Monday, June 20, 2011

If Fate's Cannon Misfires . . .

Bartram's house.
This weekend, I attended a loved one's wedding at a historical site in Philadelphia: Bartram's Gardens. John Bartram, sometimes called "The Father of American Botany," was a man who built his home, botanical garden and research site (all by himself), around 1770, a short walk above the banks of the Schuylkill River. The place is a small cluster of stone buildings nestled in among trees and the austere natural surroundings that are so characteristic of the northeastern part of the United States; surroundings that always feel so much like a warm blanket to me.

I have a deep interest in history. Mind you, I generally don't give a flying toenail about the ebb and flow of political currents; nor do I really care to memorize key dates, outside, maybe, of that all-important day of the Battle of Hastings, without which this blog would look much, much different and perhaps sound a bit more guttural. What interests me is people in history -- real people. I want to know what the fabric of their shirts felt like against their skin; I want to know what is was like to lie on a pallet, trying to get to sleep with rats scrabbling around in the thatched roof; I want to know what it felt like when the sun dropped out of sight without the relief of electric light.

Following the GPS, we found ourselves driving through West Philadelphia -- a place one wouldn't choose to walk through by night or day, fraught as it is by crime and its influential cousin, poverty. (Think Will Smith leaving his dangerous neighborhood to live with his auntie and uncle in Bel Air.) It seemed a pretty questionable choice for a wedding and reception, until you turned a hairpin turn and found yourself in another world -- the world of the Revolutionary Era. 

We sat in folding chairs in the shadow of the main house, under a roof of green leaves, on a spot where Washington and Franklin are said to have frequently taken tea with Bartram, and the ceremony began. I started to feel transported, until the engine of a motorcycle rev'ed on the street beyond the long driveway, and the distant voice of an angry man yelled profanely in the background .

No, the little voice in my head said. You're here. This is now.

A watercolor depiction by Carl Phillip Weber
(Schwarz Gallery, Philadelphia)
Then, after the ceremony, we were allowed to tour the house. Standing in a little room -- presumably the one in which Bartram would study, classify and sketch his botanical samples, I had a feeling; the feeling I have always gotten in such old places. I can remember this feeling as far back as the age of nine or ten, when I would be with my parents or my uncle in an historic place. I haven't had it in awhile, though -- not since laying my hand on the stone of a Roman lighthouse in Dover, England. I'd felt it in Grasmere, standing in Dove Cottage, looking at the couch on which Coleridge would lie, worn with his use of it. I'd felt it while looking at the hearth where I vividly imagined Dorothy Wordsworth removing the pot from the rack. I'd felt it hiking in the deep, solipsistic woods of the Conestoga Trail in Pennsylvania and on the battlefield at Yorktown.

Mostly, I feel it in buildings made by the hands of men -- buildings in which people lived, played, slept, prayed, studied by candlelight and in which they lay in death.

Standing in Bartram's study, I turned to my wife to tell her: "I feel like I'm home. I always feel like I am in the right place when I stand in historic houses like this." It's more than a connection to history -- it is a vivid sense, almost, that Fate's Cannon shot me too far upward on the timeline.

My dilemma: the cider press from the past,
the ugly present across the river
That night, as the reception music thumped on under a tent, my wife and I walked out on to the garden trail. Twilight was falling. The electric music faded, but remained a presence. I wanted to blot it out, but I couldn't. I felt a knot in my throat. I watched the river crawl by the Bartram's old cider press on its bank. I closed my eyes.

My wife's hand slipped into mine -- warm, human, alive and loving. Maybe "now" really is the only time. Maybe "then" is there to teach us to fear regret. Maybe "tomorrow" is the place in which to shape "now" into a time that encourages our souls to learn only to be still.

All the same, the door always feels open behind me as I walk through life -- and it always has -- and my footsteps on modern paths always feel a bit unsure.

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