natural sounds, desert hermits, and the sublime "nothing"...
while i was in marfa a few weeks ago, a friend of mine gave me a gift of the book 'the wisdom of the desert' by thomas merton. the body of the book is a series of texts written by desert hermits in egypt, palestine, arabia, and persia in the fourth century AD. i posted one about silence and a stone in the mouth a week or so ago. merton translated the "poems" (a bit like zen koans), and wrote a beautiful text of his own.
here's one of my favorite parts:
"the fruit of this was quies: "rest". not rest of the body, nor even fixation of the exalted spirit upon some point or summit of light. the desert fathers were not, for the most part, ecstatics. those who were have left some strange and misleading stories behind them to confuse the true issue. the "rest" which these men sought was simply the sanity and poise of a being that no longer has to look at itself because it is carried away by the perfection of freedom that is in it. and carried where? wherever love itself, or the divine spirit, sees fit to go. rest, then, was a kind of simple no-whereness and no-mindedness that had lost all preoccupation with a false or limited "self". at peace in the possession of a sublime "nothing" the spirit laid hold, in secret, upon the "all" - without trying to know what it possessed."
you are probably wondering what this has to do with the picture of the 7" i have posted here, containing the sounds of wildlife and nature, recorded at a nature reserve in florida in the mid 1970's. well, it's just one of those things i tend to find connections in, feeling the text and the sound bound together with a similar kind of pink string one binds together lawrence weiner's first dusk and last dawn stars. for some internal emotional reason they simply fit together, and this fitting just feels right.
the trajectory of "rest" that merton speaks of seems not only about a kind of peace within oneself, but also a kind of reckoning within oneself - a kind of cleansing before death. when one listens to the recording of "mountain lake sanctuary" one is immediately struck by the fervor of life, frantic, manic, and of course at the same time completely sublime. the goofy narration which i cut off of the beginning likened the various animals to instruments in an orchestra, but what if instead of instruments, each sound or animal was actually a mark or a moment in a timeline.
in this way, the recording could become a kind of narrative, with each sound as a kind of surrogate for a specific historical moment, so that the speed and order of sounds becomes an audio equivalent of a visual montage of someone's life (such as one of those scenes in a movie when someone's entire life passes before their eyes in a matter of seconds). listening in this way, allows a recording of nature to exist as a metaphor for the trajectory of a person moving towards the "rest" merton speaks of. certainly it is not too much of a stretch to hear such a path through this recording, particularly as one gets closer to the ending.
after being submerged in a cloud of natural sounds, one is confronted with a gentle surprise, which clearly signals a move towards no-whereness and no-mindedness. when the ethereal notes of a carillon drift into the picture, the whole thing moves from present to distant, fluctuating between the natural and supernatural (yes, it is quite a spirit-like presence). these last few moments of the recording feel as if a ghost has descended upon the scene, floated gently down to earth to tenderly hold one's hand, and to carry them off, as if floating, towards that same "sublime nothing" that merton speaks of.