Thursday, May 07, 2009

The oldest road -- 7

Once upon a time. The formulaic beginning of fairy stories. Tolkien suggests that the phrase "produces at a stroke the sense of a great uncharted world of time." "Uncharted" is the key word here. Scientific time is charted time. Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age: We know exactly what those terms mean in the context of the Ridgeway antiquities. Uncharted time is not so much vague as it is all-encompassing. In uncharted time we can traverse millennia with a single step. Uncharted time is the time of enchantment. Of art.

Science is the tip of time's arrow. Science exists in the present moment only. Yesterday's science is already obsolete. Art, on the other hand, is timeless. Neolithic art has the power to move us today. The gracefully stylized White Horse carved into the chalky hillside above the village of Uffington thousands of years ago still stirs the soul.

This is the place along the Ridgeway I briefly visited in 1969, vowing to come back someday and walk the entire track. Dan, Tom and I arrived at White Horse Hill on a warm spring day of brilliant sunshine, a third of the way into our walk. Amazingly, we had the place all to ourselves -- the vast wind-swept, double-ditched fortification looking out over Oxfordshire, the chalk White Horse, and Dragon Hill. Once upon a time this place was a spiritual center for peoples of the Bronze and Iron Age. Once upon a time King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, encamped here. Once upon a time Saint George slew his dragon here. Once upon a time King Alfred defeated the Danes nearby. Once upon a time three fellows named Dan, Tom and Chet ranged the ramparts and scanned the vale. (Click pic to enlarge.)

Enchantment is timeless. It is enchantment that has preserved intact so much of the English countryside. Enchantment does not mean sacrificing the Secondary World of science to the Secondary World of art. Enchantment means being able to live simultaneously in the present moment of reliable scientific knowledge and in the uncharted continuum of mythic time. Mythic time contains all moments. Mythic time is a continuum of particulars.

There is a danger, of course, of confusing the particulars of mythic time with the Primary World of direct experience. We no longer give much credence as fact to Wayland and his smithy or Saint George and his dragon. But the great majority of humans hold certain mythic moments -- Christ's resurrection, say, or Mohammed's night flight to Jerusalem, or Joseph Smith's golden plates -- to be part of the charted realm of reliable knowledge. This is the very opposite of enchantment and -- by reifying the mythic past -- can be as much a detriment to contriving a spiritually nourishing and sustainable environmental future as is living in the present moment only.