The English language is unusually rich, they say, in words to describe silence, quiet, stillness, noiselessness, peace. I wonder if it isn’t in the nature of things for a language to multiply expressions for whatever an economic system based on scarcity renders dear? Water is the most ubiquitous and necessary substance on the planet, but how many ways do we have to describe it?
Lately I have found myself wishing especially for a richer vocabulary for the sounds of water. We’ve had two full years of record-setting precipitation here, and with my porch right at the headwaters of Plummer’s Hollow Run, I’m learning to distinguish subtle nuances of trickle, burble, flow. Every season but the heart of winter is mud season now. A year ago, when I started this blog, I think I imagined I’d be dealing more with images of blankness, the smooth refusal of fresh snow. Instead, I have begun visualizing the via negativa as a place where fresh boot prints fill quickly with water. It’s a bit like the 8th-century Japanese priest Sami Mansei’s one surviving poem. To what shall I compare the world? A boat that rows off with morning, leaving no trace behind, he wrote in one, almost continuous arabesque of ink, the brush sliding wetly over the scented paper. This was a culture, let’s remember, where in order to be thought attractive women had to blacken their teeth and draw faint clouds on their foreheads an inch above the place where their eyebrows had been. People took ink and lacquerware seriously. Occlusion was honored.
No road, no trace of a path, nothing more than the briefest of wakes: only the anonymous authors of the Daodejing thought this sufficient to base a coherent philosophy upon. But it’s not as if no one else ever took notice of such things. There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four things which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid (Proverbs 30:18-19). I am not sure in what manner Agur ben Yakeh committed his words to writing – quill and papyrus? But of course this may have been a popular saying for generations before this otherwise unknown sheik captured and preserved it – just the shell, no soft vowels – on whatever scroll.
A couple of weeks ago I was sitting out on my porch at quarter till five in the morning, still warm from my shower, when a flock of tundra swans went over – the only swans any of us heard all autumn. After last spring’s glorious northward migration, it was a bit of a disappointment. What I heard might well have been simply the last flock in a nightlong caravan. Steering by the stars as they do, the swans would’ve had to fly high to clear the clouds that had settled in around us. With the stream so loud and my windows all shut, I wouldn’t have heard anything.
Or perhaps the muffling effect of the fog made them sound higher and farther away than they were? In any case, I remember the auditory wake that followed their passage.
An hour before dawn, voices
drift down through the fog
like the first & most perfect
snow crystals of the year.
I picture fast moving shadows
against the stars, snow disappearing
into dark water, a far-off tundra
where the night goes on for months.
I lean out over the porch rail.
The creek runs high from all the recent rains.
Two weeks later I’m still hearing
the last treble notes.