“Beauty is a threshold event: it may make use of ordinary and uncomplicated things, but these serve as the bridge to a domain of meaning and significance.” (xx)
- Robert P Crease
The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most beautiful Experiments in Science (2003)
In the turning of the seasons there are many thresholds; many events that mark the passing of time in its spiral dance; the onward movement of existence through the inevitable march of moments. These moments may pass without ceremony; our lives slipping into the void slowly without notice or remark. Or, we can mark these moments of transition; thresholds in the pattern of the annual cycle—and make our lives more distinct, more earthen, more tied to Earth & Cosmos. By establishing markers for these thresholds, we can note time’s passage, nurture a quality of self-awareness that enables us to remember seasons that have passed, and plot out future directions and explorations for ourselves with conscious intent. This ‘active pathing’ lends vivacity to life in its inevitable passing, and facilitates the generation of meaning out of what-is.
We are now on the cusps of Autumn, and I am marking time by various touchstones, icons and familiar experiences. The turn towards Autumn usually begins, for me, with the coming to fruition of wild apples in the fields & woods through which I path in late Summerwood saunters. The smell of ripening apples is an early ‘sacramental’ of the onset of Harvest. Then, in the latter part of August, I will always find that ‘first’ leaf that has gone red and fallen onto the path, as if to say, “time is shifting; Autumn is coming.” It’s always a leaf from the same specie of tree – a longish, oblong leaf with barely discernible ‘teeth’ along its edges. I pick one up, bring it home, and insert it in a book that I’m currently reading. As I go back to books I’ve read over the years, I find these relics of earlier Autumns, dried between the pages where I left them, sometimes slightly discoloring both paper and text. A final queue in Fall’s overture is when I come across the first ripening acorns in early September. I always retrieve three or four of them and put on my meditation table, where they stay until just after Samhain (31 October).
These experiences lead me into reflection on two themes that I’ve long found to be indicative of Autumn: Harvest and Ruins. The summer is coming to a close; the natural world around us has gone through Flourishment, Fructification and Fruition – a triad of Summerwood themes – and now Fruition is giving way to Harvest. Summer is a time for ‘growth,’ ‘ripening’ and ‘bearing fruit.’ The natural consummation of this process is Harvest, followed by dormancy and death. Life ends, but first – if conditions have been right – there can be a culling of all that has been gained, a ‘gathering up’ of the fruits of living, and a storing away of its bounty in anticipation of the cold, dark journey to come; Winterwood – which looms on a not so distant horizon.
Though there is a ‘coming to fruition’ all summer long; many fruits and vegetables ripening and periodic gleanings from gardens and fields – of berries, summer wheat, etc. – many crops have a longer growing season and only come to fruition in August, September or October. Where I live, the crops most indicative of this consummate harvest are wheat and grain corn, soybeans and pumpkins. Beginning at the end of August, mechanical reapers can be seen moving through the fields. All through September, what has been growing all summer long is being harvested.
I experience a deep paradox between bounty & consummation in seeing corn and other crops being harvested. Nature’s fecundity is evident in the way that seed, once put in the ground, grows to maturity and bears fruit—assuming the right environmental conditions prevail. Bounty, however, is always coupled with consummation. While there can be repeated consummations through the growing season each year, there is an final harvest (at least in the temperate zone where I live), in which a sense of mortality comes to the fore. Harvest is a time for celebration; especially in farming communities. Those of us living in towns and cities should remember where our food comes from, and acknowledge the harvest taking place each year. At the same time that we celebrate the harvest, however, an awareness of the consummation that it implies foreshadows the death and dormancy that inevitably follows the harvest.
While ‘Harvest’ describes what is happening in the external world, it also ‘represents’ a fact of our lives. We have our own cycles of growth & fruition, followed by a settling into repose and finally death. The seasons – Spring—Summer—Autumn—Winter – have oft been used as metaphorical of the full cycle of human life, but it may also accurately describe different phases within the space of a life. Many of us go through cycles as life unfolds. When we start off on a particular path; we are ‘born’ to it. We path as far as that direction may allow, and then we may change course. We may find that some other direction in life is more fruitful, or we may be forced into a different life course by circumstances beyond our control. We may then ‘die’ to the previous phase of our life, and experience a new birth to a different direction. Life, in this metaphorical sense, is full of small births—deaths—rebirths. A human life, however, ultimately goes through a final consummation and ends in repose and death.
After Harvest each year, Nature comes to rest in the darkening, shortening of the days, until Winter commences. It is this ‘coming to rest’ that inspires my reflections on Ruins. Ruins are to human culture what the reaped fields, denuded trees and bushes of wildwood & field are to Nature. The red leaf that I pick up each Autumn is an intimation not only of the coming Harvest but of mortality. The leaf is dead. The chlorophyll in the leaf has stopped processing sunlight and thus stopped reflecting light from the ‘green’ range of the spectrum. Thus, the leaf takes on the color characteristic of its material structure; yellow, red, orange or brown. The death and falling of the leaves can be taken as symbolic of the death of all of the vines and stalks of all the growing things that have made Summerwood green and lush. It is also analogous, symbolically, to the ‘death’ of human structures. When humans let go of things they have made_ when they are abandoned or become neglected—they go into decline and become ‘ruins.’ Entropy is always ready to take over!
BIRTH—LIFE—DEATH is the way of all animals. We are animals, and so we undergo this journey. In the wider frame of human culture and history, what our species brings into existence also goes through stages like that of a life. We build, we dwell in what we have built, and then we abandon our constructions and move on to new ones. Once we have moved on, what we have built dilapidates_ and becomes a ruin. Entropy wins out_ just as it eventually does with animal and plant life_ and what we have built returns to the Earth. Everything comes from the Earth, and returns to it, eventually.
I’ve always been fascinated with ruins, and after many years I finally realized that ruins are an apt metaphor of mortality. They are an analog of human life. A ruin is a structure that has been let go; it is no longer being kept up, or it simply cannot be kept up any longer. It has been ‘handed over’ to entropy. Nature brings about the ruin of human artifacts once they are abandoned, and to reflect on this process of decay in its various stages is to find an analogy for our own eventual decline, decay and death. As we come from the Earth, so we will someday be reunited with it in post-conscious states, the nature of which we can only speculate on until we experience it – or not – for ourselves. A house or other structure, abandoned and returning to the Earth, goes through Stages of Decay -- recognizable to anyone who has long visited some particular ruin -- that are as indefatigable as they are beautiful, in a certain ‘melancholy’ sense of that word. Many ruins decay over time scales longer than a human lifetime (stone structures especially) while others seem to age and decay and fall to Earth even as we do ourselves, or even more quickly.
Ruins inspire in me what artists and writers have long called ‘melancholy.’ The melancholy is a ‘beautiful sadness.’ It is an emotion characteristic of spiritual reflection on mortality. It is not mere ‘sadness,’ nor it is a state of ‘depression.’ It is a manifestation of our awareness that all things must pass; that nothing is permanent—not even ourselves, much less the things we leave behind after we are gone (children, great works, etc.). Nothing is immortal in the Earth & Cosmos—maybe not even the Universe itself. Death is as natural as birth. I have occasionally had the good fortune to find a ruined structure that I could visit periodically, and have learned a great deal from these abandoned places. There was once an old tool shed on the edge of a local wood, near where I grew up, that became a frequent haunt. I sojourned with it through several years as it dilapidated and collapsed, ultimately being covered in leaf mulch, eventually to become a small ‘mound’ in the landscape. The shed became an old friend; and I missed it once it was finally gone. It had simply been left behind when the property it was on was sold, and was no longer worked as a farm.
Ruins not only represent a ‘natural’ mortality but sometimes reference a more tragic scenario; a letting go of something at the height or in the prime of its existence. A house that has burned down, for instance, and now stands lonely in ruins on an abandoned property, ignored and nearly forgotten, may remind us that life doesn't always end well, and that many things can befall us that we wouldn't have wished for. Not everything in life works out for the better; disasters and disease undermine our existence and our ability to flourish. Some people get caught in cycles of self-destruction or victimization from which they unfortunately never escape. Many human lives have been wasted or are so tragic as to inspire only despair upon reflection. Such has been the human condition. Much of human existence has been lost or wasted that might have been saved, had the right set of circumstances prevailed. Ruins sometimes inspire reflection on this darker dimension of the human situation.
To visit ruins is one way I’ve long found of engaging actively in a meditation on the decay and death that ultimately overtakes us. Hopefully, it comes after a live lived to the full; a fortunate flourishment and a culling of everything one can gather from one’s life. Yet we will often find an icon of ourselves in the ruined structures we visit. Just like the structures we have built and dwell in, we may keep ourselves fit and healthy so long as we can, but – at some point – all our self-maintenance will fail, and death will become our imminent destination. Not to recognize our mortality – the fact that we will die – is, ironically, spiritual suicide. For not to know that we are going to die; not to be conscious of it and not to acknowledge it—is not to be able to live life as what-it-is.
Ruins, for me, are intimately linked with the Autumn. They evoke meditations on mortality. Though I visit ruins all the year long, during the Autumn I intentionally make time for this kind of ‘pilgrimage.’ Then, at the mid-point of Autumn – Samhain (called Halloween in contemporary culture and turned into yet another excuse for self-indulgence and happy whimsy) – this memento mori on ruins and harvest culminates in my visiting graveyards, remembering those I’ve known who have passed, and communing with the symbols of death that I find there. _I find this a deep and fitting transition into the bleak gloom of November and the entry into Winterwood.
A few years ago an old student of mine emailed me pictures of a ruined church that he and some of his friends had come across near where they were in the habit of hiking. He reflected in his email on the many times that we had gone hiking together down the railroad tracks south of the town where I was living at that time, to an old house, abandoned and decaying. There, we would sit on the weathered and moss-stained stairs of the back porch, and talk about the spiritual life and mystical experience. My reflections on that house – dilapidating over the course of the 30 years that I visited it regularly, became the inspiration for the Whittiers – the central family in all of my storytelling – and the main focus of my book, Heart and Hearth (2009), which explores the subject of loss and reclamation; both of a house, a property and of a family’s lives.
Out of ruin there sometimes arises new life; a resurrection; a reformulation of life and a regeneration of hope and energy and possibility. Symbolically, this can be seen in Spring following Winter after the death of Autumn. This is what is chronicled in Heart and Hearth (2009), which I often think of as a very ‘autumnal’ book. The basic story of the Whittiers is that they built a house on Deer Hill near the fictional town of Wickersfeld, PA in 1894. They lived in that house for just over fifty years in a way that was somewhat unique. They are, for me, an example of what it is to live life intentionally. They had a life philosophy that was grounded in the Earth & Cosmos, and that was fleshed out with ideals and creative aspirations that they worked hard to fulfill. Despite tragedy and the ups and downs of the American economy through the first half of the 20th century, they managed a vision of life of which they were proud. They worked hard and were fortunate enough to be successful at their various employments.
Then, the first Whittier House burned down in October of 1949, and though the family intended to rebuild, their business commitments and other factors prevented the realization of their plan. They ended up living separately, in various households around Ross County, PA until 1979, when four old friends of the family took a night hike down to the ruins of the old burned-out house. This walk inspired the Whittier Reunion, a return to Deer Hill, and the reigniting of the family’s vision of a life together in Earth & Cosmos. Heart and Hearth (2009) explores the ruins of the family’s past, then traces the process of return, finally exploring the new life the Whittiers have created for themselves on and around Deer Hill, as through remembrance and storytelling they rediscovered the elements of the life philosophy that had inspired the previous three generations of Whittiers on Deer Hill. It has always been my hope that Heart and Hearth might inspire reflections on genuine human dwelling and intentional living in those who come to read it.
[Heart and Hearth (AuthorHouse, 2009) is available online at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com and at Authorhouse.com]