The Music Inside

Entering the forest, I see, out of the corner of my eye, from a small, black, smoldering corner in a patchwork of golden rice fields, a thin, blue-grey tendril of smoke wafting upward. It is one of the first fields to have been harvested, the remnants of the grains, a burnt offering, gently smoking. 

A pristine autumn afternoon has drawn me out to play and packing up my work at the University at warp speed, I’ve come out to the foothills for a slow meander. I’m thinking of the harvest as I sit alone in the forest in the middle of a magical arena bordered by tall trees. It is shady here, and cool. Above, astonishing blue and on the still-green tree tops, the afternoon sun pours on a layer of warm, caramel sweetness. Amid the deep, gathering shadows, the sun peeks in and I think of the lights along the way that have startled my senses: haphazard fields of multi-hued cosmos and the bright orange of fully ripened persimmons that hang on the gnarled branches of the Sarah-aged trees, vivid zinnias, the almost neon green-yellow of the heavy-headed soon-to-be-shorn rice fields.

The turn is not far off. The cool fresh air that caresses my face assures me of this. Being present to the harvest, the turn of the trees, the changing angle of the sun, the tilting of the planet: what a beautiful thing! And to think back, to recollect, in these moments of tranquillity, how I have spent the summer months, the oft-cloistered, first peak of my yearly activities. (The unpleasant heat & humidity of full-on summer here coincides with the end of semester, exams & the reading & research break from teaching that follow, the latter for which I usually escape to cooler, more northerly climes.)

Vermont is the Lake in all its moods, sunsets, the cabins, friends, craft beer. It is reading, kayaking, and star gazing. It is kingfishers, herons, and white sails. It is summertime. It is food from small farms on the islands, sold by the people who raise and husband the crops and the animals. It is Adirondack chairs (gazing over the lake at part of the range of that name), bonfires and walks along wooded paths and stony shores. Also then comes the time of the first yellow leaf falling.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time. I do when the seasons are marked. I want to love time; I want to recognise it as gift and appreciate it as such, because so often, instead, I struggle with it. (Or perhaps I struggle with my understanding of it? Why do I love it best when I am least, or un-conscious of its presence?) You know that to struggle with time is to struggle, in some ways, with life: it is a dimension fundamental to human awareness. One of the projects I’ve been working on lately has given me a helpful breath of inspiration, one that counters my perception of, after Mandelshtam & latterly Barnes writing on Shostakovich, the so-called ‘Noise of Time’.* It concerns time conceived not as irrevocable flow but rather as Poetic Instant (à la Gaston Bachelard in The Intuition of the Instant.) It’s a real mind-changer and, of course, once you tune in to the idea, you start becoming aware of these glorious instants everywhere; the character of Time is quite – refreshingly! – changed. More on that in another post.

Here I only meant only to gather, briefly, in a small bundle, the nodding stalks of my own summer’s harvest of memories. My old home computer is on its last legs and is giving up the ghost in no uncertain terms (I’d like to go out on a spinning rainbow ball, if I could, though, wouldn’t you?) . . . Things will continue on the blog in quiet-ish mode until a replacement is procured, in due course. Blogging on a tablet is not a preferred option. Still, I did want to pick up the thread now that the new season’s opening and my favoured contemplative & ‘soleful’ (walking) activities resume.

The farmer walked slowly backward facing the hills, toward the setting sun, his lit torch touching the ground at intervals. This ‘kiss of fire’ worked with the alchemy of the setting sun to make magic with light and shadow, with the living and the harvested. The whole field would soon be quietly ablaze. Soon the foliage will follow. Rows and rows of blackened stems and I am thinking of the lady Demeter and her abducted child and I am thinking this is exactly the right season in which to listen to some requiems – a beautiful music, a heart rhythm to accompany our mourning, or our slowing down and deepening, music that reminds us we are human, with limits and the glorious capacity to change. If autumn teaches us a pattern, I’ve always thought that it is that beauty precedes the darkness that ushers in change…

‘What could be put up against the noise of time?’ Barnes’s Shostakovich reflects at the end of the book.

‘Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.’


* Julian Barnes’ fictionalised bio of Shostakovich is called The Noise of Time, a title that comes from an early autobiographical prose work by the poet Osip Mandelstam, Shum vremeni (1925), where the shum in question is the noise or disturbing clatter of an age whose clamorous demands drown out the voice of the individual.