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Waves – a journey into the quantum nature of being

A 5th cenutry CE mosaic representing the sea-goddess Thalassa in the Hatay Archaeologic Museum

Waves breaking - Hayling Island

Not everything is terrible. Spring flowers and shoots may not be completely cruel, a stranger is sometimes kind, and waves break on countless shores. Ah yes, the waves. Why is it that angry vicious heads cannot hear the teaching of the waves? I wonder if the regular pulse in the sea, the heartbeat of breakers, reminds some people uncomfortably of the amniotic space.  

The patterns of the surf have similarity but each meeting is unique. Perhaps the only other place in the entirety of the solar system to have wind-driven waves is Titan, a moon of Saturn. There, under a dense smog of organic nitrogen, waves of liquid methane break unseen on a sooty sand of ammonium sulphate and water ice.

Wave hello

This is the first message: everything has a pulse, not just the hearts of animals. Plants not only have a circadian cycle, but also a ‘pulse’ that links phloem to transpiration, something like the way a sponge is soaked then squeezed dry. Then there are unique and curious waves: some bees use a resonant vibration of their wing muscles to dislodge the pollen of particular plants.

Waves happen in light and there are waves in gravity. Everything in the universe oscillates. It is only inside a black hole that matter and time are supposed to break down, though even this point of ‘singularity’ is in doubt. Theories of quantum gravity suggest that black holes are portals to other universes and that a signal entering a black hole would leak into another part of the universe, or another universe altogether1.

The waves mirror our own rhythms, just as they mirror those of anything else in the universe. To stand and watch the billows – or to be in them, caught surprised and rendered breathless by the hard force of a big wave, or lulled by a gentle rise and fall – is to become close to an embodied understanding of the power of the universe, the Tao, a power probably more irreducibly complex and astounding than we will ever comprehend. Perhaps this is the reason for the seemingly unstoppable horror of human existence – small minds recoil from the immensity, the 96% of the universe that consists of dark matter and energy, the greater than human power – and seek constantly to diminish, to reduce to a level lower than human, to dominate and control the incomprehensible. Death, to these unfortunates, brings even greater terror.

Faces in things

It is possible that Carl Jung’s theory of Synchronicity, examples of which have long been criticised as confirmation bias and pattern detection, is related to quantum entanglement. The visual form of  ‘pattern detection’ is called pareidolia – it includes the seeing of faces in things. Here’s a pair of old jeans hanging over a chair in which I saw a face:

Pareidolia - a face in a pair of jeans

Google developed the neural network DeepDream to find and enhance patterns in images via algorithmic pareidolia. Here’s an image of Chichester Harbour and the same image processed through DeepDream. I did this myself, selecting a few settings at random. Even though the neural network has been programmed to find animals over a number of iterations, the appearance of the ‘dream’ bird and the other creatures is extraordinary. They suggest hallucinatory ghost presences on the flat tidal landscape, reminding us that there was a time, not long ago, when these tidal flats would have been alive with many more creatures than at present.

Low Tide in Chichester Harbour
Chichester harbour
Chichester Harbour processed by DeepDream
Chichester Harbour processed by DeepDream

The images produced by DeepDream have been compared to acid trips or hallucinations rather than dreams. The late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote of the secret shame of hallucination:

In other cultures, hallucinations have been regarded as gifts from the gods or the Muses, but in modern times they seem to carry an ominous significance in the public (and also the medical) mind, as portents of severe mental or neurological disorders. Having hallucinations is a fearful secret for many people — millions of people — never to be mentioned, hardly to be acknowledged to oneself, and yet far from uncommon.’

Sacks, Oliver. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/opinion/sunday/seeing-things-hearing-things-many-of-us-do.html New York Times, 2012

Who among us has not experienced the hypnagogic (the state immediately before falling asleep) or hypnopompic (the state just before waking) hallucinations that Sacks describes? I know I have, and frequently. Perhaps those who do not hallucinate, or who deny it, refuse to accept that there are other mysteries. In pattern seeking, I wonder if we are looking for the consistencies that bond us to the universe? By locating a figure in a rocky outcrop, or a face in a pair of jeans flung across the back of a chair, perhaps we are seeing something that logic currently dismisses.

Quantum of solace

Quantum entanglement holds that an electron exists in an oscillating wave form. Strangely, measurement collapses the wave-function and creates a fixed state. According to Francois Martin, (Laboratory of Theoretical Physics at the University of Paris) and Federico Carminati (a physicist at CERN), it is possible that consciousness collapses the wave function of the unconscious mind. According to a piece in Epoch Times, rather than our conventional understanding of a binary system of bits, which can take only two values: 0 or 1, a quantum bit (or qubit) can take the values 0 and 1 at the same time. This is reflective of both ancient thinking and the modern practice of depth psychology, which seeks to alter perception from the oppositional binary (good or bad) into the simultaneous (good and bad).

To truly embody non-binary thinking would be revolutionary, but for the revolution to be significant it needs to extend from the individual to the cultural. If the unconscious is collapsed by consciousness (think of how difficult it is to remember dreams, and the importance of dreaming in psychoanalysis) then this explains the fundamental importance of connecting to the unconscious. That connection comes about in many ways: through dreaming, creativity, meditation, nature, the erotic, and a strong sense of otherness. It is unsurprising that dictators are quick to attack the paths into the unconscious.

A wave crashes – it can be measured, its forces understood. But this literalises the extraordinary, robs us of the contemplative and the imaginative, and changes the wave to something quotidian and predictable.

Martin and Carminati also write:

As an end let us mention a quantum effect that can have important consequences in mental phenomena, for example for awareness (for the emergence of consciousness). It is the Bose-Einstein condensation, in which each particle loses its individuality in favor of a collective, global behavior.”

Here is a visualisation of the Bose-Einstein condensate. I find it strangely moving – it says something to me of what needs to happen now in human development, the slowing down that precipitates a new way of being. I do not see this as some amorphous bonding that reduces all individual thought to the hive mind, but the progression of ego to the Jungian Self, the ‘individuated’ unification of conscious and unconscious. Yet individuation is a holistic fantasy that makes such a permanent unification highly suspect, and the wrong type of unification leads to disaster – the chilling effects of fascism and racism. The visualisation appears to show the apparently random motion of individuals suddenly becoming community.

bose-einstein-condensate

Pareidolia? Perhaps. But quantum superposition, such as the double-slit experiment (in which photons behave both as particles and waves, but cannot be observed as both at the same time) and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat (whereby a cat in a box may be both dead and alive simultaneously) are suggestive of another truth, that the world of Aristotelian, Cartesian and Newtonian logic is itself pareidolic.

quantum-superposition

Wave goodbye

At the weekend I stood on a beach and watched the waves break on shingle. The surf made pools of white lace that hissed as the spume was sucked through wet stones. Those grey waves, cresting and falling, roaring, were hypnotic. Push forward, break, retreat with a sigh, push forward shouting, break catastrophically… and gulls flew as though torn from the racing sky.

As I stood at the edge of the combers, playing with the prospect of soaked shoes and socks, I played too with the idea of walking into the sea, a fantasy that had no struggling flailing terror, no aching chest and bursting heart, but instead a quiet watery oblivion, a passing into the depths.

Water is the special element of reverie, the element of reflective images and their ceaseless, ungraspable flow. Moistening in dreams refers to the soul’s delight in death, its delight in sinking away from literalized concerns.”

Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. HarperPerennial, 1979

The waves crush. The waves tickle the toes. In Chichester they hardly exist – the sea creeps in like a dark colloid and slinks away. Elsewhere, the waves makes themselves known with terrible force2. So with our dreams and what we describe as our madness.

Wave - Alderney Breakwater“Alderney Breakwater Feb 2016” by Neil Howard is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The second message is that the waves belong to dreams and death, the waves of the unconscious. Waves (in the form of vibrations and electromagnetic fields) fuel speculations that are generally dismissed as quackery, but it seems likely that at least some of this pseudoscience will be validated by quantum physics, just as some psychological theories have been validated by neuroscience.

Carl Jung developed his ideas of the Archetypes almost a hundred years ago, writing that they “constitute a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us”. The neuroanthropologist Charles Laughlin attempts to integrate Jung’s framework (criticised as unscientific, mystical and reductionist) with modern ‘neuropsychological-quantum coupling’. He writes:

What makes the activity of the archetypes distinctive in human affairs is the sense of profundity and numinosity that commonly accompanies their emergence into consciousness. Their numinosity is derived from the fact that they store up and are conduits for affective and libidinous energies from lower levels of the psyche. So numinous and transpersonal are the symbolic eruptions of archetypal processes that the experience of them may lead to fascination and faith, and even to states of possession and over-identification with the imagery.”

Laughlin, Charles. https://www.scientificexploration.org/docs/10/jse_10_3_laughlin.pdf. Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

Laughlin’s paper suggests a number of possible neural structures that might enable mediation between the quantum universe that holds these energies and individual consciousness. He carefully avoids the traps of technological metaphor (brain as computer, brain as spiritual radio receiver) in his exploration.  It is fascinating to see how even materialist views of consciousness open paths to theories of ‘subtle planes’ that interpenetrate the physical plane. And subtle planes, a transcendent form of consciousness, are a concept of esoteric cosmology.

Developments in quantum physics suggest that the shaman and the scientist are not nearly as separate as we might have assumed. Indeed, it is the problems caused by duality, fixed ideological thinking and artificial borders that create the problems with which we are beset. It is fear itself that holds us back. The idea of the Gods returning as diseases suddenly becomes vivid:

Soul enters only via symptoms, via outcast phenomena like the imagination of artists or alchemy or “primitives,” or of course, disguised as psychopathology. That’s what Jung meant when he said the Gods have become diseases: the only way back for them in a Christian world is via the outcast.”

Hillman, James. Inter Views. Spring Publications, 19913

Erotic ripples

A 5th cenutry CE mosaic representing the sea-goddess Thalassa in the Hatay Archaeologic Museum
The archaic Greek sea goddess Thalassa

The wave rises, loses support and dies. Another wave follows it. In the discontinuity of the crash is the knowledge of continuity. The controversial French literary figure Georges Bataille wrote of violent sacrifice:

A violent death disrupts the creature’s discontinuity; what remains, what the tense onlookers experience in the succeeding silence, is the continuity of all existence with which the victim is now one. ”

Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. (trans. Mary Dalwood) City Lights Books; New Ed edition (Nov. 1986)

He also connected death with the erotic:

Erotic activity, by dissolving the separate beings that participate in it, reveals their fundamental continuity, like the waves of a stormy sea.”

Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. (trans. Mary Dalwood) City Lights Books; New Ed edition (Nov. 1986)

The Elizabethan use of the word ‘dying’ as a euphemism for sexual climax makes even more sense in connection to the roaring wave that collapses into milky froth with a sigh. I once watched several ragworms ejaculating in a rock pool. As they swam, each worm ejected great clouds of semen. Once this violent act was complete the limp ragworms died, as did the female after her eggs were fertilised.

Pontus - archaic Greek sea god
The archaic Greek sea god Pontus

Our disconnection with the land has reduced our vocabulary along with our sensual apperception. The ancient Greeks had over 30 deities of the sea – gods and goddesses, monsters, sea spirits and nymphs. The Vikings had fewer, but the sea-god Aegir had nine daughters. It was painful to change that from ‘has nine daughters’:

  •     Himinglæva – That through which one can see the heavens (a reference to the transparency of water).
  •     Dúfa – The Pitching One.
  •     Blóðughadda – Bloody-Hair (a reference to red sea foam).
  •     Hefring (or Hevring) – Riser.
  •     Uðr (or Unn) – Frothing Wave.
  •     Hrönn – Welling Wave.
  •     Bylgja – Billow.
  •     Dröfn – Foam-Fleck (or “Comber” according to Faulkes).
  •     Kólga – Cool Wave.

To know something by many names is a sensual delight, it brings poetry to our lives. To see Dröfn and Bylgja brings an erotic quality to life that the science of the Enlightenment has almost destroyed. Here is the poet Hesiod describing the birth of Aphrodite, goddess of love and pleasure:

Ouranos (the Sky) came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Gaia (the Earth) spreading himself full upon her. Then the son [Kronos] from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him . . . and so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden.

First she drew near holy Kythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Kypros, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and Aphrogeneia (the foam-born) because she grew amid the foam, and well-crowned (eustephanos) Kythereia because she reached Kythera, and Kyprogenes because she was born in billowy Kypros, and Philommedes (Genital-Loving) because sprang from the members.

And with her went Eros (Love), and comely Himeros (Desire) followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.”

Hesiod. Theogony 176 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) c. 700 BC

Birth of Aphrodite
Birth of Aphrodite

Aphrodite was born of the waves, and is often shown emerging from a clam shell. This link will take you to a interesting paper entitled ‘Genitalia of the Sea’ by Carl A. Shaw, professor of Greek Language and Literature at the New College of Florida. Professor Shaw offers a lexicon of the numerous imaginative and humorous ways that “Greek comic poets correlate a range of sea creatures with sex and sexuality.”  They clearly had great fun, not just with clams, but with sea-urchins (“devouring, splitting, licking clean my sea-urchin down below” writes Aristophanes) and many more. Here is a table of 30 species mentioned in the article (and there are others without a translation).

AnchovyBarnacleClamConchCrabCrayfish
CuttlefishEelLimpetLobsterMusselOctopus
OysterPiddockPurple-shellRazor-fishRed MulletSardine
ScallopScorpion fishSea UrchinSea-squirtShrimpSmelt
SpratStingrayTrumpet-shellTunaWhitebaitWrasse
 

Greek comic poets were almost certainly all men. It is unlikely that women would have been allowed into the audience, with the possible exception of notable courtesans and hetaerae, and it is clear that most of the species above were associated with female sexual organs. So these plays were largely for the enjoyment of aristocratic men, who one might imagine haw-hawing at the seafood jokes. Notwithstanding the considerable difficulty this presents, the language itself is a further demonstration of how our language has become impoverished. Over-fishing and pollution have made sure that the species with which we have any familiarity are hugely reduced, so that only a few of the above have any lingering erotic correlation. Not so with the ancient Greeks.

Psychology has seized on the connection between water and sexuality. Here, in an extract from one of his dream seminars, Carl Jung explores the nature of a dream – or rather he elucidates his own position and pulls the attendees of the seminar into it like Scylla!

Extract from Dream Analysis 1: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-30

Hello/Goodbye

Thoughtlessly, we frolic in the surf or bake our skins nearby. Undressing we become more attuned to the senses, making the wearing of wet suits seem particularly perverse. Our western culture has made it hard for us to reflect on death, and because of this it has become difficult to reflect on continuity. All our distortions fall away if we really focus on the waves. The next time you are lifted bodily by a wave, punched in the chest by one, or even just given soaking socks by a rising tide, perhaps you think of these three messages:

  • Everything has a wave form, though sometimes you can’t see it
  • Waves have a special relationship with dreams and death
  • Waves have a special relationship with the erotic.

There are other messages, but these are peculiarly vital. They are reminders that we live in a natural universe, not one of thought and deed, and that there are connections to it right in front of us, physical yet numinous, temporary yet eternal, present yet absent. Appreciating this non-duality makes it easier to see that there is no Life, no Death, but everywhere the continuity of the Tao.4

Footnotes

1. The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen argument, still apparently exercising strong views in the scientific community, suggests that once two parts of a quantum system are separated, they continue to act as a correlated unity no matter how far they travel from each other. This argument confounds causation, as there is no apparent mechanism to cause the continued interaction.

2. A GIF is available of this 100 ft wave here.

3. I think I have quoted James Hillman in most of the pieces on this site, so it’s clear that I’m a bit of a Hillmaniac. I will continue to do so. Thomas Moore says this of Hillman:

You see, I believe that he is the greatest thinker who ever lived: more important than Aristotle, Plato, Heidegger, and Blake. No one pushed the imagination into the world and actual life to the extent that Jim did and with such immediate relevance.”

Thomas Moore, quoted in http://www.cgjungny.org/q/s12.full.content/henderson.pdf

I’m not sure that I can sign up for such hagiography. I have never liked Hillman’s view that the things that happen to us in childhood are of no importance, and his popular work failed to excite me. But no writer of non-fiction has moved me, transformed me, educated me and amused me as much as James Hillman. His Wikipedia entry is so slim it is clear that he is being written out of the history of psychology.

It is claimed that he offers nothing to the clinician – quite so. Hillman’s clinician was – finally – the community. His work was mercurial, contradictory, challenging. He is probably laughing, great waves of laughter, at his post mortem assassination. As one of his principal detractors writes: “By throwing out the heroic pattern of consciousness, and the idea of individuation, Hillman no longer appealed to most psychologists or therapists. By transgressing professional ethics, he no longer appealed to training institutes.”

Good for him – psychology is invested and entrenched, not just in modality, but ethical hypocrisy and defensiveness. The real tragedy is that even with all his fiery compassionate intellectual stature, Hillman was unable to influence the mainstream. But waves will come from elsewhere, and I have little doubt that his work will be remembered – at least for as long as we are able to save ourselves from the peculiar monomania that he sought to address.

4. Laozi in the Tao Te Ching explains that the Tao is not a ‘name’ for a ‘thing’ but the underlying natural order of the Universe whose ultimate essence is difficult to circumscribe due to it being non conceptual yet evident in one’s being of aliveness. Source: wikipedia.

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Meeting Majesty – an encounter with the Fredville Oak

Majesty, the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket

Majesty, the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket

The day of the Queen’s Speech and the State Opening of Parliament was trenchantly described by Rufus Hound thus:

If ever evidence was needed that ours is an arcane system in servitude to privilege. Ghastly.”1

Observing this spectacle of fancy dress and ritual, in which any significance has long been lost, I thought that perhaps I might consider more authentic meanings of the word ‘majesty’, in this case a remarkable tree near the village of Nonington in Kent that I had visited the previous weekend.

‘Majesty’ is listed on the monumental trees website as possibly the oldest maiden oak in the country (maiden oaks are trees that have not been pollarded, that is had timber removed for aesthetic or commercial purposes). So for hundreds of years this extraordinary organism has grown on this spot with no interference to speak of from humankind. Local wisdom has it that Majesty is a thousand years old (though expert analysis has halved that age, as expert analysis is wont to do). There is evidence that the tree, also known as the King Fredville Oak, was already ancient in 1554.

Whatever the truth, Majesty is the oldest tree in an area of other remarkable ancient trees. It grows (I struggle to define gender because Majesty is beyond such a concept, though ‘it’ remains unhappily impersonal) in a hidden grove on private land, but adjacent to Fredville Park, which also boasts a partly derelict avenue of old horse chestnut and beech.

The wooded country

The curious name Fredville is equally ancient and derives either from Old French freide ville (meaning cold manor or village) or a fusion with the Old English frith or frythe. The informative Nonington website claims that in Kentish/Jute dialect frith would have been pronounced “freed”, as the TH ending would have been turned into a D sound, which means wood or wooded country. Scattered across the Fredville landscape then (now grazing for sheep and cattle), are these wonderful blasted relics, amongst which are three other aged oaks, ‘Beauty’ (also called Ancient Bear), ‘Stately’ and ‘Staghorn’. These are elders: they have survived droughts, floods, insect infestations and, of course, human agency.

The lost estate

I searched for Majesty with a friend: we walked through the fields admiring the ancient trees but unable to find Majesty itself. Asking in the local pub we discovered that Majesty is on private land and that the owner would be happy to show us the tree. Retracing our footsteps we walked down a drive marked private that opened up into the grounds of a stables, with a ruined clock tower, and it wasn’t long before we were joined by a barking Jack Russell terrier.

As a child on holiday I remember having to fetch milk from the nearby farm and being harried by the farmer’s Jack Russell all the way up the lane. This dog would bark, growl and nip painfully at my ankles, and it was only the greater fear of returning without the milk that kept me to my task, so I was apprehensive at this meeting, and it stopped me from asking questions of the elderly man who next appeared. Research suggests that this gentleman was John Plumtree, the descendant of a line of local landowners called Plumtree, or Plumptre, all called John, who owned the villa that was demolished after a fire in 1945, leaving the stables, the clock tower and other buildings as the present home.

The surviving clock tower of the Fredville Estate
The surviving clock tower of the Fredville Estate

Archie Miles’ book The British Oak has this record from a party visiting in 1793:

Called on John Plumtree, Esq. of Fredville, who very politely shews us his famous oak, called Majesty – measured this tree; 4 feet from the ground the circumference is 31 feet; it is supposed to contain 36 to 42 tons of timber. Two branches separated from this tree about four years ago, in a calm day, which contained three tons of timber.

222 years after this visit from the correspondents of the Annals of Agriculture and Other Useful Arts we were also met by John Plumtree Esq. who showed us the tree with equal politeness, despite having to do so, he told us, many times every day. He continued to lead us down a path; the Jack Russell had stopped barking and was first leaping at my leg excitedly and then trotting beside us calmly, reassured of our intent. We passed a Giant Sequoia wreathed in ivy, but Mr Plumtree stopped before we entered the glade, told us that the tree was just ahead, and turned back the way he came.

An extraordinary meeting

Walking into the sunlight revealed Majesty in all its broken glory.

Our first view of Majesty
Our first view of Majesty

All the primary limbs have now fallen, revealing themselves (and the tree itself) to be completely hollow, but the secondary limbs were still vigorous and covered in the fresh young growth of May. Little can prepare one for the feeling that accompanies such a visit. Although we took photos, examined the branches, trunk and bark, and generally behaved as people do when visiting a tree, my felt sense was of great calm. At one point I posed for a photo sitting on part of the lower trunk but I sat down with a sense of discomfort that only now I recognise as connected to a slight violation of the sacred.

There was grandeur here, but not grandiosity. Growth and decay carried together, rather than split off as they are in our culture. ‘Majesty’ is a psychological quality, unsurprisingly, of balanced Earth: a way of being that many aspire to but few can ever hope to attain with any consistency: yet we all possess it, if only we were ready to find it. Trees such as this are exemplary: they show us the way into our own majesty.

After spending time with this venerable tree I thought some more about the symbolic qualities of the encounter, about the nature of the introduction and the qualities of the oak. First, there was the search for the tree, walking up and down and almost giving up. Then the correction and the move into private property, the sense of transgression.

The old man and the dog

The first meeting is with an animal, a dog. The dog/human bond is one of our very earliest connections, and in mythologies across the world the dog is a guide between the worlds of life and death. It can be the ‘black dog’ of depression, it can hunt and devour us, or be our loving lifelong friend and companion. This particular dog pulled me back to an uncomfortable past, it first threatened, then welcomed, then ignored me completely. Dogs are sometimes used in therapy (Marie-Louise von Franz had an analytic dog) to dig in, whine, greet, and sniff out the unspoken shit. In my meeting with the Jack Russell I was forced to dig up old bones from the past. The dog, as Hillman put it, carries its ancestors.

Majesty, the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket
Majesty, the massive fallen limbs and the empty socket

Accompanying the dog was the old man, the senex, slow in movement and speech. He is an archetypal figure, a guardian both literally and figuratively of the oak glade. While in one sense he turned and left before we saw the oak because he was perhaps tired and in pain, in another he allowed us the privilege of our own introduction.

Oaks and myth

Then we come to the oak itself. Oaks once covered most of Europe: Julius Caesar came across Germanic tribes that had never got to the end of their hardwood forests. In England, oaks were cut down at an alarming rate to build its wooden navy. Any tree of great size was living profit. The oak embodies mysticism: its seeds, the acorns, were once our staple food before agriculture.

John Williamson tells us that the druids (from the Celtic daur meaning oak) burned oak logs at midsummer to mark the death of the Oak King of spring and the birth of the autumnal Holly King. The Norse gods made the first woman, Embla, from oak wood. The ‘philosophical tree’ of the alchemists was often a hollow oak, echoing the other common use of a hollow oak as a coffin. This was a tree sacred to the thunder god Thor/Donar. In the fairy tale recorded by the Grimms a dark mercurial spirit of transformation is found hidden in the roots of an oak. Here is part of the story:

…the son went into the woods, ate his bread, was very cheerful, and looked into the green branches to see if he could find a bird’s nest. He walked to and fro until at last he came to an enormous oak that was certainly many hundred years old, and that five men would not have been able to span. He stood there looking at it, and thought, “Many a bird must have built its nest in that tree.”

 

Then suddenly he thought that he heard a voice. Listening, he became aware of someone calling out with a muffled voice, “Let me out. Let me out.”

 

He looked around but could not see anything. Then he thought that the voice was coming out of the ground, so he shouted, “Where are you?”

 

The voice answered, “I am stuck down here among the oak roots. Let me out. Let me out.”

 

The student began to scrape about beneath the tree, searching among the roots, until at last he found a glass bottle in a little opening. Lifting it up, he held it against the light, and then saw something shaped like a frog jumping up and down inside.

 

“Let me out. Let me out,” it cried again, and the student, thinking no evil, pulled the cork from the bottle. Immediately a spirit ascended from it and began to grow. It grew so fast that within a few moments a horrible fellow, half as big as the tree, was standing there before the student.

 

“Do you know,” he cried in an terrifying voice, “what your reward is for having let me out?”

 

“No,” replied the student fearlessly. “How should I know that?”

 

“Then I will tell you,” shouted the spirit. “I must break your neck for it.”

 

“You should have said so sooner,” answered the student, “for then I would have left you shut up inside. However, my head is going to stay where it is until more people have been consulted.”

 

“More people here, more people there,” shouted the spirit. “You shall have the reward you have earned. Do you think that I was shut up there for such a long time as a favor? No, it was a punishment. I am the mighty Mercurius. I must break the neck of whomsoever releases me.”

 

“Calm down,” answered the student. “Not so fast. First I must know that you really were shut up in that little bottle, and that you are the right spirit. If you can indeed get inside again, then I will believe it, and you may do with me whatsoever you want.”

 

The spirit said arrogantly, “that is an easy trick,” pulling himself in and making himself as thin and short as he had been before. He then crept back into the opening and through the neck of the bottle. He was scarcely inside when the student pushed the cork back into the bottle, and threw it back where it had been among the oak roots. And thus the spirit was deceived.

 

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Spirit in the Glass Bottle

Apparently Carl Jung made much of this story of the treasure-containing oak. John Williamson writes:

Mirroring the oak’s solidity, the self is the perduring centre that can withstand fiery outbursts of affect and psychic flooding. “Oak” transports and humbles – so perfectly is imperial nature embodied in its form.

 

John Williamson, ‘The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn’, 19862

Looking up at Majesty
Looking up at Majesty

Of particular fascination is the texture and grain of the wood once the bark has vanished. These sweeping pl,/pains, mammary outcrops and dry seas resemble photos taken from space of the desolate regions of the earth, or satellite images of planets.

There is inevitably a correlation between things if we search for it: in the image below I am tempted to assign human characteristics to Majesty – a bulbous nose, staring eye, grumpy expression and arms raised in warning or greeting. Such anthropomorphism has long connected us to trees, from early depictions such as the image of Isis as a sycamore suckling Pharaoh Thuthmose III to the Ents and Huorns of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Majesty
Majesty
The goddess Isis, as a sycamore, suckles Pharaoh
The goddess Isis, as a sycamore, suckles Pharaoh

Staying with presence

As rich as the symbolism gets, it interferes with the felt appreciation of the tree itself. Throughout its great age this wonderful entity has supported millions of other creatures (link is a PDF). 284 insects, 423 if mites are included, and 324 lichens are supported by the oak. There will be fungi and birds, of course, nesting in its branches and mammals living inside the trunk. Majesty’s hollow innards, open gaping wounds and dead limbs speak of death and decrepitude, but the translucent green of the leaves in the sun offer something of resilience and purpose, a refusal to give up while life remains, while the deep roots yet live. The bark, fissured and damaged, surely mirrors our own wrinkling skins, dried and scarified by the elements. And this resolute living, this deep importance to the existence of other species, inspires both humility and tenderness. It is Majesty indeed.

Majesty, wounded and hollow, still living
Majesty, wounded and hollow, still living
Stone lithograph by J.G. Strutt, 1830
Stone lithograph by J.G. Strutt, 1830

Footnotes

1. https://twitter.com/RufusHound/status/603509038463193088
2. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm099.html

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