Spring bursts forth, sometimes from fresh seeds and sometimes from roots that were established many years before.
During my first semester at George Mason University, I was fortunate enough to stumble into a college course that had a profound effect on me. The course was listed as “Altered States of Consciousness in American and English Literature.” It turned out to be a departure from standard university fare because we were taught transcendental meditation techniques and required to meditate for 10 minutes before every class. It was led by a professor that many students came to know and love named Robert Karlson. “Bob” was a gentle giant with a deep voice and a penchant for attacking literature from different perspectives.
The class was addictive and led me to take every course “Bob” subsequently offered. While they were all great learning experiences, the lasting effect has been the reading lists. Every spring, I end up with my nose in at least three of the books that were on the reading list for that first class. It’s a transcendental awakening to the vividness of the season. The complex imagery of three, in particular, draws me in, leading me down paths that claw at my mind to look at the physical world from a fresh perspective annually. It’s my own personal Rite of Spring.
Three of my “go-to” books are:
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard – A Pulitzer prize-winning book that revolves around meditative walks along Tinker Creek in Virginia and offers insights about life that are anchored to the natural world via the constant change of a creek.
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -I’ve only read the entire book once, but there are a couple of chapters that I read on a regular basis. It’s a section where Levin goes out to mow with the peasants. A treat every year.
- The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke – The poetry of Roethke has an allure of rich rhythms and natural imagery. There is one poem in particular that draws me into it and elicits new feelings every time I read it. A regenerative journey with an opening that allows for personal reflection. It’s titled “The Far Field.”
My copies of these books are tattered and worn, but for me, that makes them all the more endearing and solidifies their role in my own, albeit small, ceremonial Rite of Spring.
The Far Field by Theodore Roethke
I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel
Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,
The road lined with snow-laden second growth,
A fine dry snow ticking the windshield,
Alternate snow and sleet, no on-coming traffic,
And no lights behind, in the blurred side-mirror,
The road changing from glazed tarface to a rubble of stone,
Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut,
Where the car stalls,
Churning in a snowdrift
Until the headlights darken.
At the field’s end, in the corner missed by the mower,
Where the turf drops off into a grass-hidden culvert,
Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of the field-mouse,
Not too far away from the ever-changing flower-dump,
Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery, —
One learned of the eternal;
And in the shrunken face of a dead rat, eaten by rain and ground-beetles
(I found in lying among the rubble of an old coal bin)
And the tom-cat, caught near the pheasant-run,
Its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers,
Blasted to death by the night watchman.
I suffered for young birds, for young rabbits caught in the mower,
My grief was not excessive.
For to come upon warblers in early May
Was to forget time and death:
How they filled the oriole’s elm, a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,
And I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes, —
Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean, —
Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,
Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,
Still for a moment,
Then pitching away in half-flight,
Lighter than finches,
While the wrens bickered and sang in the half-green hedgerows,
And the flicker drummed from his dead tree in the chicken-yard.
— Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
I’ll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.
I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.
The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I feel a weightless change, a moving forward
As of water quickening before a narrowing channel
When banks converge, and the wide river whitens;
Or when two rivers combine, the blue glacial torrent
And the yellowish-green from the mountainy upland, —
At first a swift rippling between rocks,
Then a long running over flat stones
Before descending to the alluvial plane,
To the clay banks, and the wild grapes hanging from the elmtrees.
The slightly trembling water
Dropping a fine yellow silt where the sun stays;
And the crabs bask near the edge,
The weedy edge, alive with small snakes and bloodsuckers, —
I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.
I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.
The lost self changes,
Turning toward the sea,
A sea-shape turning around, —
An old man with his feet before the fire,
In robes of green, in garments of adieu.
A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire.
The murmur of the absolute, the why
Of being born falls on his naked ears.
His spirit moves like monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things, the final man.
All finite things reveal infinitude:
The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
A scent beloved of bees;
Silence of water above a sunken tree :
The pure serene of memory in one man, —
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.