Praising the Mutilated World

Photographs of oil slicks grace both my SLR gallery and my iPhoneography collection. "Grace" may seem like a strange word for pollution, but it is precisely what I mean. With a flick and a click in an image editor, spilled oil is shockingly beautiful.

I feared for awhile that if, by finding beauty in even these small degradations, I was ratifying them. Art often glorifies destruction, but I'm not sure it ever should. An exception might be in catharsis. I don't think it is actually destruction that is glorified in destructive catharsis, however. At any rate, spilled oil reminds me of the paradox that keeps me happily rooted to my Christian tradition: the notion that grace takes something broken and makes it stronger and more beautiful than it was before. This is the concept of felix culpa I've written about elsewhere. But it goes even deeper. Look at these two versions

Unsharp mask applied:

Original lens blur:

I could fix the softness of the pavement, but in doing so, I lost the glow, the light, the gentle gradations of color. This edit actually looks marred by pixelation, though it isn't. Even if there had been no lens blur to remove, I'm not sure sharpness would have enriched the image. In this case, "perfect" isn't perfect. Of course you may prefer the sharp edit, or you may have good advice for me on how to restore the positive attributes of light and color while keeping the unsharp mask, or you just might think I'm crazy for photographing and (over)saturating spilled oil at all. That's not really the point. Regardless of the relative merits of either image, my concept of perfection itself needed to change. Most photographers would consider overprocessing to be the mark of a rookie editor, but perhaps there is another, deeper case against it. Overprocessing is an assertion of control. It leaves no room for happy accidents or movements of a spirit outside of the artist. There's no humility in it.

When it comes to control, I'm guilty as charged. Yet here's another happy accident, whether you call it subconscious association, synchronicity, or the still, small voice of a Creator guiding the creativity of the created. I just realized that in cropping the oil slick into four bars, I'd echoed two great traditions of religious art: stained glass and mosaic. All this is grace: things broken and spilled, set together like gems in a new, unexpected, and more glorious whole.

"Try to Praise the Mutilated World"
by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world. 
Remember June's long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the grey feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns. 

"I and Nimrod Teaf Thought It the Last of the Earth": the Leonid Meteor Shower

Never mind the Mayans and December 21; you could wake to the heavens exploding as early as this Saturday morning. The Leonids are coming! Originating in debris from Comet Tempel-Tuttle and located near the constellation Leo in the eastern November sky, this meteor shower usually is a bit of a kitten at 10-15 meteors per hour. Honestly that will probably be the case this year. When the cat's fancy changes, however, fireballs roar across the atmosphere like kingdom come.

This most famous image of the 1833 Leonids is by Adolf Vollmy, who in 1889 based it on a painting that was in turn based on a first-hand account. It was once thought to be exaggerated, but both science and history seem to corroborate the engraving. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This most famous image of the 1833 Leonids is by Adolf Vollmy, who in 1889 based it on a painting that was in turn based on a first-hand account. It was once thought to be exaggerated, but both science and history seem to corroborate the engraving. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

You may think I'm having my rhetorical way with you. I'm not, though that's tempting. Comets and meteor showers are only semi-predictable. We know when they'll arrive, but their journeys bear enough variables to keep us somewhat in the dark about what they're packing. Meteor showers repeat at the same time every year because the comet debris of which they consist sits on mappable points of our orbit. The paths of their individual particles spread out somewhat due to the geyser effect of the comet's brush with the sun, however, and the tug of other planets can additionally warp these paths.

Comets also have their own elliptical orbits, and Tempel-Tuttle orbits closest to the sun -- or, if you want to be technical and use a lovely word, it reaches perihelion -- about every 33 years. Tempel-Tuttle's perihelion almost exactly intersects earth's own orbit, which means that in a perihelion year the sun is radiating formerly-icy comet dust at almost the same time that this dust hits earth's atmosphere. The result? Massive multi-colored fireballs that you can sometimes hear crackle and boom.

Did you get that? You can hear them! I'm not fabricating, and it gets even better. Sometimes at perihelion, when we pass through the thickest and most volatile part of the meteor stream, the snoozing cat of 10-15 meteors an hour wakes up and attacks. This is called a meteor storm. For an unforgettable hour in 1966, there were thousands of meteors per minute. Per minute! People describe instinctively reaching for an anchor because they felt as if they were rushing into space. I'm faint with envy over such a sight. It wasn't long ago, however, that people were faint with fear.

Meteor astronomy is a relatively new branch of an old science, and in the early part of the nineteenth century people didn't even know that meteor showers were annually predictable. Imagine, then, what it was like to wake up to a cosmic storm. It happened in 1833, and at least one woman died of fright. There are many wonderful accounts of what the sky looked like that night, but this one by John Tabor of Yellville, Arkansas, is my favorite:

Just before midnight, my brother woke up and was nearly paralyzed with fear at beholding the air filled with falling stars. When he was able to speak, he woke us all up and told us to hurry and get on our clothes for the world was coming to an end. I was almost stupefied with wonder and astonishment and hurriedly rose from my couch of bear skins and looked out that the door and saw the whole heavens as far as I could observe, brilliantly illuminated with hundreds and thousands of stars shooting swiftly down toward the earth. Apparently they would disappear or go out before reaching the ground. It was a grand and fearful sight. Like my brother, I and Nimrod Teaf thought it the last of the earth, and we all concluded that it was too late to pray and submitted ourselves to wait for the approach of our destruction . . . The grand display continued and our terror did not grow less. The night seemed a month long, and the end of the world had not come yet. At last, to our surprise, we noticed that day was breaking in the east and it looked as natural as it ever did. As we discerned the approach of day and as it grew lighter, we found that mother earth was still here and the end was not in sight. The flying meteors were gradually obscured by the light of day and we were left unharmed and as far as we knew, the earth remained intact.

All this drama came from particles weighing thousandths of a gram and measuring just a few millimeters across. I may abuse hyperbole sometimes, but when scientists say "particles," they mean particles. We owe the spectacle to the speed of each particle's collision with the atmosphere: upwards of 100,000 miles per hour.

No one can be sure of what you'll see in the hours between midnight and dawn on this Saturday morning, but unfortunately the Leonid perihelion isn't due again 'till 2032. if the Leonids are kittens on Saturday, try the Geminids in the early hours of December 13 and 14. There will be no lunar interference for either shower this year. Unlike the all-or-nothing Leonids, the Geminids consistently offer 50 meteors per hour. They're reliable, just like my beloved August Perseids. Still, wouldn't you love the chance to see that sleeping cat in Leo pounce one of these Novembers?  

Whichever shower you watch, take along a thermos of hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps, a warm blanket, a warm someone, and the jazz standard "Stars Fell on Alabama." It was written about the Leonid Storm of 1833, and it includes the line "we kissed in a field of white." You know what to do. Just don't close your eyes.

Definitions verified and cross-referenced via NASA,, Sky and Telescope, and Wikipedia. John Tabor account from Kwas, Mary L. "The Spectacular 1833 Leonid Meteor Storm: The View from Arkansas. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly. 58:3, Autumn 1999. 314-324.

Poems From Thin Places: Nativity

Swiss Postcard of Whitby Abbey, c. 1890-1905.  Color-corrected by Jan Arkesteijn. Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons.

Swiss Postcard of Whitby Abbey, c. 1890-1905.  Color-corrected by Jan Arkesteijn. Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons.

Ruined abbeys are my favorites. As I type that, however, I feel a pang of guilt; I'm fearing I might be falling into my old trap of valuing the natural sublime over the messier beauty of community. Can I defend myself? I think there is actually a special sort of community at a ruined abbey. The one at Whitby teeters at the edge of England, on a high cliff battered by the North Sea. Its roofless arches point straight to the majesty of the sky. Underneath all that glory, however, the comic effects of wind and the abundance of climbable stonework allow something just as worthy as awe or meditation. Whitby's ruins make an exhilarating place to play.

Whitby's most famous story reminds us just how vulnerable and sacred the act of play can be. The Venerable Bede -- he of that loveliest of names -- tells us that once upon a time, when the abbey was just as windswept but still had a roof to its credit, all its denizens would gather of an evening to pass around a harp. Caedmon, the lowly shepherd, could not sing or rhyme. Ashamed, he would creep out and sleep with his sheep rather than reveal the terror these entertainments induced. One night, an angel came to the stable, expressly demanding he sing. How frustrated he must have been! If one can't squawk out a tune for a bunch of unwashed monks and farmers, isn't it a bit cruel for a member of the heavenly host to demand a command performance? And what was he to do but try? Yet one would hope an angel always knows what he or she is about, and this one surely did. That night Caedmon, the first English poet, found his voice. 

by Katherine Leigh Carlson

In Whitby,
where the ribs of the ruined abbey 
card sea mist like wool, 
I think of the shepherd Caedmon 
going early to bed in the barn 
for fear that the harp would pass to him.

I think of him lying in the musty hay 
away from the warm light, 
the laughter, and the honey-colored mead 
inside, where he longed, but could not bear, to be.

Beside him the herd jostles quietly, 
steam rises from manure,
and wind seeps through the cracked door.

Then sudden crush of whiteness, 
chaos of animal screams,
and the voice of the angel
slicing away all other sound.

"Sing, Caedmon."
"I cannot!"
"Sing of all Creation."
So we lift our heads 
and sing.

Poems From Thin Places: an Introduction

Iona From the Ferry, September 2012
Copyright Katherine L. Carlson, All Rights Reserved

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) would memorialize moments of great significance in his journal with the phrase "I mark this day with a white stone." He said it on the golden afternoon in which Alice Liddell inspired his most famous character. One of my own white stone days  a day that has forever changed how I view the world  happened when visiting with an Englishwoman in Durham, Northumbria. Her name was Mrs. Baggott, and she told me about thin places.

"Oh, I see you're going to Iona!"  she said, looking at my itinerary. "That's a thin place, you know."

"A what?"

Maybe you know the term, but I didn't. Mrs. Baggott proceeded to explain that because of the tiny Hebridean island's rich spiritual history, Celtic Christians believe that the veil between heaven and earth is almost incorporeal on Iona. Some describe it as a place where the meetings of earth and sky, sea and land smooth away the tension of  our compartmentalized modern lives. Flesh and spirit, sacred and secular, earth and heaven  these dualities do not feel at odds on Iona. Mrs. Baggott told me to expect this, but of course I was skeptical. She was right, and then some. My three Iona days were some of the most saturated of my life, and all I did was walk around and eat.

"All I did was walk around and eat." It is tempting to claim that is the point — I cut out the noise of postmodern life and was thus able to experience existence at its essence. That is true, yet it seems at once high-blown and trite. It also tempts one toward a pattern to which I am vulnerable:  making everything into an abstraction that helps me sort out my own psyche. Abstraction is, after all, what Eric Weiner writes in his New York Times piece on thin places. What constitutes a thin place, in Weiner's argument, varies somewhat from person to person. It is the internal experience of being a traveler that matters. I like Weiner's point, yet it seems to plunder the places themselves. Thin places, as the Celtic tradition defines them, are not our journeys, our moments of transcendence, our escape from a cliched but real cultural paralysis. They're places. The literal nature of their "place-ness" is probably what smooths our tensions, and these places will go on existing in close connection with the numinous whether or not we visit them. They're not about us, and that's why they're so freeing to us. Then we (or at least Weiner and I) turn around and figure ourselves in reference to them anyway. What gives?  

I'm rather shocked by how literal I want to be right now. I'm less shocked that I'm not doing a good job. I'm not sure Weiner does either. He concludes his article by stating that  "Maybe thin places offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked."  Did you see that? Weiner's celebration of semi-subjective travel epiphanies just turned to outright and earthbound essentialism. The language with which people  myself and Weiner included  often describe thin places seems at once unusually objective and hopelessly navel-gazing. Likewise, when one waxes transcendental about an out-of-body experience, one relishes the memory of a departure from self that is nevertheless all about the self. Perhaps the most beguiling aspect of thin places resides in the fact that they allow us to inhabit a paradox. In a thin place, one can have an objective and subjective experience at the same time. But in talking about "us," I'm again defining objectivity in terms of my subjective experience. After all, humanities scholars like me make our living out of narratives of transcendence, even as we affirm that there is no such thing as a truly objective human experience. Where do we go from here?

When I set out to write this introduction to a forthcoming blog series on thin places, I thought I knew what I wanted to say. Now I'm left with questions. That's not a bad position, but it won't do much to tell you where this series is headed. Here's what I know. It was 2002 when I met Mrs. Baggott, learned about thin places, and first went to Iona. I was in my last year at Whitworth University, and when I returned to college I wrote a series of poems called "Notes From Thin Places." They've been moldering in their own mediocrity and the back of a filing cabinet, but I like some of them enough to trot them out for my blog. Like most writing, they're as much about the writer as they are about the scene. They can't themselves be thin places, because they're not places, and because they only amplify the tension between subjectivity and the longing for objective experience. I just hope that somehow these tensions can resonate. I'd love to hear your thoughts.