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Polylith 004   ☷   May 02019

Braiding

A black and white photograph of a small wave washing over pebbles. The water is clear and the pebbles are worn into round, smooth shapes.

Hello there you fellow ambulators, peregrines, pilgrims. The solstice approaches, and the days have begun to unfurl at the margins like ferns. Long morning, long evening, sweet early summer.

This letter comes to you from the tip of a pebbled wedge of land, a point on an island out in the still-cold northern basin of Lake Michigan. I’m sitting here at the very point on the smooth round stones amid chalky splashes of guano. The sun just rose from the lake and tiny waves wash tenderly around the point, the way one might smooth their hair in the mirror. From here I can look east and south across the passage toward the mainland, whose familiar horizon-line stretches out like a handscroll. Read it from left to right under the breath as a secret poem. Give each curve a name. As far as I know, the point where I sit has no name that sticks — the waves perpetually wash it clean. How would we name something that has no stable material form to speak of? Whose fixation to the physical plane is so tenuous? We’ll chew on that more in a bit.

It’s good to be with you again. I’m not transmitting this letter from the point of course, that’s mercifully not yet possible (and may it never be!), but I did carry the letter back to the mainland to transmit it from my desk, just 17 miles away as the gull flies. My mind keeps making that flight, and I seem to have left a corner of my imagination tucked under a pebble at the point, so I’ll share the view from here this month.

Confluence

To my mind, the point is essentially a confluence, a place where many lines meet. Winds, water currents, bird movements, the two stretches of the island’s moebius-strip shore — and on occasion my own looping peregrinations. We all meet right here where I sit.

In fact all the elements meet at the point. Air is carried by the birds under their flight feathers, earth carried by the glaciers once and inevitably again, fire by the vulcan-born basalt, water carried in by the ever-present waves. Even sulphur (the stone which burns) arrives with the waveworn chunks of anthracite washed up on the beach. And of course spirit, spirit carried by all present. Perhaps each of these elements is simply a phase in one great enigmatic eternal cycle. A riffle in the flux. Either way, the confluence is a braid that has no end, and every thread is looped in.

Here at the point, even the smell speaks of confluence. The smell of innumerable fish plucked methodically by spear-bill from the cold water, digested as the flock rests heads to the wind, and excreted onto the sand and smooth stones. The windcombed dunegrass farther back grows alarmingly lush with the pelagic nitrogen.

And like any confluence, the point vibrates in a dynamic equilibrium, a tumultuous balance, held here by opposing forces which equal out. Earth emerges from water, water pulls at earth, pushes it around, drags it back into water. The point lives between the two realms, bridging them, but also separating them — caught and torn by storms and currents and lake-ice, held in the tumult at both ends.

If we travel straight down from where I sit (as we have before), we find that beneath only a hand’s breadth of dry pebbles the drift is saturated with water all the way to bedrock. The point is a total interpenetration of earth and water. Its form and persistence come entirely from the energies that meet there, giving it an archetypal character. The point is a primordial image (after Jung), a confluence manifest in mineral and water; it is not the pebbles, nor the currents who rearrange them, but a dance among them all. A dance that the gulls and terns and shorebirds all attend. Indeed, the shape of the point is synchronous with the wing of the gull who hatches her eggs here; the wing which is a co-creation of feather and wind, the point which is a co-creation of drift and current. The braid weaves on. How would we name such a spot?

In my experience, such a spot answers to many names. It seems to answer to the cries of the circling gulls, certainly to the wind’s infinite vowel, to the caress and lash of the waves — and for me it answers to silence.

That is to say the true names of the land, the names that emerge (versus those imposed), are all threads in the braid, and they are various. A secret, omnipresent, ever unfolding poem recited under the breath.

Envelopment

I rise and step off the island into the pebbly shallows. The water is cold, the kind of cold that climbs the legs and pulls at the blood; the kind of cold that will take us with it. I look back at the diverging shore and the dunes rising where the point widens, the cottonwoods and pin cherries turning to jack pines and cedars, and on up the slope to the dense forest of maple, ash and beech resplendent with delicate ephemeral flowers, which rises until it reaches the precipitous bluffs on the far side. I happen to know that there are only two other humans on the island, and both of them are busy with tractors and solar panels off across the bay. With this kind of assured quietude, the more illusive spirits emerge readily, the names come. Silence is apparently the only invocation they require this morning, and amid this silence, among those gathered on the point, a populous solitude envelops me the way the lake envelops the island. May you find envelopment as well.


Thank you as ever for reading, and do feel welcome to share something in response. This month has been a difficult one for reasons unrelated to this little transmission, but our thin connection here brings great warmth. The braid has many threads. Take heart!