Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Winter Solstice musings on growing old

Photo and essay published in the Concord Monitor 12/21/16

My Enduring Friend
When I was eight or nine, I helped my father clear a path to the top of the hill across the road from our house, land I later inherited. The land had been clear cut, almost denuded, a few years earlier by the previous owner to extract all possible value before selling the land to my father.

Almost every large tree had been cut.  Therefore, by its very presence, this hulking tree well past its prime, straddling the boundary line at the high point of the property, commandeered my attention. But not in a good way: To my young mind, this ancient sugar maple was a useless old tree, decayed and deformed, better off dead and gone.

But like so many things I used to think when young, I was wrong. The tree lived on. And slowly over the last 60 odd years of walking that path to the top of the land, that old tree has become my friend.

She is not the same tree whose appearance I had initially judged to be already old and decrepit.  Over the years since then, she has gracefully relinquished all three of her once-magnificent main trunks, along with virtually all of her branches.

Yet, rather than succumbing, she has miraculously sprouted a vibrant new appendage and continues to live on.

Certainly, she is a monument to the tenacity of life. But, more important to me personally, she represents the foibles and complexities of the human imagination.

Imagining a tree as a young child is not the same as imaging a tree in old age. It is a qualitatively different kind of imagination. The French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard – who himself would be 132 years-old, if alive today – wrote about these two forms of imagination, calling one formal and the other material. He believed both types of imagination were vital elements, in nature as well as in the human mind.

According to Bachelard, formal imagination in nature creates fleeting beauty such as the bright bloom of a flower while the material imagination produces that which is both primitive and eternal:
 “In the mind, the formal imagination is fond of novelty, picturesquenss, variety, and unexpectedness in events, while the material imagination is attracted by the elements of permanency present in things.”

So it is with my old friend.  No longer is she the body-beautiful goddess, lush and symmetrically rounded, stretching sensually toward the sky. No longer do nineteenth century farmers visit her early each spring to tap her vital fluids.

Yet, while she may no longer appear beautiful and useful in the formal, conventional sense of the imagination, she majestically endures, “in being, both primitive and eternal.”

The older I get, the more I value my walks up the path cut so long ago by my father and I to visit my dear old friend, my teacher, my initiator into the mysteries of old age.


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