01 April, 2021

The Tuft of Flowers

Screen print by Katherine Hess.

From Robert Frost's The Tuft of Flowers:

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’.

John Donne wrote that no man is an island. He was arguing for the normative claim that we should expand our moral circle to include all of humanity, but I've heard the phrase used several times since to refer instead to the descriptive claim that social connections are a core human need. I personally feel that descriptive claim most strongly when I read Frost's The Tuft of Flowers.

The protagonist is "turning the grass", meaning that he is taking recently cut hay and turning it over so that it will dry and can be gathered later on. A man before him has cut the grass that he is turning. They both are working to make hay, but they do not see each other at all as they work. The first man has already left for the day by the time the second one has started.

Our protagonist feels alone as he works. Not just lonely, but deeply, depressingly lonely. "As all must be, … whether they work together or apart." When I was young, long before I ever read any poetry at all, really, I felt this way often, and I continued to feel this way into my early thirties. I worked in an office, but I never socialized. I'd attend birthday celebrations for the slice of cake, and I'd be personable enough to respond when others talked with me, but I think it's safe to say that I was always the quietest person in the office, even when I worked in offices with hundreds of people. My workplace was always where I went to earn money, not where I wanted to meet friends or maintain relationships.

I wasn't a complete loner, of course. I interacted with a few select friends and courted numerous relationships outside of work plenty of times. But work, for me, was a solitary procession. Each step I made in the workplace, whether it was coding later in life or being on the phones earlier in life, would just be a successive step to run out the hours until it was time for me to leave the office. Work was a way to earn money; nothing more.

The Veteran in a New Field by Winslow Homer.
But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

At first, the butterfly is a momentary distraction. It's maybe a little sad to know that all the flowers the butterfly enjoyed were cut this morning, "withering on the ground". Our protagonist would have returned to his work of tossing the wet grass, but then the butterfly showed him that a small tuft of flowers still lived by the reeds in the water. He's intrigued enough to actually leave his work to go see them close up.

To thirteen-year-old me, this reedy brook was the internet, and the various fora I found there were those same tufts of flora.

I've always tended to be shy, both when I was young and even later, even outside of my workplace. Being IRL ("in real life") was never really a smooth type of interaction for me. I much preferred going online.

When I was 13, I took the moniker MG377 on America OnLine and pretended that I was an adult. I'd go to forums and debate all kinds of things. I made friends with a young Anthony Bourdain back when he was writing his first book. You could often find me in the Book Nook chatroom. (Interestingly, I could find only a single reference to the now defunct Book Nook in a 1997 interview with Diana Gabaldon. I'm not sure why I searched so long for this link. I think I just wanted the post the old Book Nook chatroom logo, but it is now inaccessible.) I lied a fair amount if anyone asked who I was or what I did; but when the topics were about things other than me, I always tried to be myself. It was invigorating. The internet allowed me to interact with people in ways that I never could IRL. Even if I rarely told the truth about my physical personal details, like my age, being on the internet allowed me to truly be myself and connect to real other human beings.

Tuft of Flowers by Ken Fiery.
The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Work is no longer something I do just for money. Internet memes are no longer just something funny to chuckle at. Being isolated during the pandemic year is not so bad as it may have one day been to me.

I don't know you, dear reader, nor do you know me; yet as you read my words here I hope that you feel as I do: working together, whether together or apart.

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