In the shallows of the river After one o’clock in the afternoon Ice still An eighth of an inch thick. Night never disappears completely But moves among the shadows On the bank Like a glimpse of fur. Meanwhile Trees Grass Flies and spiderwebs Appear alone in the flat air. The naked aspens stand like children Waiting to be baptized And the goldenrod too is stripped down To its bare stalk In the cold Even my thoughts Have lost their foliage. ~Tom Hennen“At the Beginning of Winter”, from Looking Into The Weather.
My thoughts are stripped bare these days, no flowers or flourishing foliage left behind- just stark rows of naked branches, waiting, orderly and plain.
It is the nature of winter to think only of the essentials when night is always creeping around the edges of midday.
There is silence outside and echoing in my head, while waiting for something, ~anything~ remarkable to bud out and bloom.
From the tawny light from the rainy nights from the imagination finding itself and more than itself alone and more than alone at the bottom of the well where the moon lives, can you pull me
into December? a lowland of space, perception of space towering of shadows of clouds blown upon clouds over new ground, new made under heavy December footsteps? the only way to live?
The flawed moon acts on the truth, and makes an autumn of tentative silences. You lived, but somewhere else, your presence touched others, ring upon ring, and changed. Did you think I would not change?
The black moon turns away, its work done. A tenderness, unspoken autumn. We are faithful only to the imagination. What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth. What holds you to what you see of me is that grasp alone. ~Denise Levertov “Everything that Acts is Actual”
Within these days of early winter is disappearance of our familiar world, of all that grows and thrives, of new life and freshness, of hope slipping away in a scurry for survival.
Then there comes this moment of softness amid the bleak, a gift of grace and beauty, a glance of sunlight on a snowy hillside, a covering of low misty puffs in the valley, a moon lit landscape, a startling sunrise, clouds upon clouds and then I know the actual world is seized with Your Truth because You have grasped hold of it and won’t let go.
There’s a single tree at the fence line… When I cross the unfertile pasture strewn with rocks and the holes of gophers, badgers, coyotes, and the rattlesnake den (a thousand killed in a decade because they don’t mix well with dogs and children) in an hour’s walking and reach the tree, I find it oppressive. Likely it’s as old as I am, withstanding its isolation, all gnarled and twisted from its battle with weather. I sit against it until we merge, and when I return home in the cold, windy twilight I feel I’ve been gone for years. ~Jim Harrison, from “Fence Line Tree” from Saving Daylight.
Our fence line apple tree is considerably older than I am, and not a far walk away from the house. I visit it nearly every day, to be reminded that there is a wonder in gnarled limbs and blatant asymmetry.
What strikes me is the consistent presence of this tree though so much changes around it: the seasons, the birds that nest in it, the animals that graze under it and the ever-changing palette above and beyond.
This tree stands bent and misshapen, though not nearly as fruitful as in its younger years, yet still a constant in my life and in generations to come.
May I be that constant for those around me, to be steady when all around me changes in swirls and storms. Perhaps being bent and wrinkled and knobby can also be beautiful.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you. ~David Wagoner “Lost”
I’m frequently lost in the figurative forest of my days on this earth, unsure where I’m heading and struggling to figure out where I’ve been. It seems I have been following a path laid out before me, keeping my head down to make sure I don’t trip over a root or stumble on a rock, when around and above me are the clues to where I am and where I’m going.
So I stand still and breathe deeply of the forest and let it tell me where I am. It can tell when my focus is misdirected.
Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air- Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches. Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches, Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair. Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on. But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone! Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark Is any of him at all so stark But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection, A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection. Across my foundering deck shone A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash: In a flash, at a trumpet crash, I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, Is immortal diamond. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”
Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye; at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed, For this corruptible must put on immortality 1Corinthians 15:51-53
In a matter of minutes this morning, mere clouds changed above the rising sun; its fire started low, sparked into dazzling flames, then became a beacon, lit from within and without and all around thus transformed.
So we are spared from our destiny with ashes by such Light.
So Christ, becoming man and rising — as He did, and risen as He is, changes us forever, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye.
Further in Summer than the Birds Pathetic from the Grass A minor Nation celebrates Its unobtrusive Mass.
No Ordinance be seen So gradual the Grace A pensive Custom it becomes Enlarging Loneliness.
Antiquest felt at Noon When August burning low Arise this spectral Canticle Repose to typify
Remit as yet no Grace No Furrow on the Glow Yet a Druidic Difference Enhances Nature now ~Emily Dickinson
“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time. The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world. She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:
So gradual the Grace A pensive Custom it becomes Enlarging Loneliness.
But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state. Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.” ~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words
On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard. He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition. In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a white New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.
But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem. What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves.
As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending. Not only are the skies are filled with smoke from uncontrolled wildfires, but the streets are filled with protesters and counter-protesters who loot and shoot rather than meet to ask questions, and our future is filled with the uncertain timeline of ongoing pandemic destruction as nature has the upper hand yet again.
There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.
Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone. The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who shall emerge transformed.
There is no furrow on the glow. There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted and nurtured by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
I’m reminded daily of how short our time on earth is – the evidence is everywhere. Yesterday it was the stark finality of discovering a beetle-cleaned bighorn sheep skull in the woods, in addition to the bold reality of a black bear paw print on the car sitting next to our cabin.
Each day I receive an email from the local hospital where I’ve had clinical privileges for 35 years – it innumerates the number of admitted COVID-19 cases and deaths, the number of ICU beds filled and the number of ventilators in use. Reading those numbers is like scanning the obituaries for names and ages and causes of death in the newspaper, the only consistent thing I read in the paper anymore. The deaths are reported dispassionately, as if they are inevitable, which they are, yet each happens too soon.
Much too soon.
So the admonition is to pay attention to each living thing and witness each moment, falling onto the grass in worship of this “wild and precious life” I’ve been given rather than dwell on the future when I’ll be buried under the grass.
I shall celebrate being a consumer of this precious life, overjoyed by these sweet weeds and colorful wildflowers. There is still much that awaits me on this earth before, inevitably, I too become the consumed.