Aleatory

It is a gorgeous day for mid-November in Vermont.  It is just over 50 degrees and sunny.  There is a good breeze, but it is still warm.  I decide to spend some time in the tree, more time than usual—in fact, to take up not only a camera but a drawing pad and a few drafting pens.

My usual stance in the tree is the one illustrated in the very goofy post, “Exuberance and Playfulness: Or, The Headless Selfie.”  It is what in Bagua they would refer to as a 60-40 stance–about 60 percent of my weight is on my back foot, and my forward foot, slightly bent, bears about 40 percent of my weight.  Maybe it’s closer to 70-30.  It’s how I imagine one would stand in the prow of a ship, gazing across waves and dolphins and the wine-dark sea to the horizon.  It’s a fairly comfortable stance, and also good for standing in the prow of a tree and looking out over waving branches and birds and the sun-fired hills to my own horizon, and I make do with it—but it’s not a good position for drawing or meditation, anything that requires sitting or the use of both hands.

The only decent place to sit in the tree is lower down, just above the large prayer flags on the other trunk.  There I can sit on a branch and lean back against it comfortably, my legs on either side of the trunk.  To my left are lawn and meadow, to my right the woods, but I am not high enough to see much of the former.  Since the trunk is very nearly in front of my face, there are not many things to draw, but I extract drawing pad and pens from my bag and set to work.  I try to capture some of the outlines of the opposite trunk, where a large branch joins it and then the trunk itself splits into two smaller trunks.

My drawing is terrible.  I perch the pad on a branch and pull out the camera.  Just below me and to my right an oak leaf has gotten caught in the gauzy material of a prayer flag, and the breeze is furling and unfurling the flag, sometimes entangling it with the flag next to it, folding and unfolding them or snapping them taut.  The leaf is often caught between two gauzy membranes, a pale light shining through flag and leaf and flag.  It is an awkward angle, but I hold the camera as far down as I can reach and take a number of photographs over five or ten minutes.  The flags move in the breeze so quickly that in many cases the camera’s autofocus at near range can’t keep up with it—though it does a better job than I could.

When I look at the photographs, I think of aleatory music, music determined partly or wholly by chance.  (From the Latin alea, a gambling die.)  This is a bit like that, like the sky throwing down a vast handful of air molecules across the game board of our hillside.  Whipping the flags this way and that.  I put the camera in place and push the shutter, and it extracts a moment from the swirl of leaf and cloth in the wind.  The image shaped by the complex forces at play between wind, leaf, flag, cloth, and tree.  What isn’t captured of course is movement through time, the swirl itself.  The liquid undulation of a prayer flag in the light, trailing an oak leaf.  

In either case—still moment extracted in a photograph or flowing movement live—what is produced by this dynamic system of elements at the edge of the wood is more beautiful to me than most music I have heard that was generated partly or wholly by chance.  Which makes me wonder–is what I am seeing truly random?  Or is it that our ears crave more order than our eyes?  But then, I have never heard an ugly stream either.  

In any case, I could watch this remarkable thing—this wind-leaf-light-cloth thing—dance all day.

But eventually the sun sinks and I grow cool.  I pack up notebook, pens and camera, climb down, and head for the house.