"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Photo Essay: Just a Moment, Spring

After months and months of winter, why pause to look back at what we’ve just endured, especially now as the hints and harbingers of spring become commonplace?

“Life can only be understood backwards," wrote the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, adding this important point: "but it must be lived forwards.” Somewhere in that paradox of meaning from the past and presence to the moment is what we make of the now. Perhaps. Just a thought.

What follows is a series of what I call selected now’s from October to December – pictures of varying quality, along with comments, straightforward and succinct in a few cases, tangential and tedious in most others. But all are glimpses of a sort – of the outward and the inward.

October 10, 2010, Governor Nelson State Park, near Madison, Wisconsin

Something there is about cranes that has long been captivating. Aristotle (384 BCE -322 BCE) mentions them in his History of the Animals: “these birds migrate from the steppes of Scythia to the marshlands south of Egypt where the Nile has its source. And it is here, by the way, that they are said to fight with the pygmies.” (Um, not all of his accounts meet the standards of the modern bird guide.)

For centuries, cranes have been a subject in East Asian art. Common lore held that cranes could live a thousand years, which explains why they’re still symbols of wisdom and longevity in China, Korea, and Japan.

These sandhill cranes above stroll along the shore of Lake Mendota (with the Capitol in the distance). Of the two species of North American cranes, the sandhill, unlike its more famous endangered cousin the whooping crane, is plentiful. The entire state of Wisconsin lies within the designated "primary breeding range" for a specific subspecies of sandhill.

They’re beginning to cluster. It won't be long now here in this second week of October – it’s soon off to Florida and back in March. (And they're back as anyone with below average hearing or better can attest.)

On the same day, as I walk through the deserted park, I realize I have already missed the peak of leaf color. "Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?" The question put in a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem to a girl moved to sadness over the falling leaves of autumn. The subsequent lines are hardly consolation:
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It is the blight man was born for
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Oh, Margaret. Colder sights – yet so much more: Maybe even understanding their value.

In this lone oak, left to grow old in a restored prairie, a crow rests (present in both photos above), reminding me of a popular haiku by the seventeenth century Japanese poet Basho, though the time of day it depicts is not the same:
On a withered branch
a crow has settled –
autumn nightfall
Indulge me for my own modified a.m. version:
On a bare branch high
crow and stillness rest –
autumn morn
A brief note on haiku: Japanese haiku narrowly understood consists of 17 moras, which are like syllables only more reflective of a syllable’s weight – i.e., things like syllable duration or stress. For example, a “long” syllable, such as the English word strength, could be considered to comprise two moras, whereas pea comprises one.

In any case, my rudimentary understanding of Japanese syllabification suggests that a one-to-one comparison with English syllables would be quite flawed. Striving for exactness in the syllables shouldn’t be the primary concern. The spirit of a haiku is what’s important – a few carefully selected words used to capture the essence of a single moment in nature. Try it; it’s fun. This is sometimes thought of as the best known haiku in English.

Walking along a trail through this meadow, I simply cannot get close enough to the morning air, redolent with something like sage only sweeter, something like grape only earthier. I breathe through my nose vigorously and then relax into slow, natural inhalations.

I take a picture and then, suddenly, unexpectedly, I’m overcome. A singular force takes hold of me, a simultaneous feeling of – what? – exultation, gratitude, anguish, bliss? All of these yet beyond them all. My eyes blur with tears and from me comes the mingling of a sigh and a laugh. And I simply stand in the stillness.

Words approximate poorly. For one moment, was I a mountain range of sublime clarity? Or perhaps a single reed subsumed sweetly, gently by a rising river of realization? I'm reluctant to share that I, foolishly, return to this very place the next morning with the subtle desire to once again have the feeling visited upon me. And do you think this happens? Of course not. To wit:
He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity's sunrise.
– John Keats, “Eternity”
October 31, at the farm, Barronett, WI

Just over the property line, a patch of sorghum – so I was told – standing in splendor, on the brink of dormancy.

In the hayfield, blades of grass grow feathery with frost.

Dry, frozen life – and serenity at the lake's edge.

November 25-28, at the farm, Barronett, WI

Let’s go back in time here, a hundred years or so before this land was settled, say around 1800. This same sunlight moved across this same portion of earth, though everything was different. No frozen furrows, nor corn stalk stubs, nor human intrusion of any kind on woods dominated by white pines, which stood for centuries before they toppled. And there on a silent forest floor, trunk, limb, branch, and needle surrendered to what Robert Frost called “the slow smokeless burning of decay.” Soil from life that was feeds life that will be. But at the closing of November, both life and decay slow to a stop now – and then.

Again at the lake’s edge, this time shimmering water has commenced its transformation to ice. It won't be long now.

Temps are in the lower teens today. Before my eyes liquid becomes solid – sure, a simple process of elementary school science. And yet the faintest “clinking” – literally – of crystal meeting crystal renders the phenomenon other-worldly and magical.

There is still time, though, for enjoying the water. Three mornings in a row, amidst the weather’s bluster and bitterness, I watch a swan pair and their signet flow across the water in an ordered yet languid fashion.


But I am as surprised as they look to be on the fourth morning, when the lake presents a sparkling skim of ice. For twenty minutes or so, I watch the swans negotiate the transformation. And then in an instant a decision is made: For the first time, I see them take flight, heading north, perhaps to open water, maybe the Flambeau River.

Yet I worry. Are they for some reason disoriented? And will the young one survive the cold, the predators? I follow them with strained eyes until the sky is empty, my hope for them frozen and earthbound.

After my swan family flies, I crave creatures on my walk back. Though I know better, the woods appear desolate. I thankfully meet this red squirrel – startled, I can only assume, from its itinerary of late autumn toil. 

December 24-25, at the farm, Barronett, WI


“Maybe because I have spent so much time wondering what to say on blank white pages,” writes the naturalist Wallace Kaufmann, “an expanse of . . . snow sometimes lays before me like a question, especially if it comes in the middle of trouble.”

I cannot say I am in the middle of “trouble” here as I absorb what appears to be earth and sky longing to merge. But I know my ratio of wondering to writing favors the former by a margin immeasurable. Yet just how my avocation came to be writing, which manifests at best haphazardly, is surely linked with wondering, with questions. And it has been a long slog – and it has been a blessing – to emerge and continue emerging not so much with answers but with gratitude for the questions. And here I realize I have walked smack into the German poet Rainier Rilke’s perhaps overused but undeniably profound passage from Letters to a Young Poet:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
I am no longer particularly young – as much as it pains me to say it – nor am I much of a poet. But I think that to live the questions now, as Rilke exhorted, is a message for the ages and one for all ages. And let me add this: The most precious potential each of us has is an existence fully in this moment and a fascination for this life (not the one tomorrow). And to love it.

Whoops. Pardon the existential pontifications. I know I'm more suited, and you will be more at ease, if I stick to ambling about through wooded paragraphs and worded brambles.  

A remnant of a pasture fence gate, now almost 50 years old according to my dad. I myself have walked past this for well over 30 years, though I cannot say I’ve ever given it much thought. Until seeing it here.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
So opens “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens, a five-stanza poem exploring what was a recurrent topic for him – the relationship of reality and imagination. If reality only emerges as we transcend the perceiving self, then what is left to know reality? And does that then suggest it is only through the self – and imagination – that we create reality? The poem ends providing no release from the paradox, which is just as well:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
These highbrow conundrums are not, I would imagine, what run through your mind as you’re, say, trying not to freeze to death. Not that I would know about that. I stand here in the cold quite comfortably in warm but flexible winter wear, knowing also I’m just a short walk to home. For a moment, this grove of spruce holds me transfixed, though I doubt I reach the point where I "have a mind of winter." And yet my mind does marvel. As I stare past the delicate juxtaposition of snow and tree and cone, deep, deep into the scented boughs, my mind slips through a hidden passage and I emerge, first, awe-struck to find existence and then grateful to know it as me.

Long ago a single dense forest stretched across northern Europe, reaching as far as Russia. Imagining ancient winters and the ceaseless color of woods and white, you can understand why the Germanic tribes who dwelled within and on the edges of this great forest might have yearned for, even divinized the rare occurrence of a bright hue. The holly berry, for example, was considered a food of the gods.

The stories of the gods and heroes of these people, what we know today as Norse mythology, in some cases suggest a dark, mirthless religion. Indeed in Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse story, three years of endless winter culminate in a great cosmic battle in which the world is destroyed and even the gods don’t survive. (But take heart: A hopeful version has a few divine survivors and the world begins anew, lush, verdant, and purged of evil.)

But on this day I’m not thinking of anyone’s god or gods, dead or living, or endings for that matter, apocalyptic or otherwise, though the year’s expiration draws near. It is, quite simply, a Good day. And it’s made better by gifts like a woodpecker eyeing these dwindling berries, surely intent on putting the red bits of ambrosia to a use mundane – yet inadvertently mysterious.

Hidden within the flesh of the berry is a seed that goes undigested by the bird. Though the mode of delivery is hardly a romantic one, the seed that arrives who-knows-where contains within it everything necessary to eventually germinate, to become what it was intended to be. It just needs a suitable place to rest.

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