What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after death — Intimations of mortality and the joys of life on Great Wilbraham Common

Cows and bullocks on Gt Wilbraham Common
I was pretty much wiped-out by last week and, on Monday and Tuesday (my "week-end"), I didn't have a great deal of energy to spare. Still, there was enough to go out on Monday for a short cycle ride out to Fen Ditton with Susanna (my wife) to have a pub lunch by the river and, today, to cycle and walk the footpaths running from Cambridge over to Great Wilbraham Common.

I stopped for a very pleasant lunch on a footbridge over the Little Wilbraham River and again, for a flask of tea, on the Common itself.

As I have said, I was pretty tired and, as I drunk my tea, I felt the overwhelming desire to lie down in the warm autumn sun and have a quick doze. When I woke up, above me in the sky, at a height of perhaps only about fifty feet, was a Red Kite, and I watched him circle directly over me two or three times. Perhaps he had spotted some of his more usual fare nearby where I lay, a rabbit or mouse, but that was not how it felt — it seemed to me that this bird had come to take a good look at me to see if I might be a free lunch. It was only when I moved that he finally flew off to seek out a more promising spot on the Common.

Now this is a highly unusual experience in the generally safe English countryside and the only other time I have ever felt "eyed-up" as a target by an animal has been on those few occasions when I have found myself in a field with only a very large bull for company.

I was instantly minded of a poem I have long admired by the American poet Robinson Jeffers — but this time it had a substantially more visceral effect upon me:

Vulture by Robinson Jeffers

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside 
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up 
     in heaven, 
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit 
narrowing, 
     I understood then 
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers 
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer. I could see the 
     naked red head between the great wings 
Bear downward staring. I said, 'My dear bird, we are wasting time here. 
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.' But how beautiful 
     he'd looked, gliding down 
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light 
     over the precipice. I tell you solemnly 
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and 
     become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes — 
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after 
     death.

(Robinson Jeffers: The Wild God of the World)

I was thrilled, both by the encounter with the Red Kite and by the fact that I, too, had felt something of the sorrow Jeffers felt — although I have to be careful here to make it clear, as Jeffers does, that my old bones still work and in my own life there seems still much work to be done (and which, usefully and joyously, can be done); but still, to be eaten by such a beautiful bird would surely be a sublime end — and, yes, what an enskyment, what a life after death.

I realise, of course, that this thrill is perhaps only going to be felt those of us who think "life after death" is not at all going to be about personal survival and everything about understanding, in the here and now (or under what Spinoza called "sub specie aeternitatis"), that it is all about being taken back into the hurley burley cycles of nature (natura naturans).

This thought about the "cycles of nature" sent me back to a poem by Gary Snyder called "For/From Lew" (in my memory, of course, because I had none of these texts with me on the Common). When we recorded the first Riprap CD we recorded a setting this poem and that experience sent me off to find out all about Lew Welch who quickly became a poet to whom I have constantly returned. You can read something of his life at this link but what is relevant here is that, after years of struggling with his own low sense of self-worth and a debilitating dependency on alcohol, he took himself off into the woods with a hunting rifle and was never seen again. People, like Gary Snyder, looked for him but no one found his body. There's no real mystery here for Lew's body was almost certainly eaten by wild animals or birds. Later, Gary Snyder, wrote the following poem, a kind of revelatory ghost story:

For/From Lew by Gary Snyder

Lew Welch just turned up one day,
live as you and me. "Damn, Lew" I said,
"you didn't shoot yourself after all."
"Yes I did" he said,
and even then I felt the tingling down my back.
"Yes you did, too" I said—"I can feel it now."
"Yeah" he said,
"There's a basic fear between your world and
mine. I don't know why.
What I came to say was,
teach the children about the cycles.
The life cycles. All other cycles.
That's what it's all about, and it's all forgot."

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader)

Well, still lying there in the sun, I remembered and the memory of it lifted my spirits. I got up to begin my ride home with real gratitude for "it all".

When I got home and opened up the volumes in which these poems appear by chance I opened up the Snyder book at the following poem:

For Lew Welch in a Snowfall by Gary Snyder

Snowfall in March:
I sit in the white glow reading a thesis
About you. Your poems, your life.

The author's my student,
He even quotes me.

Forty years since we joked in a kitchen in Portland
Twenty since you disappeared.

All those years and their moments—
Crackling bacon, slamming car doors,
Poems tried out on friends,
Will be one more archive,
One more shaky text.

But life continues in the kitchen
Where we still laugh and cook,
Watching snow.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader)

Well,  I'm writing this post in the kitchen where Susanna and I are laughing and cooking (Toad in the Hole). True, there is no snow falling, but there is a now an autumn chill in the air and we both know winter is not all that far away. But, yes, yes, yes, life continues in kitchen, here and all around the world and that is surely cause to celebrate and to lift a glass "To Life!", "To Lew Welch" and "To the Red Kite" who eyed me up for lunch.
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