Tea leaves


I haven’t been in much of a mood for writing this past week. But when I took my camera out for a walk yesterday afternoon, everything I looked at reminded me of pen marks on paper, beginning with the mast where the electric wires connect to my house in swirly Gothic serifs.


The clear air made for sharp contrasts. A runic pair of aspen trunks at the edge of the woods stood out as clearly against the dark background as any light font on a stylishly dark webpage. (Click on photos to view at larger sizes.)


What does it mean to see the world not merely as something created — a work of art — but as text? The origins of most writing systems are closely linked to divination, I believe: the world itself was read long before humans devised their own glyphs. And as phenomenologist David Abram noted in The Spell of the Sensuous, reading connects us to a form of absorption virtually indistinguishable from a shamanic trance.

cursive cattails

How to pronounce them, these new letters hidden in the cattails? The wind has one idea, and the wren another.

In the bottom corner of the field I found some wild mint, which I picked, brought home, and made tea out of. I found the mint because I stopped to admire a garden spider’s web. She too had correctly read the tea leaves, though what they said to her wasn’t tea but flowers — and insect pollinators. And sure enough, the purple blooms were abuzz.

vernal pond

Much as I want to find significance in the world, I don’t want to limit it to a single interpretation. This is where poets and omen-readers part company. The former insist on retaining a large element of mystery and nuance — even out-right confusion. In the same way that the perception of music depends upon the recognition of noise, the part of the world that eludes easy interpretation brings the rest into sharp relief: for every figure there must be a ground. Science now treats DNA as a kind of programming language, but so-called junk DNA accounts for up to 90 percent of a genetic sequence. I don’t know if that’s directly analogous or not, but I’m a poet, so I’ll just throw it out there.

cinnamon ferns 1

Genetic code and computer languages should serve to remind us, though, that language doesn’t simply mean; it transforms. This is the point that academic disquisitions on hermeneutics so often miss. We read for the same reason that our Paleolithic ancestors went into shamanic trances: to feel ourselves a part of a larger whole. The rightness that one senses in natural surroundings — even in a badly damaged ecosystem — is far more than a matter of interpretation. It is our body remembering how to listen.

The tea was delicious. And I think my dry spell is almost over.

12 Replies to “Tea leaves”

  1. Uh-oh. The boards and shingles in the top photo remind me of piano keys, and those electrical wires — the untamed ends of the strings on my guitar.
    Very neat photos illustrating this post – especially the cattails which look like they are writing in a flowing script. Indeed, how to pronounce those letters, and what are they saying?
    Thanks for mentioning the treefrog post in the smorgasblog. Btw, on seeing shapes and letters in nature, there’s a tree in our woods with a bit of scarred bark that repeatedly tricks me into thinking it’s a treefrog.

  2. When I learned how to read trees’ autobiographies, everything else took a leap into higher relief too, whether I could translate it or not. Funny how learning something gives its mystery more dimensions.

    I confess I’ve caught myself trying to read the heiroglyphics of city lighting when I was flying across the continent at night. The boundary between projection and interpretation is nebulous, permeable, and ever-changing.

  3. “How to pronounce them, these new letters hidden in the cattails?
    The wind has one idea, and the wren another.”

    You’re wicked good at this writing stuff, Dave. Thanks for picking me up at the end of the work day.

    Paulo Freire wrote about reading the word versus reading the world, and how illiterates read and ponder the world as one would a text, teasing out its ambiguities and its shifting meanings.

  4. Lucy – I’m glad you liked.

    bev – Interesting interpretation of that top photo. I hope people click through to your treefrog post. I found the difference between those two photos quite revelatory.

    quiet regular – You refer, I presume, to VAUPE – the Visual Approach to the Unorthodox Pursuit of Enlightenment. Maybe so. Thanks.

    Ron – Thanks for stopping by.
    Funny how learning something gives its mystery more dimensions.
    Yes, exactly!

    Nathan – Thanks for the kind words.

    Freire said that? He was right on the money, I’d say.

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