The end of November is traditionally the end of the Atlantic hurricane season, and we saw no huge storms in 2013. Last year I had just moved, completing a pretty radical life downsizing. I was tired and bewildered and went off on retreat to St. George Island, MD, a tiny sand spit that trails out into the mouth of the Chesapeake.
As the weekend went on it became apparent that a big storm was approaching, fated to become ‘Superstorm’ Sandy At the time, I was irked that high water was forcing an evacuation of my hotel, where I had hoped to ride out the wild weather in comfort, watching the water, wind and rain from my little sanctuary.
When I wrote this, I had no idea Sandy would create so much havoc, nor leave such a wake of conversation about our changing world in her wake. I just knew that I was changing, and had to flee before the wind.
author: Patrise Henkel title: Storm is Rising for: Herring Creek Writing Retreat — Tall Timbers, MD date: Saturday, October 27, 2012 word count: 325
Sandy’s coming. Here on this Maryland island high wind and waves are a concern: we are but a slender thread of sand, water lapping at either side. Nevermind that this is called the Potomac; this sand spit thrusts out into the open mouth of the great Chesapeake, where weary ocean crossers once pulled up to rest on terra firma.
A persistent slapping on rocks, strange rocks brought here to make the sand stand still, sings of a great wind to come. Watch the gulls lift off with just a hop they coast on waves of moving air. They watch and wait on the wing. The wind pulses, lifting my hair with a gentle touch. It brings messages from the east, rushing stormward as if eager to join the fray.
But this terra is not so firm: water nibbles away the land, land that resists or yields to the whims of the wind and tide. Before we came and tried to make the land hold still, this island grew and diminished with its own rhythm of destruction and rebuilding.
Now the moon is calling. Tide swells and pushes up forested creeks, seeking the low places, sinking wet fingers into the land, loosening sand between the roots of the great trees, those guardians of the solid ground. Water rising worries the land, soaking, saturating, sucking sand out to sea.
Dry leaves rattle in the oaks. Hanging by their tough stems they flutter hissing in the breeze. Oaks stand tall, their long-fingered roots gripping firm, reinforcing the land.
But I’ve seen the great oaks break: they are tall but hollow, and too rigid to bow before the storm. I’ve seen the great oaks fall: when earth, so wet it slips apart, yields to the force that can lift a tree into the sky.
Sandy is coming. I feel the rising tide of fear, raising tiny hairs on my neck, calling me to at once come toward and run away.
There’s this song made by the wind and the winter forest. A hum, deep but light, begins then rises, in such a way that you think “a train is coming!”
But it’s the trees waving in synchrony, singing together.
Living in a national park, the wind can move a long way through the trees before it arrives. This house is perched in a clearing, on the shores of the tidal Potomac, ravines to either side. Tall tulip poplars, white and pin oaks, sycamore and ash thrive in this rich riparian zone.
The forest is singing this morning after a long and stormy night. The air has been moving wildly since yesterday afternoon, when warm low clouds raced north to meet the front. Later, gouts of rain sliced up from the south and lashed the roof with stripes of wet. Deep in the night the house went quiet, silent enough to wake me up. There was no electric hum, and thus, no heat, no light, no water. But these days, I keep my iPad charged, so I read until I fell sleepy again.
With the hint of daylight the engines of the world began whirring again, and the push, push, push of cool wind began sweeping the skies, allowing a clear yellow light to paint highlights on the singing branches. The house is surrounded by tuning forks, moving in resonance. Now they are but waving gently, but comes a rising hum, and the wind springs like a lion, brushing the trees together as if they were grasses, and they sing, sing, sing.
NB: I searched for a video of this effect, and couldn’t find just what I wanted. I’ll get out and make my own. I did however come across two items of interest.
Wind sculpture — a beautiful sculpture that uses that ‘coke bottle’ effect
“[Third] star to the right and straight on till morning.” from Peter Pan
Being a big fan of BBC’s Sherlock, I made a point to see Third Star, a film by Hattie Dalton, on the one night it was playing in DC. Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch plays James, the central character in this beautiful, quirky drama. (Be forewarned, this post contains major plot spoilers!)
I found the opening moments mesmerizing. One watches whirling bits of fibre, green and spun gold, disoriented by a tilting camera and blurry ground. In time this becomes identifiable as flying grass hurled by a spinning weed trimmer. As the camera pulls back the edge of a gravestone comes into focus. Benedict’s beautiful baritone tells us it is his birthday, and he knows he won’t live to see the another.
This tiny scene, a minute or so, and from a worms-eye view, contains so much: fresh green blades are lopped off and sent spinning in to the cosmos, making a swirling cloud. The plant fibre seems to go golden as soon as its mixed with air, a fragrant honeyed cloud. I can smell the sweet hay.
How common is this, mowing the lawn: the relentless grass, abruptly decapitated, never hesitates to grow toward the light. Grow, be cut down. Grow, be cut free. Grow. Be severed from your roots, and fly.
James sets off with his childhood friends on a journey to his favorite place, Barfundal Bay on the coast of Wales. They’ve built a cart to act as wheelchair: part bicycle, part sled, and so off they go, full of boyish glee and irreverence.
The further they travel, the more their habitual, patterned communication falls away. In time, conversations chafe, rub raw, and truths are spoken. Beards grow, scowls too. Bitterness, critique (unrequested), disappointment are revealed.
Objects are lost, damaged, cast aside. What is thought to be important changes. Something is getting refined, sharpened. They are resourceful, stubborn, determined. Loyal. James must get to his bay, the place he sees every night in his dreams, and more and more in his morphine visions.
They come to a channel crossing, and the ferryman is an odd bloke: gruff, weathered, and wearing eye makeup. He keeps asking them “single or return? single or return?” Then he insists on charging for the cart. “Single, or return for the cart?” he asks, and you wonder if he’s daft.
You don’t yet know that the cart will be dashed on the rocks. But by now you may be beginning to suspect that James will not make the return trip.
That whirling opening scene has all the earmarks of a powerful abstract painting: a pattern and an energy that is vaguely familiar but unplaceable; a portrait of the energy, not of the thing.
While the mind is searching the imagery for ‘What is it? What is it?” grasping for a label, a ground, the soul speeds up, drinking in more and more data. When ‘ground’ is finally found, it is the grave.
As a painter, I watched this film and noticed scene after scene composed with great care, shining with beauty, and unlike a fixed canvas, arising, cresting and falling away like waves, supported by the music and moving the story forward, a mirror of the character’s quest. In my admiration I quailed: How can a meer canvas hope to achieve this vivid purpose?
But of course, the canvas endures, and the filmic moment dissolves like a soap bubble into the next idea, and the next, carrying you onward whether you wish to pause and contemplate or not. The painting will hold an energy in apparent stillness, for a while, decades, centenia perhaps.
Could I make that whirling gold grass, frenzied, hopeful, chaotic, gruesome, inevitable. On a canvas? Could I make you feel the vibrating universe in it ? I have seen paintings that approach this. Joan Mitchell comes to mind.
But what of the ferryman, the fool who only seems wise in retrospect? Could a painter show for who he is? Certainly the artist could leave hints about the Ferryman, pointers to his mythic role. Yet nothing competes with film for this purpose: the foreshadow, clever joke perpetrated by the storyteller on us unsuspecting viewers.
I found so many painterly moments in this film: the four friends cresting a hill, bright light before them dissolving the hard edges of their forms; lighting fireworks which then consume their tent; the cart lying dashed on the rocks in the surf; James lying on the forest floor in dappled light.
One could say his is a youthful romantic death, to sink beneath the slate colored waves in his beloved place. Yet James does not romanticize his longing to be enfolded in the sea. He speaks of the pain of salt water in his lungs without illusion.
His friends protest, they cannot allow him to do this. “I promised your mother!” one pleads with him. A difficult night ensues, when he runs out of morphine and they witness his raw experience When the morning comes, after this night when they have cried together, they honor his intention to determine his own death.
Despite his courage, James tells his friend Miles, who has swum out with him, “I’d rather not be alone.” Miles sinks down with him, holds him, holds his eyes, while he drowns.
What love. What profound love. This was all I could think.
As they drew his body back up onto the beach, I realized I was willing James to breathe again, to gag and spit sea water and laugh, and make all his friends smile and shake with relief. There’s the grass in me, reaching for the sun.
Once upon a time I was a young traveler in Scotland, who wandered alone from sacred site to standing stone, troubled, lonely and brimming with life. One day I visited the clifftops at Yesneby, on Orkney, where I danced on the cliff’s edge, heedless of the warning signs. I was reckless, half suicidal. In that moment I didn’t care if the rock gave way beneath me, or even if I fell. The wind was so strong it felt like it was holding me up, pushing back.
Some time later I realized that wild girl wasn’t trying to destroy herself. She wanted to fly. Not die, but soar.
Stubborn grass; it grows toward the sun, despite its fate to be beheaded, scythed, severed and stunted. Reach, grow, be cut down. Grow, stretch toward the sun, and the blade will come again, and again.
In the sparkling green of the forest, sun prickling through overhead, James rests his head back, staring up. Rising into the firmament. Wanting to fly.