I’ve just received a dissertation from Columbia on weather. LeAnn Holland takes up Thoreau, Bugbee, and my own attempts to explore connections we have to others and the world — connections that are not knowledge connections. Non-knowledge bonds include sympathy, intimacy, love, and, it now occurs to me, rapport. Michael Polanyi titled his big book, Personal Knowledge, but that’s a misnomer. It should have been Personal Rapport, or “Intimacy,” as in Lost Intimacy in American Thought.

When I drive by tidal flats, neither mine nor yours, and am impressed yet again by their quiet dignity and quietude — their slow arrival and departure, oblivious to the news of the day or to the souls, troubled or settled, of viewers — I’m reminded of my favored sense of mystery. It’s not something we haven’t yet understood intellectually, a puzzle yet to be solved, but the presence of something speaking to us, and speaking of that which we never tire of, and that which will greet us again and again with its allure, unendingly – an infinite, elemental source of the infinite and elemenal that holds us in its thrall, like the advance and retreat of the tides.

I will have to study LeAnn’s “philosophy of weather.” We are both close and distant to weather, its bracings and embracings. Weather reports give us data to file in knowledge banks, but reports give us nothing of its felt-presence, its surprise or allure, annoyance or blessing. And on given days, its mystery.


15 comments on “Rapport

  1. dmf says:

    sounds good, what’s the title?

  2. Steve Webb says:

    I wouldn’t mind hearing something specific about Ms. Holland’s thesis. You do say she’s about to “defend” it, which suggests maybe it concerns something more than cozying up to a cuppa and heeding the mysterious wind whistling in the eves. “To defend” suggests maybe she has provocative ideas about the weather that contribute to nature aesthetics—ideas that might in principle be challenged, else why would she have to defend them? How, for example, would one defend the idea of “rapport” or “intimacy”—with the weather? Are those indeed the right words for describing our responses to rain, snow, wind, and summer heat? Can weather phenomena reciprocate our enjoyment of them or our wish that they might go away, change, stop being so damned wet or cold or sweltering hot? How does one respond to weather’s “moods” without descending into anthropomorphism? Can the breeze caress my skin? Can the sun hold out its mouth and kiss me? Or are such skeptical questions asked only by cold-hearted intellectuals who lack the capacity for intimacy and love? Here’s a surprising passage from Thoreau that fits the theme: “Very few men can speak of Nature with any truth. […] The surliness with which the woodchopper speaks of his woods, handling them as indifferently as his axe, is better than the mealy-mouth enthusiasm of the lover of Nature. Better that the primrose by the river’s brim be a yellow primrose, and nothing more, than that it be something less.” Made something less, I think he means, through the kind of over-description or verbal hyping that wants to endow the flower with symbolic intentions or turn it into a “voice.” How might nature affect us without our becoming affected? The same goes for the weather. A fascinating topic, but perhaps not Ms. Hollands?

    • efmooney says:

      Well, Steve, wonderful to share your peregrinations — your questions lead us elsewhere, out of the ruts, and are far too stimulating to elicit, from me at least, more than a moment of awe, and gratitude that you share your heart and mind so. Ah, the sentimental Ed, you moan, despairingly. But some sentiments are earned, and you earn yours from me.
      More practically speaking, Ms. Holland is a PhD candidate and so ‘defends’ (= discusses) her explorations of how wilderness walks can be educational (her degree will be from Columbia Teacher’s College).
      Responding now again to your comment above, feet a bit closer to earth, and to your incisive “Wordsworth comments’ below, I have many sparks flying but am distracted by the sights and sounds of nature in Amsterdam, which is watery canals and whispering lite fog and the flights of many many bikes.

      • Steve Webb says:

        Ms. Holland? Amsterdam? I’m getting confused! Seriously, how wonderful for you. Please detail the sights and sounds and post them here, or save them in a notebook and post them later. I would love to experience that ancient city through your eyes and ears. Have fun!

    • efmooney says:

      You ask, “How, for example, would one defend the idea of “rapport” or “intimacy”—with the weather?”

      Well — in rapport or intimacy there is a dissolution of boundaries: when the wind brushes my cheeks, can I tell, in the experience itself, where the wind leaves off and the cheeks begin, or where the cheeks leave off and the wind begins?

      When I feel the cold of the salty Pacific or the warmth of the shower, isn’t there an anomalous zone where the line can’t be drawn between “my skin” and “warm or cold water”? It’s like holding a hand that reciprocates a hold.

      Can you tell, in the contact zone, where one hand stops and the other begins — in the experiential moment of touch?

      If this anomalous zone is “real”, perhaps my assertion that rapport and intimacy are modes of connection to the world isn’t quite accurate.

      Rapport and intimacy might be, instead, moments when the idea of me here, seeking a connection with the world there, becomes misleading. An anomalous zone has no laws to hold, no lines to be drawn, between my hand and yours, my feeling and the world. So yes, the sweet sun does touch my lips even as my lips touch the sweet warmth of the sun.

      • efmooney says:

        And another thought: we can recommend reticence when it comes to that sweet contact or rapport for in those fine moments “lofty” “overblown” description is beside the point. Thoreau likes sneaking up on turtles on the way to becoming one with them — not on the way to writing an ode to the sublimity of the turtle whose soul has caught mine.

      • Steve Webb says:

        The issue, it seems to me, is not whether I (emphasis) can tell where the wind leaves off and my cheek begins, but whether the wind can tell. Only if the wind can tell—i.e., also experience the meeting of itself with my cheek—is there any chance of reciprocity between me and it. On LSD, I can perhaps experience myself dissolve into the wind and become in a sense windy, but the wind can’t dissolve itself into me and become in a sense human. I’m assuming here that ‘rapport’ and ‘intimacy’ are reciprocity words and imply a give-and-take between two ontologically similar beings. “You mean like humans and turtles?” The division between animate and inanimate is indeed crucial. Turtles are experiential beings and as such can react to human presence, but they are not capable of reciprocity. Maybe you can train a pet turtle to peep for its dinner, but the turtle is going to offer precious little in return. “What about dogs?” Yes, dogs are certainly capable of rapport with humans; they “know” something like loyalty and reciprocity and will go the extra mile with and for their human companions. As for “becoming one” with turtles or dogs or any other non-human beings, I would merely observe that only humans attempt to imaginatively enter into the lives of other creatures. The latter for their part never wonder what it’s like to be human. I’m putting this dogmatically, but this is how seems to me.

  3. Steve Webb says:

    I think it’s possible that the lofty attitude toward nature that Thoreau is criticizing might be found in Wordsworth’s lyric poem “Tintern Abbey.” Everyone remembers the wonderful lines:

    And I have felt
    A presence that disturbs me with the joy
    Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
    Of something far more deeply interfused,
    Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
    And the round ocean and the living air,
    And the blue sky, and the mind of man:
    A motion and a spirit, that impels
    All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
    And rolls through all things.

    In fact, Thoreau’s remark about the yellow primrose and the surly woodsman is a direct reference to Wordsworth’s “Peter Bell,” a narrative poem about a solitary, lawless, boorish wanderer who, at the poem’s beginning, is wholly incapable of responding to nature “from the heart.”

    He roved among the vales and streams,
    In the green wood and hollow dale;
    They were his dwellings night and day,
    But Nature ne’re could find the way
    Into the heart of Peter Bell.

    In vain through every changeful year
    Did Nature lead him as before;
    A primrose by a river’s brim
    A yellow primrose was to him,
    And it was nothing more.

    Eventually, by the end of this painfully didactic poem, Peter Bell finds redemption. But what’s interesting to me is that Thoreau, in his brief allusion to the poem, seems to be siding with Peter Bell’s direct, unadorned perceptions of the natural world against the elegant and—dare I say?—mealy-mouthed Wordsworth with his smooth, pleasant divination of something higher and transcendent.

    Of course, this is only a moment in Thoreau’s thoughts, and he has his own Wordsworth-like moments (who could ever wholly give up Wordsworth or his sentiments?). But it does accent, I think, the ambiguities of our experience of nature and the difficulties of writing about it “with any truth.” This is all I meant to say. And yes, it is off topic.

      • dmf says:

        whatever their basis I do wonder if such sensibilities/appreciations can be taught or not and look forward to seeing how she address that.

      • efmooney says:

        . . . yes . . . It’s hard to say how sensibilities are learned or refined. Some will never have an ear for Dickinson’s poetry or Bach fugues; some can develop an ear for them; some are born with an ear for them far more acute than their would-be teachers.

      • efmooney says:

        What you say isn’t off topic. And sometimes Wordsworth is OK; and at other times I want words to disappear and to bask in the experience that so discretely survives their disappearance.

  4. Steve Webb says:

    It now occurs to me that what makes the yellow primrose “something less” to Thoreau’s way of thinking is (obviously) the melodramatic poem that embeds it. The poem construes the plainness or matter-of-factness of Peter Bell’s perceptions as somehow a moral defect, a reflection of his hardheartedness. Thoreau seems more inclined to think that, however wicked Peter may be, he can at least see a thing for what it is, without dressing it up in morals and metaphysics. You can imagine Thoreau himself leaning over a new-blooming Primula vulgaris and making a notation of time, place, and color, and pressing a sample of it in his collection book. On the other hand, and for all its defects, the poem “Peter Bell” does contain some striking images that any practiced nature gawker (such as myself) might recognize from his own experience. For example:

    On a fair prospect some have looked
    And felt, as I have heard them say,
    As if the moving time had been
    A thing as stedfast as the scene
    On which they gaze themselves away.

    This prompts me to recall Thoreau’s doorway reverie in Walden. While sitting there, gazing raptly at the trees surrounding his woodland scene and listening-not-listening to the birds flitting about his cabin, he experienced, he tells us, a time-lapse of several hours’ duration. One can imagine Henry penciling an exclamation mark beside that stanza.

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