We visited Scotland recently, and I left for home enchanted by the history, the culture, the architecture and the story of the people of that beautiful country.
One place we visited was St Andrews Cathedral, in its time one of the centers of religious life in Europe, and the largest church in Scotland. After the Scottish Reformation in the 1500s (!), the church was sacked, looted and abandoned. The remaining ruins are cared for by the Scottish government as a heritage site. St. Andrews Castle is nearby, at one time the seat of the Catholic cardinal and site of a prison holding religious reformers. From the distance of time, we see the relatively static after-effects of the Reformation, but looking into the history, many people gave their lives at the stake over hundreds of years in places like St. Andrews.
I’m captivated by the depth of the recorded history that has so much to tell. While in Edinburgh, I bought biographies of John Knox and Mary, Queen of Scots, two important and colorful characters in Scottish history, and I can’t wait to dig into those books. Knox was a leader of the Scottish Reformation, had run-ins with the Catholic establishment at St. Andrews and elsewhere, and actually precipitated some of the events that led to the Cathedral’s ruin. Mary, Queen of Scots ruled Scotland at the time, and as a Catholic, she and Knox had several in-person confrontations. Mary’s story is one of intrigue, wonder and tragedy.
I also experienced a personal moment of mystery while at St. Andrews Cathedral, and I’m still puzzling out its potential meaning. While at contemplating the beauty, cruelty, and ultimate impermanence of Man’s works here on this Earth, I was anointed, on the right side of the head and across the back, by a seagull.
Our backyard this morning after a late-winter storm. Another snow day for our ladies, off to work for me.
“The sublime is rendered by prodigious power or by enormous space: when you reach a mountaintop, for instance, and the world breaks open: a motif that is used in Buddhist art a great deal, and the reason temples are put on the top of hills. In Kyoto, there are gardens where you are screened from the expanding view while climbing, and suddenly – bing! – the whole vista opens up before you. That’s sublimity. So, power and space are two renditions of sublimity, and in both cases, the ego is diminished. It’s strange: the less there is of you, the more you experience the sublime.”
Reading this, it seems true by examination. We’ve all had these kinds of experiences. On the mountaintop, or looking out over a seemingly infinite body of water, or finding yourself on a dark lake on a clear night with the full moon on the water or the Milky Way arcing overhead, the awesome awareness of our own powerlessness and insignificance is the source of a sublime feeling of expansive connectedness. I witnessed the birth of my girls and am forever struck by the mystery of such infinite complexity, driven so repeatably; everyday miracles of stunning scale, countless times a every day, everywhere on Earth.
How easily, though, we slip back into the ego-centric. Once back down from the mountain, back in the Real World, we’re self-concerned again. Back to work on Monday, with the demands, deadlines, and personalities that we engage and entangle with. That was a cool experience, but this is the Real World and I have to feed my family, after all.
Art and meditation and contemplation allow access to that ego-reduced experience of the profound, for those of us who can’t go on vacation and climb a mountain every day. A shared moment with a family member or friend, a painting or a piece of music, a well-written metaphor, quiet minutes looking at a tree or looking inward with eyes closed.
“It’s strange: the less there is of you, the more you experience the sublime.”
Quotation from ‘Reflections on the Art of Living, A Joseph Campbell Companion,’ page 136.
Michigan’s radiance in late summer approaching autumn…here the sunrise chases cool morning mist from a chain of lakes.
We returned to Door County, WI the first weekend in August for another brief cycling adventure with some good friends. A great time away, with some memorable climbs and descents among the sharp hills on that beautiful peninsula.
Our Saturday route was a 50-mile round trip from Fish Creek to Gills Rock and back. We rode through Peninsula Park, stopping to climb the tower for a spectacular view of Green Bay.
Ephraim, Sister Bay and Ellison Bay all had their exhilarating descents on the way out and grinding climbs on the way back. The descents were sweeping, fast and smooth, for the most part. I personally love climbing, so the intense ascents on the way back provided occasions to gather up strength, dig deep, and pound out a rhythm of pedal strokes, breath and drips of sweat on the lenses of my sunglasses – then maintaining the cadence as the climb levels out and upshifting to accelerate away.
The town of Fish Creek is a pretty charming lakeside tourist town with a nice bookstore and a cool high-end throwback general store to be found among the more typical t-shirt, garden ornament and jewelry shops. At the west end of town is a beautiful park, Sunset Beach, filled with cedars. Close to this park is a tiny Episcopal church that dates back to about 1875, with a walled courtyard and a sign that reads ‘open daily for meditation’.
Yesterday was an active Saturday – miles & miles of cycling across lower Michigan to the lakeshore, first to South Haven and then north to Saugatuck. The family joined up with me for lunch at the brewpub, then we headed to the beach for a swim and into town for the Art Fair. In the evening we dragged ourselves home for some needed repair sleep.
It’s another hot July day today in Michigan, but just after sunrise the breeze is still cool. Although it’s been dry, there’s a slight dew if you get out early enough to catch it before it flashes off as the day warms.
Wandering down the path behind our house I found the remains, just some fur, really, of a skunk that must have fell victim to something larger, perhaps a coyote. A little further down and the woods open to a field full of spotted knapweed, for which I prefer the more elegant name, star thistle. Actually an invasive plant species, apparently it arrived here in the US in the 1800s, having stowed-away in shipments of alfalfa seed. In addition to having a deep taproot for competitive advantage in water retrieval, it’s also allelopathic; its roots exude a chemical into the surrounding soil that limits competitors’ root development. Here in Michigan, some are working to eradicate it – and then there are also beekeepers who farm star thistle honey. Star thistle blooms everywhere here in Michigan in July and August, and apparently is quite an important source of nectar for local honeybees, who work hard to make their fine honey from it.
The label ‘invasive species’ carries quite a negative connotation, so it’s a little difficult when you find out that something you love is ‘invasive’, not supposed to be here, and not welcome in this our local ecosystem. For me, star thistle is a marker of deep summer – I look forward to the frail lavender blossoms each July, am mindful to watch their gradual fade in August and September, and then pause to remember their cool beauty when all that’s left on rainy, cold November days is the faded plants with spent bulb-shaped tips.
So this morning I went out with the intent to capture some of that color, lit by an early Saturday sun, and found another favorite, Queen Anne’s lace (also known as wild carrot). Another beautiful, delicate invasive species. A magical flower, a huge array of tiny creamy white florets with one, single black/purple or ruby floret exactly in the center. How does Nature do that?
At the moment, I don’t have the heart to research whether the Tiger Swallowtail is native or invasive, I’m just thankful it stopped by when it did.
Whoever you are! you are he or she for whom the earth is solid and liquid,
You are he or she for whom the sun and moon hang in the sky,
For none more than you are the present and the past,
For none more than you is immortality.