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Wednesday, January 20, 2016 – 2:32am
Photo by Kent Miller

Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods

I’ve been on retreat at a cabin in the woods since last Monday — a silent, solitary retreat. As my time here got underway, I took a few notes each day — a sort of mini-journal — and got the idea of stringing them together.

Monday, Jan. 11, 2016
Arrived in mid-afternoon at my rented cabin in the snow-covered Wisconsin countryside. Went inside, lit a fire, and unpacked the car, quickly, motivated by the sub-zero wind chill. Outside, acres of bright fields and dark woods. Inside, just me. Plus enough clothing, food, and books for a week of silence and solitude.

Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. “It depends,” I said. “Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.”

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016

Woke up about 5:00 a.m. and lay awake for another hour in the dark, watching my worries rise phoenix-like from the ashes and flap around to get my attention.

“Welcome and entertain them all!” says Rumi in The Guest House.

“Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

Guess I need to have a chat with the “beyond.” Looks like he/she/it didn’t get the memo that I came here for some peace.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling that peace again. It came from a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast, all ready simultaneously despite the fact that I’m a certified kitchen klutz. It came as well from looking out on the snowfields, brilliant under the rising sun — but beautifully etched with the shadows of trees and stubble poking up through the snow.

The “beyond” was right: peace comes from embracing the interplay of shadow and light (and a good breakfast doesn’t hurt). After breakfast, I read the January 12 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton, a collection of daily meditations:

“It seems to me that I have greater peace… when I am not ‘trying to be contemplative,’ or trying to be anything special, but simply orienting my life fully and completely towards what seems to be required of a man like me at a time like this.”

Simple and true, but so easily lost in Type-A spiritual striving! What was required of me this morning was simply to make breakfast despite my well-documented ineptitude. The deal is to do whatever is needful and within reach, no matter how ordinary it is or whether I’m likely to do it well.

This afternoon, what I needed was a hike, though the wind chill was six below. I’m no Ernest Shackleton, but I learned long ago that winter will drive you crazy until you get out into it — and I mean “winter” both literally and metaphorically. “In the middle of winter,” said Camus, “I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

I didn’t discover summer on my hike. But the sun blazed bright on the frozen prairie, warming my face. And high in the cobalt blue sky, a hawk made lazy circles as I’ve seem them do in July. For January, that’s close enough to summer for me!

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016

I slept poorly last night, and I know why. An hour before bedtime, I binge-ate a box of Jujyfruits while reading a book about spiritual discipline. The book made a few good points but was not well written, and I scarfed down the Jujyfruits as a stimulus to stick with it. My bad. But clear evidence that I could use some discipline!

I feel better now because the oatmeal I made for breakfast — on my second try — was healing. Pure comfort food. On the first try, I got the ratio of oatmeal to water wrong and left it on the burner too long. The pan looks like a grotesque avant garde sculpture of metal and grain: “Agrarian Culture Defeated by Machine.” Again, my bad. But my kitchen klutz credentials have been reinstated.

I guess my theme today is “Screw-ups in Solitude.” In solitude, my bads make me grin. If I committed them in front of others, I’d be embarrassed or angry with myself. Self-acceptance is easier when no one is around.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu:

“Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe.

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from a book I wrote, so I should probably give it a try!

Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016

Woke up at 2:00 a.m. and found myself regretting some things I got wrong over the past 77 years. Wished I had been kinder, or braver, or less self-centered than I was, and had a hard time remembering the things I got right.

Knowing that the 2:00 a.m. mind is almost always deranged, I got up at 4:00 a.m., dressed, made some coffee, stood out in the dark and cold for a bit, and saw Venus gleaming low in the southeast. The goddess of love: that helped!

Then I read the January 14th entry in A Year With Thomas Merton. Once again,my old friend had a word I need to hear, as he reflected on the complex mix of rights and wrongs in his own life:

I am thrown into contradiction: to realize it is mercy, to accept it is love, and to help others do the same is compassion.

Merton goes on to say that the contradictions in our lives are engines of creativity. It’s true. If we got everything right or everything wrong, there’d be none of the divine discontent or the sense of possibility that drives us to grow. What we get wrong makes us reach for something better. What we get right gives us hope that the “better” might be within reach.

Now I feel ready to step into the day animated by the counsel of Florida Scott-Maxwell:

“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done… you are fierce with reality.”

I fully intend to get fierce and real today. But before I do that, I’m going to take a nap!

Friday, Jan. 15, 2016

This morning, for no apparent reason, I woke up with a grin, another one of those “guests” Rumi spoke about, “sent as a guide from beyond.” But this time the guest is a welcome lightness, a sense of impending laughter.

Most of my heroes are folks who are no strangers to laughter. Grandpa Palmer comes to mind. The man was proof-positive of William James’s claim that “common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds.” Grandpa taught me to drive when I was 14. First time out, I made a dumb, dangerous move on a back-country Iowa road. When we came to a safe stop, Grandpa was ominously silent for a moment. Then he said, laconically, “If I’d of knowed you was gonna do that, I don’t believe I’d of asked you to drive.” He never said another word about my near-disaster, and for the past 60 years I’ve driven accident-free!

Merton was well known for his sense of humor, a quality not uncommon among monks. In The Sign of Jonas, a deeply moving journal of his early years in the monastery, there’s a line on page 37 that always makes me smile:

“I had a pious thought, but I am not going to write it down.”

And I love this claim, found in a Hindu epic called The Ramayana, as told by Aubrey Menen:

There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.

I’m sure I’ll experience all three today. The first is ever-available, if my heart is open. The second is guaranteed, since wherever I go, there I am. As for the third, I’ll do what I can with it. As Chesterton quipped:

“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016

A cardinal in winter(Parker Palmer)

Today’s opening line in A Year With Thomas Merton, “You can make your life what you want” if you don’t “drive [yourself] on with illusory demands.” I don’t think it’s entirely true that I can make my life what I want. But it would help if I stopped making demands on myself that distort who I really am and what I’m really called to do.

After five days of silence and solitude, many of the demands that hung over me when I came out here have lightened or lifted. Since I’ve done little this week to meet those demands, the lesson seems clear: they were mostly the inventions of an agitated mind. Now that my mind has quieted, its “illusory demands” have vaporized, and I feel a deeper peace.

I remember a story my businessman dad told me about how he dealt with pressure. In his office, he had a desk with five drawers. He’d put today’s mail in the bottom drawer, after moving yesterday’s mail up to the next drawer, and so on. He’d open letters only after they had made it to the top drawer. By that time, he said, half the problems people wrote him about had taken care of themselves, and the other half were less demanding than if he’d read the letters the moment they arrived! As Black Elk said to the children in his tribe when he told a teaching story:

“Whether it happened that way, I do not know. But if you think about it, you will see that it is true.”

Of course, the curse called email did not exist in Dad’s day. Still, his story points the way: make five folders for my email, and use them as Dad said he used his desk drawers. In certain respects, you can make the life you want!

Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016

Sunset in winter(Parker Palmer)

On this last full day of my retreat, I’m still meditating on the opening line of the January 13 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton:

“There is one thing I must do here at my woodshed hermitage… and that is to prepare for my death. But that means a preparation in gentleness…”

What a great leap — from death to gentleness! So different from Dylan Thomas’s famous advice:

“Do not go gentle into that good night…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

When I was 35, raging seemed right. But at 77, it’s Thomas Merton, not Dylan Thomas, who speaks to me.

The prospect of death — heightened by winter’s dark and cold, by solitude, silence, and age — makes it clear that my calling is to be gentle with the many expressions of life, old and new, that must be handled with care if they are to survive and thrive.

Sometimes, of course, that means becoming fierce in confronting the enemies of gentleness. If that’s a contradiction, so be it! As Merton said in The Sign of Jonas:

“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

How Our Ancestors Used to Sleep Twice a Night and Highlighting the Problem of Present Shock

by  on August 25, 2013 in stories
8 hour sleeping is a modern invention.

Imagine you are a denizen of the 18th century. It’s just past 8:30 P.M., you’ve got your night-cap on. You blow out your candles and fall asleep to the smell of the wax and the wick, which gently fills the air around your bed. Some hours pass. 2:30 AM. You awaken, grab your coat, and visit the neighbors because they, too, are up. Doing quiet reading, prayer, or even having sex. Well, apparently before the age of electricity, sleeping twice a night was completely ubiquitous.

Back in those times, we slept twice a night, getting up for an hour or two for recreation before heading back to bed until dawn.

From Slumberwise.com:

The existence of our sleeping twice per night was first uncovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech.

His research found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.

References are scattered throughout literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past. What is surprising is not that people slept in two sessions, but that the concept was so incredibly common. Two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.

“It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch says.

An English doctor wrote, for example, that the ideal time for study and contemplation was between “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Chaucer tells of a character in the Canterbury Tales that goes to bed following her “firste sleep.” And, explaining the reason why working class conceived more children, a doctor from the 1500s reported that they typically had sex after their first sleep.

Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past is replete with such examples.

But just what did people do with these extra twilight hours? Pretty much what you might expect.

Most stayed in their beds and bedrooms, sometimes reading, and often they would use the time to pray. Religious manuals included special prayers to be said in the mid-sleep hours.

Others might smoke, talk with co-sleepers, or have sex. Some were more active and would leave to visit with neighbours.

As we know, this practice eventually died out. Ekirch attributes the change to the advent of street lighting and eventually electric indoor light, as well as the popularity of coffee houses. Author Craig Koslofsky offers a further theory in his book Evening’s Empire. With the rise of more street lighting, night stopped being the domain of criminals and sub-classes and became a time for work or socializing. Two sleeps were eventually considered a wasteful way to spend these hours.

The science seems to back up our history books. In a 4-week study with 15 men living with restricted daylight  hours, something strange started to happen. After catching up on their “sleep debt” – a common state of  affairs for most of us – the participants began to wake up in the middle of the night:

They began to have two sleeps.

Over a twelve hour period, the participants would typically sleep for about four or five hours initially, then wake for several hours, then sleep again until morning. They slept not more than eight hours total.

The middle hours of the night, between two sleeps, was characterized by unusual calmness, likened to meditation. This was not the middle-of-the-night toss-and-turn that many of us experienced. The individuals did not stress about falling back asleep, but used the time to relax.

Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford, points out that even with standard sleep patterns, this night waking isn’t always cause for concern. “Many people wake up at night and panic,” he says. “I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern.”

Although the article  mentions there are no benefits for sleeping twice a night, it’s difficult to imagine there wouldn’ t be some major effects on our daily consciousness. How much would we  benefit from a few hours of “unusual calmness, likened to meditation”? Seriously. I haven’t tried “bi-modal” sleep, but I think many of us, including myself, have stumbled into it. Our maddeningly busy digital schedules prevent us from considering the possibility, and benefits, of interloping with the sidereal realms of consciousness for more than an 8-hour “sleep debt” crash.

But we can’t go back to a pre-electric lifestyle of early-to-bed, early-to-rise. Yet, maybe we can we utilize this knowledge to enhance our quality of life, and open us up to alternative modes of mind and time.

This leads me to a book I’ve been reading through lately.

Swallowing the Information Age in a Single Gulp

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If you’re interested in reading more on the modern world’s impact on our mind, look no further than Douglas Rushkoff’s new book:Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now:

“The point is that time is not neutral. Hours and minutes are not generic, but specific. We are better at doing some thing sin the morning and others in the evening. More incredible, those times of day change based on where we are in the twenty-eight day moon cycle. In one week, we are more productive in the early morning, while in the next week we are more effective in the early afternoon.

Technology gives us the ability to ride roughshod over all these nooks and crannies of time. We can fly through ten time zones in as many hours. We can take melatonin or Ambien to fall asleep when we’ve arrived at our destination, and later take one of our attention deficit disorder-afflicted son’s Ritalin pills to wake up the next morning…

Where our technologies may be evolving as fast as we can imagine new ones, our bodies evolved over millennia, and in concert with forces and phenomena we barely understand. It’s not simply that we need to give the body rhythms… the body is based on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different clocks, all listening to and relating to and syncing with everyone and everything elses. Human beings just can’t evolve that quickly. Our bodies are changing on a much different timescale.”

What Rushkoff suggests, however, is not to toss aside our iPhones and “always-on” digital lifestyles, but to figure out a way for our technology to enhance our biology:

“Yes, we are in a chronobiological crisis of depression, suicides, cancers, poor productivity, and social malaise as a result of abusing and defeating the rhythms keeping us alive and in sync with nature and one another. But what we are learning gives us the ability to turn this crisis into an opportunity. Instead of attempting to retrain the body to match the artificial rhythms of our digital technologies and their artifacts, we can instead use our digital technologies to reschedule our lives in a manner consistent with our physiology.”

I’m not sure I’ll be adopting a ‘bi-modal’ sleep, but I can definitely see the benefits of recognizing, and attempting to live by, a new understanding of time. Time as quality. Duration. Flavor. One of my favorite 20th century cultural philosophers, Jean Gebser, wrote in 1949 that time was at the heart of Western civilization’s crisis. In our attempt to be “in the new,” we try to be tapped into everything happening, at once. But maybe that’s the wrong approach. The wrong attitude about time. It’s not important to quantify time like we do. Maybe what’s needed is to step back and be present, not like the “present shock” Rushkoff is critiquing the digital age for, but in presence. In swallowing the information age in a single gulp.

It could be that our contemporary crisis with being in the now is no different than the Zen koan of “swallowing the ocean in a single gulp.” You can’t do it if you literalize time into little bits, tiny ticks of the clock, emails, Facebook notifications and bleeps on the LCD screen. It’s just far too much. But our information overload may, in reality, be a limitation not of the digital age but of the mode of quantifying consciousness we bring to it. What do you think? How do we deal with the “Flood” as James Gleick calls it?

Some of the best comments I found are here…

  • Avatar
    Huboi 

    Some of us with newborns/babies still have two sleeps. Can’t believe breastfeeding wasn’t even mentioned here, as either a cause or reason for the practice, or as an “activity” in the night. Working class folks had lots of kids you said? Well that’s lots of nighttime feeds. You go to sleep with the baby, wake up when they’re hungry in the middle of the night, then go back to sleep until morning.

     Avatar
    Excellent point. The author also neglected tending the fire. Electricity brought us more than light and iPhones.
  • Avatar
    Andrew

    Bi-modal sleep interestingly mirrors many older cultures’ mid-day siestas. I suspect it’s healthier than living for business, and lately I’ve sometimes been taking naps during the day and having periods of wakefulness near the middle of the night.
    Avatar
  • Interesting. Since I retired and no longer have to get up for work, I naturally morphed into this 2 cycle sleep pattern. So have most of the others in my age group. Maybe it is indeed more natural and as such, healthier…

  • Avatar
    infoboy

    The period of wakefulness is also called the watch. The altered state of consciousness has a hormonal aspect and has similarities to roosting chickens. The experience is described very well in a great book called head trip. a few commenters seem to have missed the bit about it coming about when the eye isn’t exposed to lights after dark.

    Avatar

    infoboy  Jeremy Johnson

    Right its not really possible, interestingly someone found out that its the blue part of the spectrum that switches off melatonin production, so im guessing maybe by wearing blue blocker shades some aspects of pre industrial sleep might return, but it gets hard to see things properly.though! also do a search for “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-Industrial Slumber in the British Isles” for the original article about this.

  • Avatar
    Guest 

    I’d heard of this before. I wonder if they also had more lucid dreams then, since waking up mid sleep for an hour or so is often noted as a potential catalyst…

    I’d love to do this, but I feel a twinge of sadness from even glancing at the words “sleep debt”.

  • Avatar
    kowalityjesus

    I think that is what I am doing right now! I just caught up on some semi-long term sleep debts in the last couple days, and find such an interesting article to contemplate in the peace of the night an ineffable blessing. Here is maybe the perfect music to accompany https://www.youtube.com/watch?…
  • Avatar
    PoliticsMinistry

    I found this extremely interesting, as I have always thought that I had a problem. I consistently wake up after 3-5 hours of sleep. Usually I lay there and try to fight it, but sometimes I get up and read, watch television or other things. I found that I would sleep better after getting up for an hour or two and then going back to sleep. However, I still felt that I was supposed to fight it and go back to sleep. Wow! Here I thought something was wrong with my time clock, but it’s the time clock of the rest of the world that is messed up.

  • Avatar
    Dingbert

    Another good example of this in formal practice from antiquity to today:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…

    Incidentally, this also first came to my attention at Virginia Tech (actually from a course on ancient music)

The Great Narrative

desert.clouds


About suffering they were never wrong.
The Old Masters:
how well they understood…
how it takes place
While someone else is eating
or opening a window or just walking dully along.

–W.H. Auden

“Musee des Beaux Arts”*

At my own church, Trinity in Santa Barbara, Mark Benson, who had lost his partner to AIDS, said he had asked a priest where Phil was, and the priest had answered him with “a hackneyed Christian line about where the dead go. I think he quoted some line from scripture. It meant nothing to me. I realized later that I needed the priest to enter into poetry because that is where Phil is. He could have said, “Well, Phil is at the zoo now.” Something that would clearly express the fact that Phil is gone, no longer literal, not here, not visible, but not absent, not without influence, not dead.”

[from “The Moonlight Sonata At the Mayo Clinic” by Nora Gallagher]

*

Some students in France drew my attention to the enormous number of English words that describe the behavior of light. Glimmer, glitter, glister, glisten, gleam, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine, and so on. These old words are not utilitarian. They reflect an aesthetic attention to experience that has made, and allows us to make, pleasing distinctions among, say, a candle flame, the sun at its zenith, and the refraction of light by a drop of rain. How were these words coined and retained, and how have they been preserved through generations, so that English-speaking people use them with the precision necessary to preserving them? None of this can be ascribed to conscious choice on the part of anyone, but somehow the language created, so to speak, a prism through which light passes, by means of which its qualities are arrayed. One of the pleasures of writing is that so often I know that there is in fact a word that is perfect for the use I want to put it to, and when I summon it it comes, though I might not have thought of it for years.*

Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in spiritual free-fall.” When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.” Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.” This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism. At this point in my life I have probably had a broader experience of the American population than is usual. I have been to divinity schools, and I have been to prisons. In the First Epistle of Peter we are told to honor everyone, and I have never been in a situation where I felt this instruction was inappropriate. When we accept dismissive judgments of our community we stop having generous hopes for it. We cease to be capable of serving its best interests. As we withdraw from one another we withdraw from the world, except as we increasingly insist that foreign groups and populations are our irreconcilable enemies. The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home.

It is very much in the gift of the community to enrich individual lives, and it is in the gift of any individual to enlarge and enrich community. The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.
*

At very best there are two major problems with ideology. The first is that it does not represent or conform to or even address reality. It is a straight-edge ruler in a fractal universe. And the second is that it inspires in its believers the notion that the fault here lies with miscreant fact, which should therefore be conformed to the requirements of theory by all means necessary. To the ideologue this would amount to putting the world right, ridding it of ambiguity and of those tedious and endless moral and ethical questions that dog us through life, and that those around us so rarely answer to our satisfaction. Anger and self-righteousness combined with cynicism about the world as he or she sees it are the marks of the ideologue. There is always an element of nostalgia, too, because the ideologue is confident that he or she is moved by a special loyalty to a natural order, or to a good and normative past, which others defy or betray.

*

I remember when I was a child at Coolin or Sagle or Talache, walking into the woods by myself and feeling the solitude around me build like electricity and pass through my body with a jolt that made my hair prickle. I remember kneeling by a creek that spilled and pooled among rocks and fallen trees with the unspeakably tender growth of small trees already sprouting from their backs, and thinking, there is only one thing wrong here, which is my own presence, and that is the slightest imaginable intrusion—feeling that my solitude, my loneliness, made me almost acceptable in so sacred a place. [….]

It must have been at evening that I heard the word “lonesome” spoken in tones that let me know the privilege attached to it, the kind of democratic privilege that comes with simple deserving. I think it is correct to regard the West as a moment in history much larger than its own. My grandparents and people like them had a picture in their houses of a stag on a cliff, admiring a radiant moon, or a maiden in classical draperies, on the same cliff, admiring the same moon. It was a specimen of decayed Victorianism. In that period mourning, melancholy, regret, and loneliness were high sentiments, as they were for the psalmist and for Sophocles, for the Anglo-Saxon poets and for Shakespeare. In modern culture these are seen as pathologies—alienation and in-authenticity in Europe, maladjustment and depression in the United States. At present, they seem to flourish only in vernacular forms, country-and-western music being one of these. The moon has gone behind a cloud, and I’m so lonesome I could die. It seems to me that, within limits the Victorians routinely transgressed, the exercise of finding the ingratiating qualities of grave or fearful experience is very wholesome and stabilizing. I am vehemently grateful that, by whatever means, I learned to assume that loneliness should be in part pleasure, sensitizing and clarifying, and that it is even a truer bond among people than any kind of proximity. It may be mere historical conditioning, but when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.

*
The great narrative, to which we as Christians are called to be faithful, begins at the beginning of all things and ends at the end of all things, and within the arc of it civilizations blossom and flourish, wither and perish. This would seem a great extravagance, all the beautiful children of earth lying down in a final darkness. But no, there is that wondrous love to assure us that the world is more precious than we can possibly imagine. There is the human intimacy of the story—the astonishing, profoundly ordinary birth, the weariness of itinerancy, the beloved friends who disappoint bitterly and are still beloved, the humiliations of death—Jesus could know as well as anyone who has passed through life on this earth what it means to yearn for balm and healing. He could know what it would mean to hear a tender voice speaking of an ultimate home where sorrow ends and error is forgotten. Most wonderfully, he could be the voice that says to the weary of the world, “I will give you rest,” and “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” It is a story written down in various forms by writers whose purpose was first of all to render the sense of a man of surpassing holiness, whose passage through the world was understood, only after his death, to have revealed the way of God toward humankind. How remarkable. This is too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale. Reverence should forbid in particular its being subordinated to tribalism, resentment, or fear.

[All above passages from Marilynne Robinson’s “When I Was A Child I Read Books]

fen marsh

In the Fen Country is an orchestral tone poem and was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ first truly characteristic work for orchestra.  As the name suggests, it is a musical evocation of the large flat region of Eastern England known as the Fens, an area which includes parts of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Lincolnshire.  The city of Cambridge stands on the southern edge of the Fens; twenty miles north is the small city of Ely whose cathedral features prominently in this film.

Described by Vaughan Williams as a “symphonic impression”, the piece is meant to evoke feelings of traversing the bleak Fen landscape of East Anglia.  It opens with a melody that portrays the wide open space by  sweeping string orchestral textures.

fen england
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Paul Daniel, from the Album Vaughan Williams: The Garden of Proserpine; In the Fen Country. Patrick Hadley: Fen and Flood

Fen-Mountain-View-2a
In the Fen Country received its first publication from Oxford University Press, posthumously, in 1969.[5]

Excerpt from: In the Fen Country:
Landscape and Music in the Work of Gustav Holst and
Ralph Vaughan Williams

By: Thomas F. Bertonneau

….Art is frequently a response to loss and the resultant absence, as generically in lyric poetry.

The elegiac impulse finds one of its most profound expressions in the response to landscape – often too vanishing landscape – in the work of what is sometimes called the English Pastoral School of musical composition, the heyday of which was the early twentieth century. The two instigators of English musical idyllicism, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) and Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934), had been fellow students at the Royal College of Music, London, in the 1890s, where both studied composition with Charles Villiers Stanford.

Both men experienced the powerful intuition that Stanford, notwithstanding his technical mastery, spoke in a musical language insufficiently native, and, in a paradoxical way, insufficiently au courant. Stanford took his models in mid-nineteenth century German music – in Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms – and except for an occasional Irish inflection, his music sounded a good deal like theirs. But what musical language would be au courant?

Holst, who came from a long line of church organists and musicians, suggested to Vaughan Williams that they investigate the music of the rural parishes and from that milieu their curiosity took them quite naturally into folksong. As did Bela Bartók in Hungary and Romania around the same time, Vaughan Williams and Holst began to tramp the countryside in Somerset, Hampshire, Essex, East Anglia, and Norfolk, notebooks at ready, to collect and annotate the archaic song-tradition that they well knew was on the verge of extinction. These were the years from 1902 to 1905.

In addition to their project of preserving the treasury of the traditional ballads, love songs, and lullabies, both men had the notion that English folksong could become the basis of a novel and truly English concert music. That music would be new because its basis would be more ancient than that of the Germanic conservatory-vocabulary employed by Stanford and his peers.

There was one additional consideration – or rather a conclusion that both Vaughan Williams and Holst drew independently and that struck them as exploitable. The modes and melodic outlines of English folksong reflected the regional landscape; the tunes especially grew from the topography.  As in Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad “The Solitary Reaper,” where the singing field-girl’s half-heard song seems to the reporter to express the “natural sorrow, loss, or pain,” that belongs to traditional life, in contact with the earth and season and sky: so too for the fellow folksong collectors, the tunes that they took down from those who sang them seemed saturated with an ethos – a character of place that imprinted itself on its denizens and that they bespoke in song.

As Vaughan Williams wrote many years later in his study of National Music (1934), folksong is the expression of “the absolutely unsophisticated though naturally musical man, one who is untraveled and therefore self-dependent for his inspiration [and] whose artistic utterance will be entirely spontaneous and unself-conscious.” Or as Hubert Foss writes of Vaughan Williams himself in his study of the composer, he “grows from the earth”; according to Foss, Vaughan Williams “likes that which grows naturally” and “his roots are in the past.” Of Holst, Wilfrid Mellers writes in Romanticism and the Twentieth Century (1962), that folksong studies taught him how to compose “in lines that are vocally modal [and] free in rhythm,” so that even his purely instrumental inspirations resemble “folk-song or plainsong” in their melodic outlines.

Folksong early began to inform and vitalize Vaughan Williams’ music, which it does already in the “symphonic impression,” so described, for orchestra entitled In the Fen Country, composed in 1904 and given its first performance under Thomas Beecham in 1907.  In the Fen Country, in many ways Ralph Vaughn William’s first characteristic work, purports to represent its composer’s complex aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual response to the extensive southeastern marshlands of England – that half-aqueous world, with its dykes and canals, and its university and cathedral towns of Cambridge and Ely.

As Foss puts it in his study, in the Fen Country “gives a picture of the countryside where Vaughan Williams found folk-song,” adding that, “those frigid, frosty mornings that make the journey from Cambridge to Ely so soul-searching a trek are portrayed here.” Yet In the Fen Country quotes no folk melody. Rather, Vaughan Williams lets the pattern of folk melody animate his rhythmically free, generally slow, and modally minor instrumental lines. The work, lasting around a quarter of an hour in performance, opens with a long improvisatory sounding solo on the cor anglais, joined gradually in a freely evolving polyphony by other solo instruments. Although the motifs are songlike, the effect on the listener is rather of something non-human – “the place in itself,” perhaps. After a number of episodes, some quite portentous and brassy, In the Fen Country ends on a drawn-out viola solo that fades into silence.

….Concerning landscape – and its aesthetic and metaphysical meanings – the philosopher Roger Scruton has written in his study of Beauty (2009) that, “Landscapes… are very far from works of art – they owe their appeal not to symmetry, unity and form, but to an openness, grandeur and world-like expansiveness, in which it is we and not they that are contained.” In confronting the landscape then the percipient subject experiences something like a cosmic moment, understanding his own mortal limitations against the enduring earthly and vegetative environment that afford him a home and yet, being non-sentient, remains alien or at least indifferent to him. Yet vegetative though it might be, the landscape can stand as metaphor for something else sublime and, with respect to man, entirely prior and creative – namely the
divine. In this respect it is interest to reflect that neither Vaughan Williams nor Holst was conventionally religious. Vaughan Williams professed agnosticism but also took religious experience seriously; Holst inclined to thoroughgoing ecumenicism, showing an interest in mystic Christianity, Hinduism, and the whole range of esoteric traditions.

Fen Country

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I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory