By Anne Matthews
September 5, 2013
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854
As an admirer of moonlight I resent the bossy insistence of those who want to reduce my time for enjoying it. At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves.
—Robertson Davies, The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks, 1947
When the vast body [of the sperm whale] had at last been stripped of its fathom-deep enfoldings, and the bones become dust dry in the sun, then the skeleton was carefully transported up the Pupella glen, where a grand temple of lordly palms now sheltered it. … Now, amid the green, life-restless loom of that Arsacidean wood, the great, white, worshipped skeleton lay lounging—a gigantic idler! Yet, as the ever-woven verdant warp and woof intermixed and hummed around him, the mighty idler seemed the cunning weaver; himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful Life, and begat him curly-headed glories.
—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, 1851
After he read a poem by Tennyson, which contains the lines ‘Every minute dies a man / Every minute one is born,’ [Charles] Babbage wrote to the poet, an occasional guest at his famous dinner parties, and suggested a few changes. ‘I need hardly to tell you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows: “Every moment dies a man, / And one and a sixteenth is born.” I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.’
—Walter Gratzer, ed., A Literary Companion to Science, 1990
It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840s. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant, or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.
—Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949
The Lawn is full of south and the odors tangle, and I hear to-day for the first time the river in the tree.
—Emily Dickinson, letter to Elizabeth Holland, 1866
On the counter was a glass bowl green as the sea, filled with bleached shells like scraps from the summer. Three photographs, each of a different female eye, were pinned one above the other on the wall. Keys hung in an old gilt frame. There were drawings of birds, beautiful onyx eggs, a framed postcard from Gaudí to a man named Francisco Aron. They were talking about the day ahead as if they had only happiness in common. This gentle hour, this comfortable room, this death. For everything, in fact, every plate and object, utensil, bowl, illustrated what did not exist; they were fragments borne forward from the past, shards of a vanished whole.
—James Salter, Light Years, 1975
Of plants tomatoes seemed the most human, eager and fragile and prone to rot.
—John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick, 1984
In Pretoria [Central Prison] my calendar was behind the lapel of my dressing-gown. Here, with my needle and thread, I stitched one stroke for each day passed. I sewed seven upright strokes, then a horizontal stitch through them to mark a week. Every now and then I would examine the stitching and decide that the sewing was not neat enough and the strokes could be more deadly exact in size; I’d pull the thread out and re-make the calendar from the beginning. This gave me a feeling that I was pushing time on, creating days, weeks, and even months. Sometimes I surprised myself and did not sew a stitch at the end of the day. I would wait three days and then give myself a wonderful thrill knocking three days off the ninety.
—Ruth First, 117 Days, 1965
If a novice realized that the vocation of a young monk is to become an old monk, I think he would be terrified. Of course there is an analogy with ordinary family life. But through celibacy, community isolation, and the long, sober intoxication of prayer, the monks in old age develop the kind of eccentricity that Oxford dons used to exhibit before they were permitted to marry. Old monks are wild as well as simple. They perch more lightly on the globe than the rest of us.
—Peter Levi, The Frontiers of Paradise, 1987
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
—Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, translated by Edward FitzGerald, 1859
With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts … and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. … Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.
—Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams, 1993
Anne Matthews is a contributing editor of the SCHOLAR.