"I too, have mused upon the way
The sun comes up and makes the day,
The tide goes out and makes the shore,
And many, many matters more;
And coaxed till I was out of breath
My mind to take the hurdle, Death.
I, too, have writ my little book
On ‘Things ‘Twere Best to Overlook’
And struck a match and drawn a cork
And called a spade a salad-fork,
For men that are afraid to die
Must warm their hands before a lie;
The fire that’s built of What is Known
Will chill the marrow in the bone."
- Edna St. Vincent Millay, Journal
We usually visit Huntington Gardens in Pasadena in the spring, when the wisteria is in bloom in the Japanese Garden. But we went there this past week with visiting family. It’s been years since I’ve seen the place in late September.
We walked past the Japanese house, and down through the deep shade of the jungle garden, beneath old growth trees, some of which are 100-year old cypress trees hung with air roots that start out as hanging vines, looking like they were designed for some old Tarzan movie. It was cooler there, than in the bright autumn sunshine, and the breeze carried a primeval forest smell that awoke that caveman deep inside my brain. Or maybe it was the sound of crickets in the dark undergrowth, making the sound that Amy Lowell (in her poem “Late September”) described as “the scrape of insect violins” in the middle of a bright sunny day.
Whatever triggered it, the experience reminded me that I frequently try to make sense of things beyond my ability to understand, and that I should take a break sometimes. I realized that I’m always looking for purposeful plan or pattern; some proof that things always work out for the best. Walking down the deserted jungle path, provided some perspective of my temporary place in the universe.
It’s hard for me to confront the reality of a universe that operates outside of some moral order, randomly stringing effects and causes like God’s dice game; where outcomes evolve from chance more than some unperceived purpose. Edna’s poem conjures the image of man as a microscopic caveman lost in a dark forest, warming our hands before a fire made from our puny scientific and technological accomplishments.
There in the jungle path, the fire of man’s accomplishments gave out not even a pinprick of light, or of faith. And, however briefly, I enjoyed the sense of being surrounded by infinite darkness and the mysteries of the universe, and of confronting death without fear. Or, if not without fear, then without despair.