P. West Virginia is ripped across with small mountain ranges, cut under with enormous cave systems, and spanned through by meandering, dead-ending roads with memorable names like “Paint Gap” and “Johnson Gulch.” Generally economically depressed throughout its history, the state has seen financial booms resulting only from the removal of fossil fuels, especially coal, from the earth. It has a haunted, empty quality tied to its coal mining history; one feels the presence of ghost towns and hollow ground.
The state is one of the world’s most heavily karstic regions; everywhere subterranean water has eroded away layers of rock, creating caves and underwater lakes. So truly the earth below you is often full of holes, and West Virginia suggests the feeling that much of what is going on is unseen.
Its capital, Charleston, offers an unexpected dose of comeliness and cultural enlightenment at the confluence of two rivers. I always have a surprisingly lovely time in Charleston. The people I’ve met there are kind beyond the typical expectation, unpretentious, culturally aware. I was there on a choir tour in college. Knowing only West Virginia’s backwoods, Appalachian reputation, we were surprised that the members of our host church started sentences with statements like, “Now, I know quite a bit about Nigerian history, but...”
My roommate and I stayed with a single mother of two young children. Around the breakfast table they revised full-length book reports composed in impeccable grammar.
I remember walking from the beautiful church across downtown Charleston to a museum, crossing the river, the trees not yet blooming in March.
A few years later I crossed the state on a solo drive in early February. I was on my way to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, near Charlottesville. The weather in most of the country had been mild but West Virginia was a sky island of snow. I seemed to ascend as I drove out of Ohio and descend as I crossed into Virginia. The highway passed through narrow valleys; I couldn’t hold on to any radio stations for long, and phone service was extremely patchy.
As I drove through Charleston at 9:00 in the morning it was crisp and cold, with patches of snow by the river. I pulled off for a moment to get a view of the striking state capitol building. I found the local NPR station, which was playing Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet. I rolled down the windows for a minute.
P. Benjamin Britten wrote Hymn to St. Cecilia on a ship crossing the Atlantic in 1942. The music is for unaccompanied choir, based on a poem by W.H. Auden. The text pays homage to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, offering an invocation to Cecilia that she might give inspiration to mortal composers.
The poem also suggests deep themes of innocence and its loss, on the personal level as well as that of humanity at large. The piece begins with a description of Cecilia in a garden by the ocean, singing to God and building the first organ “to enlarge her prayer.” In some versions of the story she dies a martyr’s death, unrelenting in her prayerful song. In both versions, the saint is revered not for the quality of her music-making, but for the dedication she shows to the divine through the music.
In the second movement Auden writes short, flitting phrases that Britten sets against each other in fluttering counterpoint; the music rises and falls like a young bird trying flight, expressing the innocence and ignorant enthusiasm of childhood.
The third movement is more enigmatic, with images of ruin and the fall of man. It shows us the imperfection of the human condition to explain how we reach for musical creation in an attempt to reach unity with the divine. Language fails to communicate the mystery we notice all around us. We all become Cecilia, singing to the ocean, singing to the sky, our voices resonating into the ground and the caves below our feet.
The text also contains a personal message from Auden, who was an occasionally overbearing artistic advisor to Britten. In the third movement the text finds resonance between the archetypal journey of the composer in a society broken by World War II and the personal travails of Britten himself. Notably, the more sexually liberated Auden encouraged Britten to embrace his homosexuality and fully accept himself. In the poem he tells his friend, “O bless the freedom that you never chose, O wear your tribulation like a rose.”
Britten worked on the music beginning in 1940, but when he boarded a ship in 1942 to return to England, customs officers confiscated his drafts on suspicion that they might contain coded messages. (As Auden wrote, “O dear white children casual as birds, playing among the ruined languages...”) Thus Britten became innocent Cecilia on the decks of the MS Axel Johnson, offering his prayer to the passing ocean.
P. An impossible bottle is a glass bottle containing an object ostensibly too large to fit through the bottle’s mouth. The “ship in a bottle” is the most familiar example. The practice has its origin as a maritime art form practiced by sailors during their (evidently plentiful) free time at sea.
These ships can be constructed outside the bottle and slid in with their masts and sails lowered and connected to strings that are subsequently used to raise the rigged elements. The truly dextrous can also build a ship inside the bottle, using long, thin tools.
Other objects can be used to make impossible bottles. I’ve seen tennis balls, scissors, a Rubik’s cube, and packs of cigarettes inside undamaged glass bottles. Evidently this broader approach to the impossible bottle was popularized by a magician named Harry Eng in the middle twentieth century. Artists and magicians have since proceeded further, creating diorama scenes and complex sculptures inside bottles.
The puzzle, of course, is in the mind of the beholder, and centers on how the bottle was made. Most practitioners prefer to maintain a shroud of mystery around their methods and techniques, so instructions for making most types of impossible bottles are hard to come by. One supposes that in all cases it requires a great deal of creative thinking and a tremendous quantity of patience.
One inexplicably poetic instance of an impossible bottle features a liter-sized glass bottle containing a sealed deck of playing cards. There seems to be only one way a deck of cards could enter the neck of the bottle, which is one at a time.
Literature and reality alike are awash with tales of messages in bottles. In myth we imagine them crossing the ocean to reach distant loves. In life too these missives make tremendous journeys, but more often through time than across great distances.
A wise man and prodigious backpacker once told me that when we set out to travel across a country or world region, what we’re really doing is traveling in our own time, traveling around and through an era, a world cultural moment.
Recently a New Jersey man was combing debris washed ashore by Hurricane Sandy when he found a bottle he’d tossed into the Atlantic fifty years prior. It contained a small note introducing the author, then 12 years old, along with a series of questions constituting a “scientific experiment.” He had included a self-addressed envelope and five cents for return postage.
He placed it in the ocean in 1963. It traveled only two tenths of a mile to the spot where he discovered it in August 2013.
The questions were as follows: “Where did you find bottle?” “Date when found?” “How did you find it?” “Anything else which might help me?”
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts