Thursday, February 21, 2013

Passing fancies and structures.

(Borrowed from The Anti Room.)

There's a pleasure in etymology beyond that of the purely trivial, of knowledge for its own sake, of tracing of one word of one language to an older word in a different language. Before the abstract (which language is) there existed the material, the innumerable objects and phenomena of the physical world -- or more concisely, nature. No matter how long, circuitous, or obscure the path, every noun, verb, and adjective leads back to nature, and sometimes studying language brings to our attention the exquisiteness of natural patterns, the germs of which are inextricable from our words.

I recall an evening some time ago -- whenever it was, it was during the winter, and I was in Jersey. Snow had fallen during the day; in the evening the clouds blew over, but the trees were still laden with snow, frozen to the branches.

I went for a walk that night on one of the trails through the woods. There's one path I've always frequented more than any of the others (probably because it's so close to my mother's house), and there's a certain tree that always caught my attention. It's unusual because it's a spruce -- the only evergreen in sight, towered over on all sides by the older ash and maple trees. It's the odd man out, and I've always felt a fondness (even a sort of kinship) for this tree.

It might have been last year, probably around Christmas. I had come from Pennsylvania to visit the folks, and I had gone out to walk the old path and pay my respects to the evergreen odd man.

It must have been Christmas because it was between midnight and 1:00 -- this I do remember -- and Orion was overhead.

It was exceedingly frigid, even for late December: the sky was a limpid black and the stars shone cold and crisp. (Cold nights are best for stargazing in the northeastern United States: the lower the temperature of the air, the less obfuscatory moisture and dust it can hold.) I remember standing beside the spruce and looking up through a gap in the bare canopy.

The loveliness of the winter sky is distinguished by an intimation of geometrical structure. It's dense and richly patterned, almost arabesque. The straight lines of Orion's belt and scabbard; the conjoined pairs in Auriga, Gemini, and Canis Minor; the "V" shape of Taurus, and the prongs of Canis Major -- and all of these are as points and branching outgrowths of a hexagon, a wheel with Betelgeuse at the fulcrum.

As I gazed at the stars through a trellis of spruce branches (and bear in mind that the geometry of evergreen growth, all straight, divergent lines, is suggestive of fractal patterns) there was a gust of wind, scattering ice crystals overhead. The stars were so bright and the snow so reflective that wisp of ice momentarily sparkled -- and during this moment of superpositioning between the snow, stars, and spruce branches, the words occurred to me.

"Stellar dendrite."

From The Online Etymology Dictionary:

stellar (adj.) 1650s, "pertaining to stars, star-like," from Latin stellaris "pertaining to a star, starry," from stella (see star (n.)).

dendrite (n.) mid-18c., from Greek dendrites "of or pertaining to a tree," from dendron "tree" (see dendro-).

Stellar dendrite, then: "of stars, that of a tree."

This is, of course, is the term used to describe a structure seen in ice crystals and snowflakes.

(Taken from On Flat Lake Time.)

It was a small and passing thing, but ineffable and astonishing. If I had the conviction or faith, I might have said a prayer. I don't think I said anything. I'm certain I didn't.

I would like to say that I marveled, like Whitman, in perfect, knowing silence, knowing that silence is the language of the ineffable. But I didn't say anything because I didn't have the words to speak of what had touched me.

All language stems from nature, but sadly tends to lack the precision and felicity of its estranged parent.


  1. Nature is a marvelous and frustrating thing. As much as I enjoy late-night walks, I've learned to avoid taking them when the weather is clear and I have deadlines looming in the distance or some project in the back of my mind I'm itching to finish. After wandering around outside for some hours, coming back to face a monitor really drives home how limited a thing language is when it's confronted with the task of capturing the grandeur of all there is to observe in the world--even tiny pieces of it. Starlight is poisonous to the muse.

    1. I don't think it's necessarily poison to the muse, but it does probably take the lead out of one's pencil if he's trying to think and write hard about terrestrial concerns.

  2. Hey Patrick, Enjoyed the post and I will keep checking back to your blog. I am excited to find out that you have published a book and I have zeroes on my reading list. If you get a chance, check out my blog at Let me know what you think. I will link to your blog from my own blog as well as put a link to buy your book. My Blog is mostly political and social commentary with some self-introspection mixed in. Anyway, I am inspired by what you have done Patrick.

    Your Cousin Justin Blush out in Colorado.

    1. Dude! Been a minute. Good to know you're alive and well.