Recently, I have been creating some collages in which the motifs include birds, music, and circles. I was looking through the bookshelf in the office to see if there was a book that wouldn’t be missed that I could tear up to use as collage material. I found a collection of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and figured the topic would connect with the spring/nature elements in my collages. I am vaguely familiar with Transcendentalist authors and their writings, but I have not read much of their work. I opened up the book to Emerson’s essay entitled Circles (1841) and started to read it. Immediately I saw connections to several aspects of my life.
Everything is connected through cause and effect. Think of a pebble thrown into a pond. There are ever-growing concentric circular ripples emanating from the original impact of the pebble. No singular ripple could not exist without the preceding ripple nor without the original impact.
First of all, the circle as literary motif connected with the circles I was using in my collage work, but, also, the homeschool curriculum we are using this year is the Big History Project which, essentially, is the history of everything. It starts with the Big Bang and looks at how the conditions created from that were perfect for the eventual creation of stars, then planets, then successively more complicated life forms, then civilizations, etc.. Civilizations couldn’t exist without first there being an origin of the Universe — that proverbial pebble.
Then I started seeing some ideological connections to the mindset of Americans in the first half of the 19th century that emphasized self-reliance that seemed to be an outgrowth of Thomas Jefferson’s glorification of the independent farmer as God’s chosen people to populate the New Republic. (See my post 1st Cousins 1x Removed.) Emerson has another essay in that book called Self-Reliance. Here’s a quote from it …
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” In Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems, edited by Robert D. Richardson, Jr., 150-74.
America, being a new country and in the process of redefining itself apart from its English ancestry, was on its own. Emerson was speaking to his readers in metaphors that they would understand. They each were a field to till as they saw fit and to the best of their ability. To think for one’s self was to be self-reliant. To follow an original path was preferential to tripping over a stone in a well trodden path where the destination was to be crowded with no room for literal or proverbial land to till.
Emerson said in Circles that “… every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” Genealogically, every ancestor is a preceding ripple around the original pebble plunk that emanates out to us. The original circle is infinitesimally small to the point of microscopic down to a sub-atomic level. Where it started goes back to the Big Bang. Carl Sagan said that we are the children of the stars. We would not exist if they didn’t first exist. Our family trees go all the way back to the formation of the stars. What made them eventually, through billions of years and increased specialization and ever growing complexities, led to each of us.
A whole bunch of years ago I read Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s novel Kabbalah: A Love Story. In it I was introduced to the concepts of botzina d’qardinuta and alma d’ahtay. They are related to Jewish mysticism and the terms, I believe, are Aramaic. Botzina d’qardinuta is a highly concentrated dark spark — a seed of potential. Alma d’ahtay is the womb in which that seed fulfills its potential — in which it grows to become what it is meant to be. These concepts work together and cannot exist alone. Can you see a correlation between Ancient Jewish mysticism and the even more ancient origins of the Universe? It’s in the complex formation of each and every one of us, too. We each have started with a Big Bang of sorts, a stone’s plop in a pond. Our origin is reflective of the origin of everything. Whether or not there is a god or God at the helm is relative, but we each head our own ship. Each of our journeys will be dependent on how and where we are called to travel. Such were Simon’s and Abigail’s travels. They stepped away from their parents and the times that preceded them in various ways. The motivations that set them on their own path are what I am looking for.
The helms that our ancestors obeyed shifted as their children took the wheel. The journey from them to us, from there to here, has been one of logical ascent and descent. We are all of our own times and we should foster a consciousness of every moment of that time to better understand how we have been informed by our ancestors and the lives that they led in order to understand the historical, social, and cultural context that surrounded them. The choices they made have effected us in both subtle and profound ways. Some we can see, most we can not.
The Transcendentalists, which Emerson was a part, were part of the Romantic literary and art movement that largely took place in Germany, England, and, later, in America. One of the things that Romanticism emphasized was the heroism of the individual. The Revolutionary War caused America to start building its own mythology. Its Zeus was George Washington and the pantheon of gods surrounding him were the founding fathers (and their wives!) and soldiers of all ranks (including Abigail’s father) who fought the mightiest world power and won. If they could send England packing then they could do anything, including going forth into the wilderness of their new country to tame it, build farms on it, and to raise their large families on it.
Simon’s great grandson, my great grandfather, Leon Elstine Gilman (1866-1961) was a very patriotic man. There are many pictures of him with the American flag in the background in front of his house. He married his first wife, Mary Louisa Doty, on 4 July 1890. His son, Arthur Augustus Gilman (1892-1918) fought in France during WWI and died of pneumonia or influenza while over there. How much of Leon’s patriotism was handed down to him from his ancestors? How much was he programmed by the culture in which he lived? Was he effected by the ripples that were of Simon’s and Abigail’s parent’s generation that fought in the Revolutionary War? Although Augustus registered for the draft at the age of 26, there are no records that I have found that he actually served in the war. Augustus’s younger brother, John (1841-1868), however, did serve in the Civil War. He fought at Gettysburg with the 14th Vermont Volunteers. Leon’s father-in-law, Deforest Doty (1844-1921) served as well. Maybe Augustus was considered too old at 27 to serve. Perhaps the younger men were mined as soldiers first.
My Gilman relatives have most definitely been examples of self-reliance. They’ve plowed, tilled, farmed, raised large families, and dealt with the loss of children and other loved ones to diseases that would later become curable with the invention of antibiotics and vaccines. My father, a Gilman descendant, wasn’t a farmer, but he built his own house and a couple garages. He knows how to refurbish old tractors and he has been a hunter. I have always known him, and my mom, too, to be good providers and to do whatever it took to make things work to raise me and my sister. Ideologically, we’ve had our differences for sure, but I was the succeeding ripple that emanated from his ripple.
Here’s a reading of Emerson’s essay Circles …
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems, ed. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. (New York: Bantam Books, 1990).