Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Encounter With the Brown God

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable . . .
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
--T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets

These opening lines from Eliot’s third Quartet, “The Dry Salvages,” always bring me instantly to a deep and somber place, psychologically. As a writer, I am astonished that his evocation of a brown river holds such psychological power. In studying my response, I find that it is the simple word brown that conveys such impact. In this one word we discover a season—not necessarily fall or winter or spring, but that season in the land when rains saturate and disrupt the roads and fields, when water courses scour the earth, and mud and turbulence live vividly unrestrained.

It is a time of innerness for both nature and humankind. Animals huddle or hibernate in their deep burrows; trees are leafless, sap drawn down into the roots; and the world of men congregates around heat sources, books and cups of tea or coffee. The rhythms of louring cloud, wind-driven mist and hammering rain insist themselves upon everyone and everything. Those who resist fall victim to the immune system’s hibernation: colds, bronchitis, pneumonia and flu are the rewards for defying nature’s dictates. Those who do not resist often sink into psychic deeps, where old fears, unresolved conflicts and the naggings for self-improvement haunt the waters.

Of course, in the modern world, we “worshippers of the machine” have come to believe that we are superior to these moods and suggestions of the natural world. As Eliot suggests, we use the river for purposes of commerce or delineate it as a frontier between artificially assembled tracts of land, be they counties or countries or continents. Engineers in their cleverness find ways to drive underwater pilings, create spans of stone or steel, and thus bridge a river now only seen as inconvenient, or simply forgotten altogether.

When we encounter the threatening depths and relentless currents of the brown river within ourselves, psychologically, we can tame or bridge them pharmaceutically or explore the sunken, twisting paths of habituation, in an effort to skirt them. But this leaves us uneasy. Always, the eyes of the soul flick furtive glances at the unhonoured and unpropitiated river, in a kind of nervous vigilance.

What does he want, this dark, silent and relentlessly flowing god? What does he ask of us, should we wish to propitiate him or consult him regarding the meaning of our cohabitation of Earth? We squat on the riverbank, hands tucked into our laps against the cold, and ponder the brown breast of the deceptively noiseless flood.

I think that Eliot is suggesting that the river and the sea into which it flows represent Time: “time not our time, rung by the unhurried/Ground swell, a time/Older than the time of chronometers, older /Than time counted by anxious worried women/Lying awake, calculating the future.” The brown river god menaces us because, like all natural phenomena, we cannot control it—and we ignore its passing at our peril.

My garden, this morning, was Edenic with luminous sunflowers, agapanthus in huge blue globes, mint and oregano giving up their volatilized oils to the sun, cosmos clustered in white or pink constellations, and the glossy, pendant breasts of eggplants. The rampant wild rose that has honored me by taking over half of one quadrant of the courtyard garden was ripe with the apple-like scent of rosehips. Bees plied the fountain’s tranquil water.

Why, then, in the midst of watering the tomatillos, with their jaunty little green paper lanterns of fruit, did I suddenly think of Eliot’s brown river? Something deep in the psyche blinked its sun-dazzled eyes and turned its nervous glance riverward. I have lived immersed in nature long enough to know that something subliminal but potent was lurking. Waiting; watching and waiting.

Every year there comes a morning, still warm, still basking under a clear and tranquil sky, when something—Is it a whiff on the wind of the incipient decay that heralds fall? An absence of certain birds and butterflies that habitually sing and flit through the spires of evening primrose?—something, I say, whispers of a turning of the season. Quite suddenly, the slight riffling susurration of the wind’s river announces an epiphany. The brown god is instantaneously present in all his “daemonic, chthonic/Powers” and I stand helplessly watching as, with one wave of his brown arm, one more summer of my life is swept away toward the shoreless sea.

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