Sir Walter Raleigh

The Light Returns, Can Spring Be Far Behind?

As far as I'm concerned, winter's over. I'll bet we have had the same experience sometime in the last ten days or so.

Last weekend I was in Florida, and I arrived home late last Sunday night. After puttering around the house for a while I slipped into bed (clean sheets!) with a book about the English explorer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh. There is nothing quite so enjoyable as cheating sleep for an extra hour because the book you are reading is that good. It happens seldom and it is always a thrill. My eyes were drooping with road weariness and fatigue, and literally trying to close, but I was so engrossed in an account of Raleigh's 13-year imprisonment in the Tower of London (1603-1616) that I was unwilling to give in to the mere carnality of sleep. One of Raleigh's themes—because he was the epitome of the Renaissance man—is that the soul is divine and immortal, or at least in search of the divine, while the body is a base vessel, and therefore it is our duty in life to give our best energy to the work of the soul. So I read until well after 1 a.m., just to the point where you get that little sick feeling that you have cut a big hole into the next day's alertness and productivity.

These days when I go to sleep I silently summarize what I have learned today, silently out loud, if that makes any sense, not only because it is a way of retaining at least a little of several hundred pages of information from several books on several subjects, but because it invariably puts me to sleep faster than Sominex. My internal monologue had reached, "Queen Elizabeth had four principal favorites in the course of her 45-year reign: the Earl of Leicester, Christopher Hatton, the Earl of Essex, and Walter Raleigh," when at last I fell asleep.

Well, now you know why I live all alone!

The next thing I knew I was sitting up in my bed blinking off sleep and stretching, startled by all the bright daylight streaming into my bedroom. My immediate assumption was that I had slept late—another victim of the Tower of London—and that my whole day was going to be scrambly. You know how when the day starts out in a "time hole" things usually never quite calm down. But when I glanced over at the clock it was only 7:30 a.m. And then I said out loud, "The light has returned, the light has returned."

We may get some brutal weather between now and mid-April, but as far as I'm concerned, winter is essentially over the day you realize that the light has returned to the northern plains. That moment just happens, suddenly, when you least expect it, like the morning you wake up and feel the sudden urgent need to get a haircut. In the instant when you realize that the Light has triumphed over the Darkness once again (Genesis 1:3)—a primordial human experience that goes back to the inarticulate dawn of humanity, to henge structures or beaver totems—you actually find yourself lifting your head from the ground and looking around at the great plains with a renewed sense of life, and wonder. We spend the winter cast down.

The relativity of time is one of the great mysteries of life. A watched pot really doesn't boil. If you agree to have one more drink in a bar at 10:30 p.m. the next thing you remember is the bartender telling you and the other dregs to clear out. If you have an important project due at the end of the week the time hurtles by to punish you, but if you are waiting for your daughter to arrive home for the Christmas holidays the time creeps along, as Shakespeare puts it, like a "whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school." You think you don't have time for a daily walk or a run, but if you carve out that hour the day expands mystically with the free gift of time. And of course you live longer, too. I read once, in a book on yoga, "He who stands on his head three hours a day will conquer time." At some cost to your romantic life, I'd say. If you are sitting in a coffee shop writing to deadline, complete strangers will sidle up to chat, and your closest friends will sit down to tell you about the Bobcat skid-steer they received as a Christmas present. Thus torturing you twice. It's the iron law of deadlines.

Last night I began to gather my garden seeds, and to make plans to bring in an astounding crop of tomatoes. The snow is receding from my yard, a little more each sunny day, evaporating rather than melting, and the black earth in one quarter of my garden has been exposed. It won't be long before I will be able to see where I abandoned my hoses when the snow blew in for the first time last fall.

In my neighborhood, most folks have stopped shoveling their driveways. "The heck with it, may as well just wait it out now," seems to be the weary refrain. It won't be long before my near neighbor fires up his lawnmower "just for fun" in his driveway. The day is coming, sometime in the next month, when it's 57 degrees and the streets are running like cricks, and every sap in the subdivision is out washing his car by hand, wearing shorts that should be banned even where men are tanned.

Back to Walter Raleigh (1552-1618). He named Virginia after Elizabeth the Virgin Queen. But he never set foot in Virginia, or the Outer Banks of North Carolina, for that matter, where his lost colony at Roanoke was planted. Between his epic voyages in search of El Dorado (on the east coast of South America), Raleigh was a prisoner in the Tower of London. But he cannot be said to have wasted his time. In the Tower Raleigh wrote The History of the World, more than a million words in approximately 1,400 folio pages. That book has been called "the greatest work of art ever produced in a prison cell." It is one of the supreme achievements of the Renaissance, written in the same exquisite English prose as the King James Bible. It was James who threw Raleigh in prison on trumped up treason charges. The History of the World is one of the greatest no-longer-read books in the English language.

Last year I held a folio copy of the first edition of The History of the World (1614) in my hands in a museum in the Outer Banks. I caressed it in silence with the lightest possible touch, like a sacred relic. For me, that moment was as satisfying as fondling a gold ingot or plunging my hands into a barrel of Bakken crude.

I mean to read the History through, between now and the coming of the first fall snowstorm. Out on my deck in the cool of the evening. Soon.