Sunday, June 18, 2006

O, never, never! And yet -- and yet --

Childhood has two seasons: anticipation and summer.

Or so it seems in memory. And it is memory, after all, that filters what matters in the long run.

Autumns, winters and springs of childhood blend in a murky reminiscence of multiplication tables, galoshes, lunch boxes, Brylcreemed hair, the prison-yard confines of recess, chalk dust, staring listlessly out classroom windows, calendars and clocks, and anticipating with a bite of the lip the days and hours until the last bell rings and all of nature is released from laced-up servitude.

As school ends for summer vacation, the sun has reached its highest place in the sky. The solstice, which means literally "sun stands," is this week. Time stops and the calendar becomes irrelevant. Shoes are discarded. Shorts replace trousers and skirts. Brushes and combs are lost to the bottoms of bureau drawers as hair goes tousled and free.

Summer! Stickball in the meadows. Messing about in drainage ditches. Long warm twilights on green lawns, catching up fireflies in our cupped hands, carefully transferring them to clear glass jars in the hope that if only we catch enough we'll have a useful lantern. The brilliant summer stars -- Arcturus, Vega, Deneb, Altair -- coming on like street lamps, guiding us into sleep made fitful by the day's unfinished projects, tomorrow's beginnings.

The tip of the Earth's northern pole toward the sun pushes back our bedtime hour, advances the moment of dawn. Somehow, for me, the sieve of memory brings the summer nights into sharpest focus. The sounds of crickets, cicadas and nocturnal birds. Sleeping out under the stars and waking in the still-warm night to find the Milky Way flowing from horizon to horizon like a cool stream. Yawning, silent infinities observed alone from tangled blankets at the midnight hour, exhilarating and a little frightening.

I'm sure that my memories are reinforced by that most magical of chapters in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows called "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn." I couldn't say whether it was the summer nights or the story that came first; they are inextricably mixed in memory. But half a century on, the story keeps its hold on my imagination.

Midsummer eve. The sun has set. Mole and Rat push off in their boat to look for Portly, the infant otter, who has gone missing from his home. They row upstream in moonlight. The night is full of animal noises -- song and chatter and rustling. Purple loosestrife, meadowsweet and rose fringe the river's banks, their odors pervading the still air. Mole and Rat pass the night in dreamy searching and silent reverie. Near dawn they hear a magical piping that draws them to an island in the stream, hemmed with willow, birch and alder, cradled in a weir.

"Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him," whispers Rat, and it is not only Portly that he means.

In a clearing on the island they find themselves in an "august Presence" -- goat-hoofed, pipe-playing, great god Pan, friend and helper. And nestled between Pan's hooves is the sleeping infant otter.

As the sun's first rays shoot across the water-meadow, the Vision vanishes and the air is full of the caroling of birds that greet the dawn. With the sun comes forgetfulness. Was the Vision real? Was it a dream? They know something exciting and rather terrible has happened, yet nothing particular has happened. As they row home, they hear a song in the reeds bidding them to forget.

How long ago and far away now seem those summer nights of childhood. What was it we found there? Something was there, certainly, something exciting and rather terrible, a presence, if you will, a power that manifests itself in the way things hold together -- sun, moon, stars, creatures, plants -- a presence that children are particularly able to perceive, especially children who have been raised on pagan fairy tales and the pipes of Pan.

Most of my life, I think, has been spent trying to remember what it was I experienced then, to become like a child again in the presence of nature, to perceive nature's wholeness and my place in it with a child's purity of sight. Mostly, we have forgotten. So we turn in our millions to the gurus -- the Deepak Chopras, Marianne Williamsons and Thomas Moores -- who offer us, for $24.95, various secondhand substitutes for the real thing, what Time magazine once, in a cover story on spiritualism and healing, called the "alternative universe."

All the while, the real universe is at our doorstep, twinkling, shining, chattering, rustling, scenting the summer air with healing perfume. Remember. Remember. Remember.

There is an important difference between what we found on the island with Mole and Rat and the sunny offerings of the New Age gurus: a frisson of night fear, an apprehension of the benevolent and the terrible wrapped up together, the kindly faced but frightening goat-footed god.

"Are you afraid?" whispered Mole to Rat in the presence of the Vision.

"Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet -- and yet -- O, Mole, I am afraid."

Next Friday night will be is St. John's Eve, when the summer solstice was marked in Europe with bonfires and revels, an ancient pagan festival given a Christian veneer.

What was celebrated was the presence of the divine in nature, friend and helper with an edge of threat, a presence we have mostly tuned out of our increasingly virtual, prepackaged, guru-counseled lives.

Perhaps we don't light bonfires, but if we listen with the attentiveness of childhood, in the presence of summer stars and Jupiter blazing in the southwest, the Milky Way spilling across the zenith, we might hear the almost inaudible song, as Rat heard it, like reeds whispering far away:

"Lest the awe should dwell -- And turn your frolic to fret -- You shall look upon my power at the helping hour -- But then you shall forget."

Further Reading

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.