Faint Music: Language, Landscape and the Sacred ~ Douglas Burton-Christie

“I have come to feel that there is here in North America a hidden place obscured by what we have built upon it, and that whenever we penetrate the surface of the life around us that place and its spirit can be found.”

-John Haines

Like a flame it  appears, rising, then banking and gliding over the salt marsh, tracing a luminescent arc across the late autumn sky.  Casmerodius albus or, as it is more commonly known,  Great Egret. I have been under the spell of this remarkable bird for as long as I can remember, have felt my heart leap with wonder at the sight of its impossible brightness, its graceful angularity–in the wetlands near Monterey in northern California, in the swamps of Louisiana. And in the waterways of central Florida, where, on a recent trip to Disneyworld, the sight of an Egret from my bus window–its shining plume radiant against the jade blue water–became for me a kind of totem, a wild, living presence who, during my four day sojourn within the fantastically sterile world of the magic kingdom, continuously beckoned and sustained me.

As this bird, now settling into a distant corner of the marsh, also beckons and sustains me. Yet, here in the Ballona Wetlands, a tiny remnant of what was once an enormous and vibrant salt marsh opening out onto the Pacific Ocean from the Los Angeles Basin, egrets have a precarious hold on life, as do the other species that call this place home. They are feeling the pressure from all sides, as the same inexorable forces that have left Southern California almost completely bereft of open space take hold here. From where I stand, I can see the surveying markers, and the giant earth movers across Lincoln Blvd. poised to begin burying the eastern portion of the wetlands–soon to become a mixed use development called Playa Vista, future home of Dream Works. But here in the western portion of the wetlands (the portion that has, for now at least, been saved), I can also see: a Sharp-shinned Hawk perched on a distant fence post, Mallards floating through Ballona Creek, Black Phoebes and White Crowned Sparrows darting though the pickleweed, a Snowy Egret slowly lifting its elegant bright yellow foot from the water. Overhead, a Black Shouldered Kite, wings beating wildly, hovering in a kind of perfect stillness. From  somewhere in the middle distance, the sweet call of a Western Meadowlark rises and falls, rises and falls. There are others I don’t see or hear today–the Belding’s Savannah Sparrow and the California Least Term–both endangered but hanging on, if only barely, continuing to lay their own claim to this place.  

As I myself am gradually coming to do. Not as a conscious act of appropriation. But because the song and color and movement of this place have gradually entered in and taken hold of my imaginative world, made it possible for me–for the first time since I moved here five years ago–to begin calling Los Angeles home. Here, only a short distance from my house and the University where I teach, I am discovering traces of an older, wilder world, a world that somehow reaches through the unrelenting urban sprawl to touch and heal me.  But standing here today, I wonder: is that world already gone? Have I waited too long to come to know this place, to begin loving it? And I wonder also: is this tiny remnant of a once vast wetlands really worth loving? Is it too thin, too impoverished a place to sustain life, much less my affection? And what of my presence here today, my growing affection for this place? Does it, will it make any difference to Ballona’s ultimate survival?

I am more than a little ashamed to admit having these questions. Yet there they are, born no doubt from long experience of losing places or seeing places left so devastated that they might as well be lost–huge stretches of ancient forest in the Pacific Northwest where I grew up lost to clear cutting; fragile desert habitat in the Mojave torn to shreds by off highway vehicles; more recently the sound of chainsaws drawing ever closer to a beloved monastery in the Redwood forests of the Lost Coast in Northern California. None of this is new. Nor is it unique to my experience. It is part of the increasingly familiar story that we are all gradually learning to absorb into our consciousness: a story of immense and sometimes permanent loss. But it helps to explain why I am afraid of loving this place too much. And why I worry about bringing my six year old daughter here, who loves this place already, but who is also beginning to understand and live with the awareness of loss and the threat of loss. “Where will the creatures go, Daddy?” she asks me, looking up at the Bulldozers lining the highway.

I don’t know what to say to that. I cannot bring myself to admit to her or to myself the possibility that the Egret’s brilliant beauty or the song of the Meadowlark might disappear from this place, that the place itself, which the Gabrielenos called pwinukipar or “full of water,” might dry up, might cease to be. Yet neither can I offer her easy assurances. Which is why, I suppose, I am here, why I am taking in every detail of the place, why I am giving myself over to the long and painstaking process of learning its grammar and syntax: as a way of overcoming my temptation to despair. Perhaps, I think, if I can deepen my own sense of devotion and cultivate a genuine habit of attention to the rich and diverse life of this place, I may yet learn to hear its voice. I may even grow capable of an authentic response, may, through my own voice contribute somehow to the healing and renewal of this place. 

***

Does the world have a voice? Does it speak a language whose meaning we can discern? Does it, perhaps, beckon to us, call us toward an intimate encounter with the Other?  These questions are increasingly on my mind these day as I think about my own relationship to cherished places, my own sense of what it means to respond authentically to the “call” of those places. But they are not only my questions. I have a growing sense that such questions lay somewhere close to the heart of our contemporary discourse about the natural world. What kind of questions are they? Fundamentally, I think, they are spiritual questions. Not perhaps in the way such questions are traditionally understood. Within much of our writing and conversation about the natural world, spiritual questions have come unmoored from their traditional loci; only rarely do they arise from Churches, synagogues, mosques or kivas, or in relation to the spiritual and theological traditions that inform such places. Still, this displacement of religious discourse, reflective of a larger cultural shift within postmodernity, has hardly resulted in the disappearance of such concerns from the conversation. If anything, there is a heightened interest in such questions. Certainly this is true of the contemporary literature and poetry of nature.

I think of Annie Dillard’s rapt attention before the radiant light of that Osage Orange tree in the Appalachian mountains and her equally rapt attention to the dark and the intractable—refracted through the ancient Christian mystical discourse of the via positiva and via negativa; Ed Abbey’s  “hard and brutal mysticism,” born in the harsh desert country of the southwest;  I wonder at Robert Hass’s sense of grace as a kind of “faint music” rising up to meet us through the fabric of the world–through “rainbow perch. . .reeled in gleaming from the cliffs, . . .black rockbass,/scales like polished carbon, in beds of kelp along the coast”–a kind of singing the memory of which might even be enough to draw one back from the edge of despair; I imagine Mary Austin standing before a wild almond tree in the Owens valley, like Moses before the burning bush, overcome by a what she describes as a “flame-burst. . . of revelation,” the “little hard red buds on leafless twigs, swelling unnoticeably, then one, two or three strong suns, and from tip to tip one soft fiery glow, whispering with bees as a singing flame;” I consider Pattiann Rogers’ rumination about the possible effects of praise upon the continuing life of the cosmos:  “suppose praise had physical properties/And actually endured. . . Suppose benevolent praise/coming into being by our will,/Had a separate existence, its purple or azure light/Gathering in the upper reaches, affecting/The aura of morning haze over autumn fields. . .”.

I think also of Gary Snyder’s circumambulation of Mt. Talmapais north of San Francisco–“walking up and around the long ridge of Tamalpais. . .’Bay Mountain,’ circling and climbing—chanting—to show respect and clarify the mind,” he says—a postmodern ritual helping, if even a little, in the rediscovery of the spirit of this place. And I think of Denise Levertov holding and cherishing things that were held by those, now gone, whom she loved–”My father’s serviette ring,/silver incised with a design/of Scotch thistles, the central medallion/uninitialled, a blank oval./The two massive/German kitchen knives, pre-1914, not-stainless steel,/which my mother carefully scoured with Vim/after each use”—language soaked with a sense of the sacramental, redemptive character of ordinary things.

Ordinary but necessary. “To me, sacred means necessary,” says Montana writer William Kittredge. Perhaps this is as good a place as any to begin rethinking what we mean by sacred. More and more in contemporary discourse the sacred seems to refer to precisely this: that which we cannot live without. The ground of being, to use an ancient philosophical term. But less and less do we think of this necessary thing, so precious and so worthy of our deepest devotion, as existing distinct from the mundane, as the sacred has so often been understood to do. Rather, we are in the process of rediscovering what Lynda Sexson has called “the ordinarily sacred,” a sense of the Other arising in and through the ordinary, palpable things of this world.

Ironically, perhaps tragically, this rediscovery of the ordinarily sacred is arising at a time when the ordinary things–plants, animals and entire places–that feed and sustain our spiritual lives are rapidly disappearing from our midst. But this convergence also helps explain I think why the retrieval and reinterpretation of spiritual discourse is so fertile at the present moment: because it seems impossible to do without it. The language of spirit–of  love, adoration, sacrament, grace, devotion—remains, however much this language has been impoverished or made banal by our own habits of inattention and carelessness–essential to the task of rediscovering and expressing our own deepest sense of affinity for the living world.  It may even be necessary to the work of preserving the world.  

We will need to reinvest this language with new meaning, born of our own struggle to understand how we are to rekindle a sense of relationship with and effectively work to preserve a rapidly diminishing world. We can no longer afford, if we ever could, a detached, other-worldly sense of transcendence. But we continue to hunger for a sense of the transcendent–perhaps not unlike what poet Wallace Stevens refers to as “transcendence downwards”–for a sense of the wholly mysterious Other who beckons to us through a world of infinite grace and beauty. This world.

So: we still dream of paradise. But we dream with our eyes wide open. With a healthy suspicion of faux paradises. Looking not to a world beyond this one (or certainly not only to a world beyond this one) but to the particular places we inhabit. It is in this sense that the word paradise seems to have entered into, and become central to our discourse about the natural world. It intrigues me that a writer such as William Kittredge, who calls himself “irreligious as a stone,” should find himself increasingly unable to articulate his hopes for the American west without a kind of eschatological vision of paradise.  “It’s time,” says Kittredge,  “we gave something back to the natural systems of order that have supported us, some care and tenderness, which is the most operative notion, I think—tenderness. Our isolations are gone, in the West  and everywhere. We need to give some time to the arts of cherishing the things we adore, before they simply vanish. Maybe it will be like learning a skill: how to live in paradise.”

Care. Tenderness. Adoration. The art of cherishing things. Kittredge calls these skills, and maybe they are. But they seem to me more like spiritual disciplines, the kind of attitudes and dispositions that a postulant entering a monastery would  be asked to cultivate. Which leads me to ask: what kind of disciplines do we need to cultivate for the work ahead? What pathologies in ourselves and our culture call most urgently for our attention and imagination? What will it mean for us to begin articulating a spirituality grounded in and capable of grounding our deepest feelings for the natural world, a spirituality arising from  and formative of our incipient practices of devotion, adoration, tenderness toward the places we love?

The tradition of American nature writing can, it seems to me, be of immense help to us in addressing these questions. With its acute attention to what Thoreau called the lingua vernacula of the natural world–the irreducibly singular voice of particular places and particular species—and to the infinitely varied ways the natural world plays upon the human imagination, this literature can help us foster a more informed sense of devotion to the places we inhabit. I would also suggest that we begin looking more carefully at the spiritual traditions and language that, either directly or indirectly, inform this literature. These traditions, whether western, eastern or those indigenous to our own continent, arise out of their own particular places and historical-cultural milieus, and deserve the same careful attention we give to the historical-cultural-biological milieus that inform nature writing. To recover a more informed sense of these traditions may help us not only reach a better understanding of this literary-poetic tradition but may also provide us with a richer vocabulary for articulating our own deepest convictions about the living world.

***

Last fall, I traveled for the first time into the wild canyonland country of the Maze in southern Utah. I went there primarily in the hope of seeing the Great Gallery, site of some of the oldest and most beautiful pictographs on the North American continent. Nothing I had read or heard about these magnificent paintings, though, could have prepared me for the actual sight of them there in the heart of Barrier Canyon. I had simply not taken into account the place, what it would mean to catch my first glimpse of them through the shimmering gold of a cottonwood tree, what it would mean to encounter these slender, ghostly figures, their deep auburn hues radiant, gesturing forth from the side of that sandstone canyon. I could not say then, nor am I certain I can articulate now, what I felt in the presence of those mysterious figures. But after returning home, I came upon these words by N. Scott Momaday, which seem to catch something of the power and significance of these paintings: “they are invested with the very essence of language, the language of story and myth and primal song.” Here, Momaday suggests, we are at the very root of American literature. A literature emerging from and bound to a particular place. A literature that speaks of the natural world, through the natural world, through the geologic shape of the canyon, though bird song, through the play of sun and moonlight among the cottonwoods, through the shifting currents of floodwater, in the wind.

I cherish that image. I cherish especially the sense that the world is alive and speaking to us and that we possess the capacity to respond to it in our own fragile, delicate voices, our own songs and stories. I carry that image and that hope with me today as I stand looking out over this salt marsh, degraded, diminished but still full of life. I consider that Egret, bright head barely visible above the pickleweed. I cock my ear, listening for the faint music arising from this place.

 

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