"April is in my mistress face / And July in her eyes hath place
Within her bosom is September / But in her heart a cold December."
- Thomas Morley (1594)
I remember every note of the first tenor part for this shortest of madrigals. All the choral music of the Christmas season has put in mind my singing days, when I could follow my last, clear note reverberating from the Chancel through the high columned Nave. In Canterbury Cathedral, this lasted seven seconds.
It wasn't Morley, then, on that March night when we visiting choristers and the Dean's wife had that incredible space all to ourselves. Illuminated only by the candles in our hands, the columns disappeared overhead. We descended stone steps hollowed by the knees of pilgrims, and had a moment of musical intimacy in the crypt as powerful as what we produced in the endless space above. I was not quite seventeen years old.
I have known two great stands of eastern trees that stood for cathedrals. One was Cornwall Connecticut's Cathedral Pines, eviscerated in a whirlwind. The other is Cathedral Woods on Monhegan Island in Maine, where Red and White Spruce contend with a parasitic dwarf mistletoe that conspires to lay them low, leaving only Balsam Firs and hardwoods to reassemble the forest. I have wandered in Muir Woods and among the great Sequoia groves, seen the clear cuts amid the old growth of the Olympic Peninsula during the height of the Spotted Owl war. I was befriended in a logger bar by a shell shocked Viet Nam vet who saved me from the impotent rage of one of its patrons. I was 21.
Sometimes I stand by the shore, watching the great swells dash and cream against the rocks below, and yearn to lift off like the gulls flying below the headlands. An old friend once wrote a poem about the gravity arc of the rope swing, where "if you time it right, you can hang like lightning in the air." Hang like the high note in the vaulted cathedral, or the toppling trees in the wind. All of an instant, rootless, and lighter than air.
Astronauts in training simulate such weightlessness in deliberate free fall, in a plane flying parabolic arcs. Astronauts in space are always falling toward earth. Deep Sea divers can also become disoriented in their three dimensional environment, with only their telltale bubbles to distinguish down from up. In my diving days, I sometimes would hang at neutral buoyancy, rising and falling ever so gently with every breath.
These days I do not sing in choirs, or swing out over dark water. But I still wander, amazed, in the cathedrals of the heart and forest, and slip loose from earth as I lift my eyes on brittle nights brimming with stars.