Just because an idea is old doesn’t mean there isn’t a little life left in it. The idea of a Book of Life evokes for me not some everlasting tome in which angels inscribe the names of the elect on pages of illuminated vellum. On the other hand, such a book could never be just another fancy collection of commonplaces. It suggests to me a kind of secularized gospel, a word that is good because it is exceptionally well formed and (naturally) alive. Like the shell-bead tapestries called wampum, which European colonists confused with money. When the orator speaks, he neither recites nor extemporizes, nor – in the ordinary sense – does he read. He looks at the wampum draped across his outstretched arms, and then he translates. The Indians understood what the Whites did not: that all speech is action, and all communication is an act of translation. Otherwise unbridgeable gulfs can be overleaped. Strangers become kin.
And yes, sometimes I like the idea of a Book of Nature. To think that I might, for example, learn something about persistence from this indigo bunting hammering away at his reflection in the window. The world is more than metaphor, I remember, when I see things like the empty translucent brown larval cases of 17-year cicadas. I have from time to time permitted myself the delusion that listening intently to a catbird would make me a better poet, and that learning the secret names of orchids would help preserve certain moments which are really no less fleeting than any of the others. And on absolutely clear days in June, about which an old poet rhetorically asked if anything else could be so rare – meaning rare like a gem, I suppose, and not rare like a steak – on days like this my heart aches for no good reason I can think of. The world simply isn’t supposed to be this beautiful, and when it is, you want to weep. One drink, and I will be ready to embrace the mosquito as my sister and the porcupine as my best friend. (Well, hey, it is Midsummer!)
One thing one doesn’t expect is that the Book of Life will come to end. But today, Denny posted his final entry and gave notice that his blog, Book of Life, will be taken offline on June 30th. I’ll miss his crystal-clear prose and generous spirit. Hell, I may even miss the embarrassingly complimentary comments he was wont to leave here. Denny tells his readers that a “real” book calls. I can certainly understand the impulse to make something more permanent and structurally coherent. The real (albeit fictional) Book of Life reminds us, however, that nothing lasts. Sic transit. All beauty is fleeting, and no glimmer of truth can hold its aura forever.
Or so they say. I’m willing to bet that shell bead tapestries come pretty darn close.