Below is a bit of writing I have been banging around for the last number of years. This section is actually much less than half, but the rest of it isn’t ready. Today being my cousin’s birthday, and this text being about my time spent with him, I’m dedicating this post to him and sharing this present with everyone. – Matt Ballou, 12/15/2019
Nunc Perpetuus: Making Now Eternal
“One instant is eternity; eternity is the now.” – Wumen Huikai (1)
“Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.” – T.S. Eliot (2)
On a brisk Sunday afternoon in April 1998 my cousin Christopher Metott and I ventured out onto the rocks atop Salmon River Falls near Altmar, NY. The photographs resulting from that excursion reflect – our differing aesthetics notwithstanding – the great affinity we share regarding time and experience. While our focus was often different, it is certain that we were often held in an otherworldly grip as we spent time out in the hills, fields, and woods we once called home. We went looking for landmarks, not of space on the land, but of life in the landscape of time. We wanted to set up those touchstones as a means of hope for what was to come and as a remembrance of what was gone behind us. In a way that seems, in hindsight, dramatically lucid and reasonable, we established these places to make sense of our past and to justify our future. We formed those experiences together, and it bound us as two journeying souls.
Of course, that Sunday afternoon wasn’t the first time we’d worked this way. This had been our method for years. We’d built cabins in the woods, fortresses to stand in for us when we couldn’t be out there. They were tributes to our work, to our belief in God, our desire for a relationship with nature, and the ethic we shared of contemplating what was beyond us.
We had spent long, cold winter nights ensconced in nothing but our nylon tent and a bit of hope, almost daring the circulatory disorder that Chris had to take us on. We took the longer, back way up mountains just to say we’d done it – and paid the price. We fished tinkling little streams few people knew about, happily releasing our delicately armored catch. We took many expansive road trips out into the quiet upstate New York night to catch the wind off Lake Ontario, to bask in the deep stillness of Route 3 (The Star Road) at 3 in the morning, and to wander with the colonial ghosts lingering to the south. We witnessed those slumbering Adirondack giants – ancient and rounded – blacking out the starry canopy as we wove between their couched numbers. Then there were those northern light nights, which seemed like mystical initiations into A Great Mystery. We saw them for the first time in the deep cool of the earliest morning hours, streaking over us as we lay on our backs in our sleeping bags, gazing up into the glowing pinprick host above. Then again, years later, on the small island we’d gone to on an impulse, we witnessed the green and blue flaming curtains exploding over the low hills to the north, reflecting off the water and our eyes.
Yet there was always the backyard simplicity of the town where we’d grown up. Hiking out into the forests of tamarack and pine, through fields of corn and hay to find that perfect spot. The trees, paths, hills, stone fences, rocky streams, and rippling fields conjured our transition – like an incantation – from the daily concerns of siblings and chores to deeper, more satisfying meditations. We tried to maintain it. We stayed at Winter’s Night, stacking up those old field stones from the corner of the fence for our fireplace. Or maybe View would be our destination, with its mild overlook of the languid valley in which our hometown was situated. Sometimes we’d just sit in Whispering Pines, poking at our fire and laughing at those who’d never understand us.
There was always the ritual, the ceremony, of naming our places. They were our blameless sacred groves. Some names come to mind, some are lost in the mist for now, yet each can summon memories that speak not just about events and people, but also about feelings and our sense of the world. We’ve never stopped our efforts to be available to the creation of these sorts of signposts in the fabric of our time. We want them to catch us up when, lost in some future, we need to go back and forward in the same moment. To remember how it was and how it ought to be… and how it might be again. When we need to recall innocence and reinforce our will to be good and honest and kind in the world, such as it is. This is how we discovered morality for ourselves.
It was a morality mitigated by music as much as by place and time. We favored plaintive, earnest, digressive compositions that lent themselves to mythic application – everything from 70’s progressive art rock to weird new age kitsch to contemporary British hipster fare. It was always about mood, about ushering in wanderlust amid a sense of place. We wanted music that would work in tandem with the winter winds, the midnight sound of water on ancient shores, and dusky skies flecked with fiery clouds and a sweet breeze. In the end, we wanted to palpate the very feeling of being, the dearest knowing of our own experiences.
Through all of those experiences lay a thread of earnest documentation, a yearning to hold it fast, to remember it, to know it. Half the time we didn’t really know what the it was. We knew that it was what happened when the two of us where together, experiencing something with each other and with the world. We knew that it was a feeling of rightness, of sensing something beyond mere perception; something we only knew was there by sighting its position through each other in a mystical triangulation. It was a spiritual hope, a burning desire to be in life. To experience a fulfillment in the moment – a moment that could expand to fill eternity with its promise and light and perfection – was our aim.
A key component of our desire to hold fast to our experiences was to revisit our sacred places over and over again. This consistent returning – a physical, mental, and spiritual act – infused them with more memories, more mystery, and more access to that joyful transport of sensory perception we so earnestly sought. Sometimes we got it and sometimes we didn’t feel it so strongly, only to – upon remembering – find that it was still there. Thus a special mimetic fact was discovered: remembrance is often more powerful than the experience itself. Our shared remembering sometimes held the deepest connections to the timelessness we pursued.
What does any of the above have to do with a Sunday in April of 1998? Well, pretty much everything. Our different forms of expression (I am a painter and Chris is a photographer) have been informed by this lifelong urge to document, to earmark, to source those moments of insight that impact all the moments before and after. These are moments that become eternal in their influence and necessity; they make us who we are. We’ve tried to live in such a way that maintains those glittering glimpses of eternity.
“But even the unknown past is present in us, its silence as persistent as a ringing in the ears. And nothing is here that we are beyond the reach of merely because we do not know about it. It is always the first morning of Creation and always the last day, always the now that is time and the Now that is not, that has filled time with reminders of Itself.”
-Wendell Berry (3)
- Wumen Huikai (1183-1260), translated by Stephen Mitchell from The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, (Harper and Row, 1989).
- T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), from Four Quartets, (Faber and Faber, 1959 edition).
- Wendell Berry (1934-), from Fidelity: Five Stories, (Pantheon, 1993 edition).