Wednesday, January 12, 2011

`The Pattern Stays, the Substance Gone'

“I found a little ancient fern
Closed in a reddish shale concretion,
As neatly and as charmingly set in
As my grandmother’s face
In a round apricot velvet case.”

This is “Fossil, 1919” by Janet Lewis, and I remembered it when a fifth-grader brought to class a shallow box six inches long, the sort that holds a bracelet or necklace. Inside on a setting of faux-velvet was a piece of limestone shaped like Oklahoma with a truncated Panhandle. Embedded in the stone was a perfect fossil of a fern, as clean and precise as a draftsman’s rendering. Something about these ancient impressions, especially one so life-like, is plangent, like sepia prints of long-dead strangers.

There’s a connection, a life-sense, a hint of immortality, and I stared at the kid’s treasure (an uncle had mailed it from New Mexico for Christmas) until another kid said it was a fake and the chorus started: “Plastic!” “You made it!” “Liar!” To his credit, the fossil-owner denied it and otherwise kept quiet. I hefted the stone and fingered the mineral image and had no doubt it predates us by millions of years. Half a century after the poem above Lewis wrote “Fossil, 1975”:

“Changed and not changed. Three million years.
This sunlight-this sunlight-summoned little fern
Closed in a cenotaph of silt
Lies in my hand, secret and safe.
In quiet dark transformed to stone,
Cell after cell to crystal grown,
The pattern stays, the substance gone.
Changed and not changed. Three million years
The Spirit, ranging as it will,
In sun, in darkness, lives in change.
Changed and not changed. The spirit hears
In drifting fern the morning air.”

In the title essay of The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport writes:

“The imagination, like all things in time, is metamorphic. It is also rooted in a ground, a geography. The Latin word for the sacredness of a place is cultus, the dwelling of a god, the place where a rite is valid. Cultus became our word culture, not in the portentous sense it now has, but in a much humbler sense. For ancient people the sacred was the vernacular ordinariness of things: the hearth, primarily; the bed, the wall around the yard. The temple was too sacred to be entered. Washing the feet of a guest was as religious an act as sharing one’s meals with the gods.”

Cultus can mean “care, labor; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence," from the past participle of colere, “to till.”

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