Advent at the Hampton Inn

A hotel lobby, a cramped wallflower table. The hesitant scuttle of broken fasts. The man-sized screen, brighter than a thousand votives, in whose light we see light: I avert my eyes but cannot elude the fast-pitch prophecy, the effervescent urge to self-improvement. Nor the smell of frozen waffles toasting, plastic syrup warming, chemistry-sweet, essence of a new creation of laboratory trees and orchids. I have, thankfully, already eaten. I sip what is called coffee. A man in a red shirt vacuums the welcome mat. I watch the door, upon whose glass is etched thanks in letters lowercase and agreeably spaced, lest the relative stridency of capitalization put some weary sojourner off her breakfast. I watch the door. Watch and wait, watch and wait. For what? For God? O Come, O Come Emmanuel! And lo, the glass is slid aside and there comes upon us a gust of wind, a brief uncomfortable chill from the parking lot that rolls over cleaning staff and the business traveler alike. The morning invades: then the door slides to, and we are once more shut tight against it. thanks

In their naked frailty, unable to block the light

In December the sun rises through a copse of trees I can see through my front windows where I sit for morning prayer. Eleven months of the year I see the day dawn only indirectly, as the sun appears nearer due east or northward behind houses or thick pines, or not at all, in the height of summer when the sun is up long before I am. But at the failing of the year the trees stand bare and thin, invisible in the night until the sky lightens behind them, pale at first then golden, the silhouetted branches growing imperceptibly starker until they stretch strong and firm to greet the day. In their naked frailty, unable to block the light, they let it shine through and are strengthened by it. At the failing of the year the dawn is framed for me thus by my window, a promise: The light will ever return, if only we let it.

The Eno River at dusk in autumn

The river slips softly / into the dusk of the year

The Eno River at dusk in autumn

Looking eastward down the Eno River, somewhere along Holden Mill Trail, about four-thirty in the afternoon in early November.

On certain autumn afternoons there is a brief passage — if you are lucky you may get ten minutes to appreciate it — when the sun has drifted low and the afternoon breeze has calmed and the light reflects off the surface of the river as from a mirror, doubling the trees and the intensity of their lingering color, and the earth gives the illusion of brightness. The season and the hour have so muted the wood’s palette that the russet of late-hanging leaves calls louder than crimson in June. The sudden splash of gold away downstream beckons like summer’s lost oasis. But the bare arms of sycamore and ironwood make a stark fence against it, and it recedes from my approach — the light, the afternoon, the year. The vestigial warmth of summer dissipates like a mist; winter seeps from the earth and fills its absence.

A crumbling sanctuary of dawn-lit leaves

The east window of my study looks out through a scrim of trees to the neighbor’s golf-green yard and the street and, further on, a young wood of mostly pines. The trees close by appear only as vertical trunks, their leaves cropped out by the window’s frame, but a dogwood leans out low from their shadow and shelters the view with its foliage. For a few short weeks in early fall, when the leaves of the dogwood blushed but still clung to their limbs, the morning light set their edges glowing red-gold, and past their brilliant outlines I could see only the fuzzy blue-green shadow of distant pines. The study became a sanctuary enfolded by copper light, beyond which the world was made misty, unfocused, irrelevant.

That effect lasted only an hour each morning and for two or three weeks. By mid-morning the sun had climbed high enough to light the leaves of the backdrop woods; by the second week of October the dogwood’s leaves had thinned and let the world through in too much clarity. The sanctuary is crumbling now, and what remains is only a relic, like the cracked foundations of an ancient church now open to air and birdflight, in which I sit wondering if God really lived here once.

I got a lot of work done during those weeks.

The turbulence that creates the beauty

From the high ridge the river is placid, dark, smooth, its motion undetectable except by implication of the muddy-pale passage my analytical self knows to be rapids. It winds through the landscape, around unperturbed boulders, past trees positioned as dramatic backdrop by unseen woodsman stagehands. A heron lifts off from some hidden cove and glides easily over the water, ages below me. If the river misses him it keeps its feelings to itself. Occasionally a spot of foam tossed up by turbulence twinkles in the sun, just to keep the viewer interested. Oh, it is beautiful, this placid unmoving scene. It is the beauty of the Grand Canyon, the mountain overlook, the window on the eighty-seventh floor. The beauty of landscape that renders us insignificant before its grandeur and yet also grants us power over it. We comprehend the landscape while seeing nothing of real importance. We look on it with the gaze of science, or of bureaucracy — broad, encompassing, staking authority while proclaiming modesty, underscoring the insignificance of our achievement. From here we are assured that the river runs smoothly on its course, an assurance we have granted ourselves by choosing to remain distant from it. A cold, uneasy beauty.

the window in my workshop

A good window

the window in my workshop

A window, it seems to me, has three crucial tasks: to let in light, air, and birdsong. The lack of a sill can be forgiven as long as one can buy a decent table. Fenestration only impresses passersby, who have neither to live with the window or to pay for it. But the first three are unequivocal. To fail at the first task is to fail existentially, for a window that lets in no light is no window at all. To fail at the second leaves the occupant stifled and sour like a fish in a bowl, and his only consolation is the muttering of curses at the incompetent builder or too-clever architect. But a window that, succeeding at the first two tasks, fails at the third places the man at the mercy of his infernal alarm clock, whose harpy shrilling at the pale birth of a clear spring morning is an offense to nature and to nature’s God and for which, worst of all, the damn fool can blame only himself for choosing to live where there are no birds.

(From my great-uncle William Warmkessel’s diary of May 11, 1934. Whether inspired by some new architectural unpleasantry on Duke’s campus or his own alarm clock, I don’t know. He ought in any case to have been pleased with the window I installed in my workshop last month, which, since I bought a house in the woods and hung a birdfeeder from the dogwood outside, meets all his criteria. His only complaint would likely be mine, which is that it took me fifteen years to hang the damn thing.)

In the parking lot

In the parking lot are tiny islands of grass, as if the rising tide of asphalt had not yet quite drowned the dirt. Tiny trees are planted in them, their lateral limbs pruned within the limits of their concrete barriers, and the trunks are anchored by thick cables to posts in the ground: because otherwise, of course, the trees would simply pack up and leave, plunge into the asphalt sea and swim for some imagined shore, branches angling awkwardly through the oil slicks and yellow lines, roots flailing behind like vestigial fins until they washed up exhausted against the mall. Shoppers heading for home would find the doors blocked by beached trees gasping their last, pathetically coughing up sap and splinters of macadam.

Nine miles along the Eno River

On Friday I hiked the portion of North Carolina’s Mountains to Sea Trail that runs along the Eno River, about nine miles from Roxboro Road in Durham through West Point on the Eno Park, across Guess Road into the Eno River State Park, and then to Pleasant Green in Orange County. One day, when the trail is complete, I hope to hike the whole state. For the moment, this will have to do.

These are my snapsnots from the walk.

The rains part like a curtain; the underbrush
Stirs with sultry buzz and hum. Summer?

Goose on the river watches my confusion:
Which way the trail? Which hue the blaze?
He’s not telling.

I sit and rest by spring’s last bluets,
Pale and drooping in the summer heat.

The sycamore leans out over the river,
Stretched root to branch like a diver ready to leap,
Stripping his bark as he goes.

Swallowtails loop around the weeds
In search of some forgotten nectar,
While laurel clings to rocks above.

Ordinary miracles

Saturday afternoon my daughter and I volunteered on a local farm tour, at a farm where the two main attractions are goats and pickles. I’ve got a cabinetful of pickles at home, but no goats, and I figured even if a nine year-old girl got bored checking people in and welcoming them to a farm then surely baby goats would keep her entertained for hours. I was more right than I’d bargained for, as it turned out.

We arrived too early. We were supposed to arrive half an hour before the tour started, to set up and get the lay of the land, but I got us there half an hour before that. The farm was, I thought (and Google Maps confirmed) over half an hour away, and I had to stop off to buy chicken feed. But the map was conservative, the trip easy and the errand quick, and so I allowed far too much time. As I climbed out of the car and saw Mike, the farmer, walking towards me, I apologized and promised to stay out of the way.

“No problem,” he said, friendly but a little hurried. “In fact we’ve got a goat giving birth right at the moment, if your daughter wants to watch.”

I leaned back into the car. “Ivy, you want to watch a goat give birth?”
A second passed while my words sunk in — it is not the sort of question she is used to being asked — and then she bounded out of the car.

Vermeer: The Milkmaid, c. 1660

Evening also breaks

Another cold morning, though not as cold as yesterday. The duck pond is free of ice, but barely; the surface ripples thickly as if it had thought to freeze but hadn’t quite made up its mind before the dawn broke. Now the sun filters weakly golden through the leafless crags of trees like a bit of tarnished jewelry, diffusing around the broken lines of branches, emphasizing their nakedness without clarifying their geometry. At least the world survived another long night. It usually does.

I have often felt that I could tell the difference between sunrise and sunset only by the light, but I have never been able to convince myself rationally that this is so. If I were stuck down in some unknown spot on the globe at one or the other time of day with no compass or geographic bearings and had to guess in an instant whether the sun was coming or going, could I? I think I could, but perhaps that’s only a conceit. The sun would appear the same distance above the horizon, its light falling at the same shallow angle, filtered through the same branches. I can’t think of any physical evidence of its movement without simply waiting to see what happened next.

Then again, a few of the Dutch masters seem to have been able to capture the difference without resorting even to painting the sky, so maybe there is a difference too subtle and complex for words. I’ve always thought that even in this interior scene Vermeer perfectly captured the light of early morning:

Vermeer: The Milkmaid, c. 1660

It couldn’t be any other time of day, could it? But maybe I only sense that because she’s a milkmaid and she’s just finished milking. Or maybe I’m full of crap and Vermeer had in mind something else entirely.

This morning, in ay case, gives the lie to all that. The orange light filtering through bare trees makes me think of sunset. Too orange, perhaps, or too wistful seeming for dawn. For a moment I can’t be sure. It could be morning with the day still to come and a bit of warming but clouds over the horizon; it could be evening before a long frigid night but stars ready to shine brilliantly and dinner waiting inside. For a moment time hangs in the balance. Then I dump the food in the chickens’ bowl and get on with the day.