- The Harriman Expedition, 1899
On Harriman's dollar, on Harriman's ship, as members of the Harriman expedition, Burroughs and Muir lingered on deck one evening over their tea, debating the nature of Nature. The crew had gone ashore to trade tin plates for sex; the other guests were up on the bow waiting their turns at the telescope.
Nature, Muir said, is virginal and remote, like the sheer wall of a glacier.
Preferably, Burroughs set down his spoon, a glacier named Muir? No, he said, Nature is a robin's nest, perfectly made for its secret clutch of blue eggs and their brooding mother.
This nest of yours, Muir asked, I don't suppose it's the one in view from the Burroughs parlor window?
So debate devolved to ad hominem caviling. The great men took to their respective cabins, each in his own respective huff.
Mrs. Harriman, sick of adventure, bleeding, miserable with menstrual cramps, pled a headache and left the bow to the astronomers. In circumnavigating the upper deck she came upon the writers' uncleared tea things: two crumpled napkins, two cups, two saucers, sugar tongs, a plate of biscuit crumbs. On shore, the sounds of revelry, from the bow the murmurs of scientific inquiry. Alone, with no one watching, she picked up a sugar lump and set it on her tongue. When it was gone she took another, thinking, to take her mind off her body, of the man who cut the tropic cane, the mangle that pressed the juice, the huge cauldrons that boiled the syrup until the crystals came. She had no idea how the loose sugar was pressed into loaves or these lumps for tea. By now she had eaten five, leaving just two, which she tossed into the sea. Two lumps of sweet in all that salt and dark.
And Mrs. Harriman let herself picture the dark beneath the boat: kelp like the kelp that gets washed up on shore, fish like the fish on their dinner plates, an octopus creeping over the rocks, down where the bottom slides off west into a vast dark beyond her willing imaginings.
Jennifer Atkinson is the author of two books of poems, The Dogwood Tree and The Drowned City. She teaches creative writing at George Mason University.