Verses on a Barrier Island of Georgia, from Lanier Ivester at Laniersbooks.com
Love Song for an Unlost Land:
“Living God! Was there ever a world of such grace?
The beauty of a thousand summers lives on here,
with the souls of all their flowers,
and the heady young glory of my own greening spring.”
As of late, humanity has rushed head long into a disconnectedness that separates us from almost everything. John Stuart Mill proclaimed the individual was paramount, and expounded a doctrine that de-emphasizes community, family, and fraternity. The Enlightenment separated reason and imagination. The founding fathers separated church and state. Everywhere we see distinctions between organic and inorganic; conscious and unconscious; design and random variation; mind and body; reality and fantasy. Yet, being able to discern distinctions, doesn’t necessitate a separation.
In these verses above, the separation between man and nature is starting to blur. The memories and experiences of years gone by are wrapped up in the beauty of one particular island so much that the author has a kind of parallel journey with the island itself. As it becomes “green”, so does her own maturing mind. The flowers possess more than just matter. The author imagines that they have souls that echo across time and express a foreshadowing, as if their coming into being and passing away was just a preparation for her arrival. Already appreciating the history of the island, she begins her own history with greater significance from this point forward.
But, in the very first line, the author reveals a truth about the world; namely, that the world could have been different, less beautiful. Indeed, anything less would not have inspired these lines. This inspiration comes from a revival of the deep wonder mankind once held for the world; something that fairy tales remind us of now. A fairy tale land in which water flows up to the skies reminds us for one astonishing second that water flows downhill. We imagine bears talk because we have lost amazement for that fact that humans do. A frog who turns into a prince highlights the wonderful fact that eggs incomprehensibly turn into chickens. We have grown too old to appreciate the unfathomable repititions that take place in the world, forgetting that the real joy is the repitition. A child of three thrown into the air and caught again asks his father to “do it again” to the point of exhaustion because he is thrilled at the astonishing fact that he actually can be thrown into the air. We are, in a sense, older than our Maker: every second, He is delighted in keeping the world in existence and producing the same effects.
Let’s not think, however, that fairyland is illogical. On the contrary, a wizard in Mordor may be more logical than a scientist in America. Mythical characters may believe that beanstalks grow to the skies, but they are not confused about how many beans make five. And if the wolf jumps down the chimney into the fire, the pigs do not doubt that the fire is burning the wolf. The wizard may thrust his staff in the air to move an object across the room, but he does not say the that effect was necessary from the cause. It is the scientists who look at two associated events and imagine that there is some necessary connection between them. They talk of trees bearing fruit as if this they could do no other thing, but there’s nothing illogical about trees producing faeries from leaf buds or tigers hanging by their tails from branches. The world could have ended up that way, as the wizard knows. After all, it happens in his country sometimes. The mere fact of an apple falling and hitting the ground does not make a necessary connection, just a strange repetition. The scientists muddle their heads, and imagine some forced necessary connection between the cause and effect, as if it could be no other way. They call it a law, but it’s just a fantasy. We all know real laws can be broken.
However, something much deeper is going on here in Lanier’s verses than just cause and effect. The whole verse is a response to the life-filled communication flowing from the earth itself. The author receives it and responds in turn. But, if this experience is real, we have to acknowledge that the world is more than just dead matter; that it’s more than the sum of its parts; that there is something going on behind the scenes.
Every person knows through experience that we are more than the sum of our behaviors, and we extend that acknowledgment to others. We are more than just an organic machine. What if we extend this ability to see ouselves as more than the sum of our parts — to animals, plants, or even to what we regard as dead matter? Suppose everything spoke to us in a silent language, and we, upon hearing, decided to return the conversation. Lanier explains to us that she takes in more than the air in her next verses as she recounts her voyage to her beloved island and her anxious feelings:
“My past waits on through all the long winter of exile,
brooding under moss-hung trees and haunting the cloistered shades
with a memory of joy too tender to be told.
I find it once more—and my own self with it—not in the slow gathering
of unforgotten days, no quaint posey of remembrance, delicate and intentional,
but all in a rush, in one greedy draught of golden air,
sailing over the causeway like a homing bird.
It assails me with an embrace that takes my breath
and never fails to summon a spring of tears.
How kindly this jeweled Isle has kept my times, whole days of deathless joys
and hours so precious this world seems scarcely large enough to hold them.
Surely it was a dream: that age, that innocence, that marsh-skirted island itself—
so my winter-soul speaks amid the cold despoiling of earth and tree.
Surely life was not meant for such sweetness.”
It’s worthy to note, Lanier does not fabricate her memories of the past. She does not manufacture them deliberately through careful recollection. She meets them and herself head on in a clashing embrace with nature. But, she is careful to reveal her doubts about it all. Maybe, before, it was all just a dream. Maybe she will be disappointed because it won’t live up to her romantic expectations. These are the kind of thoughts we entertain when we feel ourselves disconnected from the very world we live in. This is the beginning of suffering; for to doubt is to suffer in uncertainty. The world sometimes is an unfriendly place, quite dangerous and full of hurtful things. Many run from suffering and blame God, the spinner of this dangerous tale. Yet, the presence of dragons in fairy tales isn’t repulsive to us. Who doesn’t want to live in Tolkein’s Middle Earth or C. S. Lewis’s Narnia in spite of all the dangers? Part of the reason these places are fantastic is precisely because of the enemies and the challenges to be overcome, the dragons to kill, and maidens to rescue. What is a fairy tale without a villain? So, may we too have appreciation for the dangers even in our own world.
Lanier describes her soul as if it was still in winter, when we all stay indoors and dare not venture outside too long or harm will come to us. A physical separation facilitates a mental separation. This is reminiscent of the pursuit of objectivity in science. To gain objectivity, humanity disconnects from nature as much as possible, and then man dissects himself into body and mind. It all leads to meaninglessness. When broken down into parts and treated as if the parts, designed or not, make up who we are – meaning and purpose lose their grip. If only we could begin to see the world not as dead matter, but as personal and engaged with us; a world which we are intimately related with, and completely dependent upon. Sir John Davies, in his poem Orchestra, describes this relationship with the world as a dance:
“And now behold your tender nurse the Air
And common neighbor that ay runs around:
How many pictures and impression fair
Within her empty regions are there found,
Which to your senses dancing do propound!
For what are Breath, Speech, Echoes, Music, Winds,
But dancings of the Air in sundry kinds?
For when you breathe, the air in order moves,
Now in, now out, in time and measure true;
And when you speak, so well she dancing loves,
That doubling oft, and oft redoubling new,
With thousand forms she doth herself endue:
For all the words that from our lips repair
Are nought but tricks and turnings or the air. “
We are, indeed, more intimate with the world than we admit to ourselves, and dependent on the air even for our vocal communication. But there is more going on than just vibrating air molecules travelling from vocal chords to ear canals. For all of speech is a product of strong imagination working together with reason. We take an “airy nothing” that exists in our minds and give it a form we can use to communicate. Shakespeare has a good explanation for this activity in A Midsummer Nights Dream:
“And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
The skill of strong imagination is needed to turn “airy nothings” into unique ink marks on a page or vibrations in the air. These are the bodies and habitations we give them. By our very essence, we are creators. And it is through understanding our own propensity to create that we can understand how the world was created. Just as we body forth the forms of things unknown, so too does God body forth things into material bodies and creates a habitation for them. The unspoken word in our minds is like the Word before the universe began; the forms and habitations we bring forth mirror the actual forms and habitations the Creator brought forth. But, God isn’t just bringing forth essences and ideas into matter and energy; He is also telling his own “fairy story”, his own “myth”, which turns out to be real. Our stories are only variations on the original.
When we decide to reconnect with nature and know ourselves more fully, we find grounds for belief in God. His very creation tendencies are inside of us. Yet, this realization lies, is us, dormant. We still live in the winter of our disconnectedness. Is there a way for us to be reminded of who we are? Can we remember what we have forgotten? Or was it all just a dream?
“But I have only to catch a wandering breath of jasmine on the breeze,
or a lemon-thrill of magnolia, or even (or mostly)
the Maytime gift of lowly privet,
to doubt my own doubts and laugh my unbelief in the face.
Before such sweet convincing flee my land-locked thoughts,
like wind-tossed foam scattering over a silver shore.
But, ah! To come—to feel the sun’s wealth falling warm upon my upturned face,
To drink the cordial of the salt-laced air and see the curtained moss
waving and parting in welcome—
is resurrection; a revival of the deepest things, as real as the awakening fern
that inhabits the boughs of these legend oaks, kissed alive by rain and dew,
furled fronds unwithering in a sudden flowering of green.
This is my gift, my grace of this undying place. My hoarde, my fairy gold,
that makes me rich beyond compare.”
Let us no longer regard the world as dead, but as alive and communicating with us. Let there be a revival of the deepest things; a realization of our lost greatness in spite of our present wretchedness. Then may we find ourselves rich beyond compare.