Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Garden of Verse: Climbing the Heights of Long Island in Walt Whitman's Hills


Some people call the summit West Hill. Today it's called Jayne's Hill by the park department.
            Walt Whitman called it the highest point on Long Island, which it is, and spoke of its marvelous water views, a perspective no
longer available because the trees have grown up on all the low, rambling hills in this lovely spot now known as West Hills County Park.
            The poet who was born nearby, described a "view of thirty or forty, or even fifty or more miles, especially to the east and south and southwest: the Atlantic Ocean to the latter points in the distance - a glimpse or so of Long Island Sound to the north."
            We walked in West Hills for the first time ever on a lovely Saturday in June,  the day of our niece Emily Knox's wedding. With a few hours to go before church time, we looked for some place near our Huntington motel to take a good walk. This wooded county park was it.
            Given the beautiful dry weather, we must have lucked into one of the best days of the year to hike in these gentle hills. The date was about a week before the Summer Solstice, and we found the wooded trail awash in mountain laurel in full bloom.
            The summit is marked by a boulder bearing a plaque inscribed with a reference to Walt Whitman's "Starting From Paumanok," a long autobiographical poem titled after the Indian name for Long Island. The poem appeared in the first edition of "Leaves of Grass." 
            The Walt Whitman Birthplace, located at 246 Old Walt Whitman Road in Huntington Station, is a Federalist style farm house once owned by a family with roots in this part of Long Island dating back to the 17th century. While Walt's father moved the family to Brooklyn in his son's childhood, family connections brought the poet back to this part of Long Island frequently
            Generally regarded as America's greatest poet, and the most influential worldwide, Whitman became known as the poet of democracy.
            In an introductory essay to a comprehensive volume of the famous work, "Leaves of Grass," scholar Sculley Bradley pointed out that democracy for Whitman meant more than counting the votes. The poet regarded democracy "as the order of nature. It embraced every conceivable condition of life for mankind. Its essence was love, extending in universal justice around the world."
            For me, this conception of a mundane and what has become an almost meaningless word, Whitman's idea of democracy sounds like a humanistic interpretation of the theory of evolution. Whitman believed that democracy was moving purposively forward, despite all of humanity's flaws, toward an end Whitman called "amelioration," a term philosophers in his time used to mean "things are getting better" or at least less gruelingly bad.
            Age by age, Walt Whitman believed, human beings were working the kinks out of their society.
            Whitman was hardly blind to the imperfections of rowdy, self-serving 19th century America. A big city newspaper editor in New York (and, briefly, New Orleans), he witnessed political corruption, poverty, and bigotry. A volunteer nurse during the Civil War (wounds dresser, essentially) in a medically brutal time, he provided companionship and kindness for maimed and dying men. He worked as a civil servant in Washington D.C. to support his volunteer work and writing. In the climate of post Civil War America, a government job gave him a front-row seat on a corrupt era in national politics matched only -- dare I say it? -- by today's open market for purchasing Congressmen spawned by "Citizens United." 
            After Whitman published the first, modestly sized edition of "Leaves of Grass" in 1855, his radically original poetry drew praise from America's reigning intellectual god, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In a famous letter Emerson wrote him, "I hail you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start."
            That foreground, Bradley writes in his essay, "was an opulent inheritance of American idealism that could survive the later disillusionments of journalism, the corruption of men, and the catastrophes of war." Sounds like a good summation to me; only I'm not sure journalists these days carry around any illusions to lose.
            Anne, Sonya and I were happy to find what may be the best nature walk on Long Island, even if we couldn't see scores of miles out to sea. That one of the most thrilling and influential voices in modern literature shared this perspective and on occasion this woodland ramble makes West Hills park especially memorable.
            "And what I assume you shall assume," Walt Whitman tells us in his great poem "Song of Myself." "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
            From which I take it that -- good times or bad -- we're all in this together.