3.8 Poems: Charles Bukowski’s “Jam”

Charles Bukowski’s “Jam” details the miseries of a driver in clogged highway traffic. The experience sounds thoroughly familiar until the final image. The poem originally appeared in 1992 in Bukowski’s collection The Last Night of Earth Poems (Harper Collins).

Jam

that Harbor Freeway south through the downtown

area—I mean, it can simply become

unbelievable.

last Friday evening I was sitting there

motionless behind a wall of red taillights,

there wasn’t even first gear movement

as masses of exhaust fumes

greyed the evening air, engines overheated

and there was the smell of a clutch

burning out

somewhere—

it seemed to come from ahead of me—

from that long slow rise of freeway where

the cars were working

from first gear to neutral

again and again

and from neutral back to

first gear.

on the radio I heard the news

of that day

at least 6 times, I was

well versed in world

affairs.

the remainder of the stations played a

thin, sick music.

the classical stations refused to come in

clearly

and when they did

it was a stale repetition of standard and

tiresome works.

I turned the radio off.

a strange whirling began in my

head—it circled behind the forehead, clockwise, went past the ears and around to the

back of the head, then back to the forehead

and around

again.

I began to wonder, is this what happens

when one goes

mad?

I considered getting out of my car.

I was in the so-called fast

lane.

I could see myself out there

out of my car

leaning against the freeway divider,

arms folded.

then I would slide down to a sitting

position, putting my head between

my legs.

I stayed in the car, bit my tongue, turned

the radio back on, willed the whirling to

stop

as I wondered if any of the others had to

battle against their

compulsions

as I did?

then the car ahead of me

MOVED

a foot, 2 feet, 3 feet!

I shifted to first gear…

there was MOVEMENT!

then I was back in neutral

BUT

we had moved from 7 to

ten feet.

hearing the world news for the

7thtime,

it was still all bad

but all of us listening,

we could handle that too

because we knew

that there was nothing worse than

looking at

that same license plate

that same dumb head sticking up

from behind the headrest

in the car ahead of you

as time dissolved

as the temperature gauge leaned more

to the right

as the gas gauge leaned

more to the left

as we wondered

whose clutch was burning

out?

we were like some last, vast

final dinosaur

crawling feebly home somewhere,

somehow, maybe

to

die.

Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees”

Until recently I was quite sure that a broad difference between animals and plants was that animals, because they are mobile, readily interact with each other (flocking, pursuing, etc.) while plants, anchored to the ground, don’t do so because they can’t. Except to attract insect pollinators, plants, I thought, live a life of exquisite solo struggle, seeking only the sun and water.

I’ve been steadily learning how far off I was. German forester Peter Wohlleben’s popular book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, is the most compelling lesson yet.

Among his many descriptions of communication and mutual assistance is Wohlleben’s account of how trees defend not only themselves but also each other. Observers have noted, for example, that umbrella thorn acacias in the African savannah pumped toxins into their leaves when they felt giraffes nibbling on them. “The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.” They passed by the nearest trees because the trees being nibbled, in addition to pumping a repellent, “gave off a warning gas that signaled to neighboring trees that a crisis was at hand.” The giraffes knew these trees would not taste any better and kept walking.

hidden life of trees (pri.org)

pre.org

Many trees also have the ability to call in the air force. Reacting to bites from hostile insects, such trees emit scents that attract predators that devour the pests. “For example, elms and pines call on small parasite wasps that lay their eggs inside leaf-eating caterpillars.” The growing larvae devour the caterpillars from the inside.

The book brims with information and appreciations of this kind. Three more examples:

  • Trees that spend their lives in the forest fare much better than trees raised in one place and then transplanted to the forest. “Because their roots are irreparably damaged,…they seem almost incapable of networking with one another.” Like “street kids,” they “behave like loners and suffer from their isolation.”
  • Time for trees is slow and long. Internally, they, like animals, send alerts to parts of their body via chemicals and electrical impulses. But in a tree the electrical impulses move only about a third of an inch per second. (In our bodies, pain signals move  through our nerves about two feet per second, muscle impulses a hundred times faster.) No wonder it seems to us that plants are unresponsive.
  • Conifers (evergreens) “keep all their green finery on their branches” throughout the winter and have been doing so for 270 million years. Then deciduous (leaf-bearing) trees came along 100 million years ago, growing and discarding annually millions of delicate green solar panels. Was this an improvement? Why go to all that trouble? Wohlleben asks. Because “By discarding their leaves, they avoid a critical force—winter storms.” Between high winds, muddy soil, and a surface area equivalent to that of a large sailboat, tall evergreens take a battering in European winters. Growing and then dropping their huge surface area every year proved well worth while for the leafy new comers.

Wohlleben’s liberal use of human descriptors to explain the actions of trees delights many readers and annoys others. Andrea Wulf, in her review of the book, has both reactions.

I’m usually not keen on anthropomorphizing nature—and here trees are “nursing their babies” and having “a long, leisurely breakfast in the sun” while…fungus mushrooms are “rascals” who steal sugar and nutrients. These cutesy expressions make me cringe….But I have to admit that Wohlleben pulls it off—most of the time—because he sticks with scientific research and has a knack for making complex biology simple and thoroughly enjoyable.

I agree. While the vocabulary may bestow on trees a dignity and affection that we usually reserve for our own kind, it is scientists’ growing understanding of trees that creates the real story here. At a time of rapid environmental change, the book is as fascinating a revelation as one could ask for that life is even more intricate and purposeful than we knew.