck with to a certain degree. It means more or less to anybody. Just at this point, please remember all the roaring I was doing recently about how things are alive and people ought to realize it and take care of them, and not think of ourselves as masters of all we survey or as controllers of this dead matter we can push around any way we want to. The rocks are alive; everything is alive. The final envelope, the last message, is please turn around and don’t drop those things. Although something will survive, it ain’t going to be you. It might be these lichen, which are very nice things and are going to make a new start, probably, after you’re gone. But what is it that lichen are doing? They’re sitting there very quietly growing, very slowly, and not bothering anybody. They don’t even get involved in the whole bee and flower business. They’re just sitting there, spreading out and being pretty. Maybe as far as Lew was concerned—like he says, they make these murals—maybe I’m straining at a gnat to swallow the camel again about how the whole poem is metaphorical, being about art, being about people who are creative like they say nowadays, people who paint and write poems, by being quiet and working slowly and turning purple, will last, will endure, will do something when everything else is gone. That may be an extrapolation, which Lewie wouldn’t allow, he might at that point say, oh come on. But when somebody leaves a cryptic note—“I never could make anything work out right and now I’m betraying my friends. I can’t make anything out of it, never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It’s all gone. Don Allen is to be my literary executor, use mss. at Gary’s and at Grove Press. I have $2,000 in Nevada City Bank of America, use it to cover my affairs and debts. I don’t owe Allen G. anything yet nor my Mother. I went Southwest. Goodbye.”— and walks off into the wilderness and leaves you all his poetry to handle, it’s his own tough luck if people extrapolate.
—Naropa University, July 28, 1980
Philip Zenshin Whalen (1923-2003)
American poet, Zen Buddhist
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