“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark . . .”
T. S. Eliot, “East Coker” (1940)
Men have always wondered where a thing is when it is no more. That a being should be simply subtracted from the world of beings offends our reason, since a being that can be not would seem not to have been in the first place. A world of things that can cease to be real must itself be an unreal world.
But there is against this deduction of universal maya and unbeing that booming and imperious I Am. Not only the great I AM that spoke to Moses from the burning bush that was not burnt, but also the innumerable lesser I Ams that declare themselves and then disappear into the dark.
What becomes of all these burning bushes that are burnt? Is every burnt bush simply subtracted from the world of beings? Or is their burning instead the means by which they are transport to the Real Land of Beings that Have Been Burnt?
* * * *
Mutability was on my mind before I learned of Tom’s death yesterday. Last Sunday I enjoyed a ramble to the Nacogdoches Escarpment, a low outcrop of sediments that were laid down on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico some forty-five million years ago. Owing to the activity of bacteria that then swarmed in the beds of coastal lagoons, these sediments are now rich in iron, and when the coastal plain began to rise two million years ago, low iron hills stood up to defy the blowing wind and battering rain.
The iron hills stood up and formed the Nacogdoches Escarpment, but even as they stood up, those hills began to burn. Even a ridge of iron hills must go at last into the dark, and so with every drop of rain, every puff of wind, the Nacogdoches Escarpment is by minute degrees subtracted from the visible world of being.
Some day long after you and I have been altogether burnt, these iron hills will be altogether burnt as well.
These iron hills are not a prominent feature, and I daresay most people hereabouts have not noticed them or heard their name. In this respect they are just like you and I. Like these iron hills, you and I are quietly crumbling, quietly burning, and yet still declaring, in the way of all mutable things that must be burnt:
I am burning and soon to be burnt but I Am
* * * * *
On my Sunday ramble I lingered in one particular cove of the Nacogdoches Escarpment, a cove cut by a stream that is now known as Pigeon Roost Creek. The pigeons that once roosted on this creek were almost certainly passenger pigeons, that multitudinous bird that once blackened the North American sky. The avian hoards of passenger pigeons declared I Am in this mutable world of beings, but these hoards now roost, if they roost at all, in the Land of Beings that Have Been Burnt.
And if they do, they roost on the branches of burnt trees, on the banks of burnt creeks, in the shadow of burnt hills.
Seventy years ago Aldo Leopold said this of the passenger pigeon.
“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”*
Indeed at long last even the hills will not remember because they too will be burnt and gone into the dark.
* * * * *
I find on the oldest maps that Pigeon Roost Creek was not always called by that name. On the oldest maps the creek is labeled Forky Deer Creek, forky deer being a vernacular name for a young two-point buck. This label is placed on the lower course of the creek, near its confluence with my old friend the Navasota River, but I must suppose it was applied to the headwater branches until they acquired names of their own.
In time, the right branch acquired the name of Pigeon Roost Creek and the left branch acquired the name of Clear Creek; and then, some lazy or ignorant cartographer blotted the name of Forky Deer Creek and extended the name of Clear Creek to the mouth of the stream.
Whether it was owing to ignorance or sloth, I deplore this blotting and have, in my private geography, restored the name Forky Deer Creek to the stream below the junction of Clear and Pigeon Roost Creeks. And after making this restoration, I discerned what I have elsewhere called toponymic serendipity and an eldritch sigh.
All beings begin their existence in this mutable world booming I Am. Indeed they do this with the brash assurance of what we call a “young buck” or forky deer. But all beings in this mutable world must ascend the creek called Forky Deer until they no longer feel the brash assurance of a “young buck.” Their two-point fork may have matured into an impressive eight-point rack, but in their hearts they know they are burning and soon will be burnt.
All beings in this mutable world must therefore come at last to the forks of Forky Deer Creek, and there must choose to follow either the branch known as Pigeon Roost Creek to the Real Land of Beings that Have Been Burnt, or the branch known as Clear Creek into the Unreal Land of Transparent Nonbeing.
And over this awful and mysterious decision point there frowns a crumbling iron hill.
*) Aldo Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon” (1947)