Saturday, October 30, 2010
This battlefield is an unnatural arena; a sweeping sylvan vista transformed into a barren burial ground. The birds and deer are always the first to sense the shift from living to dying. At Chancellorsville, a covey of quail were the first warning that Confederate forces were at the Federal flank. Small animals are quick to leave with the first roar of artillery and many a man might follow if common sense prevailed over duty, which it seldom does. If there were common sense in this world, we would be in a more peaceful place.
After the battle, the first to return are the vultures, high in the dead trees waiting. Waiting is what they do; spreading their wings wide to warm in the morning sun, and then rising high at midday to circle. Since childhood, I would watch them circle as I ran to the spot below them to insure the prey was not a foal or calf; some poor pup injured and watching them circle above, waiting. Still, it is what they do; they remove what life has released.
This week at Gettysburg, there will be much waiting. The bodies of men are removed from the field within a day, though sometimes two or three days pass due to horrendous numbers. The horses cut down on the field of battle will remain until the vultures for the carrion come.
Listen; are those falling leaves or tiny wings.
Obsculta; it is the first word in The Rule of Saint Benedict. Obsculta; careful listening from deep within the heart; listening for the sound beyond silence; listening to know you are not alone. It is a gift given, or an acquired calling. I have had the gift, the calling, the curse, since Fredericksburg; I hear the birds before flight, the bees before buzz; the movement in the air, the whisper, if you will.
Obsculta at the Rummel Barn east of Gettysburg; the heat of July sun, the heat of cannon fire, the heat of hell itself, east of Gettysburg, July third. With General Lee wounded and captured, I am no longer his courier, and I ride into the fray with my fellow troopers, pistoled, sabered, and fortunately, a better horseman than any Federal trooper I encountered. Fortunate too, to have a Quarter horse, taken two weeks ago from a fresh young Federal recruit who preferred running to riding as he retreated. This horse and I went full gallop across that field, firing to the front and no man could stop us. When we reached the Rummel Barn, we wheeled and, with empty Colt, I started to reach for my saber, when all of hell’s heat cooled, the devil’s din rescinded; my mount threw her head back, and I did as well. And there, above, a sight I had not seen; birds above the battlefield; too high to identify, too small for vultures; circling; circling the insanity. Flying in ever smaller circles, eventually reaching a center, where they appeared to float above unmoving, unmoved. Obsculta. I could hear them in my heart and I followed, centered, unmoving, unmoved. I could see as they saw, as birds above the battlefield, above time and beyond it.
An exploding canister behind me brought my attention back to the field of battle, which had moved to the west. I dismounted and slowly walked from the barn across to the ridge, where I sat on the remnants of a split rail fence cut clean down by carbines. There is so little to say about what I have seen, the saying of it seems so small and scarcely touches it at all, as if I write with disappearing ink; the real scene disappears, replaced by inadequate words. Writing, talking are each inadequate; listening is all that is real.
The images that appear with these journal posts are not final art pieces. They are simply a montage of elements I have chosen that may become parts of the final exhibit art. This is a work in progress.