Light, and Shade, and Curving Line

THOUGH I do not know where or when I read it, the fact is in my mind that in ancient times, when paper in China was at a premium, an artist spent days studying the simplest form, bringing his mental image to perfection, before risking the transfer to precious paper. The sweep of a bamboo shoot could be an object of study for days. Chinese art testifies to the resulting poem of light, and shade, and curving line.

A short time ago I cut myself off from that confusing part of present-day civilization which is temporary, the backwash of progress which jumbles one’s days into a confusion too complicated to be effective. As a result I ultimately found myself in a log cabin in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains. The days stretched timelessly ahead like so many sheets of untouched paper. It was my privilege to fill them with light, and shade, and curving line.

The danger of marring these sheets lay in too much haste and too little contemplation. Moderation, and the slowness that breeds contemplation, are parts of an art of living which does not come easily or naturally to those conditioned in adolescence by the speed of war and boom years. I do not know what institution, or combination of institutions, is to blame for instilling in the modern mind a guilty fear of being caught moving slowly, but the fear is there. It must be overcome before there can rise up to fill its place a love for simple things that grow slowly.

‘If,’ said I to myself, ‘a man can spend days in the study of a bamboo shoot, why should I be above spending a similar period of time wondering over a blade of grass on a mountain side, its light, and shade, and curving line?’ But, valuable as leisure and contemplation may be, they are dependent upon certain natural laws that cannot be denied — and one of them is the commonplace necessity for food. In the case of a poor farmer, no garden, no food. ‘So,’ said I to myself, ‘you had better start your studies of simplicity through contemplation of a hoe.’ I did; and I am not yet ready to paint even a small finished picture from the truths and half-truths discovered.

I might have leaned the hoe up against the wall of the ‘blow-hard,’ seated myself comfortably upon a cushion, and meditated for hours upon the beauty of its cylindrical handle, the changes of light and shadow upon its polished surface as the sun circled from east to west, the hardness of its steel blade, the constantly moving atoms making up that steel, the source of the power tapped by man’s mind which enabled him to know the preparation and uses of that metal. Yes, I might have done so, but I did not. I eliminated the cushion and the wall. I did my contemplating upright on my two feet in the hot sun, the hoe handle leaning against the calluses on my palms.

The results of a study of simplicity are paradoxically complicated. That hoe has led me into surprising mazes of conjecture. I shall be glad in a way when the gardening season is over and the leisure of winter months gives me the time to sit in front of the fireplace and think, to wonder about the names of worms and bugs turned up by the blade of my hoe, their origin and their use or uselessness; the weeds cut down and the fruitful plants spared; stones, dirt, plant life, and the law of the interrelation of matter; the effects of summer sun upon the human body (especially the human body wielding a hoe with a steady chop, chop along the rows, up and down, up and down, in the dust and the sun). . . . And contemplation of the sun leads one to contemplation of the source of all energy.

The possibilities of that hoe will yet be my despair! The challenges it has dug up may yet send me back to cities in search of refuge in the dulling effects of motor civilization, the pleasant coma induced by noise and carbon monoxide.

It is now two months since I evolved my ‘ blade of grass ’ theory, and as yet I have in my mind no definite picture of light, and shade, and curving line. ‘But,’ I caution myself, ‘you must not hurry. Time is only relative.’ So I have figured it out this way: I shall save those untouched sheets, by some considered wasted, and join them to form one long white stretch. If it is true — and I have every reason to believe it — that farmers live long, it will be a very long white strip stretching through the years. It will not be cluttered with records of the simple events which fill the days and years, such as the number of inches of rainfall in 1942, the number of times I have fed and watered the chickens over a period of fifty years, the days of drought when crops went limp and springs went dry, the ways in which we raised money to meet taxes, the alternate loss or accumulation of material possessions through right or error, the shooting of a neighbor (not by us, let it be understood, but by another neighbor), the animals we have nursed through sickness or accident to health, the growth of the walnut tree in the side yard. No, that would not be consistent with the original theory. In the medley of simple tasks brimming the days there must be somewhere concealed the light, and shade, and curve of line necessary for the drawing of one bold simple picture the length of the long white strip.

It may have to do with an understanding of the source of energy which makes it necessary to carry a hoe up and down a dusty row that fruit may grow, instead of leaning it against the blow-hard wall. It very easily might.