Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sometimes a person reads the right book at the right time . . . and sometimes that book is Thoreau's The Maine Woods, which until this week the now-amazed reader has never had the slightest inclination to take off the shelf.

For instance: Three nights ago I was in Sangerville, Maine, playing "The House on the Hill," a song written by my bandmate Sid Stutzman about his farmhouse, which was built in Sangerville in 1851 on land that his family has farmed ever since. Last night I was reading Thoreau's description of a September 1853 walk from Bangor to Moosehead Lake: "The country was first decidedly mountainous in Garland, Sangerville, and onwards, twenty-five or thirty miles from Bangor. At Sangerville, where we stopped at mid-afternoon to warm and dry ourselves, the landlord told us that he had found a wilderness where we found him."

That's not an earthshaking statement; but given who and where I am, in place and in time, this description and others like it have been pulling me into a kind of netherworld that is both real and imagined. I have an eerie sense, as I read Thoreau's accounts, of standing in two places at once. Past and present overlap; the trees creak in the wind, and the fish hawks wheel over the lakes. There is something about the interior of Maine, some essential loneliness, an ends-of-the-earth circle of sky and forest, that lingers today, despite highways and log trucks and Wal-Marts. My eyes look through Thoreau's eyes. This is not what I expected when I opened the book.
Thus a man shall lead his life away here on the edge of the wilderness, on Indian Millinocket stream, in a new world, far in the dark of a continent, and have a flute to play at evening here, while his strains echo to the stars, amid the howling of wolves; shall live, as it were, in the primitive age of the world, a primitive man. Yet he shall spend a sunny day, and in this century be my contemporary; perchance shall read some scattered leaves of literature, and sometimes talk with me. Why read history, then, if the ages and the generations are now? He lives three thousand years deep into time, an age not yet described by poets. Can you well go further back in history than this?


Thomas said...

Beautiful ruminations. I'm reminded of a passage I just reread this morning (by chance?) in A.S. Byatt's Still Life:
"There are times when concentrated attention to one problem, human, abstract, practical, seems to evoke a more than randomly distributed series of 'fortunate' encounters with related people, books, ideas. This may be a phenomenon related to the apparently concentric scratches on George Eliot's metaphorical mirror, which seem to gather round the candle and self-regarding gaze of the egoist as Van Gogh's brushstrokes gatherround his self-watching eyes. It feels, however, like the opposite of egoism, a priveleged insight into the order of things, in which all things are to be experienced as parts of a whole. It can feel like a magical assertion of mind over matter, a telekinetic arranging of the contents of a library or at least of one's own track through it. In such moods, blandly or vacantly surveying shelves, even the catalog, we discover an unsuspected book, or an argument, or set of facts wholly relevant to our problem and yet unsought."
Whether the synchronicity lies inside or outside, it is always remarkable.

Richard said...

Not an earthshaking statement?
If what Thomas writes is true, then "earthshaking" is more like the magic of elective affinities, where a member of a 21rst Century musical group called "String Theory" discovers -- along with the 19th Century flute player Henry David -- not the Higgs boson precisely, but something close to it in the Maine woods; they both participate in a mysteriously vibrant encounter of mind with matter from the first world to the present, as Frank Waters retells how Hopi culture's Spider Woman imparts knowledge, wisdom, and love to bless all beings she creates, including Poloengawhoya, the twin on the left: "Paloengawhoya, traveling throughout the earth, sounded out his call as he was bidden. All the vibratory centers along the earth's axis from pole to pole resounded his call; the whole earth trembled; the universe quivered in tune. Thus he made the whole world an instrument of sound, and sound an instrument for carrying messages, resounding praise to the Creator of all." (Book of The Hopi, “Tokpela: The First World”)