Monday, December 4, 2017

No further evidence

This morning, as I was crossing a little footbridge, I saw a wet feather lying on the creek bank.

About 30 yards down the trail, I saw another feather.

And a little farther along, yet another.

Finally, underneath a tall pine tree, there were many feathers scattered all around.

I looked up and about, but there was no further evidence.

This is the poem of death.
There is only one
and no other.

Every one is an occasion,
one way or another,
and the last poem is this poem of death.

~ from "The Poem of Death" by Michael Gessner

Photos by BitterGrace

Monday, November 13, 2017


Back again, a full year later. Seems like a century ago. A lot can happen in a year. Or an hour.

Anyhow, I still walk in the woods. It still keeps me as sane as I am capable of being. Yesterday was a somber, gray November Sunday, mild enough for the frogs to be out. Such days always bring back a moment from my childhood—I was about 11, walking by myself along the sidewalk near our house. It was overcast and warm, and I could smell the scent of the fallen leaves that littered the walk. Nothing happened, except that I felt entirely alive. There was no particular ecstasy in the moment, but I was filled with a tranquil sort of wonder.

It occurred to me yesterday that these times are deeply hostile to wonder. Cynicism and righteous anger seem to be the favored states of mind at present. Perhaps they need to be. The trouble is that no one can be an angry cynic and at the same time nurture wonder. The mind is a marvel, but some things are beyond its powers. Entering a state of wonder means stepping away from everything in you that insists on being right, or clever, or injured. It's hard. Or it's as easy as walking along, looking at the leaves.

*Stephen Lyn Bales's collection of essays, Ephemeral by Nature, makes a case for wonder in spite of all the bad news for the planet. You can read my review here.

Photo by BitterGrace

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Revisiting smallness

We're in the midst of a cruel fall drought here, and until yesterday it was enhanced by weirdly summer-like heat. The temperatures have eased a little, but it still feels as if this will be the year without an autumn. The colors are muted, the dust heavy. There are no glorious leaves in flame, and those moody, mild gray days—soft with light rain and so perfect for walking and thinking—are AWOL. This somehow seems in keeping with the grim news out in the world. It's a cruel year all around.

This dry season has reminded me of a much worse one that hit us in the summer of 2007, when the drought combined with extraordinary heat. That, too, was a year when people kept saying, "I can't remember anything like this," and there was an ominous feeling that something was not quite right with the planet. Europe had its own heatwave that year, and there were terrible wildfires in Greece. And, of course, there was also correspondingly grim news directly created by humans. When is there not?

At the end of that terrible summer of 2007, the editor at the Nashville Scene asked me to write an essay about the coming fall. I hadn't given that piece a thought in a long time, but this year's crappy autumn made me curious to go back and reread it. I was surprised to see how much it echoed, in less mystical language, the quotation I posted last week from Robinson Jeffers — a passage I'd never read until shortly before I posted it. I knew Jeffers had a big influence on me (see the title of this blog), but I was a little startled to see the direct parallel.

Jeffers's aggressive anti-humanism, or what some call misanthropy, has become more problematic for me as I've gotten older. I have less and less use for rage, and there's no denying the rage bubbling underneath much of his work. And yet at the core of his vision there is, as he says, peace, freedom, and great, transcendent beauty. That's also what I find when I try to look beyond human concerns. In my essay for the Scene, I wrote:

Jettisoning our idea of ourselves as masters of our domain may not be very gratifying to the ego, but it frees us to interact with nature in the most intimate way. We can look at a spider web and really see it, without analyzing its architectural impressiveness or recoiling from its “ick, a bug” factor. It simply is at that moment. We can experience it as a manifestation of life on earth, not greater or less than ourselves—in fact, not separable from ourselves. When we put aside our expectations, and yes, even our sense of responsibility, then we can truly understand our very small place in the universe.

In a time of turmoil, climatic and otherwise, I find my smallness very comforting. You can read the rest of my piece, "Fall Disclosure," here.

Photo by BitterGrace, taken on October 24, 2016

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

"here is peace, freedom"

"I believe that the Universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.) The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation, in turning one's affection outward toward this one God, rather than inward on one's self, or on humanity, or on human imagination and abstractions — the world of spirits.

I think that it is our privilege and felicity to love God for his beauty, without claiming or expecting love from him. We are not important to him, but he to us.

I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one's own life and environment beautiful, as far as one's power reaches. This includes moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe. But I would have each person realize that his contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without him." 

~ Robinson Jeffers, from a letter to Sister Mary James Power, October 1, 1934

Photo by BitterGrace

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"A little too abstract..."

A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the sky,
Let the rich life run to the roots again.

From "Return" by Robinson Jeffers

Photo by BitterGrace

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Not grand

We're in the midst of a beautiful autumn here, all blue sky and bright leaves. It won't last long, and I got up this morning determined to get out and enjoy the splendid day. Just as I was headed out the door I felt a sort of mantle of resistance settle over me. My desire to go hiking became a desire to do something, anything else, and I considered opting instead for a morning at the computer. I kept moving, though, mostly from force of habit. All the way to the park I thought about how much I didn't want to go there. Turn around. You're sick of these walks. You need to take a break from them. Go home and make some other use of this day. But I pressed on, and once I got to the park it seemed stupid not to do at least a short turn down one of the trails. After about a half hour of steady walking, the pleasure kicked in. I knew it would. It always does. I call it pleasure, but I actually mean something much more intense than that word suggests. I'd call it bliss or joy, but those don't seem quite right either. It's a quiet surrender of the self that happens. There's no loss of the self, no transcendence — I am very much present and entirely *me* — but I feel connected and somehow permeable to everything around me. Even though I'm aware of a few annoyances and the handful of actual dangers, I feel at odds with nothing. I resent nothing. Maybe the word for this state is "undefended" — not a grand word, but there's nothing grand about the experience. It's extraordinary, but not grand.

Photo by Maria Browning. Click on the image to enlarge it

Thursday, October 10, 2013

This morning...

...I heard a noise in the leaves, and it turned out to be this cicada in its death throes, buzzing its last buzz. I feel horror when I see a dying creature—any creature, even a small, strange, absurd one. The sight of death accomplished can have a somber beauty, but dying, the transition from one existence to another, seems awful. There are moments when I find a sense of peace with it, even a love of the mystery, but most of the time I encounter it as a cruelty. That is a failure on my part, I think—a failure of both reason and imagination. I hope to walk beyond it someday.

*Photo by Maria Browning. Click on the image to enlarge it.