This was found on a track that runs along by the river Wear. At the bridge at the bottom of Page Bank, the path is metalled with what seems to be rubble from old houses. There are tiles and bits of pottery, brick and plaster, the occasional door handle or tap washer. I always keep my eyes down in case, in a final bid for immortality, the past has sent something forwards in time to be found.
It was no surprise to find a battered teaspoon, then, but this one made me smile. As a gift from a demolished home, this was well chosen for me.
I like teaspoons: chatty little upstarts in the cutlery drawer. They have heard all the gossip in the world from their hiding places in sugar bowls, on saucers, on the kitchen sideboard, and they like to stir things up. Just as a junkie’s paraphernalia (often including a teaspoon) becomes comfortingly associated with the addiction, so teaspoons speak to me of the good pleasure in my life that is coffee. A good teaspoon has a little weight but not too much. It should nestle comfortably between thumb and forefinger and clink lightly against the cup when stirring. Holding it, one should feel inspired to gesticulate for emphasis and, possibly, to flirt.
She makes the sign of a teaspoon
He makes the sign of a wave
The poor boy changes clothes
And puts on after-shave
To compensate for his ordinary shoes
In specific, look at this little one. Stamped out from cheap, thin metal, like a paper doll, I’d say it was born in the leaner war years, giving its understated, sinuous decoration a note of defiance: “I will be pretty. I will be more than ‘just a spoon’.”
Does it have anything wise to say? I think so.
I’m reminded of the times I’ve chosen to eat desert with a teaspoon instead of with a fork or table spoon, taking smaller mouthfuls, savouring each of them, drawing the experience out.
I picked up this spoon at a moment when I felt overwhelmed by life. I realised I needed to go back to ‘eating’ with a teaspoon. Even if there’s a mountain to move, and just a teaspoon to do it with, the main thing is to make a start and to savour each small moment.
Some of Mevlana’s words came back to me. These have never failed to unlock a sense of presence and peace for me:
Take little sips of air for the rest of your life.
I think we could all learn a lot from the Double Rainbow Guy. If you’ve not seen and heard his now famous three and a half minutes of ecstasy, click and watch it NOW.
Listen carefully as he sobs: “What does it mean?”
Just like the rest of us walking upright on this planet with large brains, and suffering wisdom teeth and the threat of appendicitis, for Rainbow Guy (aka Yosemitebear) a rainbow is never just a rainbow. It has to mean something. Stories are fables, and planets are gods and goddesses, and homes are castles, and every picture tells a story, and a girl tucking a wisp of hair behind her ear actually fancies you.
Our tendency to attribute meaning makes life rich and it makes us human. We must allow ourselves to be in dialogue with everything our senses encounter. I think philosophy has big words for this kind of stuff: existential phenomenology, personal mythos, cosmogony… but let us be spared them as I unfold ‘the secret language of twigs’.
A man that looks on glass, On it may stay his eye; Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, And then the heaven espy. (George Herbert)
At first I noticed how different species have distinctive ways of growing that give rise to endless variations within the parameters of their genes. The elder speaks with one set of forms, and the beech with another. And then, a whole world opened up to me that means walking in the woods will never be the same again.
Divided Way – The most common and fundamental form of branch. Growth divides and divides again to the left and right. Even choosing not to make a choice is itself a choice.
A choice! Do you, my listener, know how to express in a single word anything more magnificent? Do you realize, even if you were to discuss year in and year out how you could mention nothing more awesome than a choice, what it is to have choice! For though it is certainly true that the ultimate blessing is to choose rightly, yet the faculty of choice itself is still the glorious prerequisite. (Soren Kierkegaard)
The top of a wayfarer’s staff often has a fork in it; how many times must a traveller decide between two paths?
Flip it over and you have a confluence of two ways. I’m more aware of divergence than confluence in life. The latter happens so quietly but suddenly you find that someone else is with you, or two creative ideas have joined to make a third.
The Third Way – lest we forget that choices are not always ‘either/or’. If I find myself trying to decide between two things, the question I often forget to ask is: “Is there a third way?”
I don’t mean a ‘middle way’, but there’s almost always another option that evades us when we are double bound and damned if we do or don’t do one thing or another.
Other people often present us with an either/or, forestalling our capacity to step back and think creatively whether there’s a potential we’ve missed. That third way may even be to do nothing.
We also have here the footprint of a bird, a creature of the air that has come down to feed on a creature of the earth (a worm). Earth is marked by its feet in a way that air is never marked by its wings … ponder this.
The Bow – sacred in human culture from our hunter-gatherer ancestors onward and right across the face of the earth: for hunting, making war and making music.
In the Bible, when God attributes meaning to the rainbow, the original language refers to her ‘battle bow’.
I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. (Genesis 9:13)
It foretells the hope that the instruments of war will be beaten into plowshares and become tools for nurture instead of destruction.
In numerous mythologies, the heavenly bow is a bridge between the sphere of mortal struggle and the paradise of rest and peace. In Bantu cosmology, it is created by the dance of seven snakes. So, once again, Yosemitebear is not such a fool.
Fe – the first rune of the ancient scandanavian ‘futhark’, signifying wealth and plenty.
‘Wealth’ meant something very different to the inventors of the runic alphabets. It was probably quantifiable in cattle. While we owe a lot of our letter shapes and sounds to these forebears, we may have lost their understanding of wealth. Mine is a number on a screen that pops up after I’ve typed a few passwords and memorable numbers on a keyboard.
When this twig cracked under my foot it seemed to shout in twig-speak: “We are wealth! We are woods, and water, and weather! Wait and listen!” So I did. And all I could hear in the the trees was this: “Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff…” – a continuous whisper of plenty.
Vav – the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, whose pictographic meaning is ‘hook’ or peg. Curiously its equivalent in our alphabet is also … ‘F’ – both in sound and numerical value.
As the very simplest single stroke of a pen or brush, this letter shape has been associated with one-ness and, as a sinuous curve from top to bottom, it has also been taken to represent the flow of revelation from heaven to earth.
Without needing to go down a kabbalist rabbit hole, I’ve found this form deeply appealing since the moment I tried to create it perfectly with a calligraphy pen several months ago.
I think the idea of ‘unity’ encompasses its meaning very well: flowing together, once again, between air and earth, my feet of clay and my wings of aether. All that I do belongs to flying or digging and the art of living is to do both at once: to pray as I work.
Tau – 19th letter of the Greek alphabet, final letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Saint Francis used this (the Tau cross) as his signature and it is fitting that this little alder twig should say his name to us, because he called the Sun his brother and the Moon his sister and was mindful of all living things.
For this reason I have a slight preference for this as a sign of Christ’s cross over the traditional form (which all too readily becomes a sword). This is the final letter, the end of present tyranny and the reconciliation of the whole created order.
The Dancer – let the trees of the field clap their hands!
Not only did I find this exultant shape in the woods but it also looks very similar to the lines on my left palm, where I recently discovered the stick figures of two dancing people.
Maybe I’ll show them to you one day. But I’d like to end this epistle of the woods and hedgerows with a few words from the bard himself:
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile, Hath not old custom made this life more sweet Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods More free from peril than the envious court? Here feel we but the penalty of Adam, The seasons’ difference; as, the icy fang And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind, Which, when it bites and blows upon my body, Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say ‘This is no flattery: these are counsellors That feelingly persuade me what I am.’ Sweet are the uses of adversity, Which like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head; And this our life exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in every thing. I would not change it. (As You Like It, Act 2 Scene I)
If you enjoyed this, you might like to read more of my ‘Wisdom of Things Found’ posts:
It has been a while since I listened to the message of a found object, let alone blogged about it, but this one nailed things on so many levels that it has brought me out of hibernation.
The river Derwent has burst its bank a few times in the last few damp months, destroying low-lying vegetation, pulling rotten trees up like spent teeth and retreating into newly worn watercourses, leaving a new geography of sand and silt and folorn scraps of debris in the lower branches of trees. The scouring effect of the flood always unearths another layer of history, old colliery bricks and pipes and pottery – rich pickings for the found object philosopher.
This caught my eye, looking like a rectangular pebble. In fact it is a very old and hard eraser. As soon as I held it in my hand it spoke:
THE OLD STORY CAN BE RUBBED OUT AND A NEW ONE WRITTEN IN ITS PLACE …
Well, dear reader, I don’t know if those words are as sweet to you as they were and are to me. The last two months of silence on this blog has been due to things being tough. I’d dearly like to rub them out and write something else there. I pray I’ll have the objectivity to blog about this shortly, but in the meantime there are such gracious comforts as this eraser spoke to me.
Later that evening, I took out my find for another look, and that was when I noticed the face.
Just from a certain angle it looks like a wise old bearded man (who reminds me a little of my father) with his gaze turned towards the heavens … to the light of a Star, perhaps?
After all, it was the 6th of January, the night of Epiphany …
Finding this reed brought back a whole load of memories. There was a time in my life when I suppose all my dreams were in the 26 inches of black resonite that made up my clarinet – I wanted to play like Artie Shaw so very badly that I used to dream in swing. One evening, in a dream, I took to the stage with Louis Armstrong and we swapped riffs all night. It was amazing.
But this reed stands for everything that stood between me and jamming with Satchmo because the reality is, however much we picture that perfect sound, liquid phrasing and pure tone, it all has to come through this rough piece of wood. Every musician, no matter what their instrument, has had to overcome the brutish and mundane aspects of making a sweet sound.
As much as I would like to romanticise my affair with the clarinet, the battle with reeds and mouthpieces in particular put a dampner on things. A perfect reed would go limp in the days leading up to a performance. My unsatisfactory backup reeds would have to be broken in or painstakingly sanded and trimmed, often to the point of being unusable. A wayward reed would deliver a squeek at the wrong moment and ruin everything. To overcome these trials takes a special sort of perseverance that I am not sure I ever had. It was always easier to transfer my allegiance to another instrument until its particular technical challenges would hold me back. As a result I play a range of instruments to a mediocre standard.
One evening, I took a flute down to the river Thames which flowed about 200 yards from the bottom of our garden. I thought it would be swell to stand in the reeds and play as the sun was going down. But my mouth and fingers were so cold I could barely get a tune and I returned home quite discouraged.
Now I am a bit older I have a better grasp of the fact that the beauty we can imagine in our heads will never be achieved without a lot of perseverance, application, discouragement and messiness along the way. It’s a hard lesson but, once we have learned it, I think we can find that the difficulty has its own sort of beauty.
Root Man was found in the bottom of a flowerpot that I was emptying into the compost. To be honest, he gave me a bit of a fright when I first saw his grotesque figure. He put me in mind of the legendary mandrake root that is supposed to look too human for comfort and is alleged to scream when you pull it out of the ground. But, Root Man is a miracle of natural anthropomorphism and also reminds me of our tendency to see ourselves reflected in nature, and our constant search for our own likeness in others.
Well, when I let Root Man speak for himself he told me some crazy stuff. He said that our time on this earth is like his life in the soil but that that is not the whole story.
He told me that, as far as moles or earthworms are concerned, a dandelion looks like its roots, they don’t see the flower. We recognise a plant by its leaves, fruit and flowers but the subterranean world distinguishes between the mysterious characteristics of roots.
If you showed an earthworm a daffodil, it would be blinded by the magnificent colour and shape but it would say to you, “that’s not a daffodil, a daffodil is brown and bulbous with stringy tendrils coming off it”. Likewise, we have no idea how angels (for instance) see us on the other side, because all we see of ourselves and others is the root part.
“So…” concluded Root Man, “when you look at people around you, try to see beyond the muddiness and twistyness. This is not what I am. I am actually a red geranium!”
The emptied cover of a book has been brought in on the tide and left on the beach. This is all that is left after the ocean has digested it, page by page.
As I look at this, I realise that there is really only one right way to read a book and that is to devour it as thoroughly as the sea has done this one – to assimilate the ink and paper into the salt of experience and the spume of memory … until I own its words, dispersed in every corner of myself, and it is no longer possible to say, “this is ‘I’ and that is ‘Book'”.
If only we could take each book we read, and leave it like this when we are done with it, then we’d be wiser than the magi. What if we were to tear out each page as we read, confident that the words on it had done all they needed to do and had become part of us? There would be no need to hoard it on the shelf. I don’t say we have to agree with everything we read or to adopt it as truth; but every line can be digested, questioned, and allowed to work. It is too easy to hold ideas in the abstract, to “like” the thoughts of an author without being changed by them. Books on shelves are like un-lived ideas. Empty covers on a beach are the dried pod of a seed that has been planted inside the reader.
It also has not escaped me that this looks suspiciously like the cover of a Gideon’s edition of The New Testament and Psalms, very much like the one I was given at school when I was 11 years old. On the first page, it said something like “this is yours to keep, we only ask that you read a portion of it every day”. Well … I did, and I have done (nearly) every day for the last 24 years; but that’s another story …