The Circumference of a Second

To listen to an audio version of ‘The Circumference of a Second’ please press the play button.

for Dimitris Noulis

Sometimes just a few words can transport us. A friend had emailed me the first line of a 17th century poem by Henry Vaughan, and I found myself reading it over and over: I saw Eternity the other night. I kept the words close by, like coins sewn into the cuffs of my trousers. There was something luminous and of great value in the line, a mysterious depth that was difficult to articulate. It was like a lost dream remembered only by its mood. I suspected this had to do with the curious conjunction of ‘Eternity’ with the rather commonplace ‘the other night’ – radical in its ordinariness, as if the poet had said, “I saw Edwin the other night,” or “I saw a boat the other day.” Didn’t a vision of such significance, of eternity itself, demand a more grandiose delivery? Clearly Henry Vaughan didn’t think so.

A few days later Julia and I went looking for orchids. The lake basin where we live in Greece is divided geologically in two. On one side, where our village nestles in the crook of an alpine valley, the land is underpinned by dark, brooding granite. The other side, however, is composed of limestone, and fits easily with the country of myth – simmering, dry slopes awash with butterflies; bundles of wild thyme crushed underfoot; junipers twined like coiled lovers, rooted there for centuries. It’s a place of lucid, Mediterranean light.

The parched, stony earth of the gods is home to a wild profusion of flowers. They strike out in spring for the bright, Homeric light; a brief twirl in the splendour of the sun. Bee orchids hovered beneath trees while electric blue anchusa lit up the glades. We steered through a dream of coloured blooms: love-in-a-mist, wild geranium, forget-me-not.

A half-day later and the heat had drained us; we were tired and hungry, slipping on sand and loose stones. We had reached the ordinary lull of any walk and started back, doggedly combing the last slopes for overlooked flowers. When a nightjar rose from the earth we were only a step shy from standing on it. It lifted itself on wings the colour of old leaves, hovered at knee-height for a breathless second, and then arrowed off.

The nightjar spends its camouflaged days on a branch or the ground, waiting patiently for the gathering dark when it begins hawking nocturnal insects. The bird we had startled from sleep settled on a low, leafless branch a few metres from us, blending into the wood until it was nearly invisible. It folded its scythed wings back in, which left only its dark eyes to distinguish it. Then it closed them slowly, as though having seen enough of the day, and sealed them against the light.

We left the nightjar to its dreaming and stumbled down the slope, ecstatic in the moment that had just passed – a rare glimpse, gifted to us in the midst of the everyday. The wide dirt road we came out on was hard-panned by the heat. Moving across its bare, blasted surface was a caterpillar of one of the bagworm moths. What is remarkable about these caterpillars is how they carry their homes along with them. Each tiny creature spins a silken tube around itself which it layers with fragments of debris. This one was a piece of mobile forest floor, built from bits of bark and twigs and leaves that far outsized the insect itself. The caterpillar inched across the grainy surface by extending a small length of its body, and then dragging the woodland sleeve behind it in the heat. Again and again it crept forward, towing its marvelous home on miniscule legs.

I lowered myself to its height, entranced by an inconceivable life. The day suddenly stilled while I watched, held in place by the mesmeric sunlight: orchids in purple splashes across the pale slopes; the insistent insect drone; the scent of ancient junipers unfolding on the air. In that simple moment, Henry Vaughan’s opening line became clear. Eternity can be anytime, any day or night, seen in the closing of a nightjar’s eyes. While something as small as a bagworm’s home can house the infinite.

– first published in Wild Apples: A Journal of Nature, Art and Inquiry Fall/Winter 2011

 

24 thoughts on “The Circumference of a Second

  1. Ah! The delight of an NFNaF post notification pinging into one’s inbox… You never disappoint or underwhelm, Julian.

    You always seem to sharpen the edges of the familiar with your keen eye and quick appraisal. I love the line:’We had reached the ordinary lull of any walk’; the ‘lull’ is such a commonplace yet barely acknowledged part of the experience of walking. Therein is the delight of recognition your fine observation illicits.

    I can’t help feeling that the bagworm moth caterpillar is in for something of a Darwinian nosedive. One can take the concept of camouflage too, too far…

    Much love to the Joules

    Tweet xxx

    1. Indeed! Only yesterday I nearly stood on a bagworm moth caterpillar on our garden path, only at the last second realising that what I’d taken for a few bits of dead leaf were in fact ever-so-slowly moving. They must have enviously strong forearms, though!

      There are certainly phases in walking, and there is something about the lull that, at least for me, seems ripe with possibilty, as though tiredness has dented my expectations. I’m sure you have been there many times by now!

      Delighted you liked the post, Tweet, and much love to you both…and hope all is well.

      Julian

  2. A delightful, transporting story, Julian. I will not forget Vaughan’s words, nor will the thought of them being “like coins sewn into the cuffs of my trousers”. What a wonderful visual. You have articulated the feel of a walk in nature so beautifully: the roundness and depth of a fortuitous second’s experience. I see the closing of the nighthawk’s eyes and the quirky camoflage of the bagworm moth caterpillar, with the further thought of a “Darvinian nosedive” as Tweet as suggested above. Thank you for another exquisite literary adventure.

    Please keep ’em coming!

    Cindy

    1. Thank so much, Cindy. Like you, I couldn’t forget Vaughan’s words; they seemed to follow me wherever I went. The power of language at its most intense. Both introspective and opening us to far larger things.

      I also love Tweet’s (it’s Pete really, but for some reason long lost in the mists of time he’s be called Tweet by some of his friends for many, many years now) idea of a Darwinian nosedive attached to the bagworm caterpillar, a suitably eccentric and perhaps short-lived flare of a species in our midst!

      Thanks again Cindy, and delighted you enjoyed this particular journey.

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  3. Beautiful words Julian!
    There is so much life and eternity around us. Yesterday I was watching a bumble-bee entering to rose, collecting pollen, buzzing and wriggling inside, it was such a nice view.
    I can’t understand why some people can’t appreciate thin all world of nature. Recently I often hear that somebody is bothered by bird singin loud, or sun rising and shining through the window to bright. In one of the polish cities people cut of branches of the trees near their block of flats, because they couldn’t stand birds in the morning…
    I think that your posts should be read at schools, in purpose to opening eyes of youngs and to make them sensitive for the world of living creatures around.

    It is great to read you and here you again!

    1. Thanks kindly, Barbara! It seems that we have become so used to the unnatural world that those few connections with the natural are despised like in your examples. It’s a strange state of affairs when we are bothered by bird song, that’s for sure! I suppose it really highlights how many of us are increasingly disconnected from the natural rhythms of the world that supports us, so it’s all the more important that there are people like yourself taking notice and celebrating the wild. Thank you so much for the very generous words and your suggestion.

      It’s great to hear from you again, and I’m looking forward to stopping by your own part of the world again soon.

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  4. Ah, Julian. I so enjoy your posts. What a wonderful walk. And I loved the Vaughan quote for all the reasons you mentioned. I might have to write it down on a notecard and pin it somewhere.

    Last night a friend’s five-month-old baby was completely entranced by the moving leaves in the tree branches above her, and I thought, Isn’t that exactly right. The quotidian and the infinite are all about us if we just open our eyes and look.

    1. Exactly right, indeed! I love your story of a baby looking at the moving leaves, Emily; it seems so apt, so simple and attentive at the same time. There is much to be learned from the young.

      Thanks for the kind words; I’m really delighted that you’re enjoying these posts. Wild Apples, if you don’t already know it, might be somewhere that would suit your own work very well, by the way. Best wishes and happy writing,

      Julian

  5. Wonderful Sid! There is so much that resonates for me in this piece..I am fascinated by the bagworm moth, and what a great name! When I was a kid I used to catch caddis fly larvae from the bottom of ponds with a little orange net on a piece of bamboo. The caddis fly larvae is surely the aquatic cousin of the bagworm; carrying around a neat bundle of tiny twigs which it retreats into when disturbed..That response of the Nightjar I know well from Ecodaya and is always such a joy to see this strange bird in daylight and at close quarters- that big dark oval eye..
    I also love that line of Henry Vaughan; his matter- of -factness at seeing eternity and therefore the deathless..
    Hmmmm, makes me want to stroll those herb infused hills with you..
    Love Sid.

    1. Thanks, Sid! The caddis fly larvae are also a marvel – some of them building a casing of little stones and gravel found on the riverbed. I used to watch them in the irrigation channels here when we were watering the crops, fascinated by their tenacity in the current. I would love the experience at Ecodaya I’m sure; being that close to so many varied creatures. This was the first nightjar that I’d seen during the day, and something about it’s slow movement in the light was mesmerising.

      As always, I can’t wait for our next walk in the hills together. Hopefully you can make it this autumn. Yesterday we walked the forest trail where we all saw the bear a couple of years ago – short-toed eagles overhead; three hoopoes on the path; lizard orchids (the most extravagant flower I’ve ever seen); and waterholes with the myriad prints of roe deer, wild boar, badger and bear. Wonderful…….

      lots of love, Sid

  6. I have learned, from your previous posts, that I really need a quiet room and some time to myself to fully enjoy them. it took me 2 days to find the time for this one, and I’m so glad i waited. I was able to savor this one alone, thankfully, in the 10 minutes between laundry and walking the dogs!

    I truly didn’t want it to end.

    1. I’m deeply honoured that you save these posts for a quiet moment, Sister Earth Organics. I really am – and I hope that in return they give you a little space of your own as well. Many thanks for your continued reading and thoughtful comments. Best wishes and hope all is well with you,

      Julian

  7. As always, Julian, you have a way with words. I can definitely see how Vaughan’s words would inspire you. I can relate to the feeling. For me, eternity is gazing out over the seemingly endless waters of Lake Winnipeg. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around a Great Lake if you’ve never seen one, but all you have to do is think of the ocean without the salt smells and you kind of get the idea.

    Your description of your nightjar experience leaves me a little jealous :) I’ve always longed to find a whip-poor-will or nighthawk at their daytime roost, but have never been so lucky. A truly special discovery. Thanks, as always, for sharing. I hope all is well.

    1. I love your image of looking out over Lake Winnipeg, Heather! I think Henry Vaughan’s line opens the possibility of finding personal eternities – whatever place, moment, vista, encounter or emptiness that involves so deeply that it is inseperable from the timeless, or the deathless as a friend mentions in an earlier comment. And I can certainly imagine how the “seemingly endless waters” of a lake imparts this quality.

      I’ve always loved the name whip-poor-will for one of the nightjar’s North American relatives. Which reminds me to look into its common name one of these days. We felt extremely grateful for the encounter – a rare one for us as well. And astonishingly slow-motion as it unfolded!

      Thanks, as always, for the wonderful words and thoughts, Heather. They are deeply appreciated.

      Take care,
      Julian

  8. Beautiful nature is out there all around you, and you bring it in here for your readers, with its full beauty, charm and originality engraved in, using the wonderful selection of words and expressions. Great again, Julian!

    1. Thank you ever so much for the very fine words and generous compliments, Bindu. The natural world contains infinite beauties, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to delve into some of them in this life. And I’m honoured that you find the writing that follows so appealing. My thanks for your continued interest, and hope all is well with you.

      Julian

    1. Thanks so much for dropping by, appleomyeye; it’s great to hear from you! And thanks for your kind thoughts. I’m really delighted that you’re enjoying these posts so much.

      Hope all is well with you in your part of the world!

      My best wishes,
      Julian

  9. When I was tiny, I used to put armfuls of dirt in my dolls’ carriages – and whatever crawled out would be my children. Suffice to say, that time is long past, and I wish I could once more appreciate the tiny monsters living all around me; it would open up a brand new iridescent world – creatures that illustrate the unlimited imagination and whims of mother nature.

    Vaughan’s words say so much – life is a never-ending vision, open to all of us.

    Beautiful, beautiful post.

    1. Great to hear from you, Aubrey, and delighted that you liked the post. I have to say that your recollected image of placing armfuls of dirt in the carriages and adopting whatever crawled out as your children is an extraordinary connection to that childhood sense of wonder and elation stemming from the smallest things. It is a powerful picture that you paint, and an important one when considering our disconnect from the natural world in so many ways. I hope you can find a way into that “iridescent world.” It is a place well worth journeying to!

      Best wishes,
      Julian

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