Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Muzzling, or Where Does Creative Thinking Really Happen?

Several weeks ago, back before the hurricane, before the summer skidded abruptly into autumn, before the fog and rain and shriveled brown leaves became a part of the surround, I got up one morning and thought about the day, and the night before:

Hazy pink morning, the sea grey.  The sun a red ball. Still. We wake in the night and fret: the stillness is eerie, unsettling.  The owl at the back of the pond hoots into the silence:  Hoo! Hoo!  Hoo! Hoo! again and again.  Why does the owl sing at night? Marike asks.  And why the same song over and over?

This question, as soon as she asked it, as soon as I recorded it, inspired another sort of mimic hooting in me: for it set lines from Wordsworth's Prelude to echoing so loudly in my head, that I had to run to the shelf and begin paging through the volume of poetry just to still their rant.  (Or is it cant? What theory of the origin of language is here?

Here, so you can still the echoes in your own head--or begin to hear them if they don't already rattle--is Wordsworth:

 There was a Boy, ye knew him well, ye Cliffs
And Islands of Winander! many a time
At evening, when the stars had just begun
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone
Beneath the trees, or by the glimmering Lake,
And there, with fingers interwove, both hands
Pressed closely, palm to palm, and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls
That they might answer him.  --And they would shout
Across the wat'ry Vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call, with quivering peals,
And long haloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild
Of mirth and jocund din! And when it chanced
That pauses of deep silence mocked his skill,
Then sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprize
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain Heaven, received
Into the bosom of the steady Lake...(Prelude Book V: 389-412)

Why does the owl sing the same song over and over? And why are we so drawn to imitate it? Surely Wordsworth is somehow right--this imitation of nature--this play of mimicry back and forth, this enthusiasm for such exchanges must be at the origins of our language, our poetry...  In any case, I've been musing on these questions ever since.

In fact, in a strange and perhaps altogether predictably repetitive twist, I've been musing on the word musing.

Wonder where that word comes from? Marike asked, and so one night after dinner I pulled out the dictionaries--an old compact Oxford English that belonged to her father (1934) and Skeat's Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (c. 1900).  Muse, I mused, must be related to light-heartedness, to amusing.  Perhaps.  But not quite.

The etymology of muse is far more beautiful than that.  And perhaps it answers to why we are given to such mimic hootings of, and wild concourse with the animals around us.  Not because they inspire us, in the way of the nine Muses of classical mythology.  That strain of the word is descended from the Greek Mousa, which shares the root men-, or mon-, with other words denoting to think, to remember.  But muse, as I marked it, meaning to wander about in your thoughts--or as the Oxford dictionary would have it, "to ponder, reflect, gaze upon meditatively..." this muse derives, it seems, from the Old French muse, or MUZZLE, which is to say, to "sniff the air when in doubt about scent."

Or as Skeat argues it, the word comes into English from the "F[rench], muser, 'to muse, dreame'."  Before that, he says, one finds the roots of the word in the Old French muse meaning "the mouth, muzzle....The image is that of a dog sniffing the air when in doubt as to the scent; cf Ital[ian] musare, to muse, also to gape about, 'to hould ones musle or snout in the aire' Florio, from Ital[ian] muso, snout" (Capricorn Edition, 1963, 341).

Now that's a beautiful etymology!  The origins of creative thinking found, not in sight or hearing, but in what--or more properly, the way--a dog sniffs the air. 

We often say, as we watch the dog scent out the messages left in the yard overnight, that she is reading the morning news.  Indeed.  And all my mimic hooting, here, is only that, a weak, attenuated imitation of the dog's MUZZLE.

--Which is to say--if you follow out that etymology--TO BITE.  

But more on that--the link between thinking, creating and aggression (or between people and dogs)--another day.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Change of Season

Suddenly Fall is here.

Hurricane Earl blasted the bloom from our world; now every leaf is salt-burned and red or brown.  Dying, even before the frost.  All around, cranberries ripening underfoot.  And a cooler wind, though the earth still feels warm under bare feet.

This weekend, the highest and lowest tides of year.  And today, my mother's birthday--sudden joy!  How beautiful the world is still!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Squall and Bluster--a Report on Hurricane Earl

When the storm is over, and you know you've survived--the roof still, more or less, intact, and so too, the people and creatures that you love--it's easy to make light of the wind.

If you've survived, a worse storm could forever be imagined; if you were really prepared for this event, its hours of gusty conditions and salt spray--even an inconveniently long loss of power--will have seemed like a let-down.  

For as a hurricane, Earl wasn't much.  Top winds in Nova Scotia clocked in at 135 kilometers an hour at Beaver Island Light, our local lighthouse, offshore 10 miles.  That's about 84 miles an hour--enough to classify the storm as a hurricane, but not of the sort that "tears up trees or "carries buildings before it"--these attributes are reserved for 100+ mile winds on the Smeaton-Rouse Scale of 1759, an early attempt to measure and codify wind strength.  Except....we have seen some number of "torn up trees" and toppled sheds.  Does a storm have to be utterly catastrophic--nay, apocalyptic--to count as a fearsome or awesome event?

--Perhaps, if extreme weather is one of the few routes left to the real--real emotions, real events, real disruptions to our daily modes of organization and response....

However you measure it, a hurricane creates strenuous conditions--as the second Beaufort Scale (an early 19th Century scale that in revised form is still more or less in force among sailors) puts it--"Force 12 winds are a Hurricane--Or that which no canvas could withstand."

If we'd not had repeated updates and weather reports streaming through every media outlet, however, we might not have seen this one coming.  (Would that have made it more "awesome"?)

Here, a time-line of observations, beginning with

The Morning of the Day Before (Friday 3 September 2010)

The air is still, hazy, hot, grey--not even a wisp of cloud in the sky.  The sea shines grimly: the water is flat and utterly still, a mirror extending for miles beneath a white and empty sky.  If you didn't know, you wouldn't suspect a hurricane was on the way.

Except.  Something at the back of the neck prickles; you feel the barometric pressure drop.  It announces itself in a dull headache, a breathless sort of buzzing worry.  Even the animals seem jittery and reluctant to stay outside.

I clear debris and move objects from the yard, tie down the lid to the trash box, make lists of necessary items, hang out a wash.  In the bones of my skull a sort of chatter, a sensation like the humming of rails as a distant train approaches.  Not yet visible, but on the way.

Still, this bothers me--would I be attentive to the significance of these signs if I didn't think I knew what they were about?


Faint echoes of wind piffle the hot air.  Small waves run into shore as the afternoon progresses.  At 5:00 pm we head to the beach.  Walk. Swim.  By 6:30 clouds are clustering in the west.

By 10:00 the clouds have disappeared and the Milky Way spangles above us.  Nothing is really going to happen is it?  There won't be a hurricane on the morrow.  The air is soft, warm, still.  We are chased indoors by mosquitoes buzzing in our ears.

Midnight and that illusion is dashed.  The horizon has closed.  Both sea and sky are black, the islands invisible in the inkiness.  Thin bands of light to the northeast and southwest.  The air is syrupy with humidity.

A whiff of wind, a low moan, as if from a long way away.  The doors clatter as the air sucks at them.  It's coming this storm, this wind and rain.

Light gusts press against the walls of the house.  The wood creaks.  And the cicadas continue to sing into the dark.

Another low moan like a warning or premonition: it speaks of howls to come.

The Day Of

7:30 am.  I awaken to a brief spattering of rain--a warning salvo.  Overnight, the wind has increased in intensity.  It moans, rattles at the windows and doors, spins dry leaves into whirling spirals.  Waves roll steadily into shore, slapping hard and then harder against the stones.  I rush about, closing windows, make a pot of tea, empty the full-again dehumidifier, and decide to harvest some more lettuce and pick an armful of blooms before the flowers are shredded by the storm.  Neither cat nor dog is interested in going outside.

The wind builds as I am picking; it wrenches a bag from my hand and sends it up the road; it peels the shirt from my back.  But the rain holds off until I am done--just a few plump drops on the top of my head.

And then the storm begins.  The radio blares warnings; we watch as the surge fills in at low tide, pressing water up the shore and deep into the cove, stopping just below the high tide line.  It is a day of perpetual high tide.  Rain runs horizontally across the the windows, the rivets holding a gutter in place give way, and the ragged downspout twists in the wind, clanking.  Water pours from the roof, begins seeping in around windowsills, running in streams from spots we had thought were long-repaired leaks. Not anymore.  Marike and I run around the house stuffing towels on sills, settling baking pans under drips, emptying a drawer full of water-colour paintings into another room.

Then nothing to do but watch and wait it out.  The power lasts until 2:30 pm, then flickers one last time and dies.  By 3:00 pm, the rain has stopped and the wind changes direction; it is no longer coming from the sea.  But it strengthens, ripping leaves and twigs from trees and flinging salt spray over the house.  Clouds race across the sky, gathering and separating.  For seconds at a time, we catch sight of blue sky.  It's over, this storm and it hasn't really been too bad--not here anyway.

We decide to head out, with the dog, to see what we can see.

Downed trees--we have to swerve around many; some hanging over power lines.  In Port Dufferin, an electrical  line on a school bus--the power trucks are already there.  A man in a cherry-picker, at work on a transformer.  The roads covered with debris.  Here a tree fallen on a house; there a hole in a roof top.  Apple trees fling green apples along the side of the road.

In Sheet Harbour we look in on our little boat, Lark.  Oops!  The mainsail has worked partly free and flaps in the wind.  Nothing we can do yet, however--it would be impossible to row out to the boat in this wind.  Kenneth Routledge, who has let us moor the boat in front of his house, comes out to tell us they thought sure she would be lost at the height of the storm.  The rudder had worked loose, too, and was flapping, and she'd been rocking from gunnel to gunnel and then suddenly she was down, knocked over completely! That loosened mainsail didn't help any either, he says, fixing us sharply. They looked again, and she'd come back up--it was a close one. We all sigh with relief, and perhaps a twinge of shame.  Kenneth's wharf has taken a beating too--we tell him we'll come back the next day to help him patch it together.

Our survey of the neighbourhood finishes up at Sober Island.  We park at Ramey's place, Factory Cove, to hike out to the seaward point.  Ramey motions me up to the house--he wants us to take along a friend of theirs, an intrepid woman in her 70s.  She collects her camera and rubber shoes and we're off, "monkeybarring" over and under fallen trees, racing towards the thunderous sea.  Then there it is: stupendous and roaring.  Spray fills the air.

In seconds we're drenched, and laughing like maniacs.  Only Bathsheba seems worried; it's clearly daft to be out here in this weather.  We pick our way along the coast, staying well back from the crumbling edge, trampling ripening cranberries underfoot.  You have to keep a hand over your ear to keep it from filling with water.  Our fellow traveler, Barb is filled with glee and shouts out, "If I die tomorrow, it won't matter, I've been here for this!" I feel exactly the same way.

We return home, towel off the salt, and eat supper by candlelight: blinis with smoked salmon, a spicy whipped cream and vodka.  It's a pleasure this quiet, this darkness.  We toast to our good fortune, to have survived--even enjoyed--this storm.  And then suddenly Bathsheba is barking, as if an intruder is entering the house--which, in a way, it is. The power is back on.

The next day will be clean-up.  We'll help Kenneth repair his dock and then row out and tidy up Lark.  We'll wash the cars down and take vinegar, warm water and squeegees to the salt-sprayed windows.  We'll put the fence back up around the vegetable garden, and try to rinse off the salt-burned leaves of the plants.  We'll wash all the wet towels we used to sop up the leaks, and hang them in the air to dry.  We'll go for a walk, and watch the gulls wheel up into the wind.

We got off easy this time, and we know it; Earl was a good ride--fine thrills, little calamity.  A tap, a warning. Another time we won't get off so easy. Thanks for that kindness, Earl.

Big waves at Sober Island (4 September 2010)
Spray at Sober Island
2 views of Taylor Head Pysche Beach (3 September 2010)
Seaweed in wave at Taylor Head (Psyche Beach)
Clouds gathering in the west (Sheet Harbour 3 September)
Rain at Quoddy (4 September 2010)
Rescued flowers (4 September 2010)
3 views of waves and spray at Sober Island (4 September 2010)
Salt spray on the windows (5 September 2010)
Salt-burned vegetation (5 September 2010)

Quotes from the Smeaton-Rouse Scale of 1759 and the Second Beaufort Scale come from Richard Hamblyn.  The Invention of Clouds. London: Picador, 2002, pp. 193, 197.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Impending Events

September first and the air is full of impending events.  School begins of course, and with it, for me, the fuller contours of a new job.  But what is preoccupying everyone here along the usually cooler shores of Nova Scotia is the heat--and the threat of hurricane Earle, swirling up the seaboard from the Caribbean. 

For now, the air is still, nearly windless; the sea calm, warm enough to entice us to stay in the water for abnormally long periods.  Whatever this is, this heat and stillness, it will not stay, that much is certain.  We look over our shoulders superstitiously--how must we pay for this slice of Paradise?  And then that worry subsides, worn away by the suck of water on sand, the joyous play of a dog with a stick and the cool prickling of salt on skin.

We are enthralled by the light.

Psyche Beach, Taylor's Head Provincial Park, Nova Scotia
Bathsheba on the beach
Marike rescues a beached crab
Bathsheba buries a stick
Evening light