Becoming Holy Island, pt. 2

The first time I went to Holy Island, I went as a tourist. I was there for about four hours, most of which time I spent dodging the giant crowds of fellow tourists–folks with dogs, folks with kids, folks with dogs and kids–an infestation if I ever saw one. Then we were off, beating the tide…because we still had to drive to our Travelodge outside of York, with a stop at Whitby in between. Needless to say, this fly-by-night schedule afforded little opportunity to really see the place, especially since the place was fairly well obscured by the people crawling all over it.

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The Holy Island market cross, complete with Celtic wheel design. Some say this is a holdover from pagan times, symbolizing solar worship; others, that it is symbolic of Christ, the “sun” of God, hanging on the cross.

The second time, I went as a researcher, fresh from the reading room at the NLS in Edinburgh. This time we stayed for a full week, leading up to Christmas. I was there to gather information for my Master’s thesis. Several years before, while working as a youth minister in rural Missouri, I had stumbled across the Venerable Bede and his saints. Like so many others before and after me, I fell in love. I became convinced that these ancient Christians, the “Celtic Christians,” with their standing crosses and illuminated Gospels, were the key to everything superficial about 21st-century religion, an impression I carried with me right into graduate studies, onto a British Airways jet, and across the causeway to Lindisfarne. I came in search of answers; I came in search of Aidan, Cuthbert, and their band of medieval holy men. And I found them…in a manner of speaking.

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St. Aidan, founder of the Lindisfarne community in 635, stands outside the priory ruins.

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Cuthbert of the Farnes. This sculpture of the saint in prayer stands within the priory walls. It conveys a sense of spiritual agony that is difficult to describe from a distance, as if the statue itself were in pain…

Given the total absence from the island of any vestige of the tourist trade–even the shops lining Marygate were closed against the winter months–we (well, I, anyway; Tammy was overcome by the cold) rambled about the place in solitary fashion. On the original visit, I hadn’t had the time to explore the priory ruins. This time I did so at my leisure, and completely by my lonesome. Throughout the hour I spent knocking around the structure’s reddish-tan remains, not another soul crossed my path (at least not one visible to the eye). There is an air of liminality about the place; whether that is inherent in the locale or is experienced due to conditioning–a sort of spiritual backward masking, if you will–I leave to the judgments of more impartial observers. For my part, I believe in friendly ghosts…

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Solid as they must be, dating as they do from the 12th century, the delicate stonework and soaring archways impart to the walls an air of fragility, as if they might tumble away if looked at too forcefully…

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A glimpse…perhaps, of eternity?

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Through a gap in the ruins, Lindisfarne Castle beckons. After it fell prey to Henry VIII’s Great Dissolution in the 16th century, stones from the priory were taken by his soldiers and used in the castle’s construction.

Another of my favorite quotes, this one concerning the spiritual history of the island, comes from a BBC documentary series entitled Memorable Leaders in Christian History. In the episode on Aidan, Andy Raine, a member of the Northumbria Community, described the spot as soaked in the devotion of the early saints: through them, the seeker is offered “a blank check of…prayers that have already been prayed that are waiting to be cashed in on.”

Cuthbert's Island

A memorial cross stands on Cuthbert’s Isle, a small island separated from Lindisfarne by some 60 to 70 yards of water. According to legend, the saint for which it is named would withdraw here (and beyond, to the one of the smaller Farnes farther out into the sea) to indulge his hermit’s nature and commune with his God.

I leave you with this blessing from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica:

Thine be the might of river,
Thine be the might of ocean,
The might of victory on field.

Thine be the might of fire,
Thine be the might of levin,
The might of a strong rock.

Thine be the might of element,
Thine be the might of fountain,
The might of the love on high.

Until we meet again…

Becoming Holy Island (Interlude)

One of my favorite descriptions of Lindisfarne comes from the 17th-century Legend of St. Cuthbert, with the Antiquities of the Church of Durham, by Robert Hegge (1599-1629). Given its limited access, governed by the rise and fall of the tide and the consequent filling and emptying of the estuary separating it from the mainland, Hegge wrote: “In ancient description it was an island but twice a day, and embraced by Neptune only at full tide, and at Ebbe shaked hands with the Continent.”

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The tidal estuary at sunset (which, in December, is around 3:30 in the afternoon). Today, a paved road connects island to mainland; in the days of Aidan and Cuthbert, the crossing was marked by a series of poles (still present) set into the sand of the estuary. This original route is still used by pilgrims following St. Cuthbert’s Way, a long-distance walking trail tracing the saint’s journey from his previous community at Melrose to his new home on the island.

Becoming Holy Island, pt. 1

I have been on Lindisfarne (Holy Island) twice: once in June, at the height of tourist season, and again in December, the week before Christmas, as out of season as can be. Of the two experiences, I highly recommend the latter. Other than another young couple who spent one night at our B&B–and the people who came over for the Christmas service at St. Cuthbert’s Centre–I’m fairly sure Tammy and I were the only non-islanders to put in an appearance that week.

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A clear December morning, 2007, through the condensation-fogged window of our B&B accomodations. There is something about this image that fascinates me: taken on a lark, I have come to treasure it as one of my favorite from the visit. It is a fitting symbol for an island defined by the wishful thinking of those who go there seeking the ghosts of saints gone by–not as it is, or even as it once was, but as we would that it were…

We were fortunate enough to stay at Rose Villa, a small bed and breakfast at the center of the town. The concept of renting a room in someone else’s house and sharing, albeit briefly, the intimacy of their home life is still new to a person raised on a diet of Motel 6’s and Super 8’s. It took me a bit to get comfortable with the idea. Once I did, though, I learned to love it. Furthermore, if you have never had the pleasure of an English breakfast, this is the place to seek out your first. I have seen less food on some buffet lines, and cooked to absolute gorgeous perfection, from the expertly prepared haggis right down to the little roasted tomato (and I’m not a huge fan of tomatoes). Added bonus: Tammy couldn’t do the haggis, so…more for me!

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Rose Villa. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. And tell them the Woodses sent you. Maybe there’s a discount in it for us!

One of the joys of traveling to Lindisfarne in the off-season is the strong sense of solitude it confers upon one unfamiliar with island living, and the opportunity to wander for the most part unhindered, uninterrupted, and unnoticed over the wide expanse of duneland (declared a national nature reserve in 1964). Legend (and Bede) has it that St. Cuthbert, abbot of Lindisfarne from 684-686, walked these dunes during his tenure, communing with the nature he so loved, and a patchwork of fading and faded footpaths testify to the great number of pilgrims who have, in the interval, sought to follow in his steps.

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One caveat: To wander these dunes is to court confusion, and it takes someone willing to become completely lost to truly feel at home here.

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That being said, if you give yourself over to the possibilities, wonder awaits…

During our week on the island, I dedicated several hours to exploration among the dunes and along the shoreline of the North Sea, not a few times thinking I had finally done it–I’d never be seen or heard from again. Somehow, though, it didn’t seem to matter. There was too much to see, so much beautiful bleakness to take in. So, there I stayed, fearless and freezing, lost but found, simultaneously sure and unsure of where I was. I was, in all events, THERE–and if I had vanished into the ether nevermore to appear, I’m not convinced I would have minded…

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The North Sea in winter rests immobile as a pane of liquid glass. There is no deeper peace than this…

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Land gives way to sea so gradually that it becomes almost impossible to determine where one ends and the other begins.

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The island is known for its waterfowl, and the winter months are the best time to see them (presumably because there aren’t any crowds to frighten them away). They did seem somewhat taken aback when I peremptorily invaded their personal space. (My apologies for the grainy nature of the image. My camera at the time was a bit “zoom-challenged.”)

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My only companions as I wandered (besides the birds) were the sheep. This is another of my favorite pictures from the trip. It’s ready for a close-up, Mr. DeMille…

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In the distance, the rock of Bamburgh, ancient seat of the Northumbrian kings, emerges from the mist.

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Wood meets stone in one of the multitude of dividing walls that honeycomb the island.

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Leaving the dunes to re-enter civilization (sort of).

Lindisfarne

Standing below Lindisfarne Castle. One of the rare instances in which I find myself in front of the camera rather than behind it. After all, how could one go to such an amazing place and not provide proof of having been there?

They say that Lindisfarne is a “thin place,” a place where heaven and earth meet, so closely intertwined that one might punch right through whatever metaphysical barrier hangs in between and touch the face of God. Now, I did not stumble upon any wayward medieval spirits, and I never heard voices from beyond the edge of time. But I did, in my own small way, manage to break through that barrier and glimpse–perhaps–just a fringe of what lies beyond. I leave you with this succession of images I captured while strolling from town out to the castle, just after a midafternoon rainstorm.

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Calm returns in the wake of the storm…

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A wind from the southwest begins to break up the lingering clouds and blow them out to sea…

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The returning sun chips away at the receding front…

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A gentle glow…

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A pathway appears, a sunshine road stretching to the horizon…

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The pathway becomes a highway…

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And then, prompted by who knows what whispered call, I turned from sea to land…and captured perfection.

Until the journey continues…

Those Who Have Hearts, Let Them See

Increasingly, I’m coming to believe that it is enough that the world IS. In that simple statement there is as much wonder as can be found in any theological or scientific formulation of its origins, and as profound a mystery as any koan or philosophical argument could either contain or express.

Grand Lake II

Sunrise over Grand Lake, Oklahoma

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Looking out on the North Sea, Holy Island, Northumberland, UK

Seeking a desert place...

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

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Mother Neff State Park, Texas

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Durst Bros. Farm, Bates County, Missouri

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Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma

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Linn County, Kansas

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West Point Cemetery, Bates County, Missouri

Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

Trimontium

The site of the Roman fort Trimontium, England

The road to Melrose

The road to Melrose (Scotland)

Cairngorms

Above Braemar, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

Whatever be the lenses through which you view these scenes–whether it be as the work of an intelligent designer, or as the result of millennia of evolutionary progress and change–the one fact upon which we have no choice but to agree is that we all live here together, and together we stand or fall. There is no stronger bond. We are a family, we the human race, and we have a home for which it is our responsibility and privilege to care. It is a beautiful place, a home filled with never-ending surprise and delight, always one more trail to follow, or one more mountain to climb, just to see what awaits beyond. It is a monumental abode, filled with many rooms–many lands, many cultures, many histories–and if we know the secret of seeing, we will never tire of its offerings…

Past Prologue

The old barn.

The blue gate. In the foreground, there used to be a red hay barn in which we grandkids used to play. Climbing on piles of hay bales may not be wise, but it sure was fun. Sadly, the barn was torn down several years back to keep it from collapsing under its own weight…

Cows and trees.

V and Francie’s old place (or what’s left of it).

The road less traveled…

The LaCygne power plant. One of my favorite sights from the farm. On a still, cold day the plumes go on forever…

Hay bales. Sometimes they take up so much space that they look like herds of buffalo…

The government tried to assign street numbers to the rural roads several years back. Didn’t go so well. The farm’s still sitting right where it used to, on Rural Route 3…

We all have places that awaken in us stirrings of memory, where every detail holds for us immense significance (even if the source of that significance be insignificant on a global scale). The Durst family farm does this for me. No matter where I am in the world (and I have been many places), this plot of earth calls me back and reminds me of who I am and where I (and those before me) came from. It speaks to me–I heard its voice as a child, and I hear it still, the insistent tones of something both fundamentally human and fundamentally natural, the fulcrum in the connection between humankind and the earth we call home. I am not a farmer, but I come from farmer’s stock–I do not feed the world, but I belong to the line of those who have. Whether or not I ever lay hand to plow, the hands that did are an integral part of who I am, and I cannot understand myself without first understanding them…

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Southeast of the old house lies a field I have traversed dozens of times, from childhood through the present. At the moment it is planted, but since I can remember it has been used as pasture, and venturing across was for neither the faint of heart nor the fancy of footwear. One eye to the horizon, one eye to the ground–those of you who have spent any amount of time on a cattle farm will know what I mean by that. To the left runs Miami Creek, winding its way toward the southeast and the Marais des Cygne, and beyond that, the Osage. To the right, an old, crumbling barbed-wire fence (three strands against straying stock) divides the Durst land from their neighbors to the south. When I was very, very young, it belonged to a couple named V and Francie, at whose house I spent many an hour, staring through the grating in the living room floor into the basement (which hole for some reason I found extremely fascinating). The old house burned in 1998 or ‘9; now all that remains are a few lonesome outbuildings and a water tower or two.

If I had a dime–as the saying goes–for every time I’ve wandered off down one of the gravel roads surrounding the farm, the good old “mile roads,” I’d be a rich man. Financially, at least. In some ways, the mere fact that I have had access to these out of the way avenues fills me with feelings of a different kind of wealth. Everything around me moves so fast: weekday becomes weekend becomes weekday again, clouds fly overhead like some sort of time-lapse film, and it’s hard even to keep up with myself. Which is why walking these lanes bears such an attraction to an overburdened soul supercharged with an overactive mind. Here time almost ceases to lapse, at least for me. I’m transmogrified, alchemized, into my childhood self, waiting impatiently beside the cattle chute for Grandpa and a chance to “steer” the tractor across a pasture or two. I’m young again, ready for a mad dash through pig-puddles in search of the “peepers” called forth by a night of gentle rain, or for a channel-cat hunt at one of the myriad watering holes/stock-ponds scattered around the property. I’m ME again, washed clean of the intervening years of experience, heartache, and “knowing better.” And for an instant–just a brief fleeting instant before I remember who I am–I feel the grip of immortality, given force by my own tarrying ghost which will, I hope, haunt these backroads long, long after I am no more…

Research Trip, Day 2

I tend to be something of a pessimist when it comes to complicated plans and seat-pant-pilot endeavors (even though the latter describes well most of what I do). Take, for example, my four-day trip to Greeley, Colorado, to interview a Presbyterian priest for my Master’s thesis–you know, the trip where I took my little mini-recorder and forgot to press record. A whole day’s worth of conversation down the tubes, since of course, having relied upon the gadget, I failed to write anything down. Lesson learned; still a snafu. So, when I got up on Thursday morning (day two of my trip), I had no idea what to expect (or do) and every conviction that it would all go horribly, terribly wrong. Would I once again–metaphorically–forget to press record?

Imagine my surprise when, at the end of the day, I looked back on a series of (mostly) successful efforts to forward my project. Outside of a somewhat irritating encounter with a grouchy old man at the Chamber of Commerce, all went well and productively.

My first order of business took me to the Butler Chamber of Commerce (and, no, not to the old grouchy guy…yet). The first time I was there, I went in search of the aerial photograph of the “Butler–Shine On” event I mentioned in an earlier post. I’m hoping for this to be the centerpiece of the book. It was, after all, the image that set me on this path to begin with: the perfect shot of community in action. If we could arrive at a place where more people could come together for more efforts such as this (however ridiculous outsiders might believe them to be), we’d be heading somewhere useful–instead of rolling down the highway like an isolated snowball headed for a virtual hell…

Having achieved my first goal (and in nice, large format), I decided to re-familiarize myself with the Bates County courthouse (finally complete after what seems two or three decades of renovation) and Butler’s square. Here are the results:

From the east.

The old BC National clock.

From the northeast.

From the north.

Honoring the first engagement of African-American Union troops of the Civil War, at Island Mound, Oct. 29, 1862.

Where City Hall used to be (no, not in the water tower--in the little building beside it...)

From the northwest.

West side of the square.

Southside Cafe

From the south.

Gazebo view.

Random presidents. Not really sure about that one...

Next came lunch with Brian Phillips, executive director of the group that runs the Poplar Heights Living History Farm and the Family History Center, who has graciously consented to act as co-author (not being strictly a local, the Arcadia policies require that I find a co-author who is). Lunch at the Flaming Lantern (http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/210/1064263/restaurant/Missouri/Flaming-Lantern-Butler). It’s been a while since I ate there, and it has really never been one of my favorite places, but I have to say that it wasn’t at all bad. They’ve added a sports bar to the place since Tammy and I left town (which for Butler is tantamount to the repeal of Prohibition). One thing that must be said for them: Get the Suzy-Qs. The rest of you might know these as curly fries. By any name, they are quite simply spectacular. Seriously, if you’re ever headed up or down Highway 71 (or I-49, as they’re getting ready to call it), give ’em a try. East side of the highway, north side of the road (across from the abomination that is the new Wal-Mart).

After lunch came the second visit to the Chamber to drop off a copy of the Arcadia proposal. Enter grouchy old man. Exit Vance, quickly. ‘Nuff said.

Then it was off to the Bates County Museum, but on the way a quick stop at the Stop Light Market (two words, not one). Another place to stop if you’re ever in Butler, especially if you like odd handmade foodstuffs. The market is run by a Mennonite family from the Rich Hill area, and carries everything from cornmeal to gum drops. I picked up a small bag of honey-roasted soybeans (not a fan favorite) and another small bag of okra chips (which are absolutely fantastic). Bigger bag next time…

The Bates County Museum, from which I hope to obtain some of my older images, used to be located on the southeast fringe of the square. Now, it it housed in what was once the Poor Home (what Dickens might refer to as the “work’us,” and Butlerites lovingly refer to as the “nut house”), on the outskirts of town to the west. (http://home.earthlink.net/~bcmuseum/id6.html) It is a lovely two-story, red brick structure dedicated to the history of Bates County from its beginnings in 1841, through the Civil War and Order No. 11, up to the present. During my visit, I became a card-carrying (sans card) member of the Bates County Historical Society, and met the sitting president of the Cass County Civil War Round Table. Goes to show, you never know what’ll happen in the course of a day.

Next stop: Oak Hill Cemetery, home of the world’s smallest tombstone (according to the Ripley’s folks). It belongs to Linnie Crouch, presumed infant, called by some a boy, by others a girl. No one knows. Some Internet death certificate research over my father-in-law’s shoulder (man KNOWS his stuff) indicates that Linnie’s parents MAY have been Daniel Crouch and Belle Miller, but beyond that (which is far from certain), and a story which credits his father with the carving of the headstone, all that remains is a small, stone Bible with little Linnie’s name on it. A mystery, dated April 25, 1898…

Smallest tombstone in the world.

To cap off a long day of hand-shaking and amateur photography, two final stops. First, a nice panoramic view of Passaic, a town numbering 40 in 2009 (and according to some counts, 2 in 2011), between Butler and the family farm. Here’re the pictures. Pretty much what you see is what you get: an intersection…

After braving the overpass...

And this one, just because I thought it was cool.

And, finally, a quick jaunt out to the Island Mound battlefield, some 11 miles southwest of town. There’s a grand opening coming this October, to mark the 150th anniversary of the engagement, and one assumes more will be added to the aspiring state park, but for the moment it is pretty much a pasture with a sign stuck in it:

Island Mound on a gray day...

 On October 29, 1862, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers took on a larger Confederate force in the first Union action of the Civil War carried out by a unit composed solely of African American soldiers. Multiple perspectives confuse the issue a bit (with some Confederate reports suggesting the total annihilation of the Kansas Volunteers), but the consensus of late is that the day went ultimately to the smaller, Union regiment. I’m still in the middle of learning about this battle myself, so I won’t throw out too much (possibly misleading) detail just yet, but if you’re interested, here’s a web site for you: http://www.mocivilwar.org/history/battles/island_mound.html

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Here endeth my first day of research and relationship-building. At the moment, things are stalled as I await news of the project’s reception by the national offices of Arcadia Publishing. I’m told that news may arrive by the end of the week, and I’m about as nervous as it is possible to be. I realize that for some this experience of mine may not seem too terribly important, but to me it is the next step toward achieving a goal I set for myself in junior high (if not earlier). It is destiny, and it is calling. For those of you with children, think about those nine months leading up to the birth, and you’ll know roughly how I feel right now. Not to put too fine a point on things, the future seems pregnant with possibilities that quite recently seemed beyond the realm. So, cross your fingers with me if you care to, and we’ll see what happens…