Tag Archives: Emily Dickinson’s birthday

New Figs in Winter

Good morning.  Today is Emily’s 181st birthday, and there was a total lunar eclipse.  It might have been somewhat visible in our sky at about 6:00 a.m.  But I slept through it.  Chances are it would have been covered by clouds anyway.  The day is gray and cold.  Here are Emily’s prescient remarks:

#415, c. 1862

Sunset at Night — is natural —
But Sunset on the Dawn
Reverses Nature — Master —
So Midnight’s — due — at Noon.

Eclipses be — predicted —
And Science bows them in —
But do one face us suddenly —
Jehovah’s Watch — is wrong.

The poem gives us a solar eclipse, not quite consonant with today’s weather, but I’ll take it.  The “Sunset on the Dawn” is the line I like.  She points to an eclipse, which darkens the sun just at the time that we expect it to be most bright, as a reversal of Nature.  Yet it can happen and often does.  Eclipses occur all the time.  We know about these events and what causes them.  Yet the eclipse still touches some atavistic fear that the sun may be dying and the world coming to an end.  In our primitive reactive lizard brain, nature is perverted when the sun doesn’t do what we expect.

Given that we see eclipses happening all the time, albeit not often, wouldn’t that make it “natural” insofar as it does happen in nature?  Apparently not. Astronomers map out eclipses well into the future in their star charts.  They always know what is happening out there and calendar celestial movements with mathematical precision.  Even with all that comforting information, these events still arouse an old anxiety about the correct order of things.

The eclipses that change us, that reverse Nature, are the ones we didn’t predict.  Here Emily means “eclipse” more broadly as a sudden change, something gone, or something returned.  I want to ask what makes one thing a product of Nature and another a reversal of Nature?   If it happens in the physical world then that is Nature doing its work, right?  If it surprises us or “face one suddenly” that is only because we have not yet fully understood our Nature.  These unexpected “eclipses” that Emily suggests serve only to reveal the unseen parts of ourselves.

I particularly enjoy her blasphemy at the end:  “Jehovah’s Watch — is wrong.”  There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio . . .  Jehovah’s Watch is Adam and all the humans that descended from him.  The human body and mind comprise the watch tower that houses Jehovah’s presence.  Emily says that Jehovah’s Watch is wrong.  Not Jehovah.  She does not presume to know the mind of God.  But she is willing to dismantle the bricks of the self-appointed watch tower—those fallible humans who have missed a few turns in the road along the way.

She is not willing to genuflect to Science, either.  There are a few things that the astronomers failed to predict or explain.  For Emily the truth is in the middle, in that tension between faith and knowledge, where the foreground and background shift past each other in a constant optical illusion.   The middle ground where poems rest.

Speaking of reversals of Nature . . . my fig tree gave me five ripe figs this morning.  Here we are on the cusp of the Winter Solstice and my silly fig tree, who apparently can’t tell time, has decided to bear new fruit.  Geoff’s fig tree (which I gave him—everyone I love should have a fig tree) has also fruited spontaneously and mysteriously in this early winter.

I was thrilled to receive these fruits, no matter how unnatural their arrival.  The pickings in Summer are usually slim because those idiot Blue Jays eat all my figs before I can get to them.  The birds can spot the ripening blush sooner than I do, which makes sense—they’re more invested.

In any case, my answer is Yes!  I will take this late harvest.  The figs are fat and sweet.  Perhaps a little tougher than what I’d get in July.  Still, this fruit will feed me just fine.

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