The Portable Humanist Podcast SeriesListen to Vermont Humanities talks while you’re on the go.
Words in the Woods with James Crews
James Crews: Hi, everyone, my name is James Crews. I’m a poet, I live in Shaftsbury, Vermont. I’ve lived in Vermont for about four years now. One of the things that my husband and I love to do is visit all the State Parks and all the areas to hike in. Since I’m a poet, a lot of what I write is based on those hikes and those walks that we’ve taken together.
Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.
James Crews’ poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, Raleigh Review, Crab Orchard Review and The New Republic. His most recent collection of poems is titled Bluebird.
We recently spent a morning with James at Jamaica State Park in southern Vermont, as part of our new Words in the Woods program. The series allows Vermonters and visitors to enjoy our state’s natural beauty while listening to and reading literature in the outdoors.
Due to Covid-19, we decided to record James on our own, and offer the event as a video, and as this podcast episode. That morning he discussed with us the origins of his poems, and offered several writing prompts for those inspired by his words.
James Crews: I’ll start with is this poem called Leave No Trace. I wrote this after hiking, I believe actually it’s here in Jamaica State Park where we’re filming. I just saw that phrase “Leave No Trace,” that we’re urged to take everything with us. Obviously don’t leave anything behind. But it kind of started to occur to me that we’re always leaving something behind, that there’s always some piece of us left behind when we interact with nature. So that’s kind of where this poem came from.
We break branches and make tracks
on trails that keep the shape
of our boot-soles as we rub stones
that look like faces lifted
out of loam by the talon-like
root-claws of maples growing up
over them—and then we touch the trees.
Leave no trace, we’ve been told,
though we know this is impossible
when we abandon countless breaths,
threads of conversation
and stray hairs snagged on thorns
which some warbler will soon
swoop in and steal, weaving
pieces of us into her tufted nest
tucked deep inside a willow
we’ll never see.
James Crews: What I would invite you to do for your own poem or your own piece of writing is to just imagine what parts of you are left behind when you go out for a hike, you go out for a walk. What are those little bits of connection and interaction with nature? And just see where that carries you.
James Crews: The next poem I’d like to read you all is called At Stratton Pond. This one was written after an experience at Stratton Pond here in southern Vermont. One of the things that I really love about being out in nature is just being away from my phone, my screens. And I think of it as being kind of in soul time. So this more natural way of being that we can slip in to, especially if we don’t have cell service, which is the case in a lot of Vermont parks. So that’s where this poem came from. And this is At Stratton Pond.
If you’ve ever sat on the dock
near a pond and watched for hours
as salamanders flit in the shallows,
as algae fronds dance back and forth
in time with the current, unfurling
every part of themselves for the water—
then you know what it means to move
in real time, to feel yourself inside the caves
the arched algae makes for tadpoles
and minnows to swim through. You know
how noon sun warms the tops of beech trees
so each branch gives up its sleeve
of ice, like glass falling from a chandelier.
You’ve seen it melt into copper leaf-litter,
water sinking through softened soil
to touch the roots of trout lilies
about to bloom—and now blooming when you
pass through again on your way back to the car.
You’ve learned to take your time, stopping
to rub those tender places on birches
where the ancient scrollwork of bark
has peeled back to reveal the secret
of all existence: To live unbound by time
and mind—to grow, speak, touch and taste
at a pace that feels more real.
James Crews: So for this one, I would invite you all to write about a time when you felt like you were actually outside of time where you were able to escape your thoughts, escape some of the ways that we’re bound by our screens or task lists or things like that. So just think back and see if there’s an experience that you’ve had out in nature or even just walking around the yard, taking a hike when you were able to escape time for a while.
James Crews: This next poem was actually written after I attended a seven day silent meditation retreat. And when I was sitting a lot. We sat for hours each day. I realized that I wasn’t really paying attention to the natural sound. What’s known as the natural silence. And so I got to hear so many new birds, catbirds, phoebe calls that I hadn’t realized were all around me. And then I came home and kind of brought that attention to my own surroundings. This is called Natural Silence.
It’s not easy to find the silence
behind traffic noise and the rush of a jet
dragging its contrails through the sky.
But here it is again in the in-between,
when I learn to listen long enough
to the call-and-response of birdsong,
to wind pulsing in the canopies of trees,
and every wing-flutter of the phoebe
who’s built her cup of a nest out of moss
and mud beneath the eaves of our house.
I know the stillness will last for just
a few beats before the roar of a Harley
takes over, and a tractor rumbles through
the rocky field outside my window.
So I sink into it while I can, as I do into water
so clean and clear, for a moment at least
I swear I can see to the bottom of everything.
James Crews: For this poem, I would invite you to just maybe take five or 10 minutes. And even if you’re in the city, try to sit close to an open window, sit outside near the sounds of nature, and just pay attention to what you hear. See if you can name all the different sounds. The sound of the wind, the sound of certain birds, maybe insects buzzing nearby and then wait for a line to come to you and follow that line wherever it takes you. See if you can write about the quality of that natural silence for you as well.
James Crews: This next poem is born out of the experience, actually, of watching the caterpillars spin their chrysalis outside of our house. We have a lot of milkweed plants on the farm where my husband and I live. And so we’re always watching the caterpillars and watching for those moments when the monarchs start coming out. This poem is kind of borne out of that experience. This is Monarch.
The butterfly does not break free triumphant.
Once it claws through the chrysalis,
it stands there shivering, new wings aching
as they slowly fill with blood. It must keep
its tiny eyes shut tight at first against
the brightness and shimmer of a world
it has never seen before—not like this.
It must listen until a deeper voice whispers:
The flowers are waiting. Leave the skin
of the old life far behind. Open your eyes
and give in to the blue air that will carry you
everywhere you need to go.
James Crews: This poem is called Down to Earth. And this one is written for my husband, who actually works as a farmer. It touches on his ability to be so connected to the natural world and the weather, everything that’s going on. I’ve always admired his connection to that. So this is Down to Earth.
The heart of a farmer
is made of muscle
and clay that aches
for return to earth.
And when the sky
releases a steady rain,
massaging each row
of sprouted beans,
my husband leans out
of the car window
and opens his hand
to hold that water
for a single instant,
his heart now beating
in sync with rain
seeping through layers
to kiss the roots
of every plant alive
on this living, breathing
planet on whose back
we were granted
permission to live
for a limited time.
That’s poet James Crews the author of the new collection, “Bluebird.” Find him online at www.jamescrews.net.