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Barn, we wheeled and, with empty Colt, I started to reach for my saber, when all of hell’s heat cooled, the devil’s din rescinded; my mount threw her head back, and I did as well.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.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Journal Entry: Brandy Station, Virginia; June 10, 1863
For months, The 9th Virginia Cavalry had become like phantoms, in all places at once. The rumor that we were riding was as real as if we were. If the opposing commanders believed we were in the area, they turned and retreated as if we were at their flank. A well placed lie whispered by the women of the town was as good as the truth. We loom large as legends, whether we rode with Rooney Lee or JEB Stuart himself.
This week, the whole of the Confederate Cavalry paraded before General Robert E. Lee at Brandy Station. Never had I seen so many horsemen; there were near 9,000 men charging in mock battles as the colors waved, the ladies swooned, and there at the front of it all was the beau sabreur, General J.E.B. Stuart. We paraded as the invincibles, superior to all, Stuart’s Star, the bright light of Lee’s Legions. Alas, parades are pretend, a play upon a stage; once we dismounted, the men and their mounts were exhausted. We are daring, but depleted. The whole of Virginia is depleted. There is little food and no rest for horseman or horse, but to reach the third act, the second act must be played out, no matter how terrifying, no matter how reluctant the players. Thus, continues the second act…
The dark before next dawn brought, charging across the river, a Federal cavalry force, even larger than our own; perhaps 11,000 Federal troopers in what became an unimaginable grotesque lasting from 4am until nightfall. A hornets’ nest of sabers and pistols; the buzz and whistle of savage stings all around our heads; arms flailing wildly with reins in one hand, a sword in the other; wild-eyed horses colliding in confused canter. Many boys were half dressed riding bareback, because they were just waking, running into battle. A more sanguinary scene I have never seen. Dante and Virgil witnessed a lesser hell than this.
In the aftermath tonight, I look around this camp, hear the whispers, and see that we are what Dante and Homer called the Shades, the shadows of the dead. No longer the invincibles, we are torn, bloodied, defeated even in victory. Truly, we are the shades, or in Latin “umbra”, but actually, we are “penumbra”, almost shadow; the dead that do not know yet they are dead. We appear to be everywhere when we are nowhere. If we are to join the shades and whispers, may it not be in the shadows; I must bring these boys back into the light.
Friday, October 15, 2010
Today’s image is from the 1903 Jones Fourth Reader, a wonderful old reading textbook for fourth and fifth graders. It contains many beautifully detailed wood engravings, including this one from a short selection taken from Through the Looking Glass. The smaller size shown above does not compare to the full resolution image gained by clicking once, and then clicking again to the largest image.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
With Fredericksburg secured by our artillery on the heights, the entire Federal Army determined to move west and cross the Rapidan River at Ely’s Ford on their mission to reach Richmond. This route runs right through my farm; the entire area from the Wilderness Tavern east up the Plank Road to the church and Chancellorsville has, this week, seen nearly two hundred thousand troops battling where just a few families make their homes, leaving not one chicken, not one cow, not one growing grain. The Wilderness Tavern, at my property edge, was once the scene of lively parties; now a hospital, a scene of death. It will be remembered now as the site where General Jackson had his arm amputated; he has been removed to the south and should recover. Were this not my father’s fathers’ home, I would follow Betty west where there is true wilderness, for my Wilderness shall never seem the same; though the earth and soil are remarkably resilient, I fear I am not. The whispers I once heard have turned to screams and I cover my ears.
We have ridden 80 miles in just the last 24 hours chasing Stoneman’s Cavalry back across the Rapidan. I am within a mile of my home and have not seen it; my house and the blacksmith shop may not even be standing. I am told that the fine family home of our friend, Ves Chancellor, burned to the ground under shot and shell. My house is not so fine, but it is where my mother gave birth to me and where I have always expected to see my own children born.
With tens of thousands more casualties over the last few days, we rest a day, before we ride again. Even outnumbered ten to one, we know this landscape; we are this land. We know the roads and routes that make up this region and how to move undetected through the tangle of trees. They should have known where this would lead; we would not run from our homes. So now, the Federal Army has at last retreated back north across the river, but they will return to this route, renewed and resolved to take Richmond. They have seemingly unlimited resources and, through depletion, will whittle my world down to its last little bit of split wood, leaving only a splinter.
Five yards off to my left, a flash of red, white, and black dresses a downy woodpecker hanging upside down, inspecting every inch of a split rail fence, before leaving unrequited. I watch now in rapture. He knows his task, moving up and down along each rail seeking sustenance; he does not feel sorry for himself at the lack left behind by the thousands of invaders; he moves along the rail, doing what he must. The Virginia Pamunkey Indians say that the red crest of the downy woodpecker is its cap of courage. Surely, the whispers have sent him to me this day that I might find courage as well.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Tonight, we are having our first food in 36 hours. Minutes after my last journal entry, we took to horse and have barely dismounted in those five days while opposing Stoneman’s Cavalry. Being a courier for W.H.F. Lee affords me a better mount than most; I am on my third fresh horse this week, which is worrisome, as this latest is a stallion captured from the Federal Cavalry. An undisciplined mount is likely to take the wrong path when pushed. Just today, Lieutenant Boulware of Company B was taken prisoner when, unaccustomed to battle, his new horse bolted, taking him beyond the charge and straight into the hands of the Federal Army. He was not seen again; hopefully he will be paroled and not sent off to the prison camps; death is more desirable than the disease and despair along the dead line at the Fort Delaware Death Pen.
Though there is much to say, I am too tired to hold my pencil and I see the General in deep conversation with Colonel Beale. Soon enough we will remount to meet the raiders again.
Friday, October 8, 2010
Give the image a click or two to download the hi-res file.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
I had heard that the war has forced Cousin Betty to stay out at Greenwood, past the Orange County Court House, about fifteen miles west of the Wilderness. My curiosity about the nurse named Whitman and my longing for an excuse to travel alone spurred me down those familiar plank roads to find her. By desire or design, I found her there, packing to move further west to Lexington with her family. She was surprised and happy to see me; so many friends and relatives shall not be seen again. She took me aside and told me about the books she had hidden at Ellwood. After a short visit, I said goodbyes, as I was eager to return to Ellwood; in this lunacy that we have substituted for society, we never know when some cold soldiers will use fine old books for fire starter.
I was elated to find three books on her library shelf secreted behind thick volumes of Wordsworth and Tennyson. Betty told me that these books would not be considered proper reading for a lady. Betty always appeared proper, but I knew well her sly little smile when she had a mischievous thought, and she had many, mostly when the men in the parlor smoked cigars and pontificated about grand ideas; thoroughly pompous elder statesmen they were, and thoroughly unread.
I gave the caretaker at Ellwood a note from Betty to borrow the books and have used every free minute this last two months to read them. The first book was quite new, only a couple years old; Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. There are passages on evolution in this large scientific exploration that are so beautiful, I feel I am reading poetry, not botany or biology. I can see why this volume was kept hidden; there would be no peace in the parlor with a debate raging about where we originated.
The second book, with a penciled inscription on the front page, was bought in Boston at the Old Corner Bookstore in 1855. This small volume of poems would be even more shocking and risqué to the elders; Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, the very same man that was nursing soldiers at Fredericksburg. Whitman's name does not even appear on the book, except on the copyright and in one of the untitled poems; I assume because he feels he is one of the many; the many voices of America. Marianna said he had accompanied the hospital train back to Washington in January. These poems are rough and flamboyant, but it is a book that puts into poetry my thoughts and whispers of this last year; if I could actually write from my deepest heart, these would be my words. That such a being walked in the halls, just across the river, where I have walked is beyond my comprehension. From the other side of the river, there comes this voice so powerful that I shall never be the same. Had Marianna not met this man and forwarded his presence to me, I might have traveled this land a lifetime and never known that there is a voice for us all; a voice for America and the world. Both of these books leave me with the belief that originally we all grew out of one, and remain one with all.
The third book, Hermetic Mystery, a book on Alchemy, was published anonymously in 1850. It contains much arcane language, so it has been very hard to read, but one alchemical dictum reached me and put sense into the nonsense of this war. In Latin: Solve et Coagula — "dissolve and coagulate". Separate, and Join Together. This seems so right; our loose union of states necessarily had to be broken down completely in order to rise again in a new form, a pure and whole union.
In just three books, each recently written by a poet, a scientist, and a mystic, there is hope in a hopeless world, a promise of a new age of enlightenment. At last, I can see beyond my madness and the hysteria of this world. All of my questions have not been answered; I do not ask that they should, but this short verse from the Whitman book has given me a guideline to pull upon:
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that where-soe’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
These words are not my own, I pass them along as they were passed to me. One need only open books and read; all words, all worlds will open to them and be known.
Friday, October 1, 2010
Winter is when our Mother Earth breathes in, so it is difficult to tell exactly what is happening inside her, until she breathes out again in springtime, revealing once again an effluence of loveliness. All the botanical science in the world does not take away the magic and majesty of that breath. I am glad to live in a region where we see the seasons so distinctly.
For Free Friday this week, I offer for your free use in projects, a favorite image of mine, a wood engraving from the 1858 book, How Plants Grow from the Botany for Young People series by Harvard Professor, Asa Gray, M.D. The text for Figure 41 reads, “The acorn with the seedling Oak growing from it; the seed-leaves remaining in the shell, but feeding the strong root which grows downwards and the stem which shoots so vigorously upwards.”
Give the image a click or two to download the hi-res file. We are all sowing seeds of one sort or another.