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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Macfarlane’

still-life-2

The Sheraton in Clearwater Beach provides free copies of the Wall Street Journal, neatly stacked on a narrow table near the elevators. We were there in early September, and I picked up a copy of the WSJ Magazine that someone had discarded, as if it were a blow-in card that had fallen out of a catalog. This particular issue was built around a theme of “men’s style.” I flipped past ads for manly cologne and leather messenger bags with my lip curled, until I came to the very last page. Centered under the heading “Still Life” was a photograph of a table not unlike the one in the lobby of the Sheraton. The table contained a display of about a dozen objects—African art, masks, books—carefully arranged. I read that these were the favorite things chosen by a renowned photographer, who described her interests and enthusiasms in a few paragraphs of text beneath the photo.

I would require something more than a table to hold my personal Still Life. I would like something more along these lines:

After we had eaten, he took me up to a south-facing room that was thick with summer light, and there he opened the two pale-blue doors of a large wooden cabinet that stood against the back wall. It was, he explained, a cabinet of curiosities of his own devising… in which examples of natural history (naturalia), precious artifacts (arteficialia), scientific instruments (scientifica), findings from distant realms (exotica) and items of inexplicable origin and form (mirabilia) were gathered and displayed.

That’s a description of writer and art historian Peter Davidson’s collection of favorite things, as described by Robert MacFarlane in the book Landmarks. MacFarlane says that Davidson’s writing, like his cabinet of curiosities, is an attempt “to capture the moment, lost and yet preserved forever.”

The paragraphs of his essays, the verse of his poems: these act as what Thomas Browne in Urne-Buriall…beautifully calls a ‘conservatorie.’ Yet none of these ‘conservatories’ is quite reliable, none fully sealed. All leak a little light.

Davidson’s house and garden are extensions of the cabinet, filled with meaningful bits and collected pieces. “We have gathered things about us which are of the place where we live,” he told MacFarlane.

I have my own collection of jars; the urns in my conservatorie contain photos, postcards, pebbles and shells, all sorts of small reminders of people and places I love. My conservatorie leaks a great deal of light. One jar holds an e-mail that I received from Ernesto this August. I had sent him a message to let him know I planned to stop at the grocery store on my way home from work, and I asked if he needed anything. He responded with a sort of poetic still life:

Get some bananas and Potato chips.
Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.
More bacon and sausage for grilling on Saturday morning.

(Possibly my favorite line in the English language: “Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.” Like a snippet from a song, it runs through my head every time I turn the corner in our local Food Lion and walk past the frozen foods.)

But there are many marvelous things that are impossible to preserve. In August, I looked forward to the Perseid meteor shower with great anticipation, since this year’s shower was supposed to a really good one. On the first evening, I put my mini-trampoline (for low-impact running) on the back deck and tried to get comfortable with my upper body on it and my legs hanging off. Ernesto crammed onto the trampoline next to me, and we gazed upward. We counted three airplanes and two or three meteors. Ernesto wanted to talk the entire time, but his conversation failed to match my mood. I wanted shooting stars, a fathomless universe, mysteries and magic. He bounced his shoulders on the trampoline and said, “I smell the grill.”

We saw about five meteors that evening, and then we decided to get up and go to bed.

At our age, when you rise to your feet after lying pronish on a mini-trampoline with your head thrown back to look into limitless space, regaining one’s balance is a trick. We both staggered a bit, grabbing onto each other (unwise) and the grill and finally the back door doorknob. By the time we fell into the house we were weak with laughing and dizziness.

Not yet having had my fill of falling stars, I prepared more thoroughly for my second night of star-gazing. I own a heavy cotton area rug that I love but which has an unfortunate stain in the center. I situated it on the back deck, and then placed our heavy winter comforter on top. I pulled an old bedsheet from the linen closet to use as a sort of mosquito net and settled into my cozy nest with a pillow.

Ernesto had had enough of the Perseids and declined to join me. Well, he missed out, because it was lovely. The temperature had dropped into the 70s, with a light breeze, and the crickets and frogs made a pleasant sort of white noise. I saw the first meteor fairly quickly, but after the first there were long spells of quiet time. It was hypnotic, and wonderful. In fact it was very much like meditation and fishing, which I also love. After a long spell of quiet waiting, you get an electric moment of total delight—and then a return to more patient, quiet waiting.

That is not the type of life experience that can be preserved in a jar or displayed in a cabinet. I will conserve it here, instead, as a memory, a memory of lying back and looking up into the dark sky while the crickets fiddle, the entire world spins, stars are falling, and I alone am still.

 

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ice spike 1

A gleam in the gloaming.

In the dead of winter, the evenings are cold and dark and the mornings begin with a painfully slow return of the light. It’s as if the machinery that lifts the sun is a hand-cranked wooden device operated by an unnaturally decrepit wee person, whose tiny boots are lifted off the ground each time he reaches the top of the turn. On frosty mornings I can almost hear the creakings of the machine and the wee person’s bones.

This makes the early light more precious, and I look to the east each morning to catch the first signs of illumination. During January I was usually halfway to work before they appeared.

Maybe we have to endure the longer darkness of this season as a reminder of the importance of light and hope. Common wisdom in North Carolina is that it takes two bitterly cold months to annihilate all the fleas and ticks; perhaps it’s the same for people, and long spells of cold and dark eradicate some of our more toxic qualities and cause us to seek the light more purposefully.

In a winter-hammered landscape, the light creates a feeling of compassion…it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us. – Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams, as quoted by Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book, Landscapes.

Even during the gray weeks of Lent there are signs of hope. One Sunday morning this winter I glanced outside and saw a bright flash in the birdbath, like a bit of mirror reflecting the first fragments of sunlight, even while the rest of the landscape lay steeped in gloom. I stood at the back door in my pajamas, trying to figure out what the gleam meant. I looked at it through our binoculars, then Ernesto looked.

“It’s ice,” he said.

“It isn’t,” I replied.  

Finally I put on socks and a jacket over my pajamas and went to check it out. It was ice. (“I told you,” E. said.) The ice had grown out of the birdbath to form an inverted pyramid, about 1.5” tall and filled with water.

Ice Spike 2

I searched for “ice formation in birdbath” online and found the web pages of Dr. James R. Carter, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Department of Geography-Geology. Dr. Carter specializes in ice formations, and he has conducted many interesting experiments in his own yard:

To my surprise, one night at about 11:00 PM I found the water in one bottle cap formed into what is called an Ice Spike.  I had read about these but suddenly I had my own. I have been able to produce ice spikes on occasion but have not been able to do it consistently.   

Dr. Carter’s site features a picture of an ice pyramid similar to mine. It had been sent to him by someone like me who had found him through the magic of the Internet. Dr. Carter writes:

This triangular ice in the birdbath is not unique in the world. The Weatherwise explanation provides a link to a web page of a couple in Scotland where they show a number of such ice formations that they found in their garden. And I have received photos from other persons showing triangular wedges of ice growing in birdbaths.  I appreciate seeing such photos so please share them with me.

Well, of course I would share. I immediately sent an e-mail to Dr. Carter with a photo of our ice vase (that’s what Fred and Sarah, the couple in Scotland, call them). He wrote back straight away, telling me he’d never seen one with a four-sided top; they’re usually triangular. He added that he may post my photos to his website, but he made no firm promise, as he doesn’t update the pages very often.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

What a lovely thing to find by accident in one’s backyard. As Henry David Thoreau once said of snowflakes: “How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat.”

Star-like or not, in the grand scheme of things our ice vase—which melted in the afternoon sun—is hardly important. Maybe you’ve noticed there’s a lot going on in the world right now. In America alone, politicians have been taken over by a sort of lunacy, every symptom of which is reported with great zeal. Instead of falling away, a stifling ignorance seems to be closing in on us. Why isn’t the cold and dark creating a feeling of compassion in the political arena, or at least killing off the hateful fleas and ticks? No wonder I want only to turn away, and look for light on the horizon—which happily comes a wee bit earlier every morning and lingers a tad bit longer every evening.

Anyway, E. B. White has given me permission to turn away:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.

In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.

I have always felt that way, too. So I’m taking care to preserve evidence of our item of enchantment here, in my virtual cabinet of curiosities. Maybe a portion of the light that it held for one winter morning will be preserved with it, for the betterment of us all.

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