Saturday, August 22, 2015

Behind stars

This is the view out the cottage door.

These are bluegills, under the pier. I tried for an artistic shot by just aiming at the water -- I tried for a lot of artistic shots, by just aiming at the water -- and what do you know.

This is the view over your head, when you are relaxing on the lawn chair in the afternoon. You've seen blue sky and trees before, but I like to capture exact things. Perhaps it's the historian in me.

Sometimes there were clouds. Magnificent ones. Morning or evening, didn't matter.

I walked around the lake. I met a handsome rooster. I swam.

I took selfies. Tried to be artistic there, too. The young fashion bloggers would have "rocked" something other than a tank top, I suppose.

Away across the lake is an elegant property that always reminds me of some shimmering, time-warp affair from the eighteenth century. The white house, secluded in the trees. The gazebo, never used. The gentle watery jungle at the shore. Swans.

I imagine ladies in long sacque gowns (the Augustans never thought of anything so vulgar as a hoop skirt) trailing down to take tea or maybe champagne in the gazebo, accompanied by gentlemen in breeches and striped waistcoats. No powder in the country, surely. They would find everything "extreamly pleasing."

I bought an eighteenth-century lady's diary at the secondhand bookstore in town. She was Elizabeth, Duchess of Northumberland, 1716-1776, and her Diaries, or a redaction of them, were published by George H. Doran Co. in 1926. Only in the vigorous 1700s, it seems, will you find ladies recording bluntly, Went home voided a large Stone. Tired to Death. Went to Ball; tired to Death. A bad supper. Miss Townsend drunk. Or, having such interesting evenings as this:

We returned home & after Dinner, Ly. M. gave an Acct of her Husbands brutal usage of her -- beating, pinching, & kicking her; having an intrigue with her sister, who offered to put Ly. Mary out of the way if he would go to live with her abroad.   
It makes one, as the Duchess might say, entirely asham'd of one's own Reflections, which seem to go on for years all about Struggling with one's Feelings, &c., &c., and are dull and mewling in comparison. To be fair -- to myself -- the eighteenth century provided any diarist with experiences and sights which make effortlessly vivid reading now, but which they probably would have been glad to be spared. One day in November 1765 her Grace saw an opera singer perform, a woman named Spagnoletti. Imagine this:
The Spagnoletti was as ugly as the Devil, half her Face being burnt away she supplys it by Pasteboard, has a Glass Eye, dresses like a Gorgon and is as hoarse as a Raven.
Wellllokaythen, as we mewlers say today.

For five days I was unplugged from the world of news and wise men's commentary. I came back to stories of the kind of evil, taking place in our own country, that we used to shudder at and call satanic when our and our allies' troops uncovered it in the enemy's liberated concentration camps two generations ago. Who is the "technician" who cut a baby's face open with scissors to extract his brain for research? Why isn't he -- or God help us, she -- on trial for crimes against humanity? Yes, to mention this is jarring amid the water lilies, but the testimony exists. No eighteenth century person, duchess or otherwise and vigorously aware of right and wrong, would have ignored it. I dare say if any one of them could step forward from their gazebo on the water, the first thing they would do is slap all of us full in the face. And it wouldn't be a silly gesture.

I went out at night to see the stars in a truly rural environment, and was rewarded with a view of the Big Dipper that I never get from my suburban balcony. Of course there were many more stars and constellations I don't know; it can be really freakish to look up long and patiently and begin to see a three dimensional picture, to see distance in space: fainter stars behind faint stars behind stars. I stayed out long enough to accustom my eyes to the darkness, and discerned the Milky Way. Our galaxy, edge on. Imagine being able to see the spiral. Are there wondrous planets where that fills the night sky? Ignorance in the age of the iPod queries also: does the Milky Way always stretch, for us, in the same direction across the same quadrant of the heavens? Does it always appear as I saw it, thickest overhead and tapering off a little to the east of the North Star? (Which I only spotted because in grade school we still were taught that the stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper point to it.) Or can it "move"?

Later, I ventured out in the very small hours, 3 a.m. in the wilderness, because when am I ever in the wilderness? -- and had the satisfaction of seeing, in the oddly not black but sepia-gray night, that the Big Dipper had gone from its place in the southwestern corner of the rim of trees around the lake. A sort of triangular collection of bright stars had moved from above the eastern treeline to the nighttime zenith. Then a creature, a heron I think, squawked closeby with that scratchy sound like a giant door creaking open. I thought I must have disturbed the bird's nighttime fishing, and I crept back inside. But I witnessed: so it's true. Stars and things do vanish from east to west as the earth turns on its axis. Perhaps that, or some character's ignorance of that, could play a part in my Michigan mystery novel. At the bookstore along with the Duchess' diaries I bought Whitney's Star Finder (Knopf, 1989), by Charles A. Whitney, "Revised, Updated, and Expanded for 1990 through 1995."

And there are a hundred other things. What are the aquatic plants that grow in freshwater Midwestern lakes, what are all the roadside flowers  -- above is chicory, we think -- that surround them, what are the fish in them? What are the bugs making that clacking sound all night, like the teeth of a cogged wheel turning and scraping rhythmically against something? Somehow one thinks the Duchess of Northumberland would have known most of this. Especially about the stars, maybe. 

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