Monday, August 16, 2010

Back from Up North, and Wishing I Was Still There

Just back from a week's travels up on Minnesota's North Shore. Spent a lot of time at the Lake Superior shore, and in the woods and by the rivers and lakes in Superior National Forest. I'm having difficulty with re-entry to snivellization: nothing matters. I can't bring myself to care about the pile of mail, bills, and junk to be recycled. I'm avoiding the answering machine, and even the phone itself. Even my quiet small town here in southern Wisconsin seems too loud, too bright at night, too teeming with people, after being Up North. After a week of driving on dirt roads where you maybe see one other car per ten minutes, driving back down was enraging and exhausting; the vast majority of cars that tried to kill me on the highway yesterday had Illinois plates, no doubt Chicago people driving home after their weekends of Escaping To Wisconsin. I'm struggling to keep my mood what it was after a few days in the northern woods, calm, collected, refreshed, reinvigorated. The mail and the answering machine can both wait another day or two before I give them my attention. I've needed a nature break, a vacation from illness-caused cabin fever, and a change of venue, for a very long time. Forgive me for wanting to linger, in soul and mind, Up North a bit longer.

Nothing is more freeing and more healing to my soul than wilderness.

On the other hand, since I spent two days in the Twin Cities on either end of my northern vacation, I did some serious book shopping, and have come home with quite the treasure trove. I found several very beautiful books, notably Ben Shahn’s hand-written, illustrated edition of Ecclesiastes. The illustrations are sublime. Interest in Ben Shahn needs to be revived; his illustrated books are particularly fine; I also have a copy of his book illustrating Rilke.

I also found a lovely Folio edition of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a Duane Michals retrospective photography volume, a 1930s edition of Leaves of Grass, and some very valuable, to me, books of and about poetry. One of these is a hardcover first edition of a festschrift to Kenneth Rexroth.

And a new Thomas Merton book: When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on nature, edited by Kathleen Deignan, with illustrations by John Giuliani. I keep finding new Merton books, this past year. I think there must be a new wave of discovery and interest in publishing and reading his work. Some new writings are also being published, that have not been seen before. One of the new Merton books in my collection is an edition of his calligraphic brush drawings and monoprints, which I pleasantly find to be synchronistically parallel to my own recent directions in drawing and brush work, haiga and calligraphy.

When the Trees Say Nothing is excerpts from Merton's Journals, letters, and published writings, all on the themes of nature, the natural world, and solitude within natural settings. A lot of the excerpts are highly poetic. Here’s one that seems particularly relevant to my own feelings at the moment:

In this wilderness I have learned how to sleep again. I am not alien. The trees I know, the night I know, the rain I know. I close my eyes and instantly sink into the whole rainy world of which I am a part, and the world goes on with me in it, for I am not alien to it.

Sublime, and perfectly pertinent. I sleep so much better in that wooded silence than I do anywhere else.

A few more quotes now from this marvelous little book, which I am moved to copy out here:

Why do I live alone? I don’t know. . . . In some mysterious way I am condemned to it. . . . I cannot have enough of the hours of silence when nothing happens. When the clouds go by. When the trees say nothing. When the birds sing. I am completely addicted to the realization that just being there is enough, and to add something else is to mess it all up. It would be so much more wonderful to be all tied up in someone. . . and I know inexorably that this is not for me. it is a kind of life from which I am absolutely excluded. I can’t desire it. I can only desire this absurd business of trees that say nothing, or birds that sing, or a field in which nothing ever happens (except perhaps that a fox comes and plays, or a deer passes by). This is crazy. It is lamentable. I am flawed, I am nuts. I can’t help it. Here I am, now, . . . happy as a coot. The whole business of saying I am flawed is a lie. I am happy. I cannot explain it. . . . This is what the woods mean to me. I am free, free, a wild being, and that is all I ever can really be. I am dedicated to it, addicted to it, sworn to it, and sold to it. It is the freedom in me that loves you. . . .

More and more I feel like a monk without a monastery. There are places that I travel to and spend time in that are de facto hermitages: a cabin Up North; the high campground at Great Basin National Park; the east bluff at Devil's Lake; and others. There are places of power all over the land, some of which call you to them, some of which you discover as though at random during your travels. Each place of power has its own beauty, its own effect on my soul, some energizing, some others healing, a very few that awaken the darker aspects of self and turn them towards serving the light.

Eight crows wheel in the sky. An interesting evolution of shadows on the bare hillside beneath them. Sometimes to the crows fly low and their dance mingles with the dance of their own shadows on the almost perpendicular olive wall of the mountain pasture. Below, the sighs of the ocean.

My friend Alex is followed by crows wherever he goes; they constantly talk to him, as though they've adopted him into their clan. With me, I am followed by ravens. There were solitaries and raven bonded pairs every day that I drove the unpaved roads Up North last week. They often flew up from where they'd been investigating something in the road, taking big slow beats of air with giant wings, to perch on a tamarack or white pine by the roadside and eye me as I drove past. Sometimes I think it's always the same raven that I keep meeting, as it feels like resuming a conversation already going on, rather than starting new ones.

For my part my name is that sky, those fence-posts, and those cedar trees. I shall not even reflect on who I am and shall not say my identity is nobody’s business because that implies a truculence I don’t intend. It has no meaning.

Now my whole life is this—to keep unencumbered. The wind owns the fields where I walk and I own nothing and am owned by nothing and I shall never even be forgotten because no one will ever discover me. This is to me a source of immense confidence.

To keep unencumbered. To be confident because there is nothing to lose. These values speak to me as though they were the touchstones of the new life I must now lead.

A vagrant, a destitute wanderer with dusty feet, finds his way down a new road. A homeless God, lost in the night, without identification, without even a number, a frail expendable exile lies down in desolation under the sweet stars of the world and entrusts Himself to sleep.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I wonder when I lost the appreciation for nature that I had when I was young? Right up until I was a teenager I was always out wandering around the countryside. I relished its solitude and even sharing a beach with another walker several hundred yards off was an irritation. I have not lost my love of solitude even though I am actually rarely alone and haven’t been for years. I guess that rather proves the we-two-are-one notion of marriage because when it’s just Carrie and I I don’t feel as if there is an other there simply an extension of myself.

I get the need to indulge the self. I feel that’s what I’m doing just now exploring a different nature to you but exploring one nevertheless. I am no longer sick although on paper I still am. I have the luxury of a few months breathing space before I need to get back in the rat race and so I’m taking the time. I am, to use the word that jumped out of your essay for me, unencumbered. It’s a word we use and think we understand. I just looked it up. It’s based on the Old French encombrer, to block up. That made me think of constipation. The metaphor speaks for itself but I’ll just say this: most people think of an encumbrance as an external thing when so much of the time it’s something inside of us that weighing us down and we need to get it out to make us feel better.

Getting out of the house is scratching the wrong itch but it feels so good that it distracts us from what’s really annoying us. But if you can’t get to that itch then I guess any distraction is welcome. Carrie is off the America at the end of the month and so I’ll get a break from myself if you see what I mean. I’m well ahead on blog posts and so I’m aiming to indulge myself for a fortnight and write for myself. God alone knows how that will go.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Another writer friend just wrote about the idea that reading is an immersive experience. She explained that she rarely feels that immersion when reading. Part of her is always aware and watching herself; a step detached, a step analytical.

That's the critic's mind that I like to turn off as often as possible. Or the editor's mind. Or so it seems to me.

One reason the natural world is so healing for me is that it is an immersive experience, in which I can forget the self, and get a break from the constant cogitation and self-analysis and watching that seems to be required in order to function in urban snivellization: the necessary self-consciousness needed to pay the frakking bills, to drive safely when others around you aren't safe drivers, to do the chores, etc. That all falls away when I'm out in the woods, far from other people.

I immerse myself in the experience, just as I immerse myself in reading a or re-reading a story. The story wraps itself around me, I dive into its waters and breathe underwater for the duration of the story. I can't imagine doing it any other way. Detachment does not seem to me to be a positive artistic or aesthetic value, except and perhaps ONLY when undertaking critical analysis. Shutting off the critical apparatus and just going with the moment is a very rewarding and, for me, refreshing activity.

10:10 AM  

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