Where Rapture and Realism Meet

1,383 total words    

6 minutes of reading

A review of Catherine Young, Geosmin (Sheboygan, WI:  Water’s Edge Press, 2022).

Catherine Young opens her new collection of poems with a description of its title essence: 

fragrance of soil
slightly sweet, a kind of jasmine,
with a hint of spice, musky enough
to bring a lover to his knees

The poetry residing in the geosmin molecule (C12H22O) is, it seems, not appreciated by all. A recent scientific paper describes geosmin as “one of the problematic odor compounds responsible for unpleasant-tasting and -smelling water episodes in freshwater supplies.”[1] For the record, however, Nancy Gerber and Hubert Lechevalier, the Rutgers University scientists who coined the term geosmin in 1965 (in an article in the journal Applied Microbiology, “Geosmin, an Earthy-Smelling Substance Isolated from Actinomycetes”) began their technical article on this note: “Freshly plowed soil has a typical odor which was undoubtedly detected even by primeval men and extolled in all tongues by bucolic poets.”

Catherine Young has her own scientific credentials in ecology and hydrology, but is also at home in the venerable tradition of those “bucolic poets.” She detects the sweet smell of the soil:

found in rock crevice domains,
between mosses and molds,
at the feet of lichen, in caves
of brain folds, a marriage
of rich, dark loam
and love’s eternal spark.

With this opening invocation to her poetic journey she brings us to the threshold where, “led by our noses,” human senses meet the earth—and words honor the encounter. At that threshold, and across her collection, Young finds herself at the place where the poet’s quiet rapture must coexist with the scientist’s (and citizen’s) clear-eyed realism.

Young organizes her poems in four sections. In the first, “Elements,” she surveys the substance of the world:  rock, soil, water (in all its forms), plants, and animals; moss, lichen, birds, trees, fossils, shells, and flowers; ocean, moon, hills, and sky. All are invoked as entities unto themselves, but also as measures of our own spatial perception. Young celebrates the complexity of the particular, “How many worlds dwell / on one branch of maple?” (“Lichen”), while situating the particular within collective patterns:

                                       Oceans swell
in all that swirls this volatile möbius path.
All is volute.

Young likewise vaults across temporal scales. Amid ancient rhythms of moon and sun, of beaches and layered sandstones, humans are prone to live according to “our mayfly tempo.” The image is from Young’s poem “Stone Circle,” a reflection on the animacy and agency of rock. As an occasional professor of environmental studies, I have invoked Young’s image in recent presentations on our collective disorientation in a world of accelerating social and environmental change. It brings to mind geologist Marcia Bjonerud’s call for greater “timefulness.”[2] And yet, paradoxically, we seem paralyzed in this moment:

                              when fossils
are resurrected and fuel a climate shift,
and no ark arrives.
(“Lost At Sea”)

Young’s second section, “Almanac,” follows a seasonal circle from the “firefly nights” of June, to summer saunters along many waters, to the ripening and fermenting of the fall, to the dead grasses and “frost ferns” of winter, to the first February melt (“All it takes / is the drop that slips / along the glassy slope / of icicle”, “In February It Begins”), to spring fields that “convert viridian.” If in her first section she considers far expanses of space and time, here she holds close to her local place and events. The Fourth of July is occasion for Midwestern neighbors to gather for the Main Street parade:

We are a ragged lineup, Midwest
plump and unafraid to show ourselves
in shorts and T-shirts.
(“July 4”)

And to camp out in,

                                                        the real America, a place
where everyone can freely play together as everything crumbles.
(“Sweet Land of Liberty”)

Young’s year ends in the intimate sanctuary of a wasp nest, built with “fierce purpose… layer by layer / from the grit and spit / of the world.” (Hymenoptera I: Wasps”)

The poems of the third section, “Heartbreak and Beauty,” tie Young’s personal and local experience of her life on her farm in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area to the general realities of rural lives and livelihoods in a time of industrialized agriculture and climate change. She portrays a landscape where the comforts and delights of her home, farm, and community are real and hard-earned, yet ever-vulnerable to economic stress and decline. The increasing incidence of extreme rains in the region has yielded more frequent flooding:

Hillside slopes sprouted waterfalls,
Creeks filled, yards slickened.

Waters rose; roads submerged.
In cornfields, floated fence posts emerged
while livestock, bathed in flood’s silt,
struggled to stand:  sinking, stinking, sickened

when the rains came down.
(“In the Time of Climate Change”)

Young offers an elegiac rebuke to those who have both exploited and ignored these social and environmental changes: “We belong, because we tried / to make it work once, / in rural America. We farmed.” (“For Those Who Thought They Could Buy a Farm”) The unglaciated (and hence rugged) Driftless landscape that Young and I share is indeed one of simultaneous heartbreak and beauty, rural decline and renewal, persistence and innovation. As a distinct mesocosm, situated between the intimate and the global, our bioregion provides the poet (and conservationists) with opportunities to connect these realms, to see internal and external forces at work and intersecting in the shaping of place.[3]

Young’s observations turn more explicitly autobiographical in the final section, “Of Origins and Aging.” Here she explores her own awakenings and callings, from growing up in the “land of coal mines” through life’s passages, her education and youthful wishes manifesting “as you imagine.” These poems delight in their careful revealing of the inner life blooming, growing, and passing. She honors the teacher who introduced the poet to “the stream of words,” and “the creative forces of women” over all generations. In “Tightrope” she reflects on contingency and vulnerability:

as we each put one foot in front of the other,
feel the wire, but plod with a measure of grace, try
to find a way around—
               turn aside disaster.

Across the collection as a whole, Catherine Young moves through geographies and histories, and from the biographical to the existential. The geosmin that she inhales, and that inspires her, issues from particular places–from Dieter Hollow, the Mississippi River watershed, and Lake Superior to the mining valleys of Appalachia. In and from all these locales, the aroma of earth brings her full circle. She journeys from the local to the distant, from birth to death, from interior to exterior. Through “the onslaught of time” and the gift of restoration, Young finds herself a “keeper of memory.” In “Revolution” she seems prepared to relinquish control:

I will roll over
In my crypt of soil and ash.
My wild Eden once regained,
will evolve; I will turn over
endlessly to blossom.

In the end the poet finds every day of life “a goblet brim full of rainbow, complemented with sparks and darkness both.” (“Panoramic”) In the collection’s final poem, “Passerine,” Young looks to her “next life” and chooses as her vessel for reincarnation a barn swallow—a wild creature sheltering within a prosaic human structure and building there “a dish nest of dry adobe.” In that space she may nurture the next generation. She can prepare them for their own adventures, even as her poems have welcomed us to share hers.


Featured Image credit:
Photo of Cates farm in the Driftless Wisconsin. By Curt Meine.

[1] Wang, Z., Song, G., Li, Y., Yu, G., Hou, X., Gan, Z., & Li, R. (2019). The Diversity, origin, and evolutionary analysis of geosmin synthase gene in cyanobacteria. Science of The Total Environment, 689, 789–796. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.06.468 

[2] Bjornerud, M. (2018). Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[3] Meine, C. (2017, November 29). The Edge of Anomaly. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://humansandnature.org/the-edge-of-anomaly/. By way of full disclosure, Catherine Young was among the writers and poets that I and my coeditor Keefe Keeley included in our anthology The Driftless Reader (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017).

  • Curt Meine

    Curt Meine is a conservation biologist, historian, and writer who serves as a senior fellow with both the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Center for Humans and Nature, and as associate adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has written several books, including Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).

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