Water to earth

Hello dear readers. September has gone, and the even light of the equinox begins to list.

In this fifth cycle of letters, our endeavor to circle the square of the four classical elements has led us thus far from fire through air to water. Now the work darkens, what was transparent grows opaque. We descend from water to earth, and in that spirit I offer this month a trio of humble, earthy images. I won’t tell you what to make of them, just that they are here with us.

A colorful oil painting of a rolling Estonian landscape in autumn. The trees are strangely shaped, almost fantastical, and adorned in rich earthy color. A little calm water has risen to reflect a small pine among clumps of hardy grasses.

Otepää maastik (detail) by Johannes Einsild, 1917

Imagine yourself in a garden in early autumn. A breeze blows through the trees, leaves curl at the margins and wheel a few at a time down to the path. Perhaps your garden is surrounded by a stone wall, or perhaps a hedge filled with goldfinches gathering to glean wildflower seeds. Take a few yourself and put them in a pocket. The garden is a setting for the three images I offer here just past the equinox: a stone-lined well, an earthen vessel filled with water and a stack of split logs.

First the well. It is lined with stacked stones and extends deep into the ground where water rests. A well is a door in the earth through which water can pass, and our well here in the garden is no exception. Lower a vessel down at the end of a rope and haul it up again on a wooden pulley, hear the rope creak.

In his commentary on the forty-eighth hexagram of the I Ching, Richard Wilhelm writes:

The all-important thing about a well is that its waters be drawn. The best water is only a potentiality for refreshment as long as it is not brought up.

The water that is brought up from the well is cold and clear. Drink some. It tastes of minerals and earthy cold, of the patient darkness down there. Feel the cold run down the throat and settle in the belly.

Now turn to the vessel, which we notice is made of fired clay. It holds some clear, cold water in its earthen body, containing here in the daylight some of the same water that permeates earth down in the darkness. The vessel’s surface is rough and its form is rustic, it lacks ornamentation of any kind and appears for all the world a humble object — but notice that there is a strong attraction. The stillness of the water in the vessel seems to indicate something. Coherence, a possibility of satisfaction with the boundedness of life in the earthen body.

During times of collapse, the humble object attracts a keen attention. It is as if its earthy proximity might carry us back within reach of coherence, toward a second chance.

Finally, there in the corner of the garden against the wall of a shed, we find a neat stack of split logs. Walk over and pick one up. It is dense and heavy, riven down to just the right size for one hand to lift. The fibers are long and straight, having pulled water up for years to nourish the tree; in wood we see water from earth turn back to earth. And now, after a season in the sun and wind, the wood is dry and ready to be burned. The well’s water must be drawn in order to refresh, and likewise wood must be burned to warm. It cannot be hoarded any more than flowing water, its satisfaction is change.

The well, the vessel, the wood, leaves wheeling down to the path. When we open the eyes our garden fades to darkness.

Those are the images I offer you here past the equinox, looking round the next bend toward winter — three images of water to earth. May they offer a humble opacity.

Thanks for reading along with this early autumn installment of Polylith. Until next month, take care.