Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A stretch of river LIII: Frost on the grass, stars in the sky

Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond.

[I]f a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of the cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.--Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature"
I confess to being a bad Transcendentalist this morning as Scruffy and I walked through the park. For a little while, at least.

Yesterday was chilly, yes, but this morning . . . where had our pleasantly-cool fall mornings gone? Just before sunrise is the coldest part of the morning, as most people know; and this morning--well below freezing, a heavy frost on the ground and vapor rising off the river--found me underdressed and that dawning awareness coming upon me slowly and, when it did arrive, found me on the other side of the river--pointless by that time to return for something heavier. So, yeah: Thoreau in Walden one day disparages the rain that causes him to postpone his fishing trip but later thinks that the rain, being good for the grass, was also good for him; I'm afraid I was not nearly so gracious regarding the frost on the grass's possibly being good for my rapidly-numbing fingers. Add to this Scruffy's--as it seemed to me--deliberately seeking out and smelling Every. Little. Odoriferous. Spot. no matter how far off our route it might lay, and . . . sorry, Henry and Ralph. I just wanted to get home and get warm.

At one point, though, as I cursed my luck this morning for having far-too-casually decided four years ago that owning a dog would be okay and not taking into account that he'd require walking at least twice a day no matter the weather, not to mention our own obligations of whatever sort--thus feeling I was now laboring under a mistake (thanks, Henry)--I happened to glance up at the sky and see the constellation Orion. One blessing of living in Wichita is that, even in the middle of the city, light-pollution is not so bad and the air is clear enough that many stars are not only easily visible, there have been times in the past when they twinkle so brilliantly that they seem almost audible. This morning was not quite one of those mornings; but, despite my standing under a lamppost at this moment, Orion was easily visible. Just for a moment, I stopped cursing my luck; my mind flashed back to our guide to Teotihuacan two weeks ago telling us that the relative placement of its two main pyramids may have served as a gigantic solar calendar.

I'm no fool: it's safe to assume that the vast, vast majority of the laborers who built Teotihuacan had, shall we say, little choice in the matter. At one level, it's easy to agree with Thoreau when he says in Walden, "As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs. I might possibly invent some excuse for them and him, but I have no time for it." But at another level--that of the societal--the mapping of a city (a human-created environment, after all) in accordance with a map of the cosmos rather than one reflecting some strange confluence of local topography and the whims of succeeding generations of residents--a denial of the contingent in favor of the Always There: there's an undeniable grandeur and vision to that that I think Thoreau might also agree with:
Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us. The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us. Let us spend our lives in conceiving then.
A marvelous word, conceiving, in this context, both its meanings of "understanding" and "to cause to begin life" working equally well here.

Scruffy's always needing walking--not a heck of a lot of transcendence in that. Not this particular morning, at least. But the stars are always there, the sky spinning about but always returning to the same place eventually: that is their wonder. One can not only map a city according to that, one can take that idea and begin to map a life, or re-chart one already mapped.

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