The Ordeal of Richard Feverel

This passage refers to the previous post on E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End:  Connecting with Nature in Forster’s Forests

The Ordeal of Richard Feverel by George Meredith is referred to by Mr. Bast in Howard’s End as leading to his own desire to walk through forests all night.  Bast mentions it is in the Chapter called ‘Nature Speaks’

From Chapter 42 

Nature Speaks


 Telling Austin he would be back in a few minutes, he sallied into the air, and walked on and on. “A father!” he kept repeating to himself: “a child!” And though he knew it not, he was striking the key-notes of Nature. But he did know of a singular harmony that suddenly burst over his whole being.

The moon was surpassingly bright: the summer air heavy and still. He left the high road and pierced into the forest. His walk was rapid: the leaves on the trees brushed his cheeks; the dead leaves heaped in the dells noised to his feet. Something of a religious joy — a strange sacred pleasure — was in him. By degrees it wore; he remembered himself: and now he was possessed by a proportionate anguish. A father! he dared never see his child. And he had no longer his phantasies to fall upon. He was utterly bare to his sin. In his troubled mind it seemed to him that Clare looked down on him — Clare who saw him as he was; and that to her eyes it would be infamy for him to go and print his kiss upon his child. Then came stern efforts to command his misery and make the nerves of his face iron.

By the log of an ancient tree half buried in dead leaves of past summers, beside a brook, he halted as one who had reached his journey’s end. There he discovered he had a companion in Lady Judith’s little dog. He gave the friendly animal a pat of recognition and both were silent in the forest-silence.

It was impossible for Richard to return; his heart was surcharged. He must advance, and on he footed, the little dog following.

An oppressive slumber hung about the forest-branches. In the dells and on the heights was the same dead heat. Here where the brook tinkled it was no cool-lipped sound, but metallic, and without the spirit of water. Yonder in a space of moonlight on lush grass, the beams were as white fire to sight and feeling. No haze spread around. The valleys were clear, defined to the shadows of their verges; the distances sharply distinct, and with the colours of day but slightly softened. Richard beheld a roe moving across a slope of sward far out of rifle-mark. The breathless silence was significant, yet the moon shone in a broad blue heaven. Tongue out of mouth trotted the little dog after him; couched panting when he stopped an instant; rose weariedly when he started afresh. Now and then a large white night-moth flitted through the dusk of the forest.

On a barren corner of the wooded highland looking inland stood grey topless ruins set in nettles and rank grass-blades. Richard mechanically sat down on the crumbling flints to rest, and listened to the panting of the dog. Sprinkled at his feet were emerald lights: hundreds of glow-worms studded the dark dry ground.

qmNCXHe sat and eyed them, thinking not at all. His energies were expended in action. He sat as a part of the ruins, and the moon turned his shadow Westward from the South. Overhead, as she declined, long ripples of silver cloud were imperceptibly stealing toward her. They were the van of a tempest. He did not observe them or the leaves beginning to chatter. When he again pursued his course with his face to the Rhine, a huge mountain appeared to rise sheer over him, and he had it in his mind to scale it. He got no nearer to the base of it for all his vigorous outstepping. The ground began to dip; he lost sight of the sky. Then heavy thunder-drops struck his cheek, the leaves were singing, the earth breathed, it was black before him and behind. All at once the thunder spoke. The mountain he had marked was bursting over him.


Up started the whole forest in violet fire. He saw the country at the foot of the hills to the bounding Rhine gleam, quiver, extinguished. Then there were pauses; and the lightning seemed as the eye of heaven, and the thunder as the tongue of heaven, each alternately addressing him; filling him with awful rapture. Alone there — sole human creature among the grandeurs and mysteries of storm — he felt the representative of his kind, and his spirits rose, and marched, and exulted, let it be glory, let it be ruin! Lower down the lightened abysses of air rolled the wrathful crash: then white thrusts of light were darted from the sky, and great curving ferns, seen steadfast in pallor a second, were supernaturally agitated, and vanished. Then a shrill song roused in the leaves and the herbage. Prolonged and louder it sounded, as deeper and heavier the deluge pressed. A mighty force of water satisfied the desire of the earth. Even in this, drenched as he was by the first outpouring, Richard had a savage pleasure. Keeping in motion, he was scarcely conscious of the wet, and the grateful breath of the weeds was refreshing. Suddenly he stopped short, lifting a curious nostril. He fancied he smelt meadow-sweet. He had never seen the flower in Rhineland — never thought of it; and it would hardly be met with in a forest. He was sure he smelt it fresh in dews. His little companion wagged a miserable wet tail some way in advance. He went on slowly, thinking indistinctly. After two or three steps he stooped and stretched out his hand to feel for the flower, having, he knew not why, a strong wish to verify its growth there. Groping about, his hand encountered something warm that started at his touch, and he, with the instinct we have, seized it, and lifted it to look at it. The creature was very small, evidently quite young. Richard’s eyes, now accustomed to the darkness, were able to discern it for what it was, a tiny leveret, and he supposed that the dog had probably frightened its dam just before he found it. He put the little thing on one hand in his breast, and stepped out rapidly as before.

The rain was now steady; from every tree a fountain poured. So cool and easy had his mind become that he was speculating on what kind of shelter the birds could find, and how the butterflies and moths saved their coloured wings from washing. Folded close they might hang under a leaf, he thought. Lovingly he looked into the dripping darkness of the coverts on each side, as one of their children. He was next musing on a strange sensation he experienced. It ran up one arm with an indescribable thrill, but communicated nothing to his heart. It was purely physical, ceased for a time, and recommenced, till he had it all through his blood, wonderfully thrilling. He grew aware that the little thing he carried in his breast was licking his hand there. The small rough tongue going over and over the palm of his hand produced the strange sensation he felt. Now that he knew the cause, the marvel ended; but now that he knew the cause, his heart was touched and made more of it. The gentle scraping continued without intermission as on he walked. What did it say to him? Human tongue could not have said so much just then.


A pale grey light on the skirts of the flying tempest displayed the dawn. Richard was walking hurriedly. The green drenched weeds lay all about in his path, bent thick, and the forest drooped glimmeringly. Impelled as a man who feels a revelation mounting obscurely to his brain, Richard was passing one of these little forest-chapels, hung with votive wreaths, where the peasant halts to kneel and pray. Cold, still, in the twilight it stood, rain-drops pattering round it. He looked within, and saw the Virgin holding her Child. He moved by. But not many steps had he gone ere his strength went out of him, and he shuddered. What was it? He asked not. He was in other hands. Vivid as lightning the Spirit of Life illumined him. He felt in his heart the cry of his child, his darling’s touch. With shut eyes he saw them both. They drew him from the depths; they led him a blind and tottering man. And as they led him he had a sense of purification so sweet he shuddered again and again.

When he looked out from his trance on the breathing world, the small birds hopped and chirped: warm fresh sunlight was over all the hills. He was on the edge of the forest, entering a plain clothed with ripe corn under a spacious morning sky.



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The Child of the Open Sea


This short poetic story is by Jules Supervielle, a French poet who spent much of his life in Montevideo,Uruguay.


How had that floating street been created? What sailors, with the aid of what architects, had built it in mid-Atlantic, on the surface of the sea, over a gulf thousands of fathoms deep? That long street with its red brick houses, so faded that they were turning French gray, those roofs of slate and tile, those unchanging, humble shops? And that richly perforated belfry? And this place which had nothing but sea water in it, though no doubt it wanted to be a garden, with enclosing walls set with broken bottle glass, over which a fish would sometimes leap?

How did it remain standing without even being tossed by the waves?

And that solitary twelve-year-old child who walked in her sabots with a firm step down the liquid street as though she were walking on dry land? How did it come about?

We shall relate all these things as we get to know and understand them. And if anything remains obscure it will not be our fault.

Whenever a ship approached, even before it could be seen on the horizon, a great drowsiness took possession of the child, and the village disappeared completely beneath the waves. And thus it was that no sailor had even seen the village, even at the end of a telescope, or even suspected its existence.

The child thought she was the only little girl in the world. Did she even know she was a little girl? She was not very pretty, because of her rather wide-spaced teeth, and her rather too tip-tilted nose, but she had a very white skin with a few speckles—I mean freckles. And her small person, dominated by gray eyes that were shy but very luminous, sent through your body, right into your soul, a great surprise which hailed from the night of time.

Sometimes in the street, the only one in that little town, the child would look to right and left as if she were expecting a friendly sign from someone, a slight wave of the hand or a nod of the head. This was merely an impression she gave without knowing it, since no person or thing could come to that lost village that was always ready to vanish.

How did she live? By fishing? We don’t think so. She found food in the kitchen cupboard and larder, and even meat every two or three days. There were also potatoes for her and a few other vegetables, and eggs from time to time.

Provisions appeared spontaneously in the cupboards. And when the child took jam from a pot, it remained as intact as before, as if things had been thus one day and had to stay the same forever.

In the mornings, half a pound of fresh bread, wrapped in paper, was waiting for the child on the marble counter of the bakery, behind which she had never seen anyone, not even a hand or a finger pushing the bread towards her.

She was always up early, and she would push up the metal screens of the shops (one labeled “Bar,” and others “Blacksmith,” “Modern Bakery,” or “Haberdasher”), open the shutters of all the houses, carefully fastening them back because of the sea wind, and, according to the weather, leaving the windows closed or not. She would light a fire in a few kitchens so that smoke should rise from three or four roofs. An hour before sunset she began, very simply, to close the shutters and to lower the corrugated metal screens.

The child accomplished these tasks, moved by some instinct, some daily inspiration which drove her to look after everything. In the summer months, she would hang a rug over a window sill, or some linen to dry, as though the village must at all costs look inhabited and as lifelike as possible. And the whole year round she had to take care of the town-hall flag, which was so exposed.

At night she used candles, or sewed by the light of a lamp. There was electricity, too, in several houses in the town, and the child turned the switches easily and gracefully.

On one occasion she put a black crepe bow on the knocker of a door. She thought it looked nice. It remained there for two days, after which she hid it.

Another time she started beating a drum, the village drum, as though she were going to announce some news. And she had a violent longing to shout something that might have been heard from one end of the sea to the other; but her throat contracted and no sound came out. She made such a stern effort that her face and neck became almost black with it, like those of drowned people. Then she had to put the drum back in its usual place, in the left-hand corner at the far end of the big hall of the town hall.

The child reached the belfry by a spiral staircase whose steps were worn by thousands of unseen feet. The belfry which, the child thought, must certainly have five hundred steps (it had ninety-two) showed as much sky as it could between its yellow bricks. And she had to satisfy the weight-driven clock by winding it up with the crank handle, so that it should sound the hours exactly, day and night.

The crypt, the altars, the stone saints giving silent orders, all those faintly whispering chairs which waited, in straight rows, for people of all ages, those altars whose gold had aged and hoped to age still more—all that attracted and repelled the child, who never entered that tall house, contenting herself, when she had nothing else to do, with sometimes half opening the padded door and darting a rapid glance at the interior, holding her breath as she did so.

In a trunk in her room there were family papers and some postcards from Dakar, Rio de Janeiro, and Hong Kong signed Charles or C. Lievens, and addressed to Steenvoorde (Nord). The child of the open sea had no idea what those far countries and this Charles and this Steenvoorde were.

She also kept an album of photographs in a cupboard. One of them showed a child who looked very like the little girl of the Ocean, who would often gaze at it humbly; it was always this picture which seemed to her to be right, to ring true; she was holding a hoop in her hand. The child had looked for one like it in all the houses of the village. And one day she thought she had found one; it was the iron hoop of a barrel; but hardly had she begun to run down the marine street with it than the hoop bowled out to sea.

In another photograph the little girl was seen between a man dressed in sailor’s clothes and a bony woman in her Sunday best. The child of the open sea, who had never seen either man or woman, wondered for a long time what those people wanted, even thinking about it in the dead of night, when lucidity sometimes strikes you suddenly with the violence of a thunderbolt.

Every morning she went to the village school, with a big satchel containing notebooks, a grammar, an arithmetic, a history of France, and a geography. She also had, written by Gaston Bonnier, member of the Institut and professor at the Sorbonne, and Georges de Layens, laureat of the Académie des Sciences, a little field guide which listed the most common plants, as well as useful and harmful plants, with eight hundred and ninety-six illustrations.

She read in the preface: “During the whole of the summer, there is nothing easier than to get hold of a great number of field and forest flowers.”

And how were history, geography, countries, great men, mountains, rivers, and frontiers to be explained to someone who has nothing but the empty street of a little town in the most solitary part of the Ocean? She did not even know that she was on the Ocean, the very one she saw on the maps, although the idea did cross her mind one day, for a second. But she had driven it away as mad and dangerous.

Now and then, she would listen with complete obedience, write a few words, listen again and begin writing again, as though at the dictation of an invisible mistress. Then the child would open a grammar and remain for a long time, holding her breath and bending over page 60 and exercise CLXVIII, of which she was particularly fond. In it the grammar seemed to be speaking entirely for the benefit of the little girl and the open sea:

— are you? — are you thinking? — do you

speak? — do you want? — should one apply

to? — is happening? — is being accused? —

are you capable? — are you guilty? — is the

matter? — do you like this present? — are

you complaining?

(Replace the dashes by the appropriate

interrogative pronoun, with or without


Sometimes the child felt a very persistent longing to write certain phrases, and did so with a great deal of concentration. Here are some of them, among many others:

Let’s share this, shall we?

Listen to me carefully. Sit down and don’t

move, I beg you!

If I only had a little snow from the high

mountains, the day would pass more


Foam, foam all round me, won’t you at last

turn into something solid?

To play a round game you have to be at least


There were two headless shadows walking

away along the dusty road.

The night, the day, the day, the night, the

clouds and the flying fish.

I thought I heard a noise, but it was the noise    of the sea.

Or else she wrote a letter in which she gave news of her little town and herself. It wasn’t addressed to anyone and she put no kisses for anyone at the end of it, and on the envelope there was no name. And when the letter was finished she threw it into the sea, not to get rid of it but because it had to be that way, and perhaps in the manner of navigators in distress, who consign their last message to the waves in a despairing bottle.

Time never passed in the floating town: the child was always twelve. And it was in vain that she swelled out her little chest before the glass-fronted cupboard of her room. One day, tired of looking, with her plaits and her very bare forehead, like the photo she kept in her album, she got cross with herself and her picture and scattered her locks roughly over her shoulders, hoping that this would give her age a jolt. Perhaps it would even affect the sea all round her, and she would see coming out of it great goats, with foaming beards, who would draw near to look at her.

But the Ocean remained empty and she received no other visits than those of the shooting stars.

Another day destiny seemed to forget itself for a moment, as though there were a sudden crack in its will. A real little cargo boat, all smoking, as obstinate as a bulldog and riding easily although it was not heavily loaded (a beautiful red band gleamed in the sun under the water line) —a cargo boat passed down the marine street of the village, without the houses disappearing beneath the waves nor the little girl’s getting overcome with sleep.

It was just midday. The cargo boat sounded its siren, but this voice did not mingle with the voice of the belfry. Each kept its independence. The child, hearing for the first time a noise which came to her from men, rushed to the window and shouted with all her might:


And she flung her schoolgirl’s pinafore in the direction of the ship.

The helmsman did not even turn his head. And a sailor, who was puffing smoke from his mouth, passed along the deck as if nothing had happened. The others went on washing their clothes, while on each side of the ship’s bow dolphins separated to make room for the cargo boat, which was in a hurry.

The little girl descended very quickly into the street, lay down on the track of the ship, and embraced its wake for such a long time that, when she got up, nothing remained of it but a stretch of sea with no memory, quite intact. On returning to the house, the child was dumbfounded at having shouted: “Help!” Only then did she understand the profound meaning of this word. And this meaning terrified her. Could men not hear her voice? Or were those sailors deaf and blind? Or more cruel than the depths of the sea?

Then a wave, which had always remained at some distance from the village, clearly not wishing to intrude, came to look for her. It was a huge wave, which spread much further than the others on each side of itself. In its crest it had what looked exactly like two eyes, made of foam. You would have supposed it understood certain things and did not approve of them all. Although it furled and unfurled itself hundreds of times a day, it never forgot to equip itself with those two well-formed eyes, in the same place. Sometimes, when something interested it, you would catch it lingering for nearly a minute, with its crest in the air, forgetting its wave nature and that it had to begin again every seven seconds.

For a long time this wave had been wanting to do something for the child, but it did not know what. It saw the cargo boat disappearing and understood the anguish of the little girl who remained behind. Not being able to bear it any longer, it carried her a little distance away, without saying a word, as though leading her by the hand.

After having knelt before her, wave-fashion, and with the greatest respect, it tucked her under itself and kept her for a very long moment, trying to confiscate her with the collaboration of death. And the little girl stopped breathing to help the wave in this serious plan.

Failing to achieve its object, it flung her into the air until the child was no bigger than a sea swallow, catching her again and again like a ball as she fell back among the foam flakes bit as ostrich eggs.

Finally, seeing that nothing was of any avail, that it could not succeed in giving her death, the wave took the child back to her home, with an immense murmur of tears and excuses.

And the little girl, who had not received a scratch, had to begin opening and closing shutters again without hope, and disappearing momentarily under the sea the moment the mast of a ship showed on the horizon.

WaveFLourish2             Sailors who dream upon the high seas, with your elbows propped on the handrail, be fearful lest you dwell too long in the darkness of the night on a beloved face. For if you do, you risk giving birth, in places that are essentially deserted, to a being gifted with ever human sensibility, who can neither live nor die nor love, and yet suffers as though he lived and loved and was always on the point of death, a being infinitely disinherited in the watery solitudes, like that child of the Ocean, born one day in the mind of Charles Lievens, of Steenvoorde, deck hand of the four-master Fearless, who had lost his twelve-year-old daughter during one of his voyages, and one night, at a place 55 degrees latitude North and 35 degrees longitude West, thought of her for a long time, with terrible intensity, to the great misfortune of that child.


Le Theatre de Nuit has made this interpretive short film based on this story.  Theatre de la Nuit website with this story.



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In the Waters of Regard

 an essay by D. L. Pughe

What becomes of those creatures who find our way into our homes so far removed from the wilds?  How do we reckon with our desire to know and understand them?  And how do we imagine what they long for if they’ve never known the wilderness from which they came?


Charles Edward Perugini – The Goldfish Bowl, 1870

The German Romantics explained longing as though it were bumping up against a membrane separating one from the final sensation of the sublime in nature.  The deep glow of a sunset could penetrate our eyes only so far, the hushed calm of the forest could infiltrate our skin only so long, and the brief moment when a deer entering the meadow paused before realizing it was seen, this split-second awareness still let us know where we stood:  across the green field, in the domain of humanity, bumping into the awkward upright posture of our selves.  Filled with a kind of longing for an intimacy with something we can never truly know.

We’re most often like uninvited guests in the wilds of nature, and perhaps a bit anxious when the creatures we encounter fail to welcome us in.  It could be why we began the dubious practice of coaxing them to eat from our hand, as though our offering allows us to part the gauze curtain for a moment and put our feet up on the sofa of the wild.  It is easy to feel honored by the brush of anxious whiskers on our skin, the touch of a tongue tasting us in a way we find acceptable:  without teeth.  To stroke a trembling animal unaccustomed to human touch brings one close to their trepidation, their racing hearts, a rightful suspicion that cannot be petted away.  It is perhaps that mysterious wildness which increases our respect for them, for their way of life; and in trying to understand their longings it makes us deeply question our own.


When Mr. Fish arrived in our home he was a small brown thing with black spots left in a glass bowl by a friend departing for the East Coast.  With a fine large translucent tail he swished back and forth with a gentle eagerness for food dropped from some mysterious source above.  With tiny arm-like fins he navigated elegant quick turns from within the confines of his small transparent pond.  He established himself in the center of our lives on the kitchen counter, wagging near the glass as we chopped up vegetables, darting back and forth when we reached for a spice from the cabinet, and pursing his lips at the surface of the water then opening them in bubbly smacks which suggested his unlimited appetite.

In most goldfish legends, their appetite is always spoke of as grand, but their memory or intelligence is held in slight account.  It is assumed that in each lap circling the bowl they fail to recall that everything is quite familiar and welcome it instead as something new. For centuries it has justified giving them a decorative glass-bound existence where they are seen as a hobby and not as a pet.  And it has perhaps made them susceptible to fraternity boys trying to swallow them, or explains why they are carried away in plastic bags as prizes from school carnivals.  If anything goes wrong in caring for goldfish, they are easily flushed away.  For these reasons their lives are not often long, and in their cramped quarters, they are not very large.

But Mr. Fish began to grow, and grow.  His tiny arm-fins whirled in circles lifting him to mouth the surface.  When you bent down he paused at the side of the bowl his eyes goggling and his body small from the curve of the glass, he now wore a question across his forehead.  When he swam it seemed more like the frustrated way one might circle a parking structure always looking for an open spot.  Then, after we went away leaving him in the care of a dear friend, he began to make demands.  He had reached the size where a swish of his tail could lob a vocal splash a good distance from the bowl.

We tried to offer him a new home in the closest thing to a pond:  an aquarium. Envisioning a ‘room’ in nature, we took it out of nature—a cake-like slice of layered water and plants and pond bottom, bringing it home to him in a box.    Mr. Fish could now swim up and down, side to side, exploring all the corners of a square new world.  He raced through the water enjoying his first real swim; it was exhilarating to see him streaking all around quite fearlessly  Then he could pick through the bits of rock on his new floor and spit them endlessly back each day looking for food.  At last he had something more to do.  But the times when I got up to look at him in the dark he was searching the gravel with a kind of betrayed frustration.  It appeared as though he’d lost something, possibly a notion of a real pond somewhere like a shiny watch chain which had slid down between the rocks.

Perhaps that is all part of our strange human perspective where we press our face into water and see a blurry moving world which challenges our own.  We often imagine things, attribute things.  In the extracted glass simulated nature in which most humans keep fish, they usually offer them buxom mermaids combing their hair, overflowing treasure chests of jewels and coins, tippling jolly rogers or gigantic skulls where the fish can dart in and out through the eye sockets.  What is their pleasure in the sunken galleons of every size, the pagodas, castles, curved bridges which begin and end nowhere?

And how do they consider the tiny ceramic signs evoking crossed rickety boards where someone has roughly scrawled:  ‘NO fishing!’

A fish might want such a sign near a real pond, warning humans not to become predators like all the rest.  Yet who knows what memory Mr. Fish has of a faraway place in the wilds of nature he has never known?  At the back of that furrowed brow is there an embedded virtual pool?  Is it surrounded by uneven stones where fish wriggle between the stalks of plants, dodge other creatures of the shallows, glide noiselessly for long distances with fearless grace?  A place where the day is spent not idly waiting for food but engaged in the act of finding it.  A pond which chills in the winter and everything slows to near stillness. A place where, when the water warms in spring, the fishes hover together in the pale band closest to the sun until the heat reminds them to seek and find one another at last.

I do not know whether I ever said then that I loved Mr. Fish.  He grew and grew.  His dream pond, the rumor of his legitimate life somewhere in the wilds, was beginning to bump up against my heart whenever he wiggled the short length of his tank.  He always hit the glass with widening eyes, then his mouth opened, his lips outstretched as if trying to drink in all that was beyond.

I know about that beyond.  There are ponds where the sweetness of the water embraces you, the leaves of plants brush against you, where the chill numbs your skin but awakens your soul in the heart of the forest.


Mr. Fish burgeoned to several inches long until it was difficult for him to negotiate a turn. He back-paddled with an arm-fin screeching one side to a halt while the other fin gestured wildly, like a traffic cop motioning us to ‘move along!’  So we got a new tank twice the size of his first one and cleared a spot for him in the dining room.  There he swam further and seemed happier.  His character and his size continued to grow.  He would sometimes pause in mid-stroke as if he had a change of mind, and in his portly large size, when he would occasionally stretch his mouth in a masterful yawn, he resembled a fine older statesman.  He would slowly approach the glass then look directly at you as though something was mutually understood.  And because he as no longer in the center of all the action of our lives, when we entered he would abandon his decorum.  He would rush to the light and begin an attention-getting dance, a shimmy with eager eyes while his lips seemed to be mouthing some words.

Fish are cold-blooded and for some this accounts for their incomprehensible nature, their lack of personality.  They have no eyebrows, for instance, and no voice.  They cannot command us with a bark or meow, seduce us with a whine, or alert us to their pain with a cry.  We cannot touch them.  But they can show us their colors as Mr. Fish did, gradually turning a brilliant orange beneath his black spots.  And they can see into us with their eyes.

We went away again and when we returned Mr. Fish was very ill.  Hiding in the corner he refused to eat and his forehead was scarlet.  Experts were consulted all over the map, each with a different prescription and advice.  After giving him the medicines I watched helplessly from behind the glass of his ‘hospital tank’ as he huddled bleary-eyed in the cloudy water.  I tried to tempt him with food held in chopsticks near his mouth.  White sores appeared on his forehead; a red streak ran like a river through his tail.  To make sure his main tank water became pure again, I became an alchemist, filling vials with drops of solution then holding them up to the light.  Color took on harsh significance.  I became terrified when the vials appeared to test red, or brilliant green, or dark cobalt blue.  I lugged countless gallons of fine mountain spring water up the many stairs to his artificial pond, offerings of purity from that distant enigmatic source.

For weeks each day was different:  one day life, the other day death; one day hope, the other despair.  And in looking at him so intently day after day for a sign of improvement I realized how seldom I’d watched him before, how little I had known him in the past.  It was a this moment I knew how much I had grown to love Mr. Fish through the ache in my arms on the other side of the glass.  I could only watch, longing to hold him and reassure him and take away his pain.  Is this moment of awareness we all have of loving, the profound anguish when our love is out of reach and in danger of being taken away?  When you are at your most powerless, your least reasonable self?  In terrifying dreams Mr. Fish became taller than I and I staggered about holding him in my arms, carrying him upright and dripping.  In this nocturnal myth I wandered trying to find a soothing pool for him that, each time I woke, was further from sight.

Finally, on a day in late spring he seemed a bit better.  Though his eyes were still foggy and uncertain, he no longer hid in the darkest corner.  He had become near-sighted and bumped into things so I offered him his food as though I were at an official function serving hors d’oeuvres.  He reached for each morsel with the uneasy nonchalance of someone attending a reception, but his telltale outstretched lips again betrayed his enormous appetite.

Surprisingly, somehow through all his illness he had continued to grow.  His size again became an obstacle.  In order to turn he had to dip his head down then flip himself from side to side like a lap swimmer.  He was now a huge fish, a foot or more long, a fish with a certain gait like an old professor who had lost his glasses.  When you sought his attention, he turned slowly as though his arms were full of books and his mind on something else.

A new pond perhaps?  We brought him a new tank, this time nearly filling a whole wall of the house, the largest block of water we could find.  And still missing a few scales and with a reddened forehead, I lowered him into his new home in a clear sack. Like a child frightened by the enormity of his first day at school, he rushed back into the corner of the bag and refused to come out, then gradually he turned and swam out into the expanse of his new home.  He looked a bit curious he took a mouthful of gravel and swiftly blew it out, and then he began to swim.  Slowly at first, and then with absolute excitement he started to race the whole length with his small arm-like fins pressed back at his sides, letting his giant tail wiggle back and forth like a porpoise and ending with a graceful glide to stop well before the end of the glass.  I saw things become clear to him, how the new and varied plants provided a safe place to hide when he wanted privacy.  In the night when I peeked in to watch him in the dark, I saw him soaring as though in an endless sky.  His small fins outstretched and his tail straight, he took off from the bottom, gliding up to the surface to check the midnight air, then let himself drift down as though safely held by a parachute to nestle on the floor and become very still.  In the cool depths of his pond he appeared to blink and fall asleep.

The happiness of one you love often counts for your own.  In Mr. Fish’s current cubic pond he appears to be as happy as I’ve ever known.  The dreams of the distant mountain ponds are farther away for me; I no longer stagger carrying him there in my dreams in the dark. It has even occurred to me that perhaps he now might long for a friend.  Someone to swim with and exchange fish remarks with as they sort through the gravel during the day. Someone to chase in and out through the plants.  Who knows what amount of mischief they could come up with…  It seems simple to do, bring another fish home in a bag.  Why not?  The urgent need to be mindful of the quality of their lives is always there, humming in my heart.  The weight of all that.  But even more I shudder and something leaps up and catches me with its wild fear:  that I might grow to care for that fish too with the same regard.  What it has meant to love Mr. Fish.  What it means to love.  What meaning expands and allows.


AU REVOIR:  Sadly, in late August  Mr. Fish leapt from his brief stay in his smaller hospital tank after his illness returned.  I returned home too late to save him, though tried desperately to revive him for half an hour, swishing his large foot long orange and black form back and forth in the water as they direct you to do in the fish first aid books.  Then I was forced to look into his wide eyes and mouth frozen in a gasping cry.  I could not help feeling the pain of his final suffering, reliving each moment of flapping on the floor, acknowledging the purity of his primal innocence weighing in with my ultimate responsibility for his welfare, and finally and most selfishly, just missing him so much—his eager face and eyes wagging before me, anxious for his evening meal.

I hiked to a place early the morning after his death where I found him a pond at last, and left him hidden in the watery rushes at the side to join nature in his own way.

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In the Thick of the Woods

This is an excerpt from A Different Acquaintance by D. L. Pughe


Mayer thought himself a creature of the forest, familiar with dark thickets in the still of the night. Perhaps he was a deer, but he knew his slow, lumbering nature more closely resembled a badger. He recalled this now, making his way through the rolling woods of the Lake District where badgers were a staple icon. It was late afternoon with a queer silence and no other beings in sight.   He sighed, inwardly thankful for the surrounding trees. A bird here or there let out a soft call, and Mayer stopped from time to time to wonder at the columns of light that filtered down from the remaining sun, landing like flattering spotlights on a broken branch, or on the colorful leaves fallen to the forest floor.

In Rousseau’s thin volume The Reveries of A Solitary Walker, Mayer once sought an escape from the detritus the human world regularly coughs up. He’d picked it up at a bookstore in Paris and carried it with him on a trip to the Loire, then quickly found that, apart from the lovely introduction to the notion of a meditative path into the thick of the woods, most of the book was consumed with the petty jealousies and personal problems Rousseau faced back in the metropolis. Recalling this now caused a chain reaction, with the things Mayer would sooner forget fluttering up like leaves disrupted from the forest floor.

In his own department at the University Mayer had learned to dodge the skirmishes between his ballistic colleagues, stepping aside when two of them wandered down the hall in a tirade. He was not cowardly, he did not bow his head or scuttle away or duck. But he had attuned his defenses to know when danger might be about, how a passing entreaty to discuss a certain philosophical subject was a disguised desire to ravage a colleague whose book was gaining significant attention. He would step lightly away to his office burrow or to the library stacks near the department office where he could graze on something productive in silence.  He was always prepared for a refreshing walk at the slightest sign of conflict in the air.

His colleagues grew to expect nothing from him, a master of degagément, and the clever ones were thankfully not wholly dismissive since his quietly written books caused enough regard in their insights and erudition to not be termed ‘negligible’ or ‘slight’ or worse, the crush of fearlessly critical remarks which usually welcomed each new publication by members of the department.

In fact, his foreignness and diplomacy had made it easy for each colleague to feel a bit like Mayer were an ally, a congenial force. They turned to him at times when the monthly departmental meetings reddened to a fever pitch, fighting over budgetorial scraps for travel funds, for the number of assistants (particularly female ones) they might employ, and whose protégé was in danger of being stolen by whom. And of course there were extended diatribes over which senior offices with windows were being coveted or assigned. Mayer would sit taking it all in but with just enough attention and balance, and with studious difficulty he would summon up thoughts that mattered to him more—something bright a student had said that required thinking through, arranging and rearranging ideas for an article that was overdue, or, in the most tiresome discussions where long standing disputes seethed around him, Mayer would think of the forest.

He would assign the predatory behavior around him to the various animals each creature is trained to fear. And he would recognize the precarious co-existence of so many predators in his midst, ones who could turn on him and devour him easily, if they were not so currently well fed with stipends, spurts of recognition, and enough others like themselves for eternal sparring.

But Mayer knew the time may come when this balance could change. When the department, one coddled by the upper administration due to its formidable parade of international prizes each year, could receive less than before. Then Mayer and a couple of others who had managed to be productive on the outskirts of the fray might fall into the wild claws of the vociferous ones.

Already Mayer had seen the most senior emeritus fellow, Stevens, a gentle Englishman of charming antiquated Oxford manners, come in for some jibes of late. Though long retired, Stevens had been given a high attic room in the hall, one with a charming dormer opening out through the thick ivy and with a desk basking in the sun. It looked out over the quad and had rather wonderful dark built-in bookcases lining the low walls with a pleasant work table in the middle. Mayer had often had tea up there with Stevens, who kept a small cooler of cream and real china and saucers on a shelf. He often played recordings of string quartets on an antiquated record player, softly so as not to disturb anyone. It was an oasis of calm and culture, the scent of true wisdom hanging in the air and the amiable manners of a century gone by. And it was far different from the linoleum small offices of the less senior colleagues with their grey metal bookshelves, piles of folders covering the furniture, with Styrofoam cups of pitch black liquid perched precariously on top. Stevens nook was prime real estate in a department that prided itself on bringing in new blood from a worldly network of illustrious scholars.

It was one of the new bloods who in a recent meeting had stopped the show with a comment to Stevens. As usual, the meeting had progressed in a series of jumps, starts, clashes, interruptions and contested points. Stevens, who rarely attended, was there because he had heard his space may be discussed and was reluctantly prepared to defend himself.

Though a few years have passed since the height of deconstructive fashion made each meeting a vicious jousting match of jargon, the gladiatorial spirit remained and the younger faculty were still hopeful of impressing their colleagues (and themselves) with facetious interruptions and strategically placed bon mots which reveal at once their depth of reading, awareness of current events, scholarly fashion, familiarity with popular culture, and indeed, insider knowledge of the great bureaucratic pyramid within the ivory tower. Skewering and impaling were strongly welcomed if mastered in the right turn of phrase and the newest acolytes could be found laughing together and revealing what they’d thought to say too late, the esprit d’escalier which could have brought down the house and was worthy of even a posthumous performance.

At the meeting with Stevens, things proceeded from the greetings of the chair, murmured approval of an upcoming visit by a noted thinker from Prague, with a few ribald asides about how grim he may find his residency in what they called the Latin Quarter—some adjunct offices borrowed in the basement of the nearby languages institute.

This of course led to stridency and daring remarks about office space in their own hallowed hall and one of the new-ish brash scholars from Brussels turned to Stevens and asked if he’d be willing to set up a ‘time share’ on his attic library hideaway.

Stevens was nonplussed and quite unaccustomed to things being put so bluntly and bold. He began to speak, uttering how he “had not yet considered such a plan, but…” and let his pause fill the air. It was then that Altman, the Harvard wunderkind who was gathering a thick entourage of young female students and still smoked cigars on the attic balcony with like-minded cronies, piped up with “Cognitus Interruptus!” inspiring a collective guffaw and scattered applause. Except for Mayer, Altman noticed. Two of the female faculty were equally uneasy with the “dispensation of justice” as some colleagues called it. The fertility of Steven’s mind had been denounced in what had become an arena of testosterone-filled bullying.

Stevens reddened and then blanched and then looked grimly to the Chair and softly stated that he would do whatever was necessary to make things fair all around. Mayer felt it imperative to speak up

“I think having Stevens in our immediate midst improves all our chances for thought, for thinking.”

He said it quietly, firmly, drawing the conversation back to why they all claimed to be attached to the University in the first place. He did not say it defensively and no retorts snapped in his direction.  And he was supported by the two women on the faculty who also frequented and were encouraged in Steven’s sanctuary. The Chair shifted the space skirmishes down to the Latin Quarter until the time set aside for the meeting blissfully ran out, at which point Mayer left running as well as a badger can with a battered soft leather briefcase overfull with papers and heavily notated books.

This is an excerpt from the novel A Different Acquaintance

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Being in Dog TIme

This essay by D. L. Pughe originally appeared in BARK Magazine.


“An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connection between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them…”       Marcel Proust

“Yet by that time, I kept one desire, one above all the others. I wanted a continuum. A continuum as a whisper, which never ends, similar to life, which is what perpetuates us greater than any quality.”                                                                                       Henri Michaux

“For time is the longest distance between two places.”     Tennessee Williams

 One of the endless wonderful things we love about dogs may be their ability to pull us so completely into the present. We forget about the load of past we usually drag around behind us, and the clouds of future we forecast up ahead. What human being can match a dog in how they so gratefully embrace what the day will offer up to immediate experience? As Pascal tells us, human beings must continually make efforts to acquire this newness of spirit, “since we can only preserve our former ‘grace’ (as he calls it) with the acquisition of new grace.” Perhaps one of the many reasons we befriend a dog is for an infusion of grace that no one else can offer to the same degree.

Dogs do, in fact, have their own sense of time. As with humans, scents and smells pull them backward into memory, and also like us, dogs have been known to save treats for a future moment of need. But it is still the greatest challenge is to catapult oneself into the canine mind and decipher how they regard seconds, minutes, the accumulation of hours into days. I spent a good while walking dogs at the county animal shelter in Iowa City, and one of the most congenial dogs there was an American Foxhound named Daisy who had spent most her life in confinement. She had been in one institution or another for more than two years since she was found as a 6 month old pup roaming the countryside of Johnson County, 50 miles away. Daisy looked to be a purebred Foxhound who had chased a deer or furry creature too far from a pack of like-minded hounds on a hunt with their owner. She’d been wandering in the wild long enough to develop a serious ear infection and to become pregnant. After being rescued, she was sent to the Kirkwood Veterinary College where interns successfully operated on her ears then delivered her puppies as a case study for the obstetric vets. Everyone at the Vet school took to Daisy: she was good-natured, easy-going, well-behaved, grateful for attention but never demanding. She stayed many months, long after her puppies were born and given away, and her gentle nature made her an easy ‘test animal’ for demonstrating veterinary techniques like drawing blood.


Nearly a year later, Daisy transferred to the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center, a highly regarded county shelter where all the animals are well treated and almost all find good homes. She arrived in the spring, when an excess of cute puppies were adopted first and her stay continued on for a long year. She willingly settled into her new 4′ x 6′ kennel and looked forward to playtimes out in the fenced yard with other dogs and to daily walks on leash by the Iowa River with the Center volunteers. At the beginning of each walk she would shake her head happily, her sensitive ears flapping wildly. And afterwards she gratefully stepped back into her cage, sat on her bed, and politely received her treat.

Many dogs in shelters, especially if they’ve come from a happy family home, grow sad in confinement. Over a period of weeks you witness their soul begin to wither, they lie facing the back wall of their kennel, barely lifting their heads to see who is walking by. Their sadness is palpable and heart wrenching. Daisy showed only the smallest glimpses of this desperation, and seemed to amiably accept whatever came her way in terms of kindness. She was a pleasure to walk and I began taking her on more distant adventures along the river. On a lark I emailed her picture to a friend back in Berkeley, “I’ve found the perfect dog for you,” I told her “Not only is she beautiful and the best behaved dog I’ve met, but she just matches your china!” My friend Margaretta’s vintage porcelain features a pack of Foxhounds spiraling into the center of each plate followed by a fleet of red-coated horsemen. I was completely surprised but delighted when she answered back that she was interested, undaunted by the 2,000 miles between where Daisy and I were and where she was writing from. She had lost her older dog a few years back and had been looking for a new one for awhile. When she heard Daisy’s story, Margaretta quickly applied for adoption by Fax, and once accepted, we set about finding a kind soul who could drive Miss Daisy from Iowa to her new Berkeley home.


This was the moment when Daisy came to live with us for a month. We were visiting academics who normally live in Berkeley but were staying a year in a house just 4 blocks from the Animal Center. By the time she came to us, Daisy had been well over two years in kennel life and was such a gracious and good-natured dog, stately and quiet. I thought of her often like Nelson Mandela, someone who had spent so much of life in confinement yet kept her nobility and generosity of spirit. Daisy had a sense of depth and seemingly infinite patience. Being aware of her past, I happily watched her grow less serious and more playful day by day. After a week she clearly thought she was here to stay and began romping a bit like a clumsy puppy with an overgrown adult body. She would crouch in play posture and rabbit pounce in happy circles. Being so aware of her past confinement, I wanted her to enjoy her newfound freedom and took her on long walks as often as I could. She was truly being reborn into a new wide world. But I also knew she was only staying ‘awhile,’ a notion I was at a loss to explain to her. I realized the disappointment ahead in thinking of our house as home only to be uprooted once more and taken by a long car ride to her final destination.

The time of a story involves a beginning, middle and end—this erzälte Zeit is how we, as humans, enjoy contemplating time.[i] In order to gather up instantaneous moments we must be able to remember what just occurred and suspend it in immediate memory to link it with what is about to happen. Husserl likens this to the way we hear a succession of notes running off and sinking down as we connect them all into a melody. Something in what we hear tells us to wait, this is going somewhere, a future place of greater possibilities. It is how we experience time as a 4th dimension of space, going away from something toward something else, ending up over a fresh horizon. The key to absorbing the melody is an ability to wait and I realized this was Daisy’s secret strength. In the shelter she was patient; in the dog training classes that all dogs at the shelter take to make them more ‘adoptable,’ she’d gotten the ‘wait’ command with ease. Wait means ‘pause for a moment’ because there’s something up ahead worth waiting for. It is the essence of all hope.[ii]

Consciousness of time is a difficult human proposition, and wholly subjective as Henri Bergson pointed out a century ago. Each person defines their own sense of duration (durée), how the minutes add up in our psyche and at what point our awareness of them can seem unendurable. Abrupt change seems to be what we all fear the most, where we have no role in affecting that change. And yet having time to think about change is truly the basis of neurosis. Most people acknowledge that it is not death they worry about but the amount of time they might have to helplessly see it hurtling towards them. It is why wasting painful illnesses seem unendurable but also why airline disasters where we imagine having long moments, apprehending our fate in mid-air, seem excruciating. The more time we have to think and comprehend, the more we also have time to feel the meaning of it, the eclipse of our future. Heidegger spent great amounts of time exploring how we experience being in it, and how each of us, aware or not, is ‘being towards an end.’ And thus we are always becoming, the ‘instants whizzing’ by in the ‘now’s continuous pursuit of the not-yet-now.’

Dogs do not view the future the same way, insofar as we can tell. They live in the moment, propelled by an urgency of smells and sounds that we are often oblivious to. They have their own circadian rhythms that sometimes coincide with ours in terms of day and night, but possibly not in awareness of the continuum.[iii] Our older dog, Pearl, for instance, had a change of diet in her senior years that derailed her usually ‘to the minute’ calculations on when she was usually fed each day. Every 20 minutes from midnight on she would wake up and whine to ask if it was time for breakfast, like the annoying kid on a long car trip to a not-yet-known destination repeatedly asking “are we there yet?”

Understanding dogs takes a rare kind of empathy, one that doesn’t anthropomorphize but tries to really see the world through their eyes. I’d spent years studying both philosophies of time and also the unique phenomenological aspects of empathy. Wading through the German thinkers on the latter subject, I’d learned to distinguish between what we know as sympathy, where you absorb the emotional state of the other person in a sloshy mess, from a more useful empathy which combines thought and imagination, intuition and emotion. Empathy is thought to offer not only a deeper understanding of what the world is like for another being, but also some way to bridge our two worlds.[iv] A revised notion of empathy, a ‘theromorphic’ approach, suggests that one can begin to see the world through the eyes of the animal by first understanding the perspective of their vision, then the expanded range of their other senses of smell, taste, etc.[v]

But to attempt to enter dog perspective one must first decide what is their ‘natural culture.’ In today’s urban requirements to leash and clean up after our pets, few dogs have a life of freedom to come and go as they please from our homes. Their sense of time revolves around our own schedules: when we wake and rise to feed them, take them for walks and out to play and, sadly and ultimately, when we must decide their time is up. Their own sense of time is one poised in our duration, which they seem to endure with sometimes amazing patience. Often, because of their need for our assistance to be out in the world, I think I can safely say that most dogs are exceedingly well rested, napping diligently out of the boredom of waiting.

In Daisy’s case, I was too sympathetically aware of her past, her years of confinement; it was always with me in the present, along with my knowledge of her upcoming future. I’d imagine the endless procession of nights she’d spent at the shelter, where lights are put out at 5:30 p.m. and the dogs lie in the dark until an attendant returns at 7:00 the next morning— similar to an experience watching Birdman of Alcatraz as a child where I became painfully aware of the reality of being ‘sentenced’ to ‘doing time.’   Then I shift to imagine the disruption of the upcoming long car trip to her new home.

Meanwhile Daisy was happily settling into our home in the present, though still a bit tentative about what to expect. She began to test boundaries just to see how things worked, gently sticking her nose into our trash can, grabbing a glove from the table and dropping it at my feet. She responded amiably to rules against such activities, and seemed to be checking on who was in charge. I wanted her to enjoy the world as much as possible now in compensation for her years of confinement and we embarked on long walking excursions around town. People often stopped us on the street to talk to her—she’d become a minor celebrity from an appearance we made on TV and from the many vet students and volunteers who had worked with her in the institutions she’d stayed in.

Memory is most tied to scent and hounds like Daisy are primarily attuned to smell; it was hard for me not to think that her past was trailing around with us in where her nose led us. More likely, it was her interest in small furry creatures that pulled us along, and the bits of food that only dogs seem to be able to spot on an empty street. But she appeared to recognize places, rushing up the steps of certain houses, plopping down once on a sofa on the porch of a student apartment as though she’d been the resident who’d caused it sag like a hammock. How long had she roamed the wilderness and fringes of the town before she’d been discovered? She wanted to get into any car, and once in the middle of an intersection yelped with recognition at a certain pickup, straining on her leash as though she’d found her long lost owner. I was certain they must have been heartbroken when this wonderful dog had disappeared, but felt like that past was gone and a better world for her lay up ahead in California.

As Daisy’s present was becoming more and more stable, she was less anxious when I left her alone and had grown familiar with our own routine: when she could expect her walks which, even in 20 below zero weather and deep snow, were her supreme delight. Routine, it seemed, calmed Daisy more than anything and I saw how this had become the key to her survival in captivity. But where we use our eyes to note minute changes in the neighborhood (a neighbor’s walk has been shoveled, their lawn mowed), each time a dog goes out into the world it has been replenished with countless invisible smells. And where most dogs’ philosophy of time is that of Winnie the Pooh, who sets his clock to 11 a.m. when it is always ‘Time for A Little Something,’ Daisy thought ahead. The treats we gave her she hid away, sometimes taking as long as an hour to bury one at the bottom of the clothes hamper for use some later day. Her future, the long journey ahead with someone she didn’t know, was looming for me, with no way to explain it to her though I confess I often did discuss her California home in glowing terms. When the day came for her departure, I realized how happy she had become here, how trusting. We made a happy commotion when our friend Craig arrived and loaded her things into the trunk and she gleefully jumped in the car, but as it drove away I saw that she had enough time to look back and realize I was not coming. It was haunting to see the panicked look frozen on her face and not imagine it reflected in the car window as she rode through long nights of hushed winter prairies.   I felt as though I was caught in a relativity fable, riding a light beam parallel to the car but helpless to reassure her.


As human beings, when we meet people we like in the course of our travels, we enjoy warm meals together and laughing over shared stories. It is always hard to leave, but we know we have letters, email, the telephone, and a future where our paths might cross again. There was no way for me to explain the future to Daisy: that in a few months time I would be living across the street from her, able to share walks from time to time with her and her new ‘mom’. If a dog can feel betrayed, I suspected that kind of hurt was perplexing her now and for nearly 50 hours of travel by car. I knew once she arrived in California in Margaretta’s warm embrace she would be in heaven, and it was true. I was right, but she was wary to accept it at first. How can you tell a dog that this time it is ‘for keeps,’ that she would now be able to enjoy the succession of days with a true friend for the rest of her life?

Months later as I was leaving Iowa to return to Berkeley I found a treat Daisy had hidden in the folds of a pile of clean towels, her pledge to the future. I carried it back to her in her new home and Margaretta led me down to Daisy’s ‘queendom,’ her own backyard. She was napping in the sun and she greeted me happily, doing the silly circle dance; Daisy was clearly now happy all the time. She ran over to her own spacious dog house and pranced in to show it off, then we noted all her new ‘projects,’ a series of gleeful excavations that are being indulgently allowed, given her long history on concrete floors. Indoors, Daisy has two beds and enjoys retiring with Margaretta to a large fluffy one at the end of long adventurous days. She loves their routine, their daily walks and routes. the curious new symphony of smells, and glimpses of the deer that live on the other side of her fenced forest.

M 079 M 069

We live always with the tick, then tock—the asynchronous movement of two different clocks: one registers what we feel and the other how we’re conscious of having felt. Dogs keep us ticking, always able to seize the joy of every day and also every night and to urgently share it with us each moment. Luckily, they are safe from the tock that we, as humans, use to reckon with fate in order to protect them and their world, aching always for as much earthly time with them as we can.[vi]


“Anyone can observe that the duration for which we are exposed to impressions has no bearing on their fate in memory. Nothing prevents our keeping rooms in which we have spent twenty-four hours more or less clearly in our memory, and forgetting others in which we passed months. It is not, there- fore, due to insufficient exposure time if no image appears on the plate of remembrance. More frequent, perhaps, are the cases when the half-light of habit denies the plate the necessary light for years, until one day from an alien source it flashes as if from burning magnesium powder, and now a snapshot transfixes the room’s image on the plate.”

Walter Benjamin


mml_and_md_    amador_crew


This essay was first published in BARK Magazine in Issue 32, 2005 and was one of six favorite essays chosen by the editors of BARK in its first decade of publishing.

[i] In cinematic time, this narrative path is always shifted, and it does make one wonder if dogs can experience things cinematically as Godard suggested: films have a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order.

[ii] An example purported to be from cognitive psychology that is hard to contemplate (unless you’ve admitted the difficulties in also realizing what the words to ‘three blind mice’ actually prescribe) tells us that rats put in a bucket of water will drown after three hours of struggle. If the rats are rescued after 2-1/2 hours, before their energies were exhausted, then put in water again a day later, they can struggle along for 5 hours. Hope. Even when it may be for Godot instead of God. (This example, by the way, is most often quoted in Christian sermons and biblical text analysis and used by business gurus in management seminars and is alternately attributed to Duke University or University of California at Berkeley). There is interesting testimony to how the ‘desensitization’ (we might call it insensitivity) required of researchers who use animals in experiments such as this one is an subject in its own right. See Roger E. Ulrich, “Animal Research in Psychology: An Example of Reinforced Behavior” in the Journal of Americans For Medical Advancement: Perspectives on Meidcal Research, Vol. 3 (1991).

[iii] Recently, in an earnest but entirely artificial laboratory setting, scientists conducted controlled experiments to ascertain the circadian rhythms of dogs. In an experiment on purebred beagles in Italy, the dogs were kept in 140 X 200 cm. pens in relative isolation (away from other dogs and human contact) for 8 with days with rectal thermometers which measured their temperature every two hours. Night and day were simulated by laboratory lights on and off and the dogs were fed once a day, four hours after the lights were turned on each day. Even in this highly artificial setting, the dogs exhibited heightened temperatures at certain same times each day, indicating circadian rhythms usually found in most beings in nature. What this tells us about how dogs experience time, or how they found the confinement and intrusion of instruments during this experiment is still inaccessible even to our imaginations. R. Refinetti &G. Piccione, “Daily Rhythmicity of Body Temperature in the Dog.” Journal of Veterinary Medical Science 65 (8) (2003): 935-937.

[iv] Wemelsfelder, Françcoise, “The scientific validity of subjective concepts in models of animal welfare.”  Applied Animal Behaviour Science 53 (1997) 75-88.

[v] Timberlake, William, “An animal-centered, causal-system approach to the understanding and control of behavior.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 53 (1997) 107-129. Timberlake proposes a revised notion of empathy, a ‘theromorphic’ approach, where the researcher attempts to see the world through the eyes of the animal by first understanding the perspective of their vision, then the expanded range of their other senses of smell, taste, etc.

In what to me seems the most ‘natural’ approach using Timberlake’s theory, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in her book The Hidden Life of Dogs attempted to infiltrate dog culture as an anthropologist. She began by observing her two dogs in an urban environment, later on a ranch in the West she studied larger group of dogs which she gave a spacious territory under their own control. The dogs Thomas observed on her ranch were able to establish a culture among themselves rather than in relationship to her. Though she continued to provide food, she did not interact with them as pets and attempted to infiltrate the ‘pack’ in the beleaguered position far down in the social hierarchy. Thomas quickly found that being first in the order of eating, the choicest morsels, and the best spot in the collectively dug out den were all awarded to the alpha dog and then in order the dogs themselves had established. Because she was still the main provider of food, daily rhythms still focused on her times of feedings, but she watched how the shifting sun and weather affected daily routines the dogs established among themselves.[vi] Though the dogs under her care had a larger area in which to range, napping in the sun did figure significantly as a pastime. Thomas, Helen Marshall. The Hidden Life of Dogs (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1993).





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Dispatching Echoes


an excerpt from A Different Acquaintance, a novel by D. L. Pughe


Mayer is on his side again, on a slim leather couch in the cramped but magical guest room of his old friend János, a professor at the New School in New York. A few decades ago János proudly showed him how he had taken over the large closet in his tiny apartment, built maple bookshelves all the way up to the high ceiling and inset a desk with intriguing compartments into one wall. On the wall opposite he managed too squeeze in the small sofa. Books filled the four walls and in the narrow space around the door jam he made shelves for LP’s and a niche for his stereo and a short-wave radio. Speakers rescued from broken TV’s left on New York streets stared down with round faces from each of the four upper corners.

“A cathedral in a shell…” Mayer had said when János demonstrated the acoustics.

“Exactly…” his host smiled then brought out his most extravagant purchase —thick, soft leather-padded headphones for working late into the night.

It was here on the leather sofa straddling the wall opposite the desk that Mayer surveyed the changes over the years. He was still surrounded by books, in fact they were now stuffed into every shelf and stacked on the floor. Some shelves had been covered over with framed prints and sculptures had been pushed into niches made by smaller books.  The closet had slowly grown into a cabinet of curiosities. The small couch, just the length of Mayer’s frame, is where he has always slept in New York over the years, preferring it even when his travel funds could afford a grand hotel. The niches for LP’s had been subdivided, first for a phase of cassette tapes and then re-configured for CD’s which jammed every crevice and were stacked in towers in front of the shelves. As time went by, the books in Hungarian had risen slowly to the top of the shelves, the books in English and French gradually took over the lower ones surrounding the uneven piles of papers spilling over on the desk. The stacks of books and CD’s left only a small bit of floor uncluttered making the approach to the couch a slalom over the thick Turkish carpet. And though it still looks like a fine leather sofa, the burnished sheen of years adds to how one sinks into its curves and sags. Not nearly as comfortable as it once was, like age itself it’s familiar embrace is holding its own.

Each time he re-enters this chamber, Mayer is reminded of the festival of Corpus Christi. Southern Mediterranean families bring out their most valuable wealth on that holiday, stacked in front of their homes as a ‘technical’ offering to Christ. A sort of innocent ostentatiousness, Mayer feels, though his Catholic friends find the display as embarrassing as the ancient barter for indulgences. Sometimes, though, abundance can be bolstering; a sense that life on earth has its rewards that the distant whiff of Heaven cannot know. And in János’ book-laden closet, Mayer always finds the overwhelming rush and force of curiosity as though he has crawled inside the human mind itself.

He had come in late at night, barreled into the city in a cab holding tight to the leather stirrup as they swerved through traffic. His exhaustion was so great that even János’ exuberant talk didn’t revive him and he was allowed to go directly to the comfort of the closet. He removed the stiff and somewhat prickly cushions made from Turkish carpets from the back of the couch and stretched out with the soft blanket. He reached up and instinctively turned off the small intense lamp over the bed.  With his other hand he reached the knob below the glowing numbers of the shortwave radio; it’s awkward antenna slanted to the ceiling. The FM station was playing Kodaly’s Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, and he listened for awhile as though struggling with a giant earpiece. Soon even this tired him. He turned the dial past rapid French, rolling Spanish, exclamations in Russian and Chinese and struggled to finally find a station with BBC news from distant corners of the world.

For some time now he had turned first to words before sleeping. In the beginning it was listening to trustworthy-sounding British voices describing revolutions in places he’d yet to imagine.  Then, hearing accounts of survivors gave him a kind of courage to face what outwardly seemed like calm, reasonable days in a rich, fairly ordered democracy. But his days carried with them the undertow of losing friends he loved most to illness or distance. The ensuing loneliness would sometimes sap his ordinary strength.

It wasn’t just hearing about events around the globe and how noble individuals rose above their circumstance that gave him back a reservoir to draw from.  Their voices offered a way into being in the world, invisible and nearly always in the dark; taking his imagination to the furthest reaches of hope.  While searching through the scratchy tuner, Mayer passed jumping beats of the local hip hop stations, the stops and pauses of classical music followed by rapid sawing violins, then a gyrating saxophone with insistent originality. The blaring lyrics of popular music were the most painful and he fumbled in irritation as he rolled past.

Why the need for words, he wondered, when any one of these local places on the dial should be able to hold his interest?  It used to be his great pleasure to decipher who else could be listening at this hour, imagining people in cars, in hotel rooms, in the tiny dark apartments of towering buildings nearby who were possibly sharing the same sound. But Mayer needed to be far beyond the immediate city, to speed out over the dark waters of the Atlantic toward the lights of Europe slowly going out as the day dawned. To hover over Budapest long enough to spot his grandmother’s apartment.  And from there to soar over the snow covered Alps, the dusted white steppes of Russia and arrive somehow, through some faint mention, at the mysterious terrain of outer Mongolia.

There, in a small room in Ulaan Bataar, perhaps there was a young woman who had just returned from her day at work, lay on a small sofa and picked up a book. Leaning back to think, had she also turned on to music, then bypassed several channels in indecipherable languages, news reports of the capitol and then events in India-accented English, and found herself for a moment also tuned to the BBC?  Was this what Mayer was seeking, a coded message across thousands of miles? He imagined her listening quietly to the same news, the frequent suicide bombings that still caused anguished sighs, the dramatic weather devastating new regions and, with relief, candid survivor’s reports.  Then the authoritative crisp voice would somehow shift to UK business, the debt-ridden railway system, clogged healthcare, the doings of the royal family. At this, Mayer knew, the young woman might sigh again, and turn the dial in search of music, slightly astonished that a slow bass and now soothing saxophone were making their way to her across the universe of sound.  At that moment, Mayer turned the dial again and found the greatest consolation:  Thelonius Monk was playing slow, deliberate chord after chord.  He finally drifted off to sleep in a distant inner room where Monk was somehow communing with Vladimir Horowitz, a peaceful place of shadowy radiant light.

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This essay by D. L. Pughe first appeared in NEST Magazine.
A few years ago I traveled to The Netherlands seeking out two of the homes of Spinoza which still remain. I wanted to see how he had lived, this man who offered the reassuring faith that philosophy could help with the problem of living. Arriving in Leiden, I found a small room in a hotel in the student quarter. It was named after an owl and had a window overlooking a cobblestone square where rare, end-of-winter sunlight was glancing off a statue of Erasmus. From above, his oxidized cheeks appeared green with sheets of tears.


At the gates of the Horticultural Gardens of the University I met a friend who had come up from the Hague. We wandered through the groomed paths introducing ourselves to the Latinate shrubs and the fresh young shoots peering from the ground.



He warned me he had a surprise and led me with eyes closed through several streets, into a building with a chill and smell of sanctuary. I felt high ceilings and ancient wooden floors. We climbed up wide stairs, then narrower stairs, then entered a room which I knew rose up into a dome.

2935603696_dfe995e16e_z the-in-the-round-painting


When I opened my eyes we were in the ancient dome of Mesdag’s panorama, painted over a century ago and offering views of Scheveningen, the coastal town not far from Rijnsberg where Spinoza lived.  It was a chance to see the shore as he might have seen it, walking on the strand.

After this, another surprise:  an antiquarian library, a darkened private collection kept intact since it was founded by a nobleman in 1655. The curator led us to some low wooden cabinets and pulled out folios filled with the broadsheets printed in Spinoza’s day. These were pamphlets of all sizes handed out on the street, written by 17th century commentators on political events, on new ideas in physics, time, ethics. Suddenly, through these smudged sheets, the whole century sprang back alive: debates over Descartes’ method of doubt, announcements of Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia and other dignitaries arriving to find political sanctuary in the Netherlands, accounts of the daily challenges faced by the de Witt brothers in their efforts at reform. Spinoza at that time lived in the Hague with the house-painter Van der Spyck who rented him an attic room. I imagined his landlord arriving home from the town center with the latest papers, bringing them up to the attic to discuss them with his tenant. And outside his door, perhaps the Van der Spyck children tossing pillows, then beyond, out in the street the continual reckoning of lives.

We were allowed to remain in this remarkable century for the rest of the afternoon, turning precious pages while wearing white cotton gloves.


That evening I walked through the narrow cobbled streets to look in the windows of the bookstores of Leiden. In one antiquarian shop an ancient wooden angel was holding a small vellum book in her upraised hands and wore a beatific smile, offering its knowledge to the street lamp opposite her. I was certain then that she moved, slightly turning her head. When I passed her again after dinner I had a feeling of deep satisfaction and anticipation. The glow of the street lamp had shifted or else she had gracefully moved her arms. Light was beaming across the pages of her uplifted book as though the lamp was now reading over her shoulder with deep and serious pleasure.

I went up the corridor stairs to my room; sleep was impossible. I settled into the chair to read and some time later experienced a number of Spinoza’s ideas lazily circling the room like well-fed birds. I wrote them out in large letters on some blank cards, then propped them up on the few pieces of furniture in the room, tossing others across the bed:

  facies totius Universi

Amor intellectualis dei

Deus sive Natura

Exprimit, explicat

Fortitudo, generositas


After two I climbed under the sheets and fell asleep with a blurry vision of Spinoza’s correspondence of far and near: far is the great distance we witness in the celestial constellation of a dog; near the animal which barks. Just before dawn, a nightmare of flames leaping down the street woke me with a jolt. Then an image of abject 17th century cruelty flooded in, the day the de Witts were drawn and quartered in a public square. Spinoza had been horrified, he tried to carry a placard down to the crowds: Ultimi Barbarorum. He was stopped by his landlord, Van der Spyck, who knew all too well that Spinoza would also be instantly torn from limb to limb.


I saw the floor was scattered with fallen cards, deep blue boxes in the early morning light.


Rijnsburg is a small village near Leiden made up almost entirely of small stone houses on poorly marked streets. The train travels only so far and then it was a long walk, no crumbs along the path leading to Spinoza’s early home where he worked as a lens grinder. Finally, a small plaque attached to a cottage with a dark interior. Closed.


I could see the glass grinding wheel sitting silently in one corner, a glass case of Spinoza’s library with their rubbed and worn spines in an adjacent room. The calm which lay in the interior was one I did not ever wish to disturb. As I walked away I recalled that Thoreau, like Spinoza, died at age 44. He developed a lung illness exacerbated by the fine graphite dust inhaled from the pencil machine he invented; for Spinoza it had been the powder of glass. His lenses had aided fellow explorers like the upholsterer van Leeuwenhoek in his discoveries of the creatures swimming in dregs of wine, and Huygens in his view out toward the stars. Yet what pulled Spinoza on was a desire for the invisible, the unseeable, for understanding.



In The Hague Spinoza’s final home survives in what has become a rough section of the city; I was warned by the train conductor to leave before dark. The streets were broken in many places and lifeless, filled with a hollow silence.

2120025454_6b38dbcb56When I arrived I felt a sinking despair. The house was also dark and had a small brass notice explaining one must have an appointment in advance. I rang the bell and waited for the faint sound of footsteps. There were none. I realized it would be rude to ring again, so I stepped out into the street and gazed at the uppermost window of the attic. That was his room, the room where he composed the Ethics, the room where he wrote his ideas on freedom of speech, where he re-conceived the western view of God as a force of nature infusing all of life instead of a bearded man in the sky. And as I stood looking up a pair of eyes appeared between the curtains in a window on the lower floor.

A few moments later the front door opened and a lovely older woman who was perhaps seventy invited me inside. The lower level holds the International Spinoza Society Library in dark brown wood. A long oak table easily conjures up images of meetings where earnest, erudite scholars engage in good-natured debates. My host, mevrouw van Oeffal, brought me a cup of hot tea and, much to my pleasure, one for herself and sat down to speak with me. She said she could tell from my expression that I had come a long way. She watched while I examined the manuscripts in glass cases and the sculpture of Spinoza in a dimly lit niche. Then I asked about the attic. No one goes up there, she explained. “No one?” I asked. She could tell how desperately I wanted to see it. Asking me not to tell, though not to whom, she led me through the second level where she and her husband live as caretakers.

Their home held a lifetime of treasures: blue and white porcelain full of peaches set on a table covered with the traditional deep patterned carpet, delicate still life paintings in dark wooden frames. Mevrouw van Oeffal let me to a corner and pointed to a decorated wooden panel on the wall, pale blue with faded flowers. It was small, odd-shaped and warped and suddenly opened on an extremely narrow spiral brick and plaster stairwell. The steps curved up into the attic which, like most Dutch houses, is extremely long, stretching a distance away from the street. In Spinoza’s day, the house painter van der Spyck lived below with his wife. Their seven children slept in the back of the vast, dark attic—Spinoza’s room was in the front, with a thin wall separating him from their bright and noisy lives. Mevrouw van Oeffal opened the low door to his room, and in the dark I could see only bright squares from his window stretching a grid across the floor. Leaning closer, I expected to see his words etched in light, and then noticed her white hair glistening from the same sun.

In one corner sat Spinoza’s small bed frame of dark wood slatted to hold a mattress; it had been given to him by his mother and was the only thing he kept from that legacy.[ii] The dark green curtains that once hung from its posts are gone, and other than its starkness without bedding it is striking only in its child-like size. In another corner, much to my surprise, mevrouw van Oeffal’s husband had set up an oak desk from this century with a few books on modern business subjects. She told me she and her husband became caretakers here seven years ago when he retired from Shell Oil.

She had not known much about Spinoza, she confessed, but on moving into the house she felt an urgent need to understand. She took my hand then, turning towards me with widening eyes. With her family’s belongings still scattered everywhere in boxes, she went to the attic each day and sat on the edge of the bare bed frame to read Spinoza’s Ethics. It is a difficult book, she admitted. As mevrouw van Oeffal told her story, I realized how deeply she had been changed by this experience. We looked at each other silently then, two women of different ages and cultures and paths. She said to me:

            “After two weeks of reading from early morning until late at night, I got through it all. I came to know how important these ideas are and how they have become….And I knew what kind of man he was.”

Her grip tightened. She knew from my expression that I had come to the same understanding by a different route and was as thankful. She told me how this knowledge affects the way she takes care of his home, how she imagines his life.

Diamond Spinoza first spoke of conatus as a tendency for self-preservation which is common to all things in nature. Perhaps it is not simply a desire to exist but to arrive at an understanding of our existence. Perhaps, he reasoned, that is as close as we can come to salvation.

Over three centuries earlier, Spinoza’s own landlady, mevrouw Van der Spyck, had asked him one day whether he believed that she could be saved through her Lutheran faith. Spinoza was a religious paradox to many: he had been expelled from Judaism, was seen as heretical by the Christians and yet was known for his deep ethical consideration and his abiding faith in God. God or Nature, he said, they are one and the same. Mevrouw Van der Spyck’s question was sincere, hoping to learn in shortened version what he might have discovered. She was struck by his answer and wrote it in her day-book:

            “Your religion is a good one, you need not look for any other, nor doubt that you may be saved in your faith, provided, while you apply yourself to Piety, you live at the same time a peaceable and quiet life.”[iii]

Salvation in some realm beyond this earth was not something Spinoza took stock in; he was much more concerned with how we reckon with our lives while we’re here. But with respect to other’s faith, he was respectful, and his vision of God was one of accommodation. There were so many things he could have said; instead, he suggested living a peaceable life.[iv]   Perhaps he knew his own path to understanding was neither simple nor reproducible. Each of us must tie up the threads of our faith in our own way, find our own peace. He might be heartened, though, hundreds of years later, to learn the passion to understand is still simmering under the roof of his old home. A different mevrouw, the same room, similar light falling in through the window. And the final words of his Ethics still pushing us toward earthbound hope:

 Sed omnia præclara tam difficilia quàm rara ∫unt.

But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.[v]



This essay was first published in NEST Magazine, 2000.

[i] The complete countenance of universal understanding

The intellectual love of god

God or Nature

(first) Express, unfold the explanation

(then) Courage, moral strength, compassion


[ii] The poet Zbigniew Herbert tells the story of Spinoza’s bed in his book of essays about Dutch art and life:   Still Life With A Bridle Trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993) 150-152.

[iii] Johannes Colerus, The Life of Benedict de Spinoza (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1906) 9. J. Thomas Cook discusses this biographical episode and its meaning in “Did Spinoza Lie to His Landlady?” in Studia Spinozana Vol. 11 (1995) Spinoza’s Philosophy of Religion (Würzburg: Königshausen u. Neumann GmH, 1996) 15-37.

[iv] He could have told her, for instance, that we are all striving for understanding (which is a kind of salvation) and we discover good and evil only in how they lead us to it or get in the way. He could have described (centuries before Freud) how moments of conflicting emotion come back to haunt us again and again unless we can think back into our past and untangle the truth of the situation. See Benedict de Spinoza , The Ethics in Works of Spinoza, unabridged Elwes translation, Volume II The Ethics, Selected Letters, On the Improvement of Human Understanding. (New York: Dover Publications, 1951)

[v] Benedict de Spinoza, Ethica, De Libertate Humana, Propositio XLII, Scholium in Éthique. Texte original et traduction nouvelle par Bernard Pautrat. (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1988)

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The Lost Notebook of Aqueous Perspective

This essay by D. L. Pughe first appeared in Writings on Water, MIT Press.

“describe all the forms taken by water from its greatest to its smallest wave, and their causes.”1

                                                         —Leonardo da Vinci

It became a deluge for Leonardo to write of water. All its forms were to be explored, beginning in nooks and crannies of ice where it melted and pooled, flowing into brooks, streams braiding into rivers, rivers splashing into seas, and finally oceans rising in enormous crescendos from gargantuan storms. The studies of currents alone took up page after page, the exploration of clouds into rain a complete chapter, and the deep exploration of underwater vision: a lost notebook.2


He is in Cloux near the castle of Amboise in the Loire Valley. He had retired to the royal manor house at 62 after exhausting nearly every possibility in Florence, Venice, Milan.


Here he is allowed to think and dream, and occasionally help Francis I, the French king, with plans for a network of canals for the Loire.


Awake in the night he goes over again and again in his imagination the outlines of forms he has been studying, the ‘noteworthy things conceived by subtle speculation.’3

He considers the great amount of hidden water lingering inside the earth which feeds the springs. The motionless high mountain lakes and ponds, the stillness of fountains and stagnant pools. He attributes their calm to their distance from the center of the earth, and yet it is from these heights that splashing rapids, thundering waterfalls and great rivers fall like drapery: the Ticino from Laggo Maggiore, the Adda from Lake Como, the Rhine emerging from Lake Constance and Lake Chur.4

Fire flutters upward; water trickles down or drops from the sky. He is fascinated by liquid gravity, always descending, falling over, plunging, flowing downstream, pouring into the sea. Fire draws what is caught in it toward the sky like a passion that consumes you as it lifts you; water pulls you under in its powerful embrace.


Was it this attraction as well as this fear that led Leonardo to contemplate it again and again, from every perspective?

He drew rivers the same way he drew veins in the arm, a confluence of streams joining together coursing to the ocean, nourishing continents along the way. Reaching the sea they unravel in countless capillaries, spilling their pure contents into salty waves. He is fascinated by these mergers and divergences, the sweet purity of springs and heavy salinity of seas. He studies the way water courses around objects in its path, experimenting with sticks and boards, drawing the curls and braided currents as it rushes past every obstacle. He sketches a smaller river bending into a larger one from the opposite direction, whirling as the currents adjust themselves to the same destination.5

He realizes the ways water must be coaxed into channels and invited into canals by a beckoning drop in height.


Leonardo is aware water is not gentle in return. In the long nights at Cloux he dreams again and again of the massive deluge he is sure will wash civilization away. He sees clouds rise in ferocious gray armor and drop ton after ton of water on a helpless countryside full of desperate humanity. Mountains crumble, whirling waves rise, fly up, recoil, ‘friction grinds the falling water into minute particles, quickly converted to a dense mist, mingling with the gale in the manner of curling smoke and wreathing clouds,’ then all is washed away in a deadly inundation of foam, furiously rushing to the depths of the sea.6

He imagines the deep hidden channels of water within the earth which, over centuries, have carved away hollow caves. He is torn by contradictory emotions of fear and desire: ‘fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there are any marvelous things within.’7 Whirlpools sometimes stir there, awaiting each luckless thing pulled into their path. They can appear dark blue and calm, for instance, running among jagged cliffs behind an innocent Madonna cradling her child in a nest of rocks.


The exchange between oceans and rivers fascinated him, water constantly circulating and returning, the infinite number of times all the waters of the sea and rivers have passed through the mouth of the Nile.8

…that which crowns our wonder in contemplating [water] is that it rises from the utmost depths of the sea to the highest tops of the mountains, and flowing from the opened veins returns to the low seas; then once more, and with extreme swiftness, it mounts again and returns by the same descent…9

Gradually, these torrents of water ‘throw back stones toward the mountains’ hitting one another and rounding their edges away. By the time they reach the sea, they are pebbles worn to sand. Just as the water itself is caught in eternal return, so the land goes back and forth over centuries:10

Li moti son fatti dalli cor si de’fiumi; Li moti son disfatti dalli cor si de’fiumi.

Mountains are made by the currents of rivers, Mountains are destroyed by the currents of rivers.11

Was it this which drew Leonardo on?


What leads him to draw a submarine, to take Aristotle’s notion of a ‘diving bell’ and want to plunge into the deep violet depths of the ocean? Knowing his accumulated fears of water, of the deluge that could sweep humankind away in a thunderclap and swirling curl of foam, what did he hope to find in the fluttering light on the ocean floor?

On terra firma Leonardo was trained in the strict linear perspective of Alberti, a world controlled by point and line falling onto planes. Forms recede into the distance in graduated angles, always toward an anchoring point on a horizon which is also the point of vanishing. The Euclidean geometry which lay behind Alberti’s scheme was widely believed then and rarely challenged. In the beginning Leonardo applied angles to light and air, and saw the boundaries of shadows as determinable points. ‘He who is ignorant of these [points],’ he warned, ‘will produce work without relief, and the relief is the summit and soul of painting.’12


But in the shadowy, spiraling realm below the surface of water there is no such relief. Plunged below an anchoring horizon, all points are indeterminable. It is a realm of impossible angles where light dances like snakes rising from the floor instead of crisp beams slanting down from the sun. Perhaps he was headed there all along, toward a more inexpressible abstraction. In his late writings Leonardo begins to re-define a point as an instant in time and a line as a length or duration.13 Gradually the lines of a winding river come to resemble his own time on earth, ending in the immensity of the sea. Duration there becomes blurred, hinting at eternity.

On land, Leonardo devised a new means of atmospheric and aerial perspective to eloquently explore the blurring of the world. He noted the way objects diminish in sight as they recede from the eye, the way colors change in the distance (often merging into blue), and the haziness of edges, of vanishing: ‘the way that objects ought to be less carefully finished as they are farther away.’14 He applied these luminous rules to his painted landscapes, overriding hard-edged geometric schemes. And he delighted in the waters which trailed off into the bluish distance, in particular those at the edge of a certain portrait of a lady with whom he shared his room in Cloux. In the evenings did he linger in the deep turquoise water that travels through the craggy mountains behind her indecipherable smile?

mona-lisa-or-la-gioconda-by-leonardo-da-vinci  LeonardoMonaDetail

He began to call the Albertian method ‘simple,’ a construzione legittima but nonetheless artificial, then started to decode what he called ‘natural’ perspective. He resurrected the importance of our rounded world. The alleged ‘pyramid of vision’ which is said to frame nature and reach into our eye would give us a much different view than the one we actually see. He found our two eyes, working together, frame a graceful oval not a square. How did this play out under the surface of the ocean; how did this man, for whom the edges of light were once calculable angles, manage in the restless coils of aquatic shadows?


He began to embrace curves. He observed that stones flung into the water become the center and cause of many circles, that sound also diffuses itself in the air in echoing rings. And he noticed the sky spreading out in concentric bands of atmosphere, with the horizon suddenly visible as a graceful arc.15

Peering into water from above, he finds direct light does not allow him to look deeply into the layers of a stream, it bounces back his reflection and the sky. His eyes find a way in through other dark shadowy images reflected on the surface or what he calls the ‘skin.’ Observing submerged pebbles he sees how light bends as it enters the liquid world then diffuses in unpredictable ways. It would be several hundred years before a ‘wave’ theory of light came to be accepted, but he was already suspicious of the sanctity of beams.


Straight things seem to dissolve into ribbons in watery realms. Descartes would later describe how a stick in water appears bent from refraction, and that only a child would most likely believe it is truly bent. ‘Touching it, however, confirms that it is straight and goes beyond our preconceived opinions.’16 Descartes believed all ‘visual errors’ could be corrected this way—our senses working furiously in tandem to check and balance one another. He calls this ability ‘reason;’ Leonardo called it common sense, senso comune, where the five senses minister to the soul and enhance artistic perception.


He was the master of depicting shadows, smoky contours: Sfumato was his special means of rounding edges by subtle gradations to capture three-dimensional views. He explains how the density of a shadow is darkest closest to that which casts it, then fades away as it stretches into the distance. But looking down on water, shadows from above leap great distances and nearly disengage from their source. Bridges, for instance, leave their wobbly geometry on the surface some meters up or downstream. And immersed underneath the sea, the shadow of a fish swimming above can dart across the ocean floor a safe distance away just as its fin touches your shoulder. How did he try to capture these shifts of location, the curves of light, the diabolical dimensions of vision in the hushed immense chamber of the ocean?


We cannot know. In his rooms at Cloux in those final days he dreamed again of the deluge, his sketches becoming more and more cataclysmic and yet full of a vibrant conclusion: visual clashes of cymbals and drums and trumpets. He finds a sketch of a storm of our human failings, our foolish desire for objects suddenly bursting and falling from a dark thicket of clouds.


Comforting him in his last hours, the outstretched arms of St. Anne, the enigmatic face of La Gioconda, and the even more mysterious smile of St. John, his flame-like finger pointing toward the sky. They all appear to know something. And joining him in thought: a self-portrait, his beard cascading in silent waterfalls.


He had once believed that swimming is the closest we can come to understanding what birds do in the air. It can free us from gravity and fear. Like flying, it is a pushing away, and he believed we could push, that water could be mastered. Challenging Christ, he devised shoes with helpful poles for walking on the surface.

leonardo-da-vinci-skis-with-which-one-can-walk-on-water-detail  REBR-127_Da-Vinci_life-preserver

And attempting to defy the gods, he designed a life saver not unlike those carried on giant ships traversing the seas.

But as his apocalyptic dreams grew, these inventions paled. He again and again is caught in the storm:

 the swollen waters of the river, already having burst its banks, will rush on in monstrous waves; and the greatest will strike upon and destroy the walls of the cities and farmhouses in the valley…the swollen waters will sweep round the pool which contains them, striking in eddying whirlpools against the different obstacles, and leaping into the air in muddy foam; then, falling back, the beaten water will again be dashed into the air…17


He had once designed an underwater suit to dive the depths of the ocean.

da vinci suit

Did it occur to him now that the ocean floor might be the safest place to hide? He had altered his judgment of the world and had begun to embrace the curved reality we, too, have recently begun to know. What did the deepest depths of blue water hold in final reckoning? A resting place, a refuge, a realm of constant revision and invention. A point of vanishing where the soul is firmly anchored in scattered turquoise light.




This essay originally appeared in Writing On Water (Terra Nova Books), edited by David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus,  (MIT Press, 2002).

1 Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. II compiled and edited from Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Vol. II compiled and edited from the manuscripts of Jean Paul Richter (New York: Dover, 1970) Section 922 175.

2 The notebook of underwater perspective was not mislaid, it was simply but sadly never written. It is not known if Leonardo did intend to write one.

3 Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952) 218.

4 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 933 181.

5 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 971 201.

6 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. I compiled and edited from the manuscripts of Jean Paul Richter (New York: Dover, 1970) Section 606-611 305-314.

7 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 1339 395.

8 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 945 187.

9 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 965 197.

10 Leonardo, The Notebooks , Vol. II, Section 919 175.

11 Leonardo, The Notebooks, Vol. II, Section 979 205.

12 Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della Pittura di Leonardo da Vinci, Section 121, quoted in Kenneth Clark, Leonardo da Vinci (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939) 76.

13 Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Arundel, Section 190 in The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. J. P. Richter (London: Oxford 1939, rev. ed. New York 1970) Paragraph 916.

14 Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. Edward MacCurdy (New York: Reynal, 1939) 864.

15 Leonardo da Vinci Notebook A (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale 2038) 9v, R paragraph 69. Quoted in James S. Ackerman’s Distance Points, Essays in Theory and Renaissance Art and Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991) 116.

16 René Descartes, Descartes, Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) Section 439 124.

17 Leonardo on Painting, ed. Martin Kemp (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 234-235.

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Transylvanian Dreams

by D. L. Pughe


The Transylvania I love has Nothing to do with vampires. It is an area of steep Carpathian mountains with lush fir forests, remote villages and towns, and steeped in legends and centuries-old customs and myths.  Tran-sylvania (literally ‘across the forest”) is the ancient mountainous region of what was once Hungary and now is in Romania, captured best by Patrick Leigh Fermor in his book Between the Woods and the Water:

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“All through the afternoon the hills had been growing in height and now they rolled into the distance behind a steep and solitary hemisphere clad to the summit with vineyards. We turned into the tall gates at the foot of it and a long sweep of grass brought us to a Palladian façade just as night was falling. Two herons rose as we approached; the shadows were full of the scent of lilac. Beyond the french windows, a coifed and barefoot maid with spill was lighting lamps down a long room, and, with each new pool of light, Biedermeier furniture took shape and chairs and sofas where only a few strands of the original fabric still lingered; there were faded plum-coloured curtains and a grand piano laden with framed photographs and old family albums with brass clasps; antlers branched, a stuffed lynx pricked its ears, ancestors with swords and furred tunics dimly postured. A white stove soared between bookcases, bear-skins spread underfoot: and, as at Kövecsespuszta, a sideboard carried an array of silver cigarette-cases with the arms and monograms of friends who had bestowed them for standing godfather or being best man at a wedding or second in a duel. There was a polished shellcase from some Silesian battle, a congeries of thimble-sized goblets, a scimitar with turquoise-encrusted scabbard, folded newspapers—Az Ujság and Pesti Hirlap sent from Budapest, and the Wiener Salonblatt, an Austrian Tatler full of pictures of shooting parties, equestrian events and smart balls far away, posted from Vienna. Among the silver frames was a daguerrotype of the Empress Elizabeth—Queen, rather, in this lost province of the formerKingdom—another of the Regent dressed as admiral of a vanished fleet, and a third of Archduke Otto in the pelts and the plumes of a Hungarian magnate. Red, green and blue, the squat volumes of the Almanach de Gotha were ready to pounce. A glittering folio volume, sumptuously bound in green leather, almost covered a small table and its name, Az ember tragediája, was embossed in gold: The Tragedy of Man, by Imre Madács. It is a long nineteenth-century dramatic poem of philosophic and contemplative temper, and no Hungarian house, even the least bookish—like English houses with the velllum-bound Omar Khayyám illustrated by Edmund Dulac—seemed complete without it. Finally, a rack in the corner was filled with long Turkish pipes. This catalogue of detail composes an archetype of which every other country-house I saw in Transylvania seemed to be a variation. At the other end, beyond the double doors of a room which was half-study and half-gunroom, more antlers proliferated; figures moved in the lamplight and the voices of guests sounded, as I hastened upstairs to wash and get some of the dust off before meeting them…
Next morning revealed the front of a late eighteenth-century building. Between the wings, four wide-spaced Tuscan columns advanced and ascended both floors to form a splendid loggia. White louvred shutters continued the line of windows on either side, each leaf touching its neighbour on the façade when they were open while indoors the light poured across the floors; closed, with their slats ajar when the sun became too hot, they striped the wide polished beams underfoot with bars of light and dark,. There was a wheel with a handle which cranked out an enormous slant of white awning and, looking out, one might have been on the deck of a schooner painted by Tissot with tree-tops for waves. Beyond, the vine-clad hemispherical hill of Mokra soared like a volcanic island against snowy heaps of cloud and a pale sky. The smells of lilac, box and lavender drifted in, goldfinches moved about the branches, and now and then house-martins from the nests clustering along the pediment strayed indoors and flew in desperate circles or swept clean through the house and out the other side.”




CabinInClearing    MEadows&Trees OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   Romania Transylvania grass-thatched barn



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Transylvania is ‘Erdély,’ the land of forests and dreams….



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Connecting with Nature in Forster’s Forests

by D. L. Pughe

In Chapter 14 of Howard’s End, the lovely novel by E. M. Forster, the young clerk named Mr. Bast reveals that he has walked all night through forests in a feverish state to comprehend nature, humanity, all of life.

allegheny-national-forest_pennsylvania He confesses this to his new acquaintances, the Schlegel sisters, and a rapid literary conversation ensues in which George Meredith’s – The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Robert Louis Stevenson’s – Prince Otto, and Richard Jefferies – The Story of My Heart are among the books mentioned as testaments to nature writing and the meaning of life.

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So begins Mr. Bast’s account of his night walking:

“I took the Underground to Wimbledon. As I came out of the office I said to myself, ‘I must have a walk once in a way. If I don’t take this walk now, I shall never take it.’ I had a bit of dinner at Wimbledon, and then–”

“But not good country there, is it?”

“It was gas-lamps for hours. Still, I had all the night, and being out was the great thing. I did get into woods, too, presently.”

“Yes, go on,” said Helen.

“You’ve no idea how difficult uneven ground is when it’s dark.”

“Did you actually go off the roads?”


“Oh yes. I always meant to go off the roads, but the worst of it is that it’s more difficult to find one’s way.

“Mr. Bast, you’re a born adventurer,” laughed Margaret. “No professional athlete would have attempted what you’ve done. It’s a wonder your walk didn’t end in a broken neck. Whatever did your wife say?”

“Professional athletes never move without lanterns and compasses,” said Helen. “Besides, they can’t walk. It tires them. Go on.”

“I felt like R. L. S. You probably remember how in Virginibus.”

“Yes, but the wood. This ‘ere wood. How did you get out of it?”


“I managed one wood, and found a road the other side which went a good bit uphill. I rather fancy it was those North Downs, for the road went off into grass, and I got into another wood. That was awful, with gorse bushes. I did wish I’d never come, but suddenly it got light–just while I seemed going under one tree. Then I found a road down to a station, and took the first train I could back to London.”

“But was the dawn wonderful?” asked Helen.

With unforgettable sincerity he replied, “No.” The word flew again like a pebble from the sling. Down toppled all that had seemed ignoble or literary in his talk, down toppled tiresome R. L. S. and the “love of the earth” and his silk top-hat. In the presence of these women Leonard had arrived, and he spoke with a flow, an exultation, that he had seldom known.

“The dawn was only grey, it was nothing to mention.”

“Just a grey evening turned upside down. I know.”

“–and I was too tired to lift up my head to look at it, and so cold too. I’m glad I did it, and yet at the time it bored me more than I can say. And besides–you can believe me or not as you choose–I was very hungry. That dinner at Wimbledon–I meant it to last me all night like other dinners. I never thought that walking would make such a difference. Why, when you’re walking you want, as it were, a breakfast and luncheon and tea during the night as well, and I’d nothing but a packet of Woodbines. Lord, I did feel bad! Looking back, it wasn’t what you may call enjoyment. It was more a case of sticking to it. I did stick. I–I was determined. Oh, hang it all! what’s the good–I mean, the good of living in a room for ever? There one goes on day after day, same old game, same up and down to town, until you forget there is any other game. You ought to see once in a way what’s going on outside, if it’s only nothing particular after all.”

“I should just think you ought,” said Helen, sitting–on the edge of the table.

The sound of a lady’s voice recalled him from sincerity, and he said: “Curious it should all come about from reading something of Richard Jefferies.”

“Excuse  me, Mr. Bast, but you’re wrong there. It didn’t. It came from something far greater.”

But she could not stop him. Borrow was imminent after Jefferies– Borrow,  Thoreau, and sorrow. R. L. S. brought up the rear, and the outburst ended in a swamp of books. No disrespect to these great names. The fault is ours, not theirs. They mean us to use them for sign-posts we mistake the sign-post for the destination. And Leonard had reached the destination. He had visited the county of Surrey when darkness covered its amenities, and its cosy villas had re-entered ancient night. Every twelve hours this miracle happens, but he had troubled to go and see for himself. Within his cramped little mind dwelt something that was greater than Jefferies’ books–the spirit that led Jefferies to write them; and his dawn, though revealing nothing but monotones, was part of the eternal sunrise that shows George Borrow Stonehenge.

“Then you don’t think I was foolish?” he asked becoming again the naive and sweet-tempered boy for whom Nature intended him.

“Heavens, no!” replied Margaret.

“Heaven help us if we do!” replied Helen.

“I’m very glad you say that. Now, my wife would never understand –not if I explained for days.”

“No, it wasn’t foolish!” cried Helen, her eyes aflame. “You’ve pushed back the boundaries; I think it splendid of you.”

“You’ve not been content to dream as we have–”



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