A Silent Singing

South View of Salisbury Cathedral from the Cloisters ~ J.M.W. Turner

Even in this more secular age, a faint scent of chaos wafts through the last days before Christmas. “I love Christmas,” says the woman squinting at her notebook in the checkout line.  “But I swear — if I never make another cookie, it’ll be too soon.”

I love cookies as much as the next person, but my sympathies lie with the woman. My own preparations have become simpler and less time-consuming over the years. Still, I occasionally find myself thinking, while pulling trays from the oven or standing in line at the post office, I could stand some peace and quiet.

Some quiet would be especially nice. The pressures of the Christmas to-do list are one thing, but the season reverberates with noise to the point of distraction. Hearing Justin Bieber’s version of All I Want For Christmas piped through the produce aisle is more annoying than festive, and the irony of Silent Night drowning out conversation speaks for itself.  While seasonal songs blare away, children nag, parents fuss, and the noise made by impatient drivers circling the shopping mall parking lots sounds for all the world like the honking of a thousand demented geese.

Even the hours meant for sleep are disturbed by the ebb and flow of incessant, internal questioning: What have I forgotten? Who will be offended? Can we afford it?  Will there be time?   It’s little wonder that, by Christmas Day, many are ready to throw out the tree with the wrapping paper and get on with it. Twelve days of Christmas seems a horror. Who needs more Christmas, when what we’ve just had has left us exhausted, disappointed, or drained?

Seasonal excesses aside, most people consider their Christmas pleasures — gathering with family and friends; experiencing the beauty of worship; enjoying the exchange of gifts — to be well worth the expenditure of time and energy they require.

What we rarely consider is that our celebrations take place in the context of a world far older than our customs and more expansive than our plans. The world in which we celebrate turns on an ageless axis, independent of human intent and purpose. Though often hidden, that world can be searched out and surprised; occasionally, it reveals itself in unexpected ways.

I experienced that hidden world some years ago, while on holiday in England. After stopping in London, I traveled on to Wiltshire, intending to celebrate Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral.

Arriving without reservations, I found an inn where I could settle, and soon came to enjoy long conversations with the innkeeper and his wife. Cheerful sorts, bubbly and accomodating as keepers of inns should be, they were filled with practical advice for the holiday-makers under their roof.

Eventually, they discovered I hadn’t planned to make the trek to Stonehenge — “that pile of rocks in a pasture,” as another guest put it. Aghast, they implored, “But you must go to Stonehenge!” When I suggested the site might be better visited in summer, they exchanged a glance that probably meant, “Now see what this poor, benighted American is saying.”

Acknowledging that summer solstice celebrations are more publicized and more comfortable, they detailed the advantages of a cold weather visit. “For one thing,” they said with only a hint of a smile, “in the dead of winter there are far fewer tourists clogging up the roads.” At the time, that was true.

Lured by twin promises of unclogged roads and good conversation, I agreed to make the trip. As we traveled and chatted, they unraveled strand after strand of solstice lore.

While I knew that the winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, and that on that day the sun descends to its lowest point in the sky, I didn’t know that the word itself — solstice — comes from the Latin solstitium, a combination of ‘sun’ (sol) and ‘a stoppage’ (stitium).

According to one legend recounted by my hosts, not only the sun stops his movement at the time of solstice. Those who happen to be in a silent place, with a quiet mind and stilled heart, may hear the earth herself pause: taking time to catch her breath while she waits for the sun to turn and move, beginning his ageless journey toward the spring.

Charmed by the legend, I became increasingly eager to explore the old “pile of rocks in a pasture.” When we arrived, crowds that had gathered for celebration on the day of solstice were gone. There were no ticket-takers, no vendors, no guides. There was only a strange and forlorn emptiness: a cold sun shining through high, thin clouds,  a tumble of implacable, cold gray rock, and winter-singed grass dusted with snow. Around the circle a cold wind sighed, rocking the single bird soaring high above the plain.

Moving toward the stones in silence so complete I could hear blood beating in my ears, a sense of presence, profound and palpable, gripped my heart. Suddenly anxious, no longer certain of our solitude, I turned as if to confront an assailant. No one stood behind me. There were only the rocks, the sky, and a hush of wind singing across Salisbury plain.

Each year as darkness deepens, as days grow shorter and the sun hastens  toward its solstice turn, I remember Salisbury plain: the stones, the silence, and the song. At the time, I hardly imagined that my first experience of that deep and richly textured silence was not to be my last.

Blessedly, such experiences depend neither upon the stones of an ancient culture nor the shades of a people lost in time. A sense of presence, an experience of deep connection to the larger world in which we live, seems intrinsic to life itself. It comes to us as birthright, although there is no predicting how or where it will appear.

Wherever the mystery of connectedness surprises us — in a snowstorm-emptied New York street or a mist-shrouded grove of redwoods; at a baby’s crib or a parent’s grave; in an empty classroom or in an overflowing church — its nature is unmistakable.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
                                                                          T.S. Eliot ~ Little Gidding

There will be no Stonehenge in my travels this year, no moment of wonder in the emptiness of a windswept English plain. But the sun is lowering, and the pause will come; soon enough, the solstice will arrive. If we are wise, we will find a bit of space, a little emptiness, some moments of silence in the midst of our over-filled lives to embrace its coming and its promise.

Preparing for ourselves a room built of the very solitude and silent attentiveness that so often eludes us, we may well find that, as surely as the sun stops and the earth breathes, the same wind singing silence over our world’s cold-singed plain will touch our hearts with its strange, vertiginous joy.

Comments always are welcome.

Life On Rich Mountain, Part II ~ Some Stayed Behind

A June evening on Rich Mountain

Around mid-summer, Arkansas wineberries begin to ripen. Prickly tangles of fruit and vines native to China, Korea, and Japan, the wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) arrived in the United States around 1890. Intended for use as breeding stock for new varieties of raspberries and blackberries, the plant’s beautiful red canes soon were planted as ornamentals as well. Perhaps inevitably, the wineberry escaped cultivation and began spreading through the wilds of North America. Continue reading

A Little Less Dazed, A Bit Less Confused

Remembrance of technologies past

While the advent of digital photography has changed the way we take photos, it’s changed the way we view them as well.

Today, we’re awash in photos, but not so very long ago their relative scarcity gave rise to traditions that already seem old-fashioned: carrying family photos in a wallet; creating physical photo albums; trading annual school photos with classmates. Continue reading

The Brief Resurrection Of Dale T

Lydia Ann Channel Lighthouse ~ Port Aransas, Texas

None of the roustabouts, deck hands, or dock workers along the middle and upper Texas coast seemed to know how Dirty Dale got his nickname, and Dale wasn’t telling.

Gracie, who’d given up life on an oil rig to put her cooking talents to work in a land-locked café, served him breakfast every morning. She insisted his name came from his good-natured willingness to pursue every female in sight. Certainly, no matter how oblivious, uninterested, or irritated the object of his attentions, Dale’s confidence was absolute. Sliding into a seat next to an unaccompanied woman, he’d murmur, “Hey, darlin’. I’m here to improve your life.” Most didn’t feel the need for improvement, but he remained willing to try.
Continue reading

Feline Felicitations, Redux

Many of you met Dixie Rose and her Christmas carols some years ago, but newer readers haven’t had the pleasure. She’s an old kitty now, but she still enjoys celebrating, so this repost of  her “Cat Carols” seems in order. Enjoy!

Laugh at the antlers if you must, but laugh at your peril. That business-like look in the eyes of my beautiful calico is very real. Dixie Rose (short for Dixie Rose, Center of the Universe and Queen of All She Surveys) loves Christmas, and she intends to be ready when it arrives. I don’t advise standing in her way. Continue reading

A Season Of Turning

Woodworker, carver, sailor, musician: Gordon Bok is an American treasure. Until several years ago, I’d not heard his name and might have missed his artistry forever, had it not been for the graciousness of a reader.

We’d been exchanging thoughts on music, and in an emailed post-script to our discussion he added, “I can’t think of a better song than Gordon Bok’s Turning Toward the Morning.”  Pointing me toward Albany, New York’s WAMC and their Saturday night broadcasts of the “Hudson River Sampler” he said, “I can almost guarantee you’ll hear something by Bok: if not this Saturday, then next Saturday for sure. And something by Stan Rogers as well. But you’ll also hear songs you’ve never heard before and will want to hear again.” Continue reading

The Serendipitists

Green comet milkweed buds (Asclepias viridiflora)

It wasn’t the sort of news that would entice just anyone to change their weekend plans. Still, as word began to spread that green comet milkweed had been found on the Nash prairie, and that Susan Conaty would lead a prairie walk to see both the milkweed and other late spring beauties, plans began to change.

Susan knows Nash Prairie as well as anyone, and a chance to spend time there in her company wasn’t to be missed. I arrived at the prairie to find Susan had been delayed, but eager milkweed hunters already were comparing notes, trying to pin down the plants’ location with half-remembered bits of information, a few cryptic texts, and entirely wrong assumptions about the plant’s appearance.

As we bumbled about, the search for the milkweed reminded me of my initial search for Nash Prairie itself. On that trip, a goat standing atop a shed and a utility substation served as unmistakable markers. Our flower-finding directions were more vague: turn left from the hay road; scan near the fence; look for the fallen gate; draw an imaginary line to the stand of trees.

Finally, a cry of triumph drew us to plants we had to have passed at least a dozen times, oblivious to their presence. Still in bud and unblemished, the large round clusters of flowers and trailing leaves certainly made the name “green comet” understandable.

With the day’s primary goal achieved, people spread out to explore the prairie: taking photos, identifying unusual plants, and gauging the readiness of seeds to be plucked. Among the plants still in bloom, the unfailingly cheerful black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) bobbed and nodded in the breeze.

A typical black-eyed Susan

I spent some time chasing butterflies among the Rudbeckia, hoping to photograph a black swallowtail at rest. Unsuccessful and ready for a different subject, I scanned a nearby group of flowers and realized I’d found something I never imagined I’d see: an example of fasciation.

A fasciated Black-eyed Susan 

Derived from the Latin word fascia  (“a band, bandage, swathe, ribbon”), fasciation describes an abnormal fusion or flattening of plant stems, flowers, fruit, or foliage. In the case of this black-eyed Susan, fasciation has caused both a broad, flattened stem, and a double, or “twinned” flower. The causes seem to be varied, and somewhat mysterious: viruses, genetic abnormality, insects, or physical damage all have been offered as reasons for the phenomenon.

The flattened and ribbon-like stem

I’d heard that photographing a fasciated plant can be challenging, and so it was. As I contorted myself this way and that, I heard a voice behind me ask, “What have you got there?” I untangled myself, sat up, and said, “It’s a serendipitous Susan.”

Indeed, it was: wholly unexpected, entirely delightful, and odd as odd could be.

Over time, the excitement I’d felt at the discovery abated, although I enjoyed looking back at the photos occasionally. Then Chris Helzer added a new gallery of photos to his site, “The Prairie Ecologist,” and brought the joys of serendipity back into focus.

In 2013, as he photographed a crab spider on what appears to be a sunflower, an ant unexpectedly appeared. Describing the experience, Chris wrote, “Often, [these] older photos capture a particular moment of serendipity that still evokes strong emotions for me.”

I enjoyed his reference to serendipity as much as I did the photo, and began to ponder how often these serendipitous experiences seem to occur in nature.  We should call ourselves serendipitists, I thought, since we’re always hoping to bump up against some unexpected oddity of life.”

Horace Walpole, the British art historian and man of letters who coined the word serendipity  seems to have been a bit of an oddity himself. In his introduction to Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, Thomas Christensen describes the author and critic as an exemplar of a somewhat peculiar strain of British tradition: one distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness and just plain madness.”

There’s no question Walpole had a vibrant imagination and a taste for high jinks. When he wasn’t busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote volumes of letters  One of his most famous, a 1765 letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written after Rousseau fled persecution in Geneva and took up residence in France, was a fake.

The letter, supposedly written by King Frederick of Prussia, offered Rousseau asylum-with-a-twist. Among other things, the faux King Frederick said, “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted.”

Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, he suspected his friend David Hume, and the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.

When he wasn’t stirring up trouble, Walpole amused himself by renovating Strawberry Hill, his “Gothic mousetrap” of a house.  Like most collectors, he wanted his objects to be ­admired, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase.

Walpole often “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi for a guinea a tour.”  Despite producing a guidebook to the place, Walpole eventually wearied of the numbers of guests traipsing through its halls. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court,” Walpole said. “Everyone will live in it but you.”

Still, he loved his home, with all of its “papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, Holbein chambers evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white floor tiles, modern oil paintings, china and carpets.”  It seems reasonable to assume Walpole created Strawberry Hill as a concrete analogue to his writing. As he said,

­Visions have always been my pasture. Old castles, old pictures, old histories and the babble of old ­people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint.

Michael Snodin, ­curator of the Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, suggests Walpole’s cultural legacy was “to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting,” but his  fixation on the house and its furnishings didn’t exclude other interests. Much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” was centered on language. Today, his extraordinarily useful word serendipity  has become familiar to nearly everyone, and he surely would be pleased by the increased use of the word and its derivatives.

Writing to Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole first defined the word as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.” He said he’d derived the word from the title of a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip, a story in which the heroes “always were making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

As John Barthes notes in his retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere, and lose your bearings in the process.”

In that sense, my discovery of a fasciated black-eyed Susan on a day meant to be focused on milkweed surely was serendipitous. But it’s worth noting that Walpole’s serendipity is more than accidental discovery or happy coincidence. For Walpole, sagacity — the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous or irrelevant facts — was  equally important if previously unsuspected pathways for exploration and delight were to open.

Someday, a more sagacious serendipitist may stumble across another fasciated flower and make the intuitive leap to the unrelated, innocuous, or seemingly irrelevant facts that finally explain the phenomenon. If — or perhaps when — that happens, it surely will be fascinating.

Comments always are welcome.