Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission



THE MAN OF GRASS Jarold Ramsey 1989
(David Douglas 1799-1834)

I was David Douglas. I became a tree,
the fir, pseudotsuga taxifolis.
In 1825, one of Wordworth’s children,
I plunged through Oregon’s woods “more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads than one
Who sought the thing he loved.” What did I seek so long
in panic, out of mind of Scotland? Whom Nature
loves, like me, showing her eyes, goes far in dread—
I found and named my specimens of grass,
trees, vines, and ferns, like Adam
still taking dominion in a falling world.


Indians liked me, thought me mad like them. Once
beside Columbia I thrashed a grinning thief
and told them all, “I’m no blanket man or boston,
know me as the Man of Grass!” And having named
myself, strange phylum, wherever I might wander
in that green labyrinth the Indians greeted
me like a comic skookum, “Grass Man! Grass Man!”
They led me miles in search of giant pines
with nuts like sugar, so they promised, grinning.
Even so, limping in to camp at night, I saw
their children run from me in terror. They were my mirror.


Along the Umpqua River in October
after a night of wind and lightning ravaging the trees
I found at last my Sugar Pine—Na-teel
the Umpquas call it. Who’d believe me, munching there
on nuts as sweet as toffee out of cones
the size of loaves? Alone, alone, bowing
to that grove of swaying towers, I felt
as though turning on the pin and center of my life.
Those great indifferent trees—how could I publish
to the sullen world what things alive they were?
Each was sacred quite without my worship, each
would one day crash to earth without my witness.
Beneath them, all I knew was punyness of knowledge,
the bitter joy of any thinking reed.

When I fired my piece to bring down cones
the bushes filled with staring Indians stringing bows.
I quailed, and ran away, and hid myself all night
in a tangle of vines unknown to science. No one to tell.


Come day, I headed back to Fort Vancouver.
Then everywhere was back. I went back to Scotland
famous, to the Royal Society, to my family:
all nothing, dried specimens of another life.
I was good for nothing but to find new worlds, they joked.
and sent me out again, collecting, classifying, naming
as before, but finding less and less beyond
the blow-down and grizzly thickets of my mind.

Finally, cruising the Sandwich Islands, I jumped
slow ship to walk the slopes of Mauna Kea.
There, in an earthen pit off-trail, a wild bull
was trapped and battering the sides, berserk.
I leaned over and watched and watched—
ah, that brute energy, baffled by walls of earth until
it choked, Nature blindly naturing, life from life,
indifference and fury ... When I had
it all in mind, when I’d told the suave Latin
of all my Oregon plants, when I’d seen
the grove of sugar pines clearly once again,
I, the Man of Grass, blessed the bull,
and slipped over the raw green edge, and in.

Thinking Like a Canyon: New and Selected Poems, 1973-2010,
Antrim House, 2012, pgs 88-90 — courtesy Jarold Ramsey

First printed in Hand-Shadows, Quarterly Review of Literature, 1989