from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

a sense of wonder
Creative Commons

 Like joy, and play, those qualities so unadulterated in a childhood, wonder is something that it's easy to lose sight of as adults. In a cynical world it's easy to feel, or be accused of being, naïve, too, if one admits to a sense of wonder as being a driving force in one's life. 

But it's a quality that is, perhaps, vital to a life fully lived, and without it something of the soul dies of attrition.

I'm one of those fortunate people who experiences wonder on a daily basis, even when I'm despondent at other things. I have only to step out of my door into what we jokingly (or not) refer to as 'Roselle's social life' – interactions with the finches and tits that appear when I do (knowing of course that I fill the feeders daily); awareness of the music of the little cascade in the valley; the rooks and jackdaws playing with the wind above the oaks; the deer prints by the brook; spring walking steadily towards us at a speed of however many miles it is per week, etc. 

I'll stop there lest my Pollyanna-ishness irritates people – and there we go, evidencing what I said above.

Anyway, I'm speaking of this because I had an 'Osage orange' moment at the top of the path up from the courtyard into our field, except that it was a 'Devon holly' moment.

Let me explain.

One of the books that has most left its mark on me from my first reading over 30 years ago now is Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Like, I suspect, other devotees of this book, one moment in particular that Dillard writes of has stayed with me as an intense visual internalised experience, a moment of extreme luminosity, almost miraculously beautiful and awe-full. Here's the passage, which is actually about seeing:

'For a week last September migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away. They simply materialized out of the tree. I saw a tree, then a whisk of color, then a tree again. I walked closer and another hundred blackbirds took flight. Not a branch, not a twig budged: the birds were apparently weightless as well as invisible. Or, it was as if the leaves of the Osage orange had been freed from a spell in the form of red-winged blackbirds; they flew from the tree, caught my eye in the sky, and vanished. When I looked again at the tree the leaves had reassembled as if nothing had happened. Finally I walked directly to the trunk of the tree and a final hundred, the real diehards, appeared, spread, and vanished. How could so many hide in the tree without my seeing them? The Osage orange, unruffled, looked just as it had looked from the house, when three hundred red-winged blackbirds cried from its crown. I looked downstream where they flew, and they were gone. Searching, I couldn't spot one.'

I remember this as a passage about the sudden appearance of an almost-transcendent experience of light; not so much literal, but more about the way the experience of an unexpected encounter with a moment can light the rest of a life with its inner glow. And it's an experience that has repeated itself in actuality with me maybe half a dozen times, the last a few days ago with migrating redwings in our holly tree. 

Strangely, Dillard's encounter is as vivid in my now-reinforced memory as my own.

The thing is, this is what we have: this necklace of moments, of small wonders, to light us through on our way; and suddenly we search the memory-cupboard and find that they're huge, and the store is inexhaustible.


  1. The Dillard is a gem — also 'Teaching a Stone to Talk'.

    Not Pollyanna-ish at all — and, if it is, long live Pollyanna!

    I, too, am blessed with a sense of wonder. It's funny how we can be reticent in talking about it — and using all those words to describe it like 'rapture' and 'epiphany' and 'spiritual' and 'revelation' and 'transcendent' and so on. I suppose it depends on the way we recount these momentous, personal experiences, the whole style of telling rather than individual, non-contextualised words. In the present day, writers like Peter Matthiessen and Robert Macfarlane show us how to do it — and Dillard too, of course.

    Such moments are the ones which shine in my Camino memory brighter than rational space-time events, specific geographies and biographies — subjective mysteries rather than historical facts (though most so-called historical facts get fictionalised), gateways to something deep within, meeting points of the temporal and the eternal. There, 'temporal' and 'eternal'! It's that language again...

    And you're right — these wonders we've experienced are more numerous than we think. Sometimes we realise this through memory, afterwards. They don't always have to be blinding illuminations; sometimes they are 'mild, slow-burning raptures', as Joseph Campbell calls them.

  2. Robert, I value these exchanges - thank you. Thanks too for the vote of confidence - I woke up this morning sick of my own earnestness. I'd give a lot to be able to write humorously more often; it's hard when there's so much suffering in the world (and on a personal level I've had 12 extremely tough years with serious family illnesses and deaths) - and for that reason even more necessary. Eh bien. We do what we can.

    I like 'mild, slow-burning raptures' as a phrase, and I appreciate the experience of them so much more as I get older.

    I agree, re Matthiessen and MacFarlane, and I find increasing numbers of others. And I want to mention a very different book, one that you might know, called 'if nobody speaks of remarkable things', by Jon McGregor.

  3. 'Increasing numbers of others' — yes.

    Life, as well as rapturous, is painful, isn't it? We know that everything is dukkha, and that suffering and joy are always in the mix, but even so. Indeed, one might say that suffering is the springboard for ecstasy. As Joseph Campbell writes in 'The Power of Myth': 'Love thine enemies because they are the instruments of your destiny.'

    I don't know that Jon McGregor book. Do you want to say more about it?

  4. Hi Robert: I can't really articulate what it is about Jon McGregor's book. It's a novel, and an urban novel (not my normal territory), that is also sad. But in the midst of tragedy, he places all the small wonders that nourish a life, exquisitely. It's a book of beauty.


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