THE VEIL OF CREATION
by Robert Priddy
It has been said that when the noonday height of life passes, youthful enthusiasm is swallowed up in the sands of disappointment. There often sets in after mid-summer a duller season in which the eye sees only a desolate enigma and cannot imagine the mellowness and flowered fruitfulness of autumn. I had already lived for over a decade in the conviction that civilisation could soon end, having being introduced by an American to Rachel Carson's book The Silent Spring while I lived in Paris in 1962. Each year a new pending disaster to the world environment seemed to surface, including the threat to the ozone layer and from the rapidly-increasing accumulation of radioactive wastes. Though I made such matters themes in my teaching work, the struggle seemed futile. The society I lived in and studied was thought of as being progressive, yet to me its moral and spiritual degeneration seemed all too transparent. All Western countries were already then far behind in the necessary developments even to preserve the natural environment as we knew it, (not to mention the necessary concomitants; developing a truly just society and an authentic spiritually-oriented culture). Yet the future looked very bleak indeed, not more for myself than for civilisation.
I had long believed that the apparent substantiality of the world was but an appearance... yet one of which it was difficult fully to see through and was perhaps one to which I might be bound for the remainder of my life. I was convinced that everything visible and tanglible was a veil that was drawn across with the primaeval mists of creation. The materialists' account of life and the universe, for all the ingenuity and supposed scientific objectivity, I knew from certain experiences I once had to be based on short-sighted delusion. Yet how could we have a further glimpse of whatever eternal consciousness had perfected this show and informed its creatures of their duties? At times we were inclined to doubt all such notions as imaginings.
After all the years of dreadful apprehensions of coming material doom, must we finally accept the seemingly-inevitable view that makes the forest nothing but timber or exploitable bio-mass and turns the world into a place for greedy industrial wastefulness? How could there be any wonders in a forest in our day and age, anyhow, we thought at times. After all, the ills of civilisation - of city satiation - seem never entirely absent anywhere for long either.
Our withdrawal from the sphere of an Indian swami had left us in something of a disappointing vacuum and with a need for some new personal experiences to reorient and engender more spiritual faith. Meanwhile our involvement with nature was becoming closer and, in the autumn of 1975, Reidun and I moved to a house on the edge of an uninhabited forest. It was most extensive, dozens of miles long and several broad, gradually opening out into the great wooded tracts between Norway and Sweden. Being there beside it gave anticipations of the unknown, a sense of endlessness. But that comes later...
The woodland was varied, younger and more open on the fringes which bore some marks here and there of human need or greed. Deeper in, the forest was untouched and very old. In the freshness of its odour we were already prejudiced in its favour. From the start we never regarded it as timber nor as an object for the benefit of science or humanity, but as a creation far surpassing anything that science could devise or art truly imitate.
Often wearied in mind and dulled in spirit by the calls of city life and the world of man-made art and entertainment, we both felt the forest promised us the discovery of something lost behind the overlay of the modern mind. We learned its own lore only gradually, we were not aware of any mystery.
Of course there was the riddle of this forest's past. Local annals have since told us that it is known to have been penetrated at least since the early stone age. Its first regular human visitors appear to have been roving hunters, while settlers had visibly only lived close to the waterfront fringes of the fjord on either side of this narrowing peninsular. Here, sheer rock faces of several hundreds of feet hindered forays inland, compared to the ease of travel by water, at which the Norsemen were adept. Stone-age axe heads have been found in plenty near the waterfront but hardly ever inland. The dense oak forest that once dominated inland had later been burned off, probably mostly for the sake of cultivation. Most of the remaining oaks were hewed later on to provide wood for boats, timber houses and eventually perhaps stave churches, so that what remained was largely coniferous.
Yet local history was not our real interest. What drew us were the natural annals themselves in forest life everywhere, as well as in spoors, earth formations, remains and other signs. No natural historical collections of dead and dusty specimens for us, no scientific cataloguings in some stuffy archive. Rather the haunting night bark of deer or the soft eye of the dove on her nest within a rotted branch stump, looking out at us with steady, fearless caution. That beat hollow the pigeon-holes of any cabinet!
Our frequent, lengthening walks acquainted us with hundreds of individual trees, rocks, spaces... each with their own changing hues and shades, the subtleties of which grew on us. In these wilds a strong and even painful sense of longing could arise like nowhere else. Neither the joys of personal love nor mental and bodily pleasures could fulfil it or substitute for it. This longing called for some further source... and yet what, I didn't know.
Things were not to be forced. The repeated call of mundane duties, travelling to town dulled the finer, more etheric faculties and we lost touch with the more tenuous spheres, failed to recall the glimpses nature's stillness gave us of some buried temple beneath the strata of memory. Neither were visits from friends conducive to retrieving the atmosphere or the vision. It slipped away unnoticed.
One of the first clues to what on the way was some coloured sands. Several of us were picknicking on an out-of-the-way high forest tract that was difficult of access. We came across a grandfather of a Scots pine that had fallen to display its huge root system, like the flat wheel of some ancient juggernaut chariot. On the ground which the roots had covered I noticed a patch of bright red sand. Soon we had found several similar patches, of which the colours were entirely different!
To our perplexity, there were eight adjoining patches of distinctly different colours, lying packed where the roots could be seen to have spread among them, slightly intermingled at the edges and surrounded by brownish sandy earth. The colours were red, ochre, brown, golden yellow, lilac-blue, pale green and silver! A close survey left us entirely baffled. The sandy earth formed a hardened mound that appeared exactly to fit the die of the root system that had recently been its lid, so no-one could have placed these here. The sample we took of each of the coloured sands stood unexplained on our porch for some years.
The sand had been runnelled by earth ants and similar burrowing insects, but it seemed too fantastic to assert that these thousands of different grains of sand could have been collected and sorted by such creatures. The tree must have been close to its century, growing among many similar ancients. The spot was isolated in an area never known to have been inhabited.
No explanation has so far been forthcoming. I am convinced that mere chance cannot be called upon to dipose of the enigma, while I am equally sure that it was our good fortune to come across it. Most importantly, this conundrum was a subtle signpost to what was beyond.... there was more to be found there than mere reason presumes.
At the peak of the late, intensified Northern spring, the longest day of the year only weeks away, the birds begin their morning chorus little by little around dawn close to four a.m. From our verandah and across a shrub-enclosed lake, the fringe of tall spruce and silver birch rose up towards a broad, steep rock bastion at the top of which began the deep forest. The first call of a warbler from the lake was eventually repeated, then was very slowly taken up by others. The pure coo of doves resounded from the rock cliff and soon, from beyond it a chorus began to resound from the deep distance, heralding that the sun was already rising in the upland forest.
From our verandah and across a shrub-enclosed lake, the fringe of tall spruce and silver birch rose up towards a broad,steep rock bastion, at the top of which began the deep forest. The first call of a warbler from the lake was eventually repeated, then it was very slowly taken up by others, the pure coo of doves resounding from the cliffs. An underlying, broad silence seemed to call for respect even from the songsters, until a distant chorus began to sound from up in the forest itself, heralding sunrise already up there.
The great bowl of space above the lake was gradually interspersed with calls; the piping of flycatchers, the thrumming woodpecker, the sharp cries of passing swallows and the occasional grating of magpie. By some natural timing, the silence was portioned out by call and response, its interplay shifting, its intensity swelling, wave upon wave... always changing direction and proximity, fresh inspirations of warbling, piping or grating carrying down to the lakeside birds too. That long chorus was like a call to us. Some day, vaguely we promised, we would be up there for the sunrise too.
In the Nordic summer, twilight still reigns even at midnight, if it is cloudless. We would sit up at night thriving on the tang of birch-scented air like nectar-drinking moths. So it was that, one such night we discovered it was so late, about an hour before sunrise, that we might as well keep our promise.
Arm in arm, lazing on each pace, we moved together as one up the long, twisting trackway that climbed the bastion escarpment. In a clearing on the edge of the forest stood a disused farmstead, just a small patch of open land feet deep in grasses, wild flowers and a nursery of self-sown aspen and birch. We entered to the whirring wings of the shy wood pigeons leaving their favourite spot. Twilight gave way to that clearness that arises some time before sunrise.
The maples opposite the decaying barn quivered, waving branches on the hesitant breeze like the beckoning motions of asiatic dancers with lanterns; perhaps a ritual to banish any ill spirits that we might be harbouring. A great hush came over us, insisting on peace and dispelling the remnants of our conversation.
The first bird call pinpointed the pristine quiet. We stepped with care amid tall pollen-laden grasses, clover and agrimony surrounding the old blue-painted farmhouse. The overgrown garden was an unending flow of images; subtle white yarrow and saxifrage, boulders embellished with cameos of rock-algae, stone-wort and molds, the swirl of flying insects with burnished bodies and diaphanous wings.
Sitting together among the damp fronds of timothy and feathery grasses, we heard the tiniest whirring of an approaching mosquito. I felt sure that it would leave us in peace if we accepted its presence unperturbedly. Indeed, the inquisitive creature buzzed around us a bit at close range, turned a few loops nearby and made off towards the forest.
The forest! We turned involuntarily. The deep mass of conifers rose up with startling presence. So absorbing was the atmosphere that we lost any sense of self or seperateness. It was as if the forest's own venerable solemnity allowed us to approach it, at once anciently awesome as if to imply; 'I exist in my own right'.
We entered slowly, each step a revelation of the further intricacy of its being; the variety of its forms, the play of shades and light through its many spaces. Aged spruce and pine held sway over the uneven terrain where straggled a knee-high undergrowth of juniper, bilberry and cranberry bushes. The random arrangement of every branch, each hummock strewn with pine needles and cones, revealed the natural secret of diverse profusion.
Tingling with long-lost freshness and thin rays of light, the track we followed wound underfoot between root-entwined rocks and resilient patches of moss. Wordlessly, we came to an inner sanctum of the eldest forest tract, a small meadowy clearing. Here we had sometimes found the fresh tracks of the king of the pine forests, the great elk. On this morning, though, his silent majesty was away elsewhere.
Tall and jagged spruce surrounded the open space and on the tallest of them. This tree stood apart from the wall of conifers nearby and was majestically well-formed. As I approached it, a small chaffinch chortled away from its perch on the top of the very uppermost needle spire. A long, long moment of realisation dawned on me: "here is life itself, and your life too!" All at once, I knew myself to be at the very physical peak of my life, deep within this ancient forest. It was as though the tree before me was my counterpart, a reflection of my own good fortune, both more or less at our fullest height and in the full bloom of summer. It appeared to me now as an embodiment of the Tree of Life. The great energy I sensed in this tree was also in myself, streaming through my own being, yet none of this created by me. The perfection of a tree, or of a full-grown and healthy body, are not really the works of man. I tried to imagine the power and exhuberance that it must takes to create the entirity of things... it was inconceivable.
In those moments, I also saw with unusual distinctness how this unique, thrusting nature would be reduced by the coming seasons, slowly but slowly. Sinking back towards the earth, the occasional loss of branches to heavy snows and wind, perhaps an uprooting by storm or a motorised desecration by man, then a slow process of return to the earth... not wasting away but the re-distribution of its trapped energies by woodpecker, ants, fungi... a thousand varieties of tiny being. Above all, though, this puissance of creation would not be lost but redistributed to go on as before.
But then I was still filled with the streaming ease of limb, confidence in life and deep longings to answer its call. My realisation was one of joy tempered by sadness... nothing other to do than plunge further straight into life and to do so with greater intensity. Steer clear, go further, explore new realms... stop all absurd private moaning and bring more honesty to bear on the greater truth ahead. Another great surge of optimism flowed, the regenerative enthusiam that infuses the spirit so that it should not degenerate. This was not a moment I had planned or designed, it was no invention of the scheming mind, but it was reality outwitting the mind with its far greater scheme... the grand design of earth itself and the purpose beyond all things.
The resilient energy surged through me, rising from my feet like sap entering every fibre. I leapt about exhuberantly, from tussock to mound for the joy of it. An infallible effortlessness of movement bore us on into the older wilderness. Beneath that conifer canopy that jostled high above the tapering trunks, was a world of subtle browns and greys. Tall ant heaps stood here and there. Grisly-ochre lichen clung to rocks and fallen trunks. It was a hoary scene of legends where it would have been fitting had some wise wraith arisen before us to say 'the secret is to dwell on these ceaseless perspectives without losing your true aim'.
Morning light filtered down through a thinning in the spruce ceiling to show a mottled green and yellowish blend of ferns and worts patterning a great stretch of sphagnum moss that carpeted the ground. We sank to our ankles in its luxurious springiness. A particular clump attracted me. It was created as if by the intersertion of opposing patterns of symmetry, broken by other symmetries to construe an eye-deluding miracle of detail. Its coloured softness, intangible qualities... I prostrated myself to receive its fragrance and was transported to exactly where I longed to be. This ambrosial home-from-home, telling of home sweeter than home... never to be forgotten, spoke of the ineradicability of being that survives all aeons. All in one 'mere' piece of moss.
An entire sea of indescribably-configured moss on which a dreamer might float carefree for ages. Throwing ourselves full-length into it, we breathed in its scent. There I rested in the certainty that pure nature is ever and ever rising anew, unsullied and indestructable.
Yes! Deep within it was clear to us that even the blindest ravages, the most wanton desecrations in the name of more power, however dangerous, appear only as transient shadows compared to the procreativity of the earth. Yet it was of small concern there and then beside the fact of that vivyfying power which inspires all life and which survives every invention of mankind.
There was no call to remain longer, so we raised ourselves, each from the body-dies we had sunk in that nirvanic mould. Strolling out towards the nearest sunlit space, we emerged. There again was the old farmstead, emblazoned by oblique sun rays and effulgent with Aegean blue. The richness of the light regaled and overwhelmed the senses. Everywhere, sharp details stood forth; the patchwork wings of tiny butterflies, the involuted veins both of dock leaves and of the weather-worn planking of the decaying barn...
Lichen-encrusted apple trees had run wild beside the empty-windowed farmhouse, their untended confusion mingling with old blue lilacs that had probably reverted back, now nearly like the marine blue wall against which they spread. We climbed and sat a while in the sturdy forks of one of the old apples.
Soon the suns rays were spreading dozens of rainbow haloes through the prismic dew droplets that shimmered on a network of threads among the grasses. We watched until the incandescent flashes and their spectral arcs faded when the rising sunrays shifted angle.
As we finally turned in thankful obeisance to the spirit of that place, a breath of wind was stirring the maples again. We left the homestead, retracing our path. At the edge of the escarpment we took in the great spread of Oslo fjord with its sleeping, inhabited world below.
The swelling tail-end of the morning chorus accompanied our downward way, past two breakfasting mallards who came up and eyes us softly. Way below us, an early vehicle went by with a low hum as I held onto the delicate strands of memories of the deep forest peacefulness.
We meandered across a rise above the lake before our house. Young crows were volplaning down from their lookouts atop the tallest pines. They flapped and tumbled about each other in mid-air, falling with series of flops like crazed clowns through the snowy blossoms of a pear tree .
Suddenly, without warning, our attention was caught at what we knew was the same instant. At the centre of the lake an extraordinary single great flash of white-gold light lit the still, black-shadowed water surface. We were transfixed, blinded for some moments. Again, a momentous quiet filled us, yet one which brought us to ourselves as surely as might some huge ceremonial gong.
The shaft of light moved across the surface like a rolling orb of white fire to one breath of breeze. All at once the water began to dance, splitting the reflected sun into thousands - then millions - of leaping sparks. The patterns of light dots criss-crossed the wavelets faster than sight could trace them. In breathless suspense we watched the mesmeric display unfold itself across the entire lake, design shooting forth out of design with exquisite surprise and rapidity, expanding and expanding as though the shore of the lake were no hindrance. Perfections of form and movement kept on exploding outwards from their single source of creation, the sun.
In a glimpse of utter transparency that surpassed any hitherto, a mindful unity radiated out to us from the elemental depth from which all this water and light issued. It was incomprehensible yet entirely real... an intelligence whose awareness shone through from within all this.
As if to confirm once and for all that this was a true revelation,every movement slowed as each flash of light contracted towards the centre again where they fused together with finality. There remained the one unmoved orb of white fire on the stillness.