Sunday, September 25, 2011
Infinite are the depths
Richard Dawkins has brought out a new book, The Magic of Reality, mainly aimed at children. I turned over a few of its pages in the bookshop. You can check out his promotional video here. One of his chapters is “What is the Sun?” He retells some of the ancient myths, then answers the question in his own scientific terms. He is confident that the reader will agree with him as to which is the more magical, myth or science. One is tempted to remark that Dawkins relishes the role of arch-priest, having as he thinks kicked out the incumbent, by exposing non-scientific ideas as “unreality”. In the days of Gilgamesh, as I reported in an earlier post, everyone believed that the sun passes through a tunnel under the earth’s surface, in time to rise again in the east the next morning. But that was no tale told by priests! It was the vivid imagination of the people, full of relevant meaning about rebirth, replenishment and diurnal rhythms; faithful to direct perception, surely the very essence of reality, with no recourse to abstraction. Both God and Science depend on abstract concepts not seen in daily life. As David Abram says in the concluding chapter of Becoming Animal:
Commonly reckoned to be at odds with one another, conventional over-reductive science and most new-age spiritualities actually fortify one another in their detachment from the earth, one of them reducing sensible nature to an object with scant room for sentience and creativity, the other projecting all creativity into a supernatural dimension beyond all bodily ken.
Reality is what floods my senses when I step out of the house. I don’t always perceive it as magical but ten days ago it certainly was. I’ve been trying to write it down ever since. I started out from home when the streets were still busy with the tail-end of the morning’s rush hour, following a blind impulse. I think the bright round moon must have exerted her influence when I saw her above the chimney-pot just after dawn. I was impatient to roam, but not till I stepped out did I understand my need to bathe in the cosmic rays, to be gilded by the September sun, to accept the blessings poured down on everyone, that special day. The feeling of blessedness burst into flower on a familiar street which leads to the town centre, nothing pretty about it, the old buildings carved up to enable modern traffic flow, the gaps filled piecemeal by successive generations of mediocre architects. Lorries and cars exuded noise and fumes. A sprinkling of fellow-pedestrians hurried late to their offices. A chill breeze tempered the Autumn sunbeams. But I felt a magic in the air. “All is well,” I thought, “everything is happening in its proper orbit and propriety”. I wanted to describe it but didn’t know how.
On a bend of that street, there’s a scruffy patch of shrubs and mown grass, with a public bench. Behind is a rushing stream which cascades into a culvert. To reach this point, the stream has flowed through the overgrown spaces behind factories. But when it reaches the busier town centre it has to go underground, reappearing at the other end between two stations: police and fire. Then it meanders round the Council Offices before it finally reaches the series of grassy open spaces and playing fields that go all the way to Loudwater. Standing at the culvert, I stopped to watch the water cascade and disappear down a sturdy grating whose teeth had been carefully spaced by engineers to prevent small children from being lost in a scary underworld. If the teeth were any closer together, the stream would get too easily dammed with debris, and cause a flood. In this way, every well-ordered street on earth is built on the work of trustworthy engineers. After bombs and wars, they arrive like surgeons to tend the wounds—patching, sewing back severed arteries, maintaining those flows which never bother us till they are interrupted: water, drainage, electricity, telephones. Fortunate is this valley town, my home, never to have been ripped apart by violence! There are places where the reliability of piped supplies matters more to the residents than democracy, or even the downfall of a tyrant. For there can be no civilisation without infrastructure.
I’ve written about my Valley Path, which follows the flow of that stream, here, in “Valley Reverie” and here, in “Beginnings”. But my favourite part, photographed and described in those two posts, has been closed for the past two years. Public footpaths are sacred in this country, —protected by law anyway—so an official Order had to be obtained and posted at the spot, explaining the closure was temporary for the construction of a bridge. This has now been built. It leads to a new housing development of several acres. Today, such paths are used mostly by dog-walkers, but to me they’re a blessing preserved from the ancient days; a counterpoint to the madness of modernity; conduits of wilderness that slice through the town. The Order said the bridgeworks were to be completed by April 2010. Countless times I’ve been been to look since then, and been disappointed.
So I took a different route, and had various absurd adventures, resulting in a direction for my walk determined by necessity rather than choice. I ended up, almost against my will, on the Valley Path going west, back towards home. The closed section was not far ahead. So be it. A footpath sign directed me through an alley, one of those which weaves between the backyards of houses, one which I’d somehow never encountered before. I noticed the sun shining on the blind side wall of a small Victorian house. It was at this precise moment that I found myself saying: “Infinite are the depths”. I said it out loud, because I keep a voice recorder handy when out walking. Sometimes when a fragment like that suddenly comes into your mind, you think it is from the Bible or a poem. Later, I checked it on Google. There was but one trivial occurrence, a fragment of chatter. So where did these words come from? They described my feeling at that moment. I meant “Infinite are the depths in matter”—as if everything is alive and conscious; and especially that thought is not an abstraction in something called the human mind, but every activity which takes place in physical space. It even felt as though this alley I walked was a corridor slicing through time, to offer dim glimpses of the past, adding an extra dimension to perceived reality. But that was just a momentary perception. The “infinite depth” was something else, an inwardness present in this physical creation, or an awareness which goes beyond individual consciousness of the human “I”. It felt like a kind of immortality, though not of the self. In a single moment I saw an eternal Here, as if this alley itself, or my own self in this alley at this moment, were enough to contemplate forever.
And then, later, I recalled a sentence of Abram which I had copied down:
No matter how long I linger with any being, I cannot exhaust the dynamic enigma of its presence.
When Abram says “being” he means any animal, plant, mineral, cloud—or even the wind. Normally, when we speak of being immortal, we refer to the notion of the “I” not dying when the body dies. But I saw, in that moment, that the “I” is nothing more than the body’s mechanism for looking out for itself. It dies and unravels, but consciousness is all-pervasive, in all beings, in all matter. Call it awareness, call it an indwelling intelligence in everything, if you like.
The experience itself cannot really have lasted more than a second. For I went back to the place another day, out of curiosity to see again what I saw when I said “Infinite are the depths”. I knew I had been looking at a blank white wall as I walked down the alley, without stopping, and imagined there must have been at least twenty yards of white wall. But the length was more like fifteen feet. So it was a one-second moment and by capturing it in words,I can retrieve its meaning forever.
I walked on till the point where, round the next corner, I’d discover whether the closed section of the path has been reopened. I confess to you dear reader that I said a little prayer first. Then I went round the bend. Yes! It has been reopened, as you can see from the photographs below.
It is not easy to convey what the words of the title meant to me, but today, ten days later, I’ve now finished that book by David Abram, Becoming Animal. It contains a great deal of words. Sometimes I felt there were too many. So I shall try, in too few words, to sum up his book; or what I have so far understood of it:
Infinite are the depths to be explored in this place of wonder, our earthly home.
Posted by Vincent at 7:18 pm