swooping up into the crown of a tree. Omen, sign, portent?
I believe in marvels, antithetical as such ideas might be in our modern rational age.
There is always a new unravelling of old mysteries. Naturalists have just come to the realization that prehistoric mastodons brought the honey locust with them to West Virginia 10,000 years ago.
Being partial to both grazing mastodons and spiky honey locusts, I am happy that the connection has at last been made.
I visited Bainbridge Island, floating just off the coast of Washington State, when I spent time in Seattle this past week. Bainbridge is a place of mysteries, the center of Suquamish Ancestral Territory, peopled for thousands of years and rich in archaeological sites. Made a pilgrimage to Fay Bainbridge beach, a place overlooking Puget Sound where thousands of bare, huge driftwood logs have washed up on the shore. Where do they come from? Why here? You need to pick your way over them as you make your way to the surf, they are so thick across the sand.
The eminently quotable Thoreau: We often love to think now of the life of men on beaches, at least in midsummer, when the weather is serene; their sunny lives on the sand, amid the beach-grass and bayberries, their companion a cow, their wealth a jag of driftwood or a few beach plums, and their music the surf and the peep of the beech-bird.
In the old times this place was called Salagwep, base of spit where butt end of trees are lying. Other parts of Bainbridge had different names: Xwadzus, Sharp face, or Daxkdsaxb, Place where water gets jumping, or Yeboalt, Fighter’s home where north and south winds tussle.
Even in the cold weather, now, in November, the jag of driftwood speaks. There are some telephone poles here also, obviously thinking they belong among the imperfect tree trunks. Someone has built a fortress, a home, a gathering place. Simple and ingenious.
In Danish the expression is hygge, meaning a cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable. During the long, dark winters when Danes retreat inside their homes, hygge is what brings a sense of comfort and joy. Same in Norway, except there they call it koselig.
(Knowing a little about Scandinavian habits, I have a feeling it usually involves strong coffee also). Hygge usually refers to an indoor environment, but I think the structure at Fay Bainbridge is also a place of succor, the beach-y equivalent. A shelter from the storm for whoever built it or whoever came after and hung out here.
I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.
Elsewhere on Bainbridge, horse chestnut leaves hold the autumn light.
Mysteries. No one is here. Even a bit of plant fluff can appear miraculous atop a human hand.
A puff of breath in the cold air can seem miraculous. So can someone sighing in their sleep. The miracle of Klimt.
What is he dreaming? It can only be good. I wonder sometimes, do I sigh in my sleep? I don’t think so. I sleep like a rock, when I sleep at all. I take my dreams in the daytime, thank you very much.
Returning from Bainbridge, we see Mount Rainier rising in the distance. It looked the same to ancient eyes.
But what did the sight of a snowy, iconic mountain on a clear, crisp day such as this portend? We can only imagine.
At Ellis island, touring the measles ward, one person said he was sure he was tapped on the shoulder by an unseen presence. Another guest said she smelled chocolate in a room where no one had been for 100 years. What do these occurrences signify? Are they portents?
If you listen, things speak to you. Today, I heard my grandmother’s voice. She hasn’t been alive for 30 years. Yes, it was all in my mind. That didn’t make it unreal. She told me to re-read Ulysses, by James Joyce, her now-tattered copy, bought as a first edition in Paris a century ago. She was so smart – she came from nothing, and wound up living well on New York City’s Upper West Side. I remember climbing on the big Manhattan schist boulders across Central Park West. You could see them from her window.
The rocks, were they signposts? Central Park would be an integral part of my life eventually. Did those rocks speak to me even then?
There are marvels wherever you look. Sometimes they’re audible. Don’t we always find signs in songs?
When Ella scat-warbles Chelsea Bridge, does it send a shiver down your spine? Is it a sign? Is it important? It’s mysterious. Or, if you prefer, Leon Russell singing Tightrope.
The wire seems to be
The only place for me
A comedy of errors and I’m falling
Like a rubber-neck giraffe
You look into my past
Well maybe you’re just too blind to see
I loved it when someone once told me I had a musical soul. But doesn’t everybody have a musical soul? It’s just the music that differs. For me, When Something Is Wrong With My Baby, the duet sung by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. Incomparable. Doesn’t that just wring your heart out? Or Julia, by The Flatlanders, also referencing a circus, a different kind.
Night wind blows
Stars above the blue
Only love will do
Or do you prefer Do You Realize, by The Flaming Lips – Do you realize/That you have the most beautiful face? Or, of course, Smokey Robinson, Ooh, Baby Baby. The Miracles, indeed. The Beach Boys, that big whomp of a single drum beat at the beginning of Wouldn’t It Be Nice, what does it signify? Everything, I think. Or J.S. Bach, Concerto in D Minor.
Whatever music makes you both smile and cry. Listening to a transistor radio late at night as a child, under the sheets, so no one would know. Private. Secret. I want to hold your hand. Mysterious. Did I say secret?
The marvel of scent. The fragrance of wood smoke. Whatever smells hold magic, release magic.
I saw a newly released Polish film, EO, about a donkey, in which a circus performer memorably presses her smooth face against her donkey co-performer’s rough fur.
A very sad movie, very scary, but still something so magical about the animal’s eyes. Polish poetry.
A 16-year-old girl on my Ellis Island tour after peppering me with questions the whole time: I’m sorry for asking so many questions, but I just really want the answers! Yes, so do I, missy. When I was younger I thought of mysteries as things that must be solved. Something to get to the bottom of. Now…
I’ve always resonated to cabinets of curiosities, those neatly arranged treasures you find depicted in artwork of earlier centuries. Like the famous collection of one professor of medicine in Copenhagen, a studio stuffed with animals, plants and minerals and including both a crocodile and an armadillo.
The sole purpose of the Wunderkammern was to elicit awe. The wondrous was a cult that combined “variety, whimsy, and extravagance “ in the description of one of my favorite books, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750, by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park. Unicorn horns (really narwhal tusks) and griffin claws (bison horns) were prized along with nautilus shells and sharks’ teeth. Churches suspended giant eggs, teeth and bones from their vaults to prompt admirationem. Folks also believed in exotic human races, including the Cynocephali, dog-headed inhabitants of the Andaman Islands.
Debate existed about whether they were civilized and rational or cruel cannibals who preferred the meat of strangers raw and highly spiced.
Marvels, wherever you look. From bald eagles to dog-faced humans to hovering pink clouds.
Another ho-hum sunset over the Palisades just across from my home. A talisman of… you tell me.