The Opening Sky
The house creaks in the cold: he’s hearing the iron gears of things slowing down. He gets up and goes to the bookshelf and pulls out his battered copy of The New Oxford Book of English Verse. The summer his MFIT program started, when he went to Otter Lake as sole owner for the first time, he wanted a solitary retreat. And he vowed not to run the generator. No radio, no music, no books, except his Oxford. He’d just done a lot of emotional work at the group therapy intensive, it was almost a spiritual experience, and he had the idea that he’d paddle up and a more fully-realized self would be waiting for him on the dock, somebody who could live in silent harmony with nature for two weeks.
Early on he took a hike to the top of the island and stumbled—on a rough patch of concrete he’d never noticed before, halfway up the climb. Fucking concrete, poured for no purpose he could see, on a ledge where granite broke through the topsoil like a whale breeching. He roamed the island in a rage all afternoon, assaulted by the sight of the rocks Rupert had painted white along the waterfront, and the flag pole, from which Rupert used to fly the Stars and Stripes he’d bought on a celebrated retirement trip to Chicken, Alaska, and the barbeque pad, and the lawn grass, and the toilet bowl installed in the lawn grass as a petunia planter, and the tin cans and beer bottles thrown into the bush behind the cabin.
After a supper of cold beans and bread, he sat on the rocks reading Gerard Manley Hopkins. His undefended dissertation was on Hopkins, and his Oxford opened on its own to “God’s Grandeur.” He’d bought the book as an undergraduate, and “God” was circled in ink and annotated in his younger, neater handwriting:
creative life force
eternal pulse of nature
Hopkins, of course, could use the word God straight-up. He’d been born Church of England and then he’d jeopardized his prospects and broken his parents’ hearts by becoming a papist. The Catholic belief that God really is in the material world, in the bread and wine—that’s why Hopkins converted, because the symbolism appealed to the poet in him. He was sent to teach in the north of England, where the sheep were black with soot from the factory chimneys. He thought that if you paid enough attention, you would see beyond that, you could see God. He swooned looking into a bluebell and so he ate it as a Eucharist.
Sitting on the rocks in the failing western light, Aiden read the poem over and over. The last lines made his breath catch every time he read them. “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
The next day he got to work and felled the flagpole like a pine tree, sawing the stump off at its concrete base. After that he took a sledge hammer to the barbeque pad and broke up what he could. He pried up the whitewashed border-stones and dismantled the aluminum filleting table his dad had screwed into the rock. Got rid of the things that offended him most, that reeked of his dad, wore man’s smudge and shared man’s smell, although of course all this was a conceit, the notion that Aiden (tramping the island in shoes assembled by indigent children on three continents) was fundamentally different, that he deserved to be there. The real estate deal had given him so much private satisfaction (We own it, he’s been saying to himself, it will be here for us when the city burns), but that was nonsense too, the idea that he, in his nanosecond of time, should have any meaningful claim to a piece of Precambrian rock five hundred million years old.
One night, after the light was scoured from the sky in the black west, he decided he wanted to see the whole night unroll so he carried a sleeping bag and pillow outside and made a nest on the lower ledge with its beautiful lichen and there he lay while the sun slid behind the fringe of spruce on the far bank and tiny stars began to prick through the green sky. He watched the water silver over, and then along the shoreline he saw the silver pucker into an arrowhead. A line of arrowheads—an otter, swimming with her young. When they were out of sight he rolled onto his back and lay looking at the stars in their webs until he fell asleep. The temperature plunged during the night, and in the morning, the dew woke him: his hair and his sleeping bag were drenched. It was astonishing, being anointed like that by a perfectly cloudless, enamel-blue sky, and lying on that granite slab, he was stoned by wonder at the faithful rotation of the earth, and the perfection of a day washed with light by a sun that hadn’t even risen.
He’s still got the Oxford in his hands, and he opens it. In the warm light of a lamp with an amber shade, he reads the poem in its original form. His poem, you might call it: he would acknowledge it as a kind of scripture. “Nature is never spent,” he reads aloud. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” But it’s an old poem, an old consolation, and he finds he doesn’t have the heart to read to the end.
Excerpt from The Opening Sky by Joan Thomas, Copyright © 2014 Joan Thomas. Reprinted by permission of Emblem/McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. All rights reserved.
So, you’re sitting on the rocks, thinking deep thoughts about God’s grandeur?
Let me tell you a little something about God’s grandeur in the context of rocks. First, close your eyes. Imagine you’re on a plane, in the window seat, cruising a thousand feet above the taiga. This is what you’re seeing:
Rock. As far as the eye can see. Every direction, every centimetre of the horizon. An ocean of it. A desert of it. Rock, rock, rock, more rock. Grey, pink, white; veined, speckled, sparkling. There are trees, too. But not like you’re thinking; these trees are miniature versions of the trees you’re familiar with. Jack pines the size of fifth-graders. Black Spruce you could touch the tops of. Dwarf birches that make you think: yeah, okay, makes sense they’d call them that. What’s up with these short trees? The sun is weak at this latitude and can’t play the same photosynthetic tricks it uses to coax plant life to such lush heights at the equator; the trees here reach for it, but, after a while, they give up. The sun is too far away. What’s the point?
You’ll see water, too. Lots of water. Almost as much water as there is rock. It comes in all shapes and sizes: puddles and bogs and ponds and lakelets, each of them like a fingerprint or snowflake, sui generis, singular, shaped like a reclining dog, the profile of an old woman’s face, a motorcycle, a dinosaur, a musketeer’s hat—or shaped like nothing, just a blotch, a rhomboid. And of course, amongst these smaller aqueous satellites, the two big planetary bodies of water around which they orbit: the Great Slave, deepest lake in North America, tenth-largest on the entire planet, and, a bit further to the west, the Great Bear, its bigger brother, the eighth.
So, to recap: trees and water and rock.
But, really, the rock is the thing you’ll notice. The trees grow from it, impossibly. The water collects in it, inexorably. The metamorphic muscle mass of the planet scraped flat by a meandering glacier a million-ish years ago. From up high, it looks like skin, weathered and blemished. But get a bit closer and you’ll see that the patterns of moss and lichen are deliberate, like glyphs, or mandalas—a sort of ancient paisley. Which shouldn’t surprise you; these lichens are some of the oldest living things on earth. You could say they’ve seen it all, but that wouldn’t be true, because there’s nothing to see up here, just rock, just water, just trees, just the barely-there sun. You could say that these lichens have seen it all and yet have seen nothing.
You, too, it turns out: you’ve seen it all, and yet seen nothing.