When August Burns Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now 
~Emily Dickinson

 

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“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

 

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On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves.

As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending, particularly when the skies are filled with smoke from uncontrolled wildfires in the north, the east and the south.  There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who will emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted and nurtured by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

 

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August Burning Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now
~Emily Dickinson

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“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from “The Man Made of Words”

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On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves. As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending.  There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who will emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

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When August Burning Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now
~Emily Dickinson

“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others.  The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

 

On the first day of his class in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this poem on the blackboard and told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse  — someone as culturally distant from him as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song, doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our appreciation of nature. Just as the fires in our state are incinerating everything, even the insects of the fields, in its path, we still find grace and meaning in the destruction.  There is no one as lonely as the fire fighter facing the flame and no one as lonely as the poet facing the empty page, in search of words.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already planted and yielding a fruited plain.

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Dreams Of Me

photo by Nate Gibson

I wonder if, in the dark night of the sea, the octopus dreams of me.
N. Scott Momaday

If I am brutally honest with myself, one of my worst fears is to have lived on this earth for a few decades and then pass away forgotten, inconsequential, having left behind no legacy of significance whatsoever.  I know it is self-absorbed to feel the need to leave a mark, but my search for purpose and meaning lasting beyond my time provides new momentum for each day.

The forgetting can happen so fast.  Most people know little about their great great grandparents, if they even know their names.  A mere four generations, a century, renders us dust, not just in flesh, but in memory as well.   There may be a yellowed photograph in a box somewhere, perhaps a tattered postcard or letter written in elegant script, but the essence of who this person was is long lost and forgotten.

It will be no different with me and those who come after me.  Whether or not remembered someday by great great grandchildren or becoming part of the dreams of creatures in the depths of the seas, I am just dust here and there is no changing that.

Good thing this is not our only home.   Good thing we are more than mere memory and dreams.  Good thing there is eternity that transcends good works or long memories or legacies left behind.  Good thing we are loved that much.

 

Awful Quiet

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“A dark mist lay over the Black Hills, and the land was like iron. At the top of ridge I caught sight of Devil’s Tower upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun. There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil’s Tower is one of them.”
N.Scott Momaday in The Way to Rainy Mountain

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Over the years of cross-country road trips, we have passed by the turn-off to Devil’s Tower in eastern Wyoming because there was urgency to get where we needed to go. Occasionally we would see it hazy in the far distance, so I could say I had “seen it” but I really had not seen it according to Scott Momaday.

Scott is a Kiowa for whom Devil’s Tower is named Tso-i-e or “standing on a rock” and is sacred ground. The Cheyenne, Crow, Lakota, Shoshone, and Arapahoe all revere this rock monolith although most tribal members did not live near enough to see it themselves, but the legends traveled many miles through the generations through oral tradition.

Scott taught an unforgettable class I took as a 19 year old sophomore at Stanford on Native American Mythology and Lore. He has a commanding presence, a booming resonant voice for story telling, a predilection for the poetry of Emily Dickinson and a hankering since childhood to be part of the legend of Billy the Kid. The first day of class, he introduced us to Tso-i-e first and foremost. He told us his grandmother’s story passed to her from her grandparents:

“Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified.; they ran and the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond its reach. It reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.”

Today we finally made time to see the Tower up close. For me, this “close encounter” was meant to connect the dots from my class taught by Scott 39 years ago and to understand more fully the spiritual background of the Plains people our son now lives with and teaches on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The Tower is holy ground for us all-we are diminished in its presence without enshrining or worshipping it. It disquiets the heart with its awful grandeur and sheer other-worldliness. In its own way, it is resonant as Scott’s captivating stories about its origins, yet remains a reminder of the ever-changing impermanence of geologic formations.

We need more holy places in our lives even as they change with the sands and winds of time. We need more awe-filled awful quiet in our hearts.

We need to tell the sacred stories, generation to generation, never forgetting Who set the world in motion.

Something Happened

photo by Josh Scholten

“There was only the dark infinity in which nothing was. And something happened. At the distance of a star something happened, and everything began. The Word did not come into being, but it was. It did not break upon the silence, but it was older than the silence and the silence was made of it.” N. Scott Momaday in “House Made of Dawn”

Traveling today through the open spaces of Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota, I am aware of a spiritual essence rising from the vistas extending as far as the eye can see.  The Plains Peoples,  from which my Stanford professor Scott Momaday came, intimately understood the infinity of creation.  They were born, lived and loved, hunted and died beneath the silent stars.

Something happened.

Something happened, lighting the darkness and overcoming nothingness.

Something happened and the story of the Beginning breathes within us.

Something happened when God’s silence spoke.

His Word was, and always was, and always will be.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  John 1

 

 

Council of Clowns

“Coyotes have the gift of seldom being seen; they keep to the edge of vision and beyond, loping in and out of cover on the plains and highlands. And at night, when the whole world belongs to them, they parley at the river with the dogs, their higher, sharper voices full of authority and rebuke. They are an old council of clowns, and they are listened to.”
N. Scott Momaday in “House Made of Dawn”

On early summer nights like this, with light just fading from the sky at 10 PM, it will be only a few minutes before the local coyote choristers begin their nightly serenade.   This can be a surround-sound experience with coyote packs echoing back and forth from distant corners of farmland and woodlands below the hill where we live.  Their shrill yipping and yapping song, with hollering, chortling and hooting, becomes  impossible to ignore just as it is time to go to sleep.  Like priming a pump, the rise and fall of the coyote ensemble inevitably inspires the farm dogs to tune up, exercising their vocal cords with a howl or two.  It becomes canine bedlam outside our windows, right at bedtime.

Coyotes send a mixed message:   they insist on being heard and listened to, yet are seldom visible.  In a rare sighting, it is a low slung slinking form scooting across a field with a rabbit in its mouth, or patiently waiting at a fence line as a new calf is born, hoping to duck in and grab the placenta before the cow notices.   They are not particularly brave nor bold yet they insist on commanding attention and ear drums.

Irritating not only for their ill-timed concerts, they also have a propensity for thieving sleeping chickens from coop roosts in the night.  Despite my disgust for that behavior, I have to grudgingly admire such independent self sufficient characters.   They do know how to take care of themselves in a dog-eat-dog world, primarily by eating whatever they can get their jaws around and carry away, no matter who it may belong to.

I can just envision this old council of clowns gathered around giggling and sniggering in the dark at their own silly stories of the hunt.   As I listen from a distance, sometimes just a few yards, sometimes miles, I wish to be let in on the joke.

Just once I want to howl back, plaintive, pleading, pejorative–another bozo adding my voice to the noisy nocturnal chorus– hoping somebody, anybody might listen, hear and join in the laughter.