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I opened the front door and stepped outside, where a choir of birds twittered and chirped. There must have been scores of them up in the still-bare trees of early spring, all blasting at once, and a kind of joy crept up in my chest at the sound, a sense that this was beautiful in a way that almost justified existence. 

It is another spring. I have seen 73 of them and the number I have left is dwindling. Now there is a sense, like Takashi Shimura at the end of Seven Samurai, talking to Daisuke Kato, saying: “Once more we have survived.” 

Another spring, another year. I see the bud tips on the maple tree spread and burst out in the million tiny sprays of maroon maple flowers. It is a moment I wait for each year. Another small moment of joy. Those moments are of immense importance. 

I want to avoid sounding like a Hallmark card here. For much of existence for much of the world is misery. People continue to bomb each other; children continue to die; famine spreads; refugees live by the thousands in makeshift tents; ethnic minorities are hounded and enslaved. Even in our so-called First World, otherwise comfortable people face death, betrayal, hate, disappointment and the hounding sense of their own meaninglessness. 

For much of history, we have lived through plagues, wars, superstitions and “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

And yet, you see children in those refugee camps playing soccer in the dust. They are laughing. Mothers find great love in their children. Above the camps, birds still twitter and peep. I don’t mean to downplay the misery being suffered, but to point out that even in the midst of suffering, there are sprints of joy. It is so to be human. 

What affords those moments of joy — which come upon us unannounced always — is that they give us a glimpse of connectedness. To our kin and childers, to nature, even to the larger city in which we live. 

I was reading in Ezra Pound’s Cantos a few days ago, through the Pisan Cantos section of that monstrous, abstruse, inchoate mass of culture-shard, written when Pound, after World War II, was imprisoned in Italy for having given intemperate radio broadcasts lauding il Duce and fascism. He was a cranky, possibly insane old man and he was kept in an outdoor cage with a concrete floor for a bed. He wrote the bulk of his Pisan Cantos there, full of the usual blatherings about economics and world history, mixed with bits of incomparable poetry and the language gave even the most pathetic of imbecilities brief moments of majesty of utterance. But, like most of Pound’s verse, it is almost all literary, with little sense of the poet’s actual life, at least outside of books. 

But in the middle of Canto LXXIX, there appear, popping up in the jumble of classical allusion, several birds on the power lines strung above his cage. “With 8 birds on a wire/ or rather on 3 wires.” They make a melody on the music staff of those wires. And later, “4 birds on 3 wires, one bird on one.” Further on, “5 of them now on 2; on 3; 7 on 4.” The real birds keep breaking into his phantasmagoria of theory and the poet’s tirades about ancient China and Tallyrand seem vaporous in contrast with the physicality of those birds above his cage. Philomel and the Nachtigall give way to pigeons and starlings. 

And you sense, behind all the immense brickwork of culture and reference, that moment of real connection with an actual world. And in the misery of that cage, open to wind and rain, a brief moment of joy, left fleeting and unprocessed. 

Such moments are epiphany — the rending of a veil to see what is most essential. Joy is the ephemeral product of such an insight. 

Such moments come in a flicker; they cannot last long. No one is joyful all the time. We are not living in some Pepsodent commercial, skipping down the sidewalk with teeth so shiny they blind passersby. Indeed, we live the bulk of our lives in neutral, neither miserable nor happy, but plodding on. But then we have that glimpse, periodically, of a bliss that transports us from our own toad-like passivity. It is a seed waiting to sprout in our psyches. 

These moments don’t always stick, but sometimes they do, and inform the rest of our lives. I remember a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC in the 1970s. In the basement at the time, there was a small exhibit of Cezanne still lifes. I had never much valued Cezanne, but I had only seen his work in reproduction or on slides in art history class. But here was the real thing. Who knew there were that many greens in the world? Infinite seeming gradations of blues and greens that glowed almost like fire, “fire green as grass.” And it was, for that moment, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I’ve since been to the big retrospective of Cezanne at the Philadelphia Art Museum in 1996 and was bowled over. The color alone, glowing like neon, gave me intense pleasure.

Another time, I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play Strauss’ Don Juan and the palpability of the sound, especially from eight horns playing in unison and making the seat under me vibrate, let me feel the sound as a physical presence. Jericho would have shuddered. I know I did. 

Art has been at the root of much of my own experience of joy and epiphany. I could name dozens of concerts and hundreds of art exhibitions that have brought me to this afflatus — for that is what joy is. 

Other sources are family: my twin granddaughters when they were three, riding bouncy-horsey, each on one of my knees and laughing the way only three-year-olds can. Even such a trivial thing as one of them asking for seconds on the pot roast I have cooked for them. Seeing them enjoy what I have prepared is a constant source of joy. I imagine the same for some Syrian refugee in a tent making dinner for her children. These moments come to us as gifts. 

Nature is the third great source. I remember standing on the top of Roden Crater in Arizona, an extinct volcano being reshaped by artist James Turrell. It was dusk and the sun was setting. Turrell pointed out the now-obvious fact that night doesn’t “fall,” but rather, it rises. And you can see the edge of the shadow of the earth cast by the lowering sun against the sky forming a boundary between the light and the dark and as the sun drops, the line of demarkation rises until the night swallows all. It is an effect you don’t get to notice in the cities or suburbs, where the horizon is blocked by human busy-ness. 

I stood by the Rhine River in Dusseldorf at night, with the reflection of city lights flashing off the dark current like firesparks. The river flowed broad with a swiftness and power that felt almost as if it must be a god. This was the river Robert Schumann felt was worthy of writing a symphony about. 

On the plains of eastern Montana, at the Little Bighorn, I stood on a hill — one hill like a frozen wave peak in the ocean among many such peaks — and watched the wind curl the long grass in moving ripples across the landscape. The manifestation of Wakan Tanka, the great spirit that animates the cosmos. I had to stand very still among all the motion to absorb it as a moment of eternity. 

In the early ’70s, I visited Gaddys Pond, just east of Charlotte in North Carolina, which was home to tens of thousands of Canada geese, a midway stop in their annual migrations. And the sound of all of them honking over each other, the din of chaos, remains the single most joyful sound I have ever heard. Ever since I have sought to recapture that moment, my hound, bay horse and turtle-dove.

We talk about joy being an emotion, as if it were some abstract titillation of the neurons, but it is a physical effect: the chest swells to almost bursting. You can feel the inner pressure of the joy wanting to escape the confines of the meat that is your body. And you feel something rising in your throat and your eyes begin to tear and overflow. The experience surges inside you. It may last only a second, or even a fraction of a second, but in that moment, you know you are alive. You know that everything is alive, and that to be alive is everything. 

“What have you seen that was the most beautiful,” she asked. A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. That third order gives not just pleasure, but transcendence. Below is the last of three parts.

At the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona, there is a free-standing room, a box, with two doors: an entrance and an exit. When you go through, you find yourself in a sealed black room filled with tiny LED lights suspended on wires from the ceiling, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of them. All the walls, the floor and ceiling are mirrors, and so the universe of lights is visually infinite. It is completely disorienting. You are meant to walk through and go out the exit, but the first time I went, I walked in a straight line from the entrance and came out — the entrance. You can not avoid getting lost. 

It is an art installation by Yayoi Kusama called You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies and is one of the most popular pieces in the museum. Kusama is a 91-year-old Japanese-born artist who has lived for the past 40 years by choice in a Tokyo mental institution. By one survey, from 2005, she was the most popular artist in the world. Her work is easy to enjoy. Perhaps too easy. 

It is always some manifestation of her obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it is also fun. In an otherwise dismissive review in The Guardian from 2018, Jonathan Jones complains of another one of Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored  Rooms,” that it is on “about the same artistic level as a lava lamp – or an infinite number of lava lamps,” but nevertheless, says, “I was as blissed out as the next idiot.”

Where is the rule that says art, to be good, must be difficult to understand? Besides, it is more important to have an experience than to be told what something means. Kusama’s installation is an unforgettable experience. It is also a reminder of experience: the daily encounter with the infinite we live through but don’t see. Once in a while, we may look up at the night sky and admire its vastness, but most of the time, we just shut the door and turn on the TV. 

Giving in to the infinite — or the emotional experience of it — is the source of the third level of the beautiful. It can hit you whenever you are open to it. Not necessarily seeking it, but nevertheless open to it. Most often, we spend our lives closed, trying to make sense of the everyday things that take up most of our time. But there are moments when it all breaks in. These moments tend to stick in our psyches, to be brought back in memory to refresh our lives. 

In May of 1972, my second unofficial wife and I (seven years of living together must qualify as something), hiked up Rock Castle Creek near Woolwine, Va., to an abandoned farm, known as the Austin Place. 

It took about 40 minutes to climb the trail to the farm. The noise of the creek stayed with us as we went past fields of Virginia creeper and forests of fallen chestnut. We crossed the creek three times on hewn logs.

There is a rise at the end of the trail, and a field gone to seed. At the other end, at one corner of the field is a collapsing gray weathered barn with many chinks, fallen doors and cracked windows to let the sun ricochet in abstractions inside. Past the barn is the house, two stories and old, chipped and dirty paint, balusters that are no two quite the same — having been twisted or replaced or fallen — A second floor porch with crusty hammock hooks, a green tin roof and cherry trees garnishing the facade. We climbed the old concrete steps to the porch and sat our burdens down.

As we looked out over the front lawn, it was weeds, then the rapid stream with a bridge that looked like a fallen ladder over it, more weeds beyond that, then a sharp rise and embankment with an apple orchard above it, all going feral. A bit further than that, the trees started climbing nearly straight up. The mountain took off like a precipice and climbed 1,000 to 1,500 feet.

I found an unlocked window leading to the pantry and got myself into the farmhouse and opened the front door. The day was idled along contentedly. We wasted all of it with the productive waste of happiness. 

We brought out a hammock and lay in that for a while. We cooked a stew for dinner. Near the end of the day, we lay together in the hammock on the second floor porch, looking out at the beauty, listening to the stream and smelling green leaves and budding flowers, feeling the warmth of the sun. We dozed, then held each other some more. We watched the brilliant crowns of the trees as the sun narrowed to a shaft behind the ridge and illuminated only their tops. The incandescent crowns grew smaller and more precipitous on the head of the trees.

Against the dark of the trees and hillside a billion flickers burned thick as stars as lightning bugs made Fourth of July for us. I have never seen so many at once. And the moment stood still and I felt the old Faust plea: “I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.”

Kusama’s installation brought back that day, the points of light in the dark, and the feeling of infinite awe. 

There is something about a crowd of points in an undifferentiated field that speaks of eternity: It is the stars in the black of midnight. The motion of the tall grass in the prairie curling in the wind, animated, as the Lakota say, by Taku Skanskan — the life-giving force of nature. The swaying tips of trees against the sky on a breezy day. The self is forgotten and I become a universal witness to a universal transcendence. 

The Little Bighorn National Battlefield in Montana is a quiet place, with the hiss of wind in the grass and the buzzing of grasshoppers. The road through the park continues for about five miles, past the congested visitor’s center and along the high ridge of bluffs and coulees over the river bottom to the location where Custer’s subordinates, Reno and Benteen, held off the Indian siege for two days.

Most people hang around the monument on Battle Ridge, where small white crosses mark the places where Custer and his men fell. But if you drive to the end of the pavement, you can walk out in the grass, which curls in the breeze like white horses on the sea swell, and hear the phoebe’s song among the seedheads, and watch the approach of an afternoon thunderstorm with its dark clouds and flickering glow of distant lightning.

I had the experience thrust on me in the late 1960s at Gaddys Pond, near Charlotte, N.C., which was then a privately owned lake that was a stopping place for Canada geese on their migrations. The geese, the brants, the crows that hung around, all made an amazing din of squawks. You could barely make out any individual sound, because the buzzing was everywhere. It is one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard. There must have been a million birds on that pond. Points on a ground. 

Sometimes, I will take out my old Peterson cassettes of bird calls just to play the part of the geese — the million-geese squall of honks. It satisfies as much as a Bach fugue. 

In eastern North Carolina one winter many years ago, millions of blackbirds descended on Scotland Neck. The bare trees were leafed out with them and periodically they would rise up the the tens of thousands and swirl in a great murmuration — a twisting cloud of tiny dots against the iron-gray winter sky. You had to involuntarily suck in a great breath of frozen air for the sheer admiration and beauty of it. 

In the late 1970s, when I lived in Seattle, I spent many unemployed days at the aquarium. Watching fish in the window of the great tank was relaxing, but something more akin to the murmurations of birds was the salmon run. You could stand underneath it and look up through its glass bottom and watch the hundreds of fry twist in circles above you, and like the birds, seem to move as a single entity instead of a million commas or apostrophes darting through the fluid. 

There is something about these swarms, whether fireflies or salmon, that seems both utterly random, yet, carefully organized. Very like the night sky, governed by some relatively simple physics, but so immense as to be indistinguishable from the infinite. 

This sense has, in the English-speaking world, been labeled “the sublime.” It is not simply the beautiful, but the beautiful that is overwhelming. “It takes your breath away,” is too easily said, but seldom actually encountered. But when it does, you enter a different reality. Time stops, eternity begins. 

It was an anonymous author known as Longinus (we don’t actually know who he was, other than his name) who wrote the treatise, “Peri Hypsos,” or “On the Sublime.” 

“Nature prompts us to admire, not the clearness and usefulness of a little stream, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and far beyond all, the Ocean; not to turn our wandering eyes from the heavenly fires, though often darkened, to the little flame kindled by human hands, however pure and steady its light; not to think that tiny lamp more wondrous than the caverns of Aetna, from whose raging depths are hurled up stones and whole masses of rock, and torrents sometimes come pouring from earth’s center of pure and living fire. … “

“When we survey the whole circle of life, and see it abounding everywhere in what is elegant, grand, and beautiful, we learn at once what is the true end of a human’s existence. … Therefore even the whole world is not wide enough for the soaring range of human thought, but the mind often overleaps the very bounds of space.”

That may sound a bit hyperventilated, but if you have once experienced it and left your corporeal existence behind to join with the cosmos for that brief second and know that eternity is not simply a very long time, but something without time at all, then you will have experienced beauty in a new way that has nothing to do with something merely being pleasing. Yes, it is only a psychological experience — I’m not making any great anagogic argument here — but it is a glory. 

Click on any image to enlarge

litle bighorn bluff with roadWhat you see in eastern Montana is grass, oceans of it, from horizon to horizon.

It was on this sea of grass that many of the plains tribes of Native Americans navigated in their search for herds of buffalo, and it was on this sea that the most famous battle of the Indian Wars was fought.

You can walk through the history and try to reconstruct the events at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument on the Crow Reservation south of Billings. On these grassy hills on June 25, 1876, George Custer died with more than 260 of his soldiers.

Over the years, “Custer’s Last Stand” has been the source of a great deal of mythologizing, on both sides of the battle. You have only to look at such Hollywood histories as They Died With Their Boots On to see a heroic Errol Flynn, fighting to the last with his brave men as they are inundated by hordes of screaming Sioux and Cheyenne. custer's last fight anheuser buschA famous chromolithograph, from a painting by St. Louis artist Cassilly Adams, hung in almost every saloon from 1896 to up till the Korean War. It was called Custer’s Last Fight, but almost everyone remembers it as “Custer’s Last Stand.” LIttle Big Man

In the heroic versions, Custer and his men are unundated by a sea of Indans and go down fighting to the last man.

An alternate version has taken hold since then, in which Custer is an egomaniacal buffoon who sees genocide as his ticket to the White House, and was personified by Richard Mulligan in Little Big Man.

Despite the hundreds of books and movies about Custer, none has ever resolved the contradictions of his character. Certainly, in the years just after his death, he was canonized — partly due to the propagandizing of his wife — and served as a rallying cry for those who wanted to end the “Indian problem” once and for all.

But Custer himself isn’t the only myth of the battle.

How often have you heard that there were no white survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn? As you drive through the battlefield, you learn the complexity of the fight and that fewer than half of Custer’s men were killed. Granted, that’s still a bloody battle, but it’s not quite the same thing as the legend.little bighorn evening

On finding the Indian encampment, Custer divided his troops into three groups and intended to attack the bivouacked Indians from both the North and the South. He took field command of one third of the forces and marched them north, along the hills above the Indian encampment.

The other two thirds of his forces, at the south end of the battle, took heavy casualties and eventually retreated to relative safety at the top of one of the bluffs on the eastern side of the river. Custer’s third of the force — about 225 men — was wiped out.little bighorn headstones

Yet, 328 men survived to tell the story, which they did to official inquiries.

Another myth is that it is the only battle the Indians ever won. That is wrong on both ends of the deal, since there were many battles won by Indians, but the Little Bighorn cannot really be counted as one of them.

The purpose of Custer’s foray into Montana was to oust the Sioux and Cheyenne from the Crow Reservation, where they were not particularly welcome, and nudge them back to their own reservations.

The battle ended when word of the approach of General Terry’s troops from the north came and the Indians decamped. Most of them wandered back to their own reservations. In other words, while the battle is remembered as a defeat for Custer, its military objectives were largely met, though such a victory is truly Pyrrhic.

You can read about the battle in any number of books, but you can’t really get the feel of it without visiting the site.little bighorn distant rain

It is a quiet place, with the hiss of wind in the grass and the buzzing of grasshoppers. The road through the park continues for about five miles, past the congested visitor’s center and along the high ridge of bluffs and coulees over the river bottom to the location where Custer’s subordinates, Reno and Benteen, held off the Indian siege for two days.

Most people hang around the monument on Battle Ridge, where small white crosses mark the places where Custer and his men fell. But if you drive to the end of the pavement, you can walk out in the grass, which curls in the breeze like white horses on the sea swell, and hear the phoebe’s song among the seedheads, and watch the approach of an afternoon thunderstorm with its dark clouds and flickering glow of lightning.

And you can get a much deeper sense of what this part of Montana was like 119 years ago, before the roads and visitor’s center, before the white crosses and shallow graves.