PICKING FIR-CONES

I


AMONG my earliest recollections of any vividness is a voice saying “yes” across the darkness of my winter bedroom. My exact age at the time is difficult to fix, but since I have no memories of anything before I was six, it may be set, perhaps, safely at seven years old. The voice seemed outside myself; it issued apparently from the shadows as a whole, rather than from a particular corner of the fireless room.
       I had been lying awake, wondering “frightfully hard” about everything, why so much was forbidden, and how disappointing it was to be blocked by rules and parents and nurses, and so on, when there stole out of the hush this whispered “yes,” as if in answer to my puzzles. It gave me the feeling that life was intended to be lived. All sorts of things were going to happen at once: I would do, accept them all. An exultant happiness burst up in me. I was alive!
       “I’m at it all again,” came to me.
       Questions as to goal or origin there were none, but the feeling of “again” was vivid. This idea of resumption was certainly present. I resumed a journey; the train had stopped, but now went on again … It was to be a long, long business, yet stuffed with interest and excitement, to which I looked forward with zest, with positive joy. I had been “at it” for ages already, the journey by no means just begun. I was hungry to live, but to live again, and this hunger was familiar to me. My questions, my wonder, seemed like efforts to remember things just out of reach, yet not impossibly, finally, out of reach. They were recoverable. Meanwhile, I wished “fearfully” to live and experience again, avoiding nothing. “Getting on,” I called it, though growth, quâ development, was certainly not present in my mind at that tender age.
       I woke next morning with the excitement to do things in my blood, and to do them as soon as possible. I did them. I turned on all the taps in the bath-room, tried to set fire to a hay-rick to see the blaze, and let the pigs out of their pens into the stable-yard and thence into the garden. I remember lifting a broken hop pole to hit the coachman’s daughter with. I did everything I could, taking the consequences, painful though these were, and puzzling too. For no one really explained to me, but merely said No, and then hurt me physically. It made no difference apparently. I meant to live, to miss no opportunity of doing things and enjoying the experience, pleasant or unpleasant. To avoid and shirk merely because it hurt was to lose an opportunity I was alive to know; whereas to suppress a desire, find no outlet for it, filled me with a choking violence that poisoned my whole being—what my elders meant by wickedness, I suppose.
       Keen regret invariably followed such repression: I had missed an opportunity that might never come again. The hunger to live had been denied. To suppress without regret was a stage, of course, I reached much later; to divert this energy into other channels, transmuting it, came later still. If intensity was my native gift, at any rate, I think my energy was merely wasted rather than used for evil. This analysis, moreover, belongs to maturity, when reason loves laborious explanations; at the time I accepted and believed: I only felt and acted.
       Evil! It was just this word, so often on father’s lips, that, with its opposite, good, made me feel sure there was some state superior to either, and that this state I had experienced already. I had known it before, but had now forgotten. It was recoverable, however, only I must be jolly quick about recovering it, for once I was grown up it would be too late. It involved an experience of strange, enormous, universal conditions difficult to describe. I wanted to get into everything, to do everything and to do it all at once, to be everywhere, and to be everywhere simultaneously. The fir-cone incident was the only practical proof I had that it was possible. It will be described presently.
       Here, then, was a definite, though wholly undetailed, memory. Belief, so called, played no part in my attitude towards it. I knew. I was haunted at this very early age by a dim recollection of some state superior to good and evil, and it betrayed itself, briefly, in an intense longing for things to be otherwise than they were—entirely otherwise.
       This sounds so ordinary; it was actually so significant. No intellectually devised Utopia was involved: an absolute change was what I so ardently desired. Hints of it came to me—came back; in fairy-tales, in poetry, in music, yet most frequently and with a closer sense of validity, from the beauty of Nature, especially in wild and lonely places; though as I grew older I grew, it seemed at the same time, smaller, and the chances of recovery rapidly decreased. I was settling in among conditions that excluded full recollection. Soon I should forget altogether.
       The memory, as I have said, was undetailed, but two conditions stood out in the recovery so ardently desired: I wanted goodness to be more good, wickedness more wicked. This was the first step. People of both types were so tame, insipid, colourless, so oppressively alike. The good were only just good by the skin of their teeth, as it were, their goodness managed by an effort that left no energy over; they laboured for goodness, and for happiness, at some future time. Good to me meant positively shining. Yet the good folk had no particular joy. I wanted people who were shining and radiant now. Children had more of the quality I meant than older people, but no one had it properly at all.
       With what my parents called “evil” it was similar. Depravity there was in plenty, but that was negative: an open wickedness, strong and unafraid, I did not find. What passed for wickedness was a hole-and-corner, afraid-of-being-caught, a shamefaced business; what passed for goodness an equally negative state that denied living and kept certain rules grudgingly and with sighs for the sake of safety and some reward in the future. Energy, raised to the intensity where it involved worship—though I did not phrase it so at the time—did not exist at all. It was such a trumpery affair, the way folk lived. I wanted an intenser and quite different life that was somewhere within reach, within recovery. Memory played faintly round it like a flame, but a flame that was slowly and surely dying as I grew older. I longed to lift a curtain, to stretch the scale, to open life to some gigantic flood that was brimming just outside, ready to pour through and sweep me into joy and power. This immense tide hung waiting only just beyond the way we lived, but some small personal fear of its depth and extent alarmed us all. The key-note, at any rate, of this superior state I refer to was certainly joy. Joy was the quality that no one had—that joy, as I knew later, which is the essential quality of wisdom. The surprise, the unearthly touch, of wisdom, are mothered always by this towering sense of joy. It was the denial of joy everywhere that chafed and bruised me at a very early stage of my development, since it was, of course, a denial of life itself. That “yes” in the darkness of my bedroom was an affirmation of its accessibility. And memory was an ingredient.
       The accessibility of this superior state I dreamed about remained my firm knowledge for a long time. It lay within reach still, here and now; it was really everywhere. Any moment I might pop back into it—at the end of the wet brambly lane, round the bend of a passage in the old house, behind the huge cedars, across the pond, a little further down the river. It was not in the future, but now; it was not away, but here. When least expecting it, I should come upon the exit through which I had slipped down into “this”—this life with parents, brothers, sisters, servants, governesses, gardeners, coachmen and policemen, all saying No from morning till night. And, once I came upon the exit, I could slip in again. But the way of slipping in or out I also had forgotten, and I made no special effort to recover it because it seemed so amazingly easy—a mere question of mood almost—that no effort was really necessary. It would come of its own accord. If people would only stop saying No so loudly, it would surely be upon me any moment.
       Yet the actual way and method became more and more uncertain. Some kind of distance shrouded it in haze. It was then that I tried to get it back, but found that no mental effort was of any use, thinking and longing least of all. The conviction of genuine belief alone could manage the desired recovery, and it was this belief precisely that had begun to waver and grow dim in me as I got older. I must keep very still, intensely still, but with an interior stillness that was now escaping me, because no one knew of it, practised it least of all: this stillness within me I must find if I was to recover what I longed for before it was too late.
       Then one day, quite suddenly, it came to me of its own accord. I did not discover it, but just knew. I did it. We called it—do you, my brother, as you read these notes, remember?—by a word of our own invention: dipping.


II


       On the back lawn you and Val and I (Val just back from his first term at Charterhouse) were picking fir-cones that crackled sharply to the touch and had ear-wigs crawling between the dark little gaping crevices. A penny a hundred was the rate of payment father made, half in play and half in sermon-earnest, and the cones were burned eventually in the drawing-room fire, with the remark (if we happened to be present): “See how useful your labour was, my boys! No work is lost, nothing in life is wasted!” The sentence always made me feel rude; I wanted to deny it angrily, but never dared to. The actual picking, however, was rather fun. The crinkly cones with their ugly brown inhabitants were mysterious; the pincers of the insects fascinated me. As a rule, too, this collecting seemed important; it made a difference to the world; yet ever with this half-concealed provision, that it was actually a sham, and that one day some person or other would catch us at it and laugh. The humbug of it would be shown up … One thing that held my interest, perhaps, was the quantity, and the way the cones deceived me. At first they appeared so few upon the lawn, so thinly scattered; yet half an hour’s labour apparently made no difference to the numbers left. The quantity, indeed, increased; the lawn seemed blacker. I could not make it out. And a hundred cones took up so small a space in the gardener’s wooden basket that smelt of leaves and mould.
       On this particular occasion we were picking hard, with remarks at intervals about the number, the prospective pennies, and speculations as to which of us had collected the greater quantity, when, quite suddenly, there was a change.
       I was kneeling up at the moment, watching Val—Val, who was so clever, who explained things and “knew it all”;—my head swam a little with the rush of blood from stooping; Val had filled his straw hat, but, forgetting the blue cord fastened to his button-hole, reached out an arm with a careless jerk that upset his entire store. He uttered an exclamation of disgust with a wry grimace, glancing round at me as though he hoped I had not seen the accident. I thought for a moment he was going to cry with disappointment. It was just then that a new mood—the change—came on me as with a burst of dazzling light.
       The tiny comedy was set upon the big green lawn, the towering cedars behind, the vast summer sky of blue, above. Such was the background to the trivial accident—an insignificant human miscalculation of time and distance, framed by the steady, unalterable immensities. The contrast made me catch my breath. I did not laugh, I felt no triumph or pity; I felt, indeed, no interest of any kind, but knew suddenly that I was unutterably bored. The occupation was a sham, it was absurd and trumpery. Someone—father perhaps—was laughing at us. This was not living, it was merely making the time go by without being counted. There were better things to do, real things, immense opportunities sliding past unclaimed. Indeed, we were humbugging as well as being humbugged. I, at any rate, could manage things differently, otherwise, quite otherwise. The sense of the superior state I had forgotten and was in danger of losing altogether came breathlessly close to me. I shivered.
       I stopped. A huge simple joy stole over my whole being. I had a sense of awe that made me hold my breath and at the same time intensely happy. The thing I so yearningly desired was near to me as air, not in the future, not away, but here and now. I only had to claim it. There was rapture. I trembled, as though interiorly I was a sheaf of fine, taut wires drawn thin as silk, and a wind passed over them.
       I waited, kneeling upright on the grass and staring. Nothing happened at first. All my activities, not merely the gathering of the fir-cones, came to rest. My inner being had become intensely still. Of Val I was no longer aware, I hardly saw him; but I saw you, my brother; I stared, watching you in your alpaca suit of overalls, as you stooped and picked and stretched out your arms and legs in the sunshine. You moved slowly; and I marvelled why you continued grubbing so contentedly on one spot of ground. You crawled laboriously over the lawn, a few inches at a time, panting with effort, like some monster-insect badly made, clumsily jointed: even the earwigs moved with more skill and cleverer energy.
       It was ludicrous; yet I realised you were doing this on purpose and had not really “forgotten” any more than I had. It was a phantom you I watched; the real you looked on, looked down, from this superior state. You yourself watched the phantom “you” with detachment that was not quite indifference. Sharply then I realised another thing: you picked fir-cones with all your energy, because you knew it was the purpose for which you were here. I was vividly aware in that instant of those two different points of view respectively: neither of us had “forgotten”; but, whereas I revolted and wished to be otherwise, you accepted the present and were content. I felt ashamed of myself while this flashed through me. With its passing, however, my own point of view shot uppermost again. I thought you, obstinate, stupid, but knew that I loved you dearly.
       “You are my darling brother,” I thought to myself, “only it’s stupid-silly—(you remember our childhood superlative?)—of you to be satisfied with this. Why in the world don’t you … ?”
       But the actual word escaped me; there was a gap where the right word should have been. The swift fluttering effort to find it bore fruit afterwards only with the invention of “dip” and “dipping.”
       “Let’s go!” I cried instead. “Let’s go on!” It was the nearest I could come to the meaning of what I felt, but could not say. There was an abrupt and passionate vehemence in my voice; in my heart there was absolute conviction. Quietly, without looking up, you replied, “There are more over here,” and continued to fill your basket. The rattle of the cones, as you tossed them in, came to me already from a distance.
       “Yes, yes,” I exclaimed excitedly, for I had the horror that you were missing an amazing opportunity, “but why stick in one place like this? It’s awful. We can be anywhere—everywhere at once—doing everything!” I remember the frantic impossibility of finding words to express what I felt so sure of—“Come on, Dick! Come with me!”
       Caught by something in my voice, perhaps, you stopped picking and looked up; there was a steady expression in your big blue eyes. You said nothing. I felt that you knew more than I did after all. You wished to restrain me, though at the same time you would have liked to “go.”
       I sprang up quickly, lest forgetfulness of the way should catch me.
       “Anyhow,” I cried, “I’m going—!”
       And then I heard your solemn whisper: “Look out!” you said softly, “it’s not allowed, you know. You mayn’t be able to get back. They’ll cry about you. Mother’ll be in a state. Besides, you’ll only miss all this—”
       There was a catch in your voice and breath as you said it; you were eager and ready; you knew the way; but, for some wiser reason than I guessed, you thought it a mistake to go. I confused, I think, the real you and the other that picked fir-cones and objected. I hesitated for a fraction of a second, the merest fraction. At the same moment I saw Val watching us—watching me in particular—and the startled expression on his face decided me. For he was afraid. I realised his vanity, his self-importance, his ignorance; either he had never known, or had entirely forgotten; remembering nothing of this “other” state, he was a sham, unreal, supremely satisfied with himself and with his condition. “Oh, dear,” I thought, “almost everybody’s like that!” And I cried at the top of my voice, bursting with joy and confidence, “I’m off!”
       Val gave a gasp, and shouted “Where?” And I wanted to reply, but had no time to get the words out; besides, the right words would not come.
       “Look, Dickie! Look!” I cried happily. You smiled into my eyes, but said no word. And I went.
       The effort, if effort there was at all, was of some interior and delicious kind that was familiar. It was not muscular, though it was accompanied by a certain tautening of the muscles about the heart and abdomen—a sensation of heat in the pit of the body—followed instantly by a complete and comforting relaxation. It seemed a species of inner determination; perfect assurance, absolute conviction made it possible and even easy. I had no doubt that I could “go.” I knew. And there was joy in me beyond anything my words can possibly explain.
       I went. It was a change of condition really, but the terms of physical motion describe it best. I went out gliding, as in those flying-dreams so many know, and the slight effort was due to the fact that I had forgotten how to exercise the power properly. As in the flying-dream, I now recovered this half-forgotten power. “I can do this again when I wake,” thinks the dreamer. “I’ve remembered at last,” I thought; “how jolly!” Had I then known Bergson’s suggestion that the flying-dream is due to the feet being deprived of their customary support, I could have given him the lie. The flying-dream is a racial, but also an individual, memory of the means of transition to this other “state.” It is supremely easy; only it must be recovered young, before Reason and excess of physical sensation obliterate instinctive knowledge of the method.
       I went out gliding, gliding over the summer lawn. I looked down—down upon the fir-cones and the baskets, the cedar tops, the crescent flower-beds, the bushy horse-chestnut and its bulging shadow, the gravel drive, the squat, fore-shortened Manor House. All lay beneath me, curiously flat. You I saw clearly, I saw Val in a haze; and while you increased for me somehow, there was about Val that flat and meaningless quality, as of an empty shell almost, which touched the other objects also with unreality.
       And the expression in his face I cannot forget: the staring eyes, the mouth wide open, the perspiration on the puckered forehead, the coat pulled out where the hat-cord tugged at it, and then the look of sheer amazement passing into terror, as he stretched his bare arms out, turned jerkily, as though the power of co-ordinating his movements were impaired, and ran headlong towards the house. He had no breath to scream, or possibly the sound did not reach me; for his attitude was a scream materialised. He disappeared. Yet not by going into the building; it was more a fading out, a dying away, as a reflection fades from a pool when the sun is hidden or a puff of wind obliterates it. He vanished into a depth. He was withdrawn from my consciousness. The phantom Val was all I knew. He was unreal.
       With you, however, precisely the opposite took place; you became instantly more real. It seemed I knew you for the first time fully, and understood the reason for the deep tie between us. We both shared another, bigger, but quite different state. The little figure in alpaca overalls picking fir-cones was not really you at all. It was a phantom you. We now came together for the first time properly, or, as I felt it then, “we were together again—at last.” There was union and the full, rapturous joy of union. The idea of being everywhere at once, of sharing everything, seemed amazingly justified.
       I cannot say that you joined in my actual physical motion, that you definitely came with me on my gliding, sliding change. It was rather that when I arrived I found you already there; and “there” was a state we had both left temporarily, come down from, as it were, in order to pick fir-cones and do other little necessary things—little things, trivial and unimportant in themselves, yet the doing of which increased our value, our reality. Everybody in the world had similarly “come down,” but the majority became so absorbed in the “little, trivial things” that they forgot. Father, for instance, though he went to church as regularly as to the Treasury where he worked, had not the least idea—he denied that there could be a way back at all. And this was why everyone said No so often and so loudly. The important thing was to continue picking fir-cones as long as possible and as many as possible. Whatever enfeebled or endangered the picking faculties must be prevented. Picking to fill one’s basket, and to fill it first before anybody else, was the sole criterion of reality and a useful life. Church and the Treasury were both, to father, a form of picking fir-cones, and any suggestion that reality lay in a different state was merely stupid-silly. This flashed into me as clearly as the meaning of cake and jam at tea-time …
       We were properly together, anyhow, you and I, and joy was wonderful; but not only was I properly with you, for I was in everything everywhere, not stuck in one spot any more, but able to do anything everywhere at once. I had this power, this rapture … the same time, you understood, apparently, that picking cones on a single spot, and so forth, was worth doing, and worth doing well. It was not to be shirked by any means. We picked experience while we did so, experience that was carried over and stored up in our “other” state, making us more real, and our eventual happiness even more complete. This, too, was very clear to me, simple, easy, and overwhelmingly convincing.
       “We mustn’t stay too long,” you said at once. “They’ll be frightened, you see. Besides”—and you laughed happily, as though you referred to a brief, almost an instantaneous interlude—“we want to finish, don’t we? Let’s get it done. Then we can be together … ”
       There was more I cannot remember, but what I do remember with vividness is the feeling of deep, lasting joy that accompanied your phrase, “then we can be together.” For it involved everything that those who love, yet fear separation, most ardently desire—complete and permanent union. I was too young, of course, in those days to have realised death, yet I saw clearly as in brilliant sunshine that death, where love is, meant only the transition into this other “state” where separation was not even a possibility. It was, I suppose, my first experience of a spiritual value. The meaning of Now was shown to me.
       But another thing was also clear: Val had looked on death, or on what he thought was death. For him the only reality was picking fir-cones, and the Val that picked them was the only Val he knew. He had “forgotten” everything. Thinking I was dead, he experienced the nameless terror that is the bogey of his kind—of those who have forgotten.


III


       I found myself in bed. There was a darkened room full of soft rustling and whispering. Busy figures moved to and fro on tiptoe like ghosts amid a general sense of hush. Mother and nurse were bending over me. There was a cold sponge and a feeling of anxiety and awe. I felt this anxiety, this awe, this fear, but I wanted to laugh; I could not understand this peculiar atmosphere of dread. It was unnecessary humbug. I could have screamed. A yearning sadness next came over me. Then I laughed. And the laughter brought relief, although it frightened the others. Afterwards—long afterwards—it was reported that I hung between life and death. Isn’t that delicious? A comic statement—the sort of thing a grub might say about a chrysalis: it hung between life and death before it emerged and flew as a butterfly! … A hand stroked my forehead. I knew half-sensations. Of these half-sensations I was uncomfortably aware. With an effort I had come back, I was shut in again, enclosed, confined in something that had the pain of limitation, yet of limitation that was somewhere valuable. The truth was I had forgotten again, or was beginning to forget, and hence the half-sensations … They explained presently that I had fainted in the sun; “a touch of sun,” they called it; and when I laughed at this the cold sponge descended on my neck and forehead and the whispers multiplied.
       “Lie quite still, my darling, quite, quite still. Do not excite yourself. You’re safe at home, and Mummie’s looking after you!”
       It never occurred to them that I might have looked after Mummie.
       It was marvellously sweet and tender, but 0, how futile and how ignorant! I knew so much; I could tell so little—nothing and less than nothing. I had come back. I was caught again. They could not know, because they had “forgotten.” At last the cold sponge ceased descending on my neck and forehead; I fell asleep; and when I woke again the curtains were drawn back and the sun poured over the room. “That’s real, at any rate,” I remember thinking, as I felt the warmth upon my skin. The light made me happy, though I knew not exactly why.
       I recovered very quickly. It had been something of a false alarm apparently. There were no ill results, although hourly warnings about the sun continued for a long time, and Val was afraid of me for the rest of the holidays. “I thought you were dead,” was all he said; “I saw you tumble down flat, you know.” He was white as he spoke of it. “Once I saw a chap fall on his head from the parallel bars and kill himself,” he added. “By Jove, you know—it’s awful.” Having looked on death, he was afraid of life.
       What you thought and felt you never said. You were a solemn little owl. Our love seemed more near and understanding than before. I date our realisation of it from that time, at any rate. But, also, from that moment I knew another thing that lay at the back of my brain; I knew it subconsciously perhaps without explanation or analysis. What one knows and believes subconsciously affects all one does in a natural, instinctive way, whereas what one reasons out is a matter of calculation—one is for ever persuading oneself that it is true. This thing I now knew was, perhaps, that daily life was but an interlude of no real duration in a bigger but a different matter, and that death simply closed the interlude—if a state without duration can be said to have an end. My intense desire for things to be “quite otherwise” was actually a memory therefore, true and deep, yet hidden with extraordinary care behind my brain. My true self was not involved with this fir-cone picking business except to watch it and be wise; it dwelt apart, detached from good and evil, so-called; it was everywhere and for ever. It was my “otherwise.” To be identified with it meant to know peace and joy and those indescribable states which are of the spirit and of eternity, but to know them Now. To forget—as Val forgot it—meant to be unreal. As a dream of ten seconds may seem indefinitely prolonged, so it was with daily life. At the close of the dream the sleeper wakes and says: “Is that all?” The dream has been an interlude without duration.
       Although I can give no further details of what I experienced after I went out gliding, I remembered it for a long time with happy wonder. The tang of its unforgettable ecstasy came back with me. I had known power, sweetness, joy; it was complete and satisfying; I had been everywhere, dipped and merged in everything; and you were with me. Young as I was, I realised this great completeness. “It was all right,” as I said to you; and the phrase seems to me now significant: all and right … My yearning to be “otherwise” had been justified. I had been otherwise. I had been dipped, then come up to the surface again. And I remember saying this to you, wondering at your owl-like silence, although you knew far more about it all than I did, and then your remark at the end: “Yes. It’s all right, but I vote we stay down for a bit all the same. I think we’ve got to—don’t you see?”
       Then, gradually, as we grew older, the memory of the experience faded and grew dim. At school it became heavily obscured, at Sandhurst I forgot it. I did not forget the experience, that is, but I forgot the feelings that accompanied it. I could not reconstruct those feelings; I did not even wish to … Only much later, with the thrill and the opening of the heart by beauty, did the feelings partially return to me …
       I know now, of course, that it is possible to pick fir-cones on the surface, yet to dip and be otherwise, simultaneously; that this, in fact, is really living. Picking fir-cones helps to build empires, but builds the empire of oneself as well; it is human and necessary, whereas “dipping” is exceptional and divine. Everybody wants to be dipped, yet knows not how to achieve it. Being afraid of death, they are afraid of life—afraid to live. They think that picking fir-cones is the way. They have “forgotten.” For, instead, it is the way they pick fir-cones that is the Way!



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