Hayden Carruth’s Toward the Distant Islands

I’ve finally finished my extended look at Taoism, and since the extended forecast calls for rain and more rain, which means very little birding, I’m looking forward to catching up on the stack of poetry books that I have gathered in anticipation of winter reading.

I’m going to begin with Hayden Carruth’s Toward the Distant Islands, a book I ordered after Dave Bonta suggested it on his site and Mike had suggested earlier. One of the greatest advantages of blogging turns out to be the suggestions that regular readers make on books or poets I might like.

It seems slightly ironic, though, that the first poem in the book is entitled “The Buddhist Painter Prepares to Paint” and I liked the poem, written in 1959, quite a lot, even though I don’t think I knew a single thing about Buddhism when it was written. There were so many poems that I liked that I had hard time deciding which to discuss, though in the end it came down to a poem about one of my favorite birds, one that I hardly ever see but one that’s linked to fond memories:


Summer wilderness, a blue light
twinkling in trees and water, but even
wilderness is deprived now. “What’s that?
What is that sound?” Then it came to me,
this insane song, wavering music
like the cry of the genie inside the lamp,
it came from inside the long wilderness
of my life, a loon’s song, and there he was
swimming on the pond, guarding
his mate’s nest by the shore,
diving and staying under
unbelievable minutes and coming up
where no one was looking. My friend
told how once in his boyhood
he had seen a loon swimming beneath his boat,
a shape dark and powerful
down in that silent mysterious world, and how
it had ejected a plume of white excrement
curving behind. “It was beautiful,”
he said.

The loon
broke the stillness over the water
again and again,
broke the wilderness
with his song, truly
a vestige, the laugh that transcends
first all mirth
and then all sorrow
and finally all knowledge, dying
into the gentlest quavering timeless
woe. It seemed
the real and only sanity to me.

The first time I ever heard a loon’s cry was on the first backpacking trip my children went on after my divorce. We woke to the loon’s haunting cry early in the morning, and truthfully I had no idea what it was for many years. When I finally heard it again for the first time in On Golden Pond, I knew immediately that was the same sound I had heard many years before. I didn’t hear it again until my son and I drove to Alaska to see my brother many years later.

Small wonder, then, that I, too, identify that delightful, frightening, haunting sound with Wilderness. It is such a strange, distinctive sound that one could well imagine that is “truly a vestige” of a past that is quickly receding as civilization heads into the future, with only a few of us who believe it was the “the real and only sanity.”

4 thoughts on “Hayden Carruth’s Toward the Distant Islands

  1. I love the loons, Loren, we had them here on a pond not far from my house for many years. They would call and cows would moo, a sort of pastoral symphony with crickets and cicadas, a constant with the seasons. My children grew up with that as a backdrop of summer, a sonic part of our backyard

    last summer I could tell something was missing but I couldn’t figure out what it was- and then I realized it was that the loons were gone and the cows were too, and the frogs…..

    someone bought the pastureland and has been building a very large house on the hill overlooking the pond, a huge mansion with terracing, putting an end to my walks there

  2. I saw ‘On Golden Pond’ many years ago but can’t quite recall the sound of the loons. I know it was haunting. We don’t get them over here, anyway! Birdsong, in general, is the most beautiful sound that God has given to us (along with Miles Davis’s trumpet and Dylan’s voice!) and I love to just sit and listen to the myriad sounds coming down from the trees in our local hills and valleys.

    What a gift. Thanks for the poem.

  3. imagine having friends like the one in the poem who points out such wonders, dazzling. i lived on drayton harbor outside of blaine before semiamhoo, we listened to the loons all the time. not sure if they remain, this was in the seventies. kjm

  4. I had a similar experience to your loon story Loren. This past October we went camping over the weekend up north, on a Sunday, and the campground was completely empty. That night, during a drizzle rain– the sort that gets ampliphied on a tent and makes it hard to hear other sounds very well– we were woken up around 3 in the morning from something that sounded like a banshee killing, like a woman being horribbly killed or something. Absolutely bone chilling and horrible. My wife heard it first and woke me up, and to ease her nerves a bit I said it was nothing to worry about, but in reality my heart was racing. The forest was in near a river area with a lot of echoing hills around the region, which distorted and really carried the blood curdling sound. Anyway, we eventually were able to both fall asleep and then glad to find ourselves alive in the morning, but we still had absolutely no idea what the screaming could have been that night. A few weeks afterward we were watching an English film and there was a seen where two lovers were in the upper floors of slum type housing tower at the edge of the city, with woods in the background, and the male character pointed out the screaming you can hear in from woods that time of year late at night, which he then disclosed as foxes marking their territories before a barren winter and occassionally fighting over a vixen. As soon as we heard the bark in the movie we both immediately recognized it as the same sound. I’ve been camping for 15 years and never heard it, but then again, I rarely camp that late in Autumn, when fox engage in that behavior. Always something new to experience!

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