The Fires and the Black River of Loss

Dr. Kate Chandler


We recently held a memorial service for my dear friend and colleague Kate Chandler, gathering by the campus garden that she founded to hear testimonials and share stories. Kate was our eco-lit specialist, and Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry poems were there in abundance.

I was one of those reading an Oliver poem. Before I did so, however, I talked about the “Nature Notes” column that Kate penned monthly for The River Gazette, a college publication. She called her column “In the Wind,” borrowing the expression from Thoreau’s Walden: “So many days, spent outside the town, trying to hear what was in the wind.”

Kate was one of those firm foundations upon which society relies. She seldom called attention to herself, which you can tell by what she says about moss. I chose to read excerpts from this essay because Kate has found a version of what, in her conclusion, she says she longs for: “quiet in action”:

Moss, in all of its qualities, is quiet. With its carpet-like pliability, it softens footfalls and forest sounds. Between bricks in walkways and courthouse walls, moss diminishes or absorbs noise, its yielding pile helping to deaden the racket of passing traffic. Not only for warmth and cushioning do birds and squirrels weave mosses into their nests; they know its insulating properties for sound as well. What we find in moss is gentleness. Unlike a male cardinal, who catches our eye with his flame of red against the dark mass of a cedar, nothing thrilling or provocative catches our attention when we encounter moss. While new growth is brighter, the deeper more peaceful green of older growth prevails…

Since moss does not publicize itself, we could also make a case for it quieting the mind. Consider its calm demeanor, and we can understand its ability to soothe. Passing a mossy hummock the other day, I found myself slowing, stopping, stooping, and sliding a hand across its surface. When I take my friend’s five-year-old on a “let’s see what we can find in the woods” walk, we never pass a patch of moss without lightly brushing a finger over it. Almost like the spell my little dog’s fur holds over me when I stroke her head, moss emanates serenity. Even its name, spoken aloud, is soft and breathy. The word cannot be verbalized raucously; the “m’s” and the “s’s” blend with the “awh” vowel sound, soothing as effectively as when we find a shaded creek bank on a hot, summer day.

With its low profile and lack of perceptible movement, moss’s continuity is part of its allure as well as part of its lack of stardom. As in human experience, there is a settling-in with moss; it spends a long time establishing its residence, and once there, it’s there to stay. It does not migrate or commute; it works at home. It also does not grow well under leaf litter, which is why in forests we often find it thriving on vertical surfaces like rock ledges. Robin Kimmerer describes moss’s terrain as “finding a refuge from the drifting leaves on logs and stumps which rise above the forest floor like buttes above the plain.” To our eye, moss sits as still as Buddha under the Bo tree…

One of these days, I want to go out for a walk expressly to listen to moss soften my footfall. I want to lie on the ground for a lengthy face-to-moss encounter and peer through a magnifying glass into its internal organs. I want to watch its nap unfold from the pressure of my finger and contemplate its silent ways.

But, what I really want—and this is the enchantment—is to witness quiet in action.

After reading the excerpt, I observed that Kate knew only too well that nature is not always serene. Setting the stage for the Oliver poem I was about to read, I noted that Kate had also experienced what Oliver calls “the black river of loss.” Both she and I lost loved ones to strong undertows, she a beloved little brother, me my oldest son. Given how Kate almost always kept her emotions private, writing about Kenny getting pulled into an overflow pipe from which his brothers were unable to extract him took extraordinary courage. This column appeared in an interdisciplinary River Gazette issue devoted to violence:

Most commonly, “happy and serene” is the perspective from which my “Nature Notes” are written. If we are to be honest, however, the natural world is violent. In nature, though, violence is not accompanied by the emotion-driven brutality that concerns the rest of this issue. In our physical environment, we find uncontrolled energy of an inanimate force such as a tornado or hurricane, or, among the animate, a means of survival when obtaining food or protecting self or offspring. Violence of this sort is natural. Nature’s violence, however, does not feel natural when your brother dies at its hand.

Kate concludes her essay by addressing Kenny directly:

When I am brave I can think of you under the water, dragged by the current. Were you, as they say, gasping for breath, or is that something one cannot do under water? Did you hold your breath, or did you gulp? Could you feel the water overfill your lungs? Were you afraid? Were you trying to swim to the top? Were you yelling? Were you flailing your arms? Were you being brave? Did the water pound in your ears, or was it silent underneath? Did you feel the water pull you down? Did you feel their arms grasp you, pulling and pulling and pulling, trying to pull you up? What did you feel when you shot out onto the rocks below?

Or could the rocks no longer hurt?

Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods” is becoming a go-to poem for people grappling with death. One reason, I think, is because it pares everything down to the essentials: to life (“the fires”) and to death (“the black river of loss”). The autumn foliage bursts into one last defiant assertion before yielding to the nameless black water ponds. (John Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” expresses a similar idea.) In the face of uncertainty (“whose meaning none of us will ever know”), Oliver jolts us with her unexpected certainty (“To live in this world you must be able to do three things”). Her advice rings true:

In Blackwater Woods

by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,


the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

We loved you for how you loved the world, Kate. We’re trying to let you go but it’s so hard.


A Kate Chandler essay on Beatrix Potter

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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