Palm to stone one, dolomite

Hello my imminently august friends. Here we are at the scorched summit of summer, where despite the aridity and height there are still subtle traces of a time beneath the blue-green waters. A time that will without question recur.

Over the next few letters we’ll work with a simple image, one that I have encountered many times in many guises, and one you may have encountered as well. It is an image in the sense of an object beheld at the confluence of perception and spirit, held in the imagination. A scene contemplated in an attempt to unify its fragmentary parts into some whole.

The image is that of a cupped hand holding just a little water. But images are notable in their slipperiness; the water turns out to be the convex surface of a boulder, so that palm presses to stone. No, it’s the palm that is stone, a shallow mineral dish brimming with water. As I say, slippery. How about we just follow where it leads?

Dolomite, dish of sand

In the year 1932, perhaps on a densely hot day in early August, as dust storms began to sweep the remnant prairies far to the southwest, as nearly a quarter of workers in United States territory were unemployed and the Nazi party became the largest in the Reichstag at Berlin across the North Atlantic, two government men parked their truck beside the state highway on the west side of this peninsula and looked up at the dune rising before them. Cicadas must have sung from the treeline as the men crossed an orchard on foot and passed through a gap in a wire fence. At the crest of the dune they saw the rolling expanse of sand and marram before them dropping away toward deep cerulean water to the horizon, and they set off that way, across the dunes and southwest up onto the great arched back of the moraine. How many trips it took them to carry the two twelve-foot lengths of iron pipe, concrete, mortar, water, three brass discs, hammers and sledges, drill and optical instruments those two miles up onto the moraine I don’t know, but they did; the evidence remains today. They stopped upon reaching a high round dune covered in a luxuriant pelt of white cedar perched near the brink of the bluff over the lake, a dune that in the years ahead would succumb to the erosive compress of automobile tires abetted by the ceaseless wind and eventually invert into the dish of sand whose rim is anchored today by dogwood roots. The cedar trunks bleached bone-white are by turns buried and exhumed as the grains continue to tumble northeast.

Atop the dune the government men sank one of the lengths of pipe, anchored it in concrete and mounted a brass disc in the end. Some six hundred paces north-northeast they sank the other pipe into the till in the same fashion, capped again by a brass disc. To the west they found a dolomite boulder, a glacial erratic plucked perhaps from the Niagara Escarpment and deposited here with the rest of the drift some ten thousand years prior, which, despite the weight of the midday sun bearing down on the three figures, felt cool to the touch. The men by some means bored a hole into the top of the stone, filled it with mortar and mounted the last disc with its arrow pointing toward the station at the crest of the dune. The men thus described a thin triangle atop the moraine tipped up to point at Antares as it would arc past after sunset.

A black and white photograph, taken sometime in the 1920s, of the brink of a moraine high over the flat water of Lake Michigan. In the foreground, the westward face of the bluff is illuminated gently by the afternoon sun. At the horizon stands a perched dune covered in a dense stand of cedars, silhouetted nearly black against a hazy sky. Before the dune sits a luminous white boulder nestled into the till.

The triangle of course did not point that way for long, even if it does persist in some inscrutable form to this day. As matter dances, polygon teases both entropy and Man (and I do mean Man) with a buoyantly scornful and elastic resilience. The station in the till was quickly buried beneath sand stabilized by marram and juniper roots, as was the station atop the dune, which vanished almost immediately under the migrating body and eluded a surveyor who returned to search for it in 1951. By the time of a third government visit forty-eight years after its emplacement, the station had disappeared entirely, the dune having since begun its inversion into dish following some forty-four summers of motorized tourism. Perhaps the iron-concrete-brass conglomerate, left behind by the migrating sand, slid slowly down the face of the bluff to the beach so that the triangle skewed to point toward the limestone deep beneath the lake. Or maybe it persists in place after all, a vertical composite figure with its rough naked mass of concrete suspended above the hollow dune, brass disc at the focus of the parabolic dish.

The dolomite boulder, by all accounts, has maintained the position it held the day the government men appropriated a part of it as plinth. But the brink of the bluff advances continuously, having reduced forty paces to six in the intervening years, and before long the stone will tip and slide down the face to the shore where it will settle, hiding the brass disc for a time beneath its crystalline body lapped by waves. A stone may be marked by ice and wind and tool, but unless it is destroyed its vibrancy remains undepleted, multitudinous. Those objects can never make right contact with the stone, can only even approach it at a shallow angle — and so the glancing mark of the Anthropocene, however jagged, joins the striations ground by glaciers and windblown sand into the stone’s surface. The stone actively persists, conveying dizzying but rich temporal possibilities, dilating the human frame and skewing the polygon to point onward.

I leave you for now with that to ponder amid this weighty heat. Maybe let it soak over a nice quiet swim. Or perhaps you’re reading this in front of your fireplace on the cool, breezy southern hemisphere — in which case, what insights might a bracing winter plunge bestow? At any rate, we’ll approach the image from a slightly different tack next month.

A few readers have picked up copies of the latest volume of Reliquiae, where three poems I wrote over the winter appear. The whole collection is really great, and I’m honored to be part. If you enjoy these strange walks we take together here in Polylith, you will most definitely dig Reliquiae. Until next month, happy imagining.