The Sourlands, apart from being the setting of Joyce Carol Oates stories, are one of New Jersey’s characteristic features. Although the Garden State brings visions of heavy industrialization to many imaginations, there are also lots of outdoor options for getting back to nature. One is the Sourland Mountain Preserve. No one’s sure of the origin of the name—was it named after a person, or was the land poor for farming? Could it have come from another language? No matter what the source might be, these areas are today criss-crossed with hiking trails—some of them quite rugged. On a sunny September weekend my wife and I decided to take a walk. The sunshine and cool temperatures made the opportunity beguiling. Although it’s not far from where we live, we’d never been there before. Time to look at a map.
The most distinctive point listed was the Devil’s Half-Acre Boulders. Geonyms, or place names, can be quite evocative. New Jersey and Pennsylvania along the Delaware both lay claim to some impressive boulder fields. The Devil’s Half-Acre was clearly a place for rock climbing, as chalk dust on the trail indicated. It’s not territory that you can get through quickly. But why devilish? Across the Delaware may lie the origins of the name. Near another boulder field, Ringing Rocks, is the site of a tavern along the Pennsylvania Canal. Said to have been the locale of lawlessness, haunted by the ghosts of dead canal workers, the location earned the same diabolical sobriquet in the early nineteenth century. What we found on the Jersey side, however, was an impressive jumble of massive stone and a rather popular hiking path.
“The map is not the territory” Alfred Korzybski once famously wrote. His expression was borrowed and adapted by religionist Jonathan Z. Smith in a book that’s still required reading for those starting out in the field. The point of the saying is that a map is an abstraction. The experience down here on the ground is very different from that projected from a bird’s eye-view. We can easily adjust to the concept however, using maps to tell us what lies ahead. The difficult work of digging a canal, or the unyielding nature of boulders, may symbolically point to the devil. At several points on the trail we had to pull out our map to make sure of our bearings. Trails are hard to follow over rocks. There was no literal devil there, but territory might just help to explain the name on a map.
Posted in Environment, Just for Fun, Posts, Religious Origins, Travel
Tagged Alfred Korzybski, Devil's Half-Acre, Jonathan Z. Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, maps, New Jersey, Ringing Rocks, Sourland Mountain Preserve, Sourlands
The other day I was awakened by a severe thunderstorm. It’s been quite a while since that’s happened. Unlike when we lived in the Midwest, thunderstorms in New Jersey tend to be widely scattered and somewhat uncommon. (It’s all a matter of perspective, I know.) My basis of comparison is how often I notice such storms. I’ve never been able to sleep through one. Thankfully this one came at around 4:30 a.m., past when I’m usually awake on a weekend. I’d forgotten the raw power of just how loud and bright such a storm can be. Danger seems all around. The feeling is primal and urgent. As I got out of bed and walked into the dark kitchen, windows filled with electric blue followed by and tremendous blast, I thought once again of Weathering the Psalms and the story behind it.
By the way, when I speak to young scholars about publishing I tell them this isn’t the way to go about finding a topic. That having been said, my book was born in the Midwest. Life at Nashotah House revolves around required chapel twice daily. Weather does not stop it. In fact, holding the daily office by candlelight because a storm had knocked out the power was not uncommon. Morning and evening prayer—indeed, all of the canonical offices—are built around the recitation of the Psalms. Reading the Psalter in slow, stately tones while thunder raged outside, rattling the ill-fitting stained-glass windows, left an indelible impression. It was only natural in such circumstances to notice how often the Psalms mention the weather. Thus a book was born.
I’m currently at work on a new book. I can’t say the topic just yet because someone might be able to beat me to it. (Knowing the way I come up with book ideas, however, I doubt it.) Sitting in my darkened living room, in my writing chair with the fury just outside, I was strangely inspired by the storm. Then it was over. Silence followed by birds singing, just like in Beethoven’s sixth symphony. The thunderstorm is one of nature’s psalms. As at Nashotah House, in the Midwest we had perhaps too many of that particular kind of psalm. Nevertheless, in the silence that followed I was left strongly in touch with my muse. These are the states that lead to poetry and song. Every great once in a while they might even lead to a book idea. As I tell students, just don’t expect that anyone else will get it.
Posted in Books, Environment, Higher Education, Memoirs, Posts, Publishing, Sects, Weather
Tagged Beethoven, daily office, Nashotah House, New Jersey, Publishing, thunderstorm, Weather, Weathering the Psalms
They’re not exactly worshipping the tree, but the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church is holding a memorial service for the old oak tree. I’ve written about the Basking Ridge oak before. I learned about it only in January, and I visited it this summer. Some say it’s the oldest tree in the state, while others make that claim for the Great Swamp oak, which isn’t too far away. The climate change we’ve introduced, as well as natural aging, appear to have doomed the tree. It had leaves this summer, but not in the profusion that signals health to botanists. The decision has been made to take the tree down before any massive branches fall and cause injury or damage. In the light of these sad developments, holding a service seems perfectly natural. The tree is older than the church over which it presides, after all. It’s even older than John Calvin who started the Presbyterian tradition.
My first book was on Asherah, the goddess often associated with trees by scholars. As those who’ve read my book will know, I’m a bit skeptical, on the basis of the actual evidence, that Asherah was a “tree goddess,” but it is also clear that trees are ancient objects of veneration. From the human perspective, they can live a very long time. There is a bristlecone pine in this country that dates back to before Noah’s flood (something the creationists conveniently ignore). With that much life-force, which, we’re told, is really a fiction, these trees deserve special respect. After all, they were in the neighborhood long before we got here. Still, the Basking Ridge oak has been artificially preserved before. It’s been on life support for years. Concrete was poured to support the massive trunk, and many ponderous branches are shored up by support rods. We respect our elders.
Maybe it’s not tree worship. Maybe it’s worship beside a tree instead of worship of a tree. Prepositions can make all of the difference. Nevertheless, it’s an occasion to stop and consider our place on the planet. The fear many of us feel regarding this week’s election is a mere second in arboreal memory. The independence of this country came after the oak had been here centuries already. It may not be tree worship, but we should respect the memories of such a tree. A country young and optimistic rather than old and jaded. Maybe this tree knows a secret that it’s willing to bequeath to those of us whose lives are but a few leafing seasons in length. Good-bye, Basking Ridge Oak. It was a pleasure to meet you.