This impression I had, of seeing for the first time, only grew stronger during my first autumn in Fairmount. In my early years in America, I had enjoyed the solemn requiem of autumnal colour as trees prepared for death, but I had never seen this flamboyance of autumn trees as the veil of death itself. Then one day in late autumn, walking through the wet, silent woods of Lemon Hill after a brief cloudburst, I was heralded with the vision of a songbird. It was a windy afternoon and overhead, bare, spindly branches moved with careening energy against the tenebrous sky. I paused, neck craned, mesmerized by the distressed movement of the branches. Suddenly, a bird burst into warbling song. I am no authority on bird vocalizations, but in the bird’s melody, which had the quality of a fantasia, I thought I detected a grace note, as if the creature were flaunting itself. Somewhere along the footpath of crushed stone, a twig snapped. I looked both ways along the path, but there was no one.
The bird stopped singing and in the fresh silence, my senses sharpened. I smelt the heady rot of dying trees, and as though it had just appeared, I saw the detritus on the ground, a mixture of shed branches and dead trees that had collapsed. Some of the fallen trees looked as old as Methuselah. Plant litter, damp brown leaves and decomposing twigs, clotted in the mud beneath my feet. There, in that half-light beneath the tree canopies, I felt I was in some charnel house of nature. It was the unseen bird, which had sung so spiritedly, that had shown me this deathly vision of the autumn woods; there was so much life in its ebullient outburst, that when it stopped, I could see death clearly for what it was.
It was a time when I could not see what my life would be in the offing. I was working from home, taking editing jobs now and then, and seeing very little company. Most of my days were spent alone, sitting at my desk trying to write poetry while battling a growing sense of inanition. I was also trying to decide if I should move back to Trinidad; in short, I had found myself in life’s doldrums, a place not entirely new to me. That day, before coming to the woods of Lemon Hill, I had worked at my desk all morning. Writing can stultify the mind, and whenever I was daunted by the rigors of the expressive life, I sought rejuvenation in the ministrations of nature. “The seasons can make a mistake, develop badly, overlap or fade. But during our childhood, they never make a mistake with signs. Childhood sees the World Illustrated…in our reveries we see our illustrated universe once more with its childhood colours”. This insight from Bachelard had proved as true for my fantasy of American trees as it had for my vision of youthful life. The seasons had not materialized as I had imagined, and standing still in the autumn of my youth, the herald’s call quivering my soul, I did not know if I should wake or dream again.
Around that time, I had begun to harbour an interest in nineteenth century lithographs. Pouring over Christian Inger’s ‘Birdseye View of Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, with the Buildings of the International Exhibition 1876’, John T. Bowen’s ‘A View of the Fairmount Waterworks with Schuylkill in the Distance. Taken from the Mount’, and similar archival prints, I received the historical idea of a Fairmount in the first throes of industrialisation, the novelty of the tiny steam locomotive and steam-powered ship encroaching on the panoramic, Arcadian landscape. Here was the estate village prototype: Fairmount as a domesticated park of idyllic groves, stately dwellings, and patrician leisure, with the flourishing arboretums and campestral fairgrounds of the Centennial Exposition, that dazzling watershed of civilisational pomp and glory to which Fairmount forevermore lays claim.
It was this prototypal nineteenth-century Fairmount, preserved in lithographs, which answered at last to my childhood reverie of the American continent as a fresh, civilised pleasure garden. To find that this vision of Arcadia was a relic of the American past was clarifying, for now I had a context for the tree-lined American street, a way to understand the American impulse to citify the French allée. Then I discovered Michel-Jean Cazabon’s lithographs of Trinidad’s colonial sugar estates in the nineteenth century, and was able to connect Trinidad’s sugar plantations to the landscape history and industrial developments of America. The pastoral estate village, so noble an ideal in the story of Euro-American civilisation, was barbarous when transplanted into the West Indian historical situation.
So much was my childhood reverie of American utopianism disturbed that now, on my afternoon walks on Lemon Hill, passing by Lemon Hill mansion, its windows aglow with sunset, I was haunted by a cosmic sense of pathos. The rustic, Federal-style mansion, which had at first satisfyingly animated my pure and simple childhood reverie, now sullied and complicated it. I had learned that the mansion partly owed its beauty and longevity to the upkeep of black slaves who may have very well been deracinated from the Caribbean. That the ironies of my birth and my upbringing had brought me to Fairmount and placed me in view of this larger history felt significant in my immigrant’s search for meaning, and when I left Fairmount I did so with no regrets, for I felt that I had not lived in that neighbourhood in vain.
I remember a particular weekend in the winter when I took an early-morning bus ride out of the city to join a hiking group at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Located on the outskirts of Philadelphia, the Center offers three hundred and forty acres of woodlands, wetlands, meadows and fields to the outdoor explorer. My group, with our guide, set out to discover over three miles of hiking trails. In a group of European Americans, adults and children both, I was an anomaly; and yet I found I could be more at ease than I might have been in another setting, all of my senses being engaged by the forest.
Earlier, in the still dawn atmosphere of my apartment, I had bundled myself in layers, but out there on the forest trail the air cut through my clothes and only the exertion of my walk kept me from shivering violently. I had never been in the American woods in the winter and the specter of the winter forest, disrobed of its leaves, was something altogether new. There was no snow on the ground, and what I was seeing bore such little resemblance to the textbook and storybook renditions of American forests from my childhood that I was swiftly disappointed. At first, I found the snowless winter forest underwhelming; there was a demolished quality to it, so that I had the impression of a razed village. These trees were not the snowflake-speckled evergreens of the halcyon Christmas greeting card illustrations. Here, in the deciduous winter forest, the trees were like ghosts, or war-torn men. Once I had given up my preconceived ideas however, I began to see the beauty in it. There was something in the arid emptiness and vast crystalline silence that brought one to a place of humility, of awe even.
In college, I had taken a Survey of American Literature course, and had been endlessly fascinated by a landscape painting on the cover of an edition of ‘The Norton Anthology of American Literature’. In the painting, titled ‘Kindred Spirits’, by one of the Hudson River School artists, was the idea of the aboriginal American landscape as a pristine wilderness, an almost mythical ecological tabula rasa preserved by the artist’s vision. Sitting in the college lecture hall, thousands of miles away from my old familiar life in Trinidad, I found great comfort in such a utopian pastoral scene. Later, I would learn from the writings of Steven J. Pyne that the Native Americans’ extensive use of fire and surface burns in woodland areas served to greatly modify the continent’s landscape before the arrival of European settlers. And so the pristine myth was just that: a bit of mythopoetic license.
Standing in the frigid, desolate woods of the Schuylkill Center, I had become aware of my naivety and now I found it laughable; and yet I did not burden myself with self-reproof. I understood the conditions which had bred such naivety. I found too that I had no regrets about the childhood reveries I had harboured, for they had, in their way, given me a kind of hope, a belief in the possibility of a world fashioned anew and redeemed from Chaos, which is perhaps all the American Dream really is.
One summer, two years after I moved to Fairmount, I joined a nature walk, one of those things you sign up to do online, which is how I learnt the names of all the trees along the Schuylkill. The guide, an excitable old gentleman with a pedantic delivery and telegenic charm, carried copies of a book called ‘Report on the Trees of Fairmount Park’ and I purchased one out of curiosity. The book, first published in the early twentieth century, explains the characteristics of different types of trees growing in the district and how they came to be part of the Fairmount bioregion. Studying this book, and even taking it with me on my walks, for now I walked and did not run, was the final stage of my naturalist’s education.
I had known of the geography of America in an intellectual sense, but to see it unfold right there along the Schuylkill was a different kind of education. The romantic view of American trees planted in a classroom in Trinidad years ago had matured to an appreciation of the reality. The reality had become meaningful, and endurable, for I lived in America now, and the trees were a part of my life.
Summer Edward was born and raised in Trinidad and spent a decade in Philadelphia, USA. Her work has been published in a number of periodicals in print and online. She was shortlisted for the Small Axe Literary Prize, nominated for the Pushcart Prize and was recently one of the invited “Who’s Next?” writers at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad.