Author Archives: Michael Umphrey

Light the sun blocks with its puny burning

Milky Way seen from the American Rockies

The Milky Way is always there, but most often, blinded by the lesser light of our sun, a minor star, we cannot see it. Watching the sunset fade into darkness, an invisible cosmos coming into view, offering a majestic intimation of a vastness and mystery we cannot fathom, one would need to be somewhat simple to think that all that science cannot yet see must not exist.

I wrote a poem once, inspired my grandfather, about how blinded we can be by the light we have. The sun sheds light on an amazing world around us, but it also blinds us to the breathtaking cosmos beyond, which we glimpse on dark nights.

I’ve been reminded of all that while doing night photography–setting up on a hillside overlooking the Mission Mountains, and being outside, watching and waiting, as the day fades. The vast, slow changes of light permeate the soul with a sense of beauty. We are never alone in the presence of a created world on the brink of something so majestic and alive our words fail.

The sky darkens and the pink fades through orange and blue toward the unspeakable depth of night. And yet, there is more. The moonless sky doesn’t stay dark. Our vision begins to twinkle, a star here and there. Then more. And more.

Before long we are immersed in a cosmic fire of such scale and beauty that we could not have imagined it if we had not seen it. And seeing such a spectacle emerge where before we had stared at an apparent void, we are assured that what we do not know and cannot see is as vast and wonderful as we dare to hope. And more.

Posted in Living, Montana

Let there be delphiniums in the old orchard

20150625__birds_6266-delphinium

Over seven-feet tall, delphiniums are a moment of pure aspiration. Moments in a garden can be anticipated and designed because they are not random, but we don’t control them. We participate in being on its terms, which we learn slowly, a little here and a little there.

We garden by imagining future moments and then making the arrangements, which involve thoughts about soil, sunshine, water, seasonal changes, and the nature of the plants that will play their part. Creation is never ex nihilo, though it does involve our power of speech, which is our power to bring an order that we have imagined into being.

The delphinium exists in a spot that is sheltered from wind. It gets nine hours of sunshine on a typical June day, though a few feet in every direction gets much less because of the shade of various trees and hedges. The spot gets shadier in the afternoon, when the sun is blocked by massive cottonwoods to the west.

The plant is supported by a 42-inch cylinder of net wire, no longer visible because the plant has grown through it. In early spring, I added two inches of compost as a top dressing. Since the plant began making the tall spikes a few weeks ago, I’ve watered it by hand with a hose, dousing the roots but not getting the flower spikes wet. When they get wet, the hollow stalks fall over and break at the top of the wire cylinder, which is only half as tall as the plant.

Delphiniums are not drought tolerant, and if the soil dries out they begin dying. Last summer, they needed water while in full flower, so I tried watering them with a sprinkler that made a soft mist instead of the impact sprinklers I normally use, which cover large areas but can be brutal on delicate plants. It didn’t work. The sprinkler was gentle but the water didn’t weigh any less, and the flowers began flopping over. I turned off the water and began installing individual stakes for each spike. This year, I was m ore careful. An unanticipated rain would wreak considerable havoc, creating a moment quite unlike the one I imagined. But it’s been a very dry summer.

The garden is a symphony of moments, of varying duration, many of them planned but some of them wild surprises. Each moment reveals a host of patterns, which we see in our mind’s eye. The moments are fleeting though in and endless succession, but the patterns remain in our minds forever, and we link them to other patterns, and as consciousness expands we see the patterns themselves forming larger patterns. The logos is a marriage of reality and consciousness, which are not two different things. And though very little of what happens is caused by me, what is happening does require constant care, which is not a problem. It is the real work. It is what God does, he says.

Posted in Gardening, Living

Turning toward the light

peonies at dawn

At first light, peonies catch the sun they have grown toward, facing upward like brilliant trumpets. All around creatures adapted to the dark move toward places to hide. For them, dawn is a chaos of territorial warbling. The steady change they craftily evade empties their nightish niche of its mystery, leaving them dull in their gray hollow. They creep and amble for cover. The world has turned.

The earth tilts a little more toward the sun, and the snows melt and the flowers restore themselves. The gardener returns to his rounds, the daily tasks that join his small doings to a vast progress. He leaves the news unread on good days, ignoring the losing battles, the rebels against reality.

Thinking is better than wishing, as the days lengthen and light floods the landscape’s forms and colors. What was hidden or forgotten returns. It’s the season of real work. Meaning is dependent on truth, which resonates like God’s thunder in the distance, behind the pirouetting retreat of the dark ones, moving through a forest they cannot name.

Posted in Gardening, Living, Montana

Emerson: nature and words

Hawthorne branches in blossom...

An English Hawthorne in May. The boughs were popular for May Day decorations before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, after which the trees did not bloom until mid-May. The ancient Greeks carried hawthorn branches in wedding processions, as emblems of hope.

I intended to start summer by reading Voegelin on Plato. I’m interested in what they both say about the metaxy–the inbetween of the immanent and the transcendent, where we experience being. For young people unfortunate enough to have grown up under the influence of a deconstructive culture which drowns out reality with propaganda, replacing God’s kingdom with their own, their most sacred feelings and emotions are reinterpreted within a bottomless self endlessly chattering amid legions of desires and fears.

I want to think more about today’s language wars, which lie at the heart of modernity’s global contests to replace Creation with Ideology.
I’ve been re-reading Emerson’s “Nature” –or at least listening as I drove the old truck to Missoula for a couple yards of compost. I was surprised at how prescient Emerson was in his discussion of language. He begins his chapter on language with three statements about nature and language:

1. Words are signs of natural facts.
2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.

I read these words when I was in college, but I don’t remember them making any particular impression on me. Today they seem precisely the needed counter to the chorus of antichrists substituting myraid uncertainties for every natural fact. They would destroy such words as male, female, marriage and family by positing endless expanding tangles of meanings, as though the tree of life were a bramble thicket.

Emerson understood nature as language, a way of thinking consistent with Genesis, where God speaks our world. Words refer to realities–to categories that actually exist in Creation, and we can speak truth:

A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss. The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, — and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections. Hundreds of writers may be found in every long-civilized nation, who for a short time believe, and make others believe, that they see and utter truths, who do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously on the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature.

It is from nature that we get the images that allow us to think about such things as hope and majesty. Our words are true to the extent that they evoke things as they really are.

Posted in Gardening, Teaching

Waking to the dawn

Mountains at Dawn

Dawn does not come suddenly; instead, the transformation is vast, steady and sure. Things are changing, so there’s an urgency in the bird songs, borne of both exhilaration and defensiveness. It’s an astonishing cascade of beauty, driven by intense necessity. There’s a peace in it, if peace is understood not as idleness but as endless replenishment. “If we can’t find Heaven, there are always bluejays,” said Robert Bly.

First the robins and then the thrushes, before dawn, with their rich, fluty notes and vibrating trills. The singing is both proclamation and invitation. A lot may depend on the right song, at the right moment. I listen in the early morning dark, participating in the great change that has already begun, and that nothing can slow or turn back.

The “dawn chorus” begins in April, as the neotropicals return, full of mating vigor. It will last until mid-July, when things are more settled. Many male birds sing throughout their breeding season, then are mostly quiet for the rest of the year. In the morning, first the robins and thrushes–large eyes, worm eaters. Second the raspy trills of the wrens, insect eaters. Last the seed eaters, the bell-like tinkling of the finches and the whistling ke-chee of the sparrows.

cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwings’ high, thin shree, a series of single notes, is easily missed in the morning chorus.

The dawn chorus is a complex phenomenon, doing many things, including social signaling about territory and mating. The air is tranquil and sound carries perhaps 20 times as well as at noon. Birds awaken at dawn, before insects are active or there’s enough light to see tiny seeds. The chorus is beautiful, in the ways of this world. It’s a beauty rooted in need–a need to make or keep a relationship or to hold onto a place. Creation is work, awakening.

Armies also awaken at dawn. There’s a terrible beauty in the bugles, the shouted orders, the rustle of getting ready, and the vast assemblage of ranks filled with restless men on the move with things to do, things to hope, things to fear.

Some predators are most active at dawn. These crepuscular hunters include bats, cats–house cats but also ocelots and jaguars–stray dogs, ferrets and rats. Hyenas, bears, skunks, nighthawks and owls are also about, stealthy and opportunistic. A lot is undecided in the early morning, as fresh energy floods the earth, stirring our blood and calling us to the day.

Posted in Living, Montana