From Above the Frozen Potomac

We are standing on a flood-scoured tongue of rock that juts down from the banks of the Potomac River, a mile or so below the mouth of the river’s great gorge, a gorge headed by the mighty Great Falls. The cries of geese settling down into an open basin of water within the ice-choked river overwhelm the distant hum of the interstate. That hum is the only indication of how close we are to ‘civilization,’ and to the very seat of the American imperium. The sprawling organs of that state are but a few miles downstream, but here—here the broad river is silent under sheets of ice, melt-water pooling here and there as the temperature has risen a bit above freezing the last couple of days. Beneath the ice the river is strong, is pure power and energy, surging towards the sea. It bubbles up from under the ice in the oval basin where the geese have found refuge, and here and there in riffles and surges. I scan the sprawling sheets of ice, multicoloured, sinuous, maps to other worlds that intertwine with ours but will always lie out of our grasping reach. Near the river’s right bank—the Maryland side, though this is a designation that lies so lightly on the land, and will one day pass away—my eyes fall upon a scuttling, flapping black mass. A circle of black vultures, gathered around some victim of the river’s ice, stark and brilliant against the pale grays, blues, and whites. Overhead, a grey sky hangs heavy and cold, reaching down into the ghostly limbs of the sycamores that rise above the river’s banks, seeps into the ancient stone.

I shift upon the river-scoured stone, witness to the last great age of ice, when the decaying continental ice sheets unleashed world-shaking floods on this stretch of river, and cut across and down into the incredibly ancient metamorphic rock that jaggedly breaks upon the earth’s surface here. The cold rises up from the frozen river’s surface. I check to make sure my little son—tomorrow is his tenth month birthday—is warm, his face turned inwards to my chest, snuggled and asleep for now. Later, by the lively river rapids further down he will wake back up and take in the mighty beauty, but at the moment he sleeps against me, warm and peaceful. There are no other humans in sight from here. At points along the river, outside of the Park Service domains, mansions of the rich leer down, but from where we are standing they are invisible, cloaked by hill and stone and tree.

For a moment I think of the halls of power downstream. The river’s waters will flow past them soon, but they will pay the halls and the mighty men and women and the monuments and the sprawling buildings and high-rises no heed. I think: one day, perhaps soon, perhaps in the far distant future if the Eschaton tarries, the monuments will crumble, the detritus of empire will accumulate out in the Potomac’s outflow into the Chesapeake. The river will still be here. The ice will spread across the river, the vultures will gather and enact their age-old somber and joyous dance, turning death back into life. Perhaps the ravens and bears will have come down from the mountains by then, adding their gronks to the cold air, their tracks over the snow. The works of men will perish, thank God. There is a strange comfort in the thought, and comfort in our sharing in this moment and space of the wild, the sublime and the beautiful, so close to so much that is not beautiful, that is destructive and terrible and which lays waste to the earth, to the soul, to the good. I cannot dislodge the systems and powers downstream, and I do not love to think that my son will inherit a world marked by the same or similar ones. I do not know what the ecologies and landscapes that I love and that I hope he will love, too, will be like in ten or twenty years. But while nothing is certain, I am hopeful that places like this, moments like this, will remain, that one day he can stand above a frozen river in the depths of January, perhaps with a germ of memory of this very day, and breath in the wild, feel the charge of—yes—holiness, of the grandeur of God, and the impermanence of the works of man, good and bad, and listen to the silence of the ice, the faint rustle of the river oats, the power of the river in motion, and to be present in it.

September Beside the Potomac

Persimmon fruit hangs sweet and heavy in the air-
Bottomland forest along the Potomac,
First leaf falls whisp in and out, acorns, walnuts
Scatter and plop to the sandied floor, soundings.
Cool breeze washes the warm dense scent of the river
At end of summer up to us, promise of change. Memory’s scent,
Of my own late summer childhood nestling in
The sun-warmed receding pools, focusing the gentle force of drawn-
Down cascades in the Piney River, sniffing in the little river,
Shivering as the sun got low in afternoon
And we got out of the water. Now, my little son
Reaches out to feel the great round bole of a silver maple,
Smiling, two vigors, connecting. Together, we take in the
Touch, the forest and the river’s wafting multiplicities,
Such lines of continuity, untamed worlds, wild rivers,
Seasons in their turns and turns and turns.

Small Worlds, Nelson Sods, Winter

Straddling the long stony spine of West Virginia’s North Fork Mountain is an expanse of natural meadows, edged by red pine groves and gnarled oaks, called Nelson Sods (‘sods’ in local geographic usage means ‘meadows’). While the views are spectacular, the photos below, taken on a recent hike up on the mountain, are of the smaller wonders found there.

 

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Above: wind-sculpted grasses along the ridgeline. Below: grass woven into a circular shape by the action of wind upon a milkweed stalk.

 

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Above: a lone tree in the midst of the Sods. Below: a view across the ridge, red pines in the foreground.

 

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Above: an old pine stump in the Sods. Below: detail of the weathered wood of the stump.

 

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Below: British-soldier lichens.

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Father Proterij and the Friendly Birds

Below is another selection from the autobiography Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1792), described in detail in a previous post. Here Paisius provides a charming vignette of life in the little skete of Trǎisteni in Ottoman Wallachia, where the small monastic community was split between monks living in common and monks living as hermits- though, as it turns out, their reclusion did not preclude participation in the common life of the community.

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For the holy offices they all gathered together, both those who lived in common and those in reclusion. Among the latter was Father Proterij, a Ukrainian by birth, from the city of Rešetylvika in the regiment of Poltava, who had been a goldsmith during his life in the world. Whilst he stayed in the monastery he made the most beautiful spoons and sold them, and he received visiting monks with inexpressible love.

In his mercy he nourished the many diverse birds that flew in the air, providing them with an abundance of food at a suitable time. They would gather at his cell every day, and would await the time when he would come and open the window; and flying into the cell with no fear whatsoever they would eat the food he gave them. He took into his hand of them he wished, stroking them and letting them go: they in no wise feared him. When they had had their fill, they flew off. As he went to the holy office, many of the birds would gather and accompany him to church, some sitting on his head and shoulders, others flying round about him and singing in their diverse voices. As he entered the church doors, they all flew up onto the church and awaited his coming out. And when he came out of the church they flew down and sat upon him, accompanying him to his cell in like manner. Seeing this with all the others I marveled with great wonder and glorified God for having deemed me worthy to see such a servant of His.

Another of the recluses was the schemamonk named Ivan, a Russian by birth. This man, whenever he provided a meal for all the brethren out of the righteous work of his own hands, would go before the meal to each of the brethren with a vessel suitable for the washing of feet; and stopping at each cell and washing the feet of all, he would give them all a kiss of love. Others of these recluses copied books of the fathers and thus obtained their sustenance.

Paisius Velichkovsky, The Life of Paisij Velyčkos’kjy, trans. by J.M.E. Featherstone (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1989), 70-71.

The Irish Hermit’s Wish

I wish, O Son of the living God,
old eternal King,
a hidden hut in the wilderness
that it may be my dwelling,

A bright blue narrow stream
to be beside it,
a clear pool for washing sins away
through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

A beautiful forest near by,
around it on every side,
for nourishment of many-voiced birds
as shelter to hide them.

Facing south for warmth,
a little stream across its land,
choice ground with many benefits
that would be good for every plant.

A few sensible men
(we shall make known their number),
humble and obedient
to pray to the King:

Four threes, three fours
suitable for every need;
two sixes in the church
both north and south;

Six couples besides,
as well as me myself,
praying perpetually
to the King who makes the sun shine.

A lovely church decked with linen,
a house for God of Heaven,
bright lights afterwards
above pure white Scriptures.

One house to visit
for tending the body,
without ribaldry, without boasting,
without contemplating evil.

This is the housekeeping I would get,
I would choose without hiding it:
real fragrant leeks, hens,
speckled salmon, bees-

Enough clothing and food for me
from the king of good renown,
my being sitting awhile,
praying God everywhere.

Anonymous, Dúthracar, a Maic Dé bí, c. 800/900 AD, translated by Ruth P.M. Lehmann, in Early Irish Verse.

Salt Marsh Cosmology

Sitting here afloat, pockmarked and saltstreaked cordgrass
Shivering up in the gathering morning heat,
I search for a word for the waters under me.
Creek, the map says, but flowing up,
Against the world’s plane,
Reached by the moon, hard to believe,
Like the best things that also are true.
I listen.
Everywhere, motion and sound, just above silence—
An infinite city in reduced scale, plunging
The five or six feet down in the turbid flow, then into
The mud, the worn-away of the ages,
Ancient Appalachians crumbled,
Creatures great and small alive in the bubbling wash,
The ten thousand things circling in and out.
I hover overhead.
I’d say I’ll withdraw, but there is no real away,
Only a slight difference of distance.
Every moment, earth, under
Moon, self, triangulated, over, below
The waters. Here, and everywhere.