“There are two worlds, wherever I am, the world of the spirit and the world of everyday affairs, and I walk the purple road between them,” writes David Brendan Hopes in _Bird Songs of the Mesozoic: A Day Hiker’s Guide to the Nearby Wild._
For Hopes, this purple road encompasses the lingering presence of the primeval past, the importance of knowing the proper names of things, the magic of prophesying herons, the realities of evolution unfolding before us, his imaginary paradise (“Ireland, with dinosaurs”), and the delight of dancing rhinoceroses. He weaves poetry through natural science in what may be considered the nonfiction equivalent of magical realism. Hopes is not alone as a poet-scientist, for an earlier Milkweed book, _Cross Pollinations,_ by Gary Paul Nabhan, argues for “the marriage of science and poetry” because of the way each deepens our understanding of the other. Nabhan makes a convincing case, and Hopes most decidedly, and delightfully, bolsters it.
Hopes first learned the names of plants in the forest from a mysterious male relative whom he supposes to be his grandfather–he recalls in a foggy, dreamlike way following this man into the woods, making an effort to remember everything his elder told him, and the feeling that what he was being taught was very important. Then he comes back to the present and leads us on a comical trek through the woods with an arrogant, self-proclaimed Wiccan, who in grandly condescending tones insists that he can’t possibly know anything about the natural world and proceeds to “teach him” about the plants–except she misidentifies nearly every one.
Frequently, Hopes ponders our place in the ongoing evolutionary dance. In one chapter, he notes that forests, with or without human interference, are ever-changing, despite how stable an old forest may seem. “I had grown up with the notion of forests as fixed entities that reach an ideal condition and then sort of idle there–forever,” he writes. But then he recalls finding “apple groves and wavering hedges” in the midst of a deep, seemingly ancient forest; “and you knew there had been a farm there.”
On putting up hummingbird feeders in his backyard, he muses, “Whether I have trained the hummingbirds to respond to my artificial flowers or they have trained me to create them is presently unanswerable.”
But he doesn’t disregard the disruption that our species can and does visit upon the others: “We level the homes of the bears and pumas and flying foxes, and then wax hysterical when we find them too close to our homes–which we have built on the ashes of theirs. . . . We pull out our rifles and poisons, as though we were still the ones in danger.”
In the chapter titled “Splendors,” Hopes regales us with a dozen or more little stories of wonder. This includes both the whimsical and the profound.
He visits the zoo and, after looking around to be sure no one is near, begins to sing to the rhinos. As he sings, they move closer to him, and one lifts its hoof “like some huge dancer. They are listening to me. It is the most amazing thing. I know I must keep singing until someone comes, that I must extend the moment until it cannot be extended.”
It turns out that Hopes’ “purple road” is the path of nondualism–of no separation between science and poetry, the concrete and the spiritual, us and the natural wonders that surround us.
“If you are sad and at war with God,” he writes, “and happen to be in Galway, you might take a walk out along Nimmer’s Quay.” He describes the nightly roost of 16 or more herons, and the strange sounds they make. “You have been told that the herons speak in a harsh, prophetic voice, but you have not believed it,” he continues. He despairs, or that is, he tells us that we despair, because it does sound like they are prophesying, but we don’t understand what they are saying. Then, “you realize you have misinterpreted everything. The herons are singing. . . . They are telling the story of the time, and they are telling it to you. Whether you understand or not is immaterial. Some day you will open your mouth, and the croak of a heron will come out, and you will hear, somewhere, the closing of a golden circle.”
_Sharon Parker is a freelance editor in Minneapolis. She and her husband, Craig Cox, publish the online local news source, The Minneapolis Observer_ (“http://www.mplsobserver.com”:http://www.mplsobserver.com), _and will launch a new print quarterly this month, called MOQ, a journal of nature, art and urban miscellany._