First, an anecdote. Bear with me, there is a point to this about the book at hand.
A reliable source close to my inner circles related to me the following. Recently, upon a time in a galaxy not far away, some high school students met with a school administrator who wanted to tell them about a few ideas for changes to class offerings. The students noticed that not much was being said about history classes. What about history?, the students asked.
The administrator, according to students who were there, cheerfully suggested that history classes are nowhere near as important as math and English classes. And anyway, the administrator said, if you need to know a fact from history, “you can look it up on your devices.”
Readers who do not immediately grasp the basic (never mind far-reaching) implications of this actual conversation in a public school should stop reading because they are not going to get what comes next.
Robert Chute—a native of Naples and resident of Poland, Maine, professor emeritus of biology at Bates College, winner of a Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance Distinguished Achievement Award, and keeper of the Poet among Scientists blog—has been offering insightful, delightful poems on Maine’s natural world for about seven decades. Excuse for Being Here, his newest book, fuses poems from his past and present together with writings recalling his pre-World War II childhood and postwar coming of age. It is a bobbing and weaving series of literary snapshots that disclose how his life, ideas and experiences paralleled, intersected and were shaped by the life and ideas of Henry David Thoreau.
For several decades our literature has included a steady stream of personal memoirs that tend to revolve around social issues, personal hardship, and vocational confession. Chute’s book falls roughly into this category, but its triangulation of poetry, prose and reflections on Thoreau is unusual.
The poems are vintage selections from Chute’s long practice. Maybe a quintessential chapter of the book is “A Week,” which gives us Chute’s re-imagination as a young man of Thoreau’s 1839 journey (as a young man) recounted in “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” Chute’s affinities for Thoreau led to an investigation of some of the history that turns up in the book (first published in 1849). This historical backstory turned into a series of poems by Chute on the 18th century legend of Hannah Duston, who was captured by Indians in western Maine and, so the story goes, fought her way out.
In the 2013 book, the poems become embedded in Chute’s understanding of his own life. “Fryeburg, Maine: 1960” begins:
I went to school here. Ground where Pequawket
may have been was a square town with square houses
on black streets. The river interval was still
rich with corn, squash, bean.
In this way, Excuse for Being Here weaves Chute’s sense of connection to Thoreau’s journey together with detailed recollections of his own family in Naples; their summer life as tourist hosts (a complex and under-examined facet of Maine character) that includes some interesting creative fictions that might as well be facts; and ruminations on Thoreau’s life and motivations that inform Chute’s understanding—and sometimes perplexity—about his own life and times.
So emerges the aforementioned “point”: History is not a concatenation of dislocated facts available on Wikipedia in haphazard moments of “need.” Instead, history is an understanding of how you, your family and your community fit into the political, environmental, social and economic ecology you inhabit. This is not only equally as important as math and science; it is equally indispensable.
Excuse for Being Here is a gold-mine of information, imagination and evocation on how the 18th and 19th centuries lapped over each other and into the 20th and 21st centuries in the actual mind of one who lives here. A gold mine, that is, for readers who want to understand history, and are capable of it. Those who, in the possibly not-too-distant-future, don’t understand that history is an understanding of interconnections will find nothing particularly meaningful here. The loss, of course, will be completely theirs. Or should I say, ours.
The unexamined life is not worth living, said a certain wise man about 2,400 years ago. The score here is that Robert Chute’s triangulation on his own past and the further past of a philosopher who taught us how to read nature provides the perfect excuse for examining life. You can’t look this up on your device.
Excuse for Being Here, along with other volumes of Chute’s poetry and fiction, is available through Just Write Books, www.jstwrite.com.
Dana Wilde is a writer, editor and former writing professor. His column, Backyard Naturalist, runs in the Kennebec Journal and Central Maine Morning Sentinel. He lives in Troy.