Air to water

Hello considerate readers. Summer strides apace here on the peninsula, so swiftly that we’re not able to keep up under our own power. No matter — the momentum of the season carries everything nearby along with it. I for one am largely enjoying the tumble. I hope you are too.

At the solstice, I released a new album of ambient music called Sixteen Hours, which I’m heartened to hear has already accompanied some mellow summer activities. Many thanks to those who purchased the album. If you’d like to have a listen, check it out on Bandcamp.

Yes, so. This letter brings to a close our consideration of the element air, and leads (appropriately, given that many of you enjoy a good swim) into the next: water.

Last month we concluded with a few words from James Hillman on the visible form taken by a vase or a jar. We’ll begin with them here again:

The stillness of the [vessel] begins inside; the exquisite shape we see is the stillness emanating from the void.1

We have seen that air is never still where there is life, and that stillness nonetheless inheres in air. But what happens when air comes down to meet water?

A black and white photograph. We're crouched low amid dunegrass and bearberry on the shoulder of a low dune just up from the beach. Beyond the dune we see a wedge of dark open water extending to the horizon, where it meets the silver sky. Blades of dunegrass bend ever so slightly in the warm breeze.

Near the end of June, at the end of a long day of fieldwork, I walked the shoreline back toward camp. There was barely a breeze, and the surface of the lake surrounding the island was heavy after a day of beating sun. Haze pushed the mainland beyond reach. Just offshore, in perhaps a meter of still-cold water, there bobbed half a tiny speckled eggshell.

I knew its provenance immediately, the only possibility. Earlier that evening all four eggs in a nearby plover nest had hatched. They were the last eggs at the point to hatch, and through the spotting scope I had seen four tiny chicks lying exhausted in the nest, drying from their passage from dark egg to bright airy world. This shell was one of theirs, carried from the nest by an adult and dropped in the water. It landed such that it could be kept afloat by a little air held inside.

A plover egg is small, the size of a large acorn, and speckled to mask its organic smoothness and geometric regularity among stones. Blue-green drab, painted with olive and charcoal. At a distance of a few paces, unhatched eggs arranged in a nest are nearly invisible, but catch sight of them in low morning or evening light and see a surface utterly unlike the surrounding stones. It is so obviously thin, organic, alive. And there is something else elusive — perhaps an airy quality, or a watery one. The egg’s ‘exquisite shape’ would certainly not be possible without fluidity.

This elusive quality must be hidden or the egg will be devoured by a passing animal. Hence the camouflage, the dimming and roughening of the surface. A quiet child knows the same of the depth visible in his eyes; nothing is gobbled up so fast as stillness. Better sometimes to affect a common appearance. To the words we began with, Hillman adds:

Always this specific void inhabits this specific shape.

What is this void? In Ancient Greek the word is kháos, from which our chaos comes, but its older sense is rather different from our modern one of confusion and disorder. Originally, it refers to a yawning, an empty space with no firm bottom and altogether without light, a chasm. The poet Hesiod, writing in the eighth century BCE, tells us chaos is

that which remains of an empty egg when the shell is taken away.2

The void yawns, and in its yawning a profound stillness. Hillman tells us this stillness flows forth as the vessel’s visible form. The egg is a vessel bound for earth; it hatches and a bird descends, a little air is held on the surface of the waters.

A bird is indeed born twice. Once when the egg is laid into the pebbled nest, and a second time when it hatches from the shell. The bird passes through water and earth before emerging into air, its home. When an adult carries the empty eggshell from the nest and drops it into the calm water, these elements are brought back together. The hollow of the shell is replaced by a breath of air, by another, by a life. The chick dries and begins to walk, eat, sing, and the thin speckled shell bobs until it tips beneath.

Thanks for reading along with this July installment of Polylith. Don’t forget to pop outside tonight and look at the full moon for a few minutes — I’ll join you. Until next month, enjoy the tumble.


  1. From Rudiments: The Void in the Vessel, in Alchemical Psychology 

  2. From The Gods of the Greeks by Carl Kerényi, here paraphrasing Hesiod.