Many years ago, during the height of my Tolkien obsession, I engaged in online chat with other Middle-Earth inhabitants. We covered topics like “Where would you have lived in Middle-Earth?” Most chatters said they would have lived in the Shire; some said Rivendell. I knew I would have lived in Lothlorien. When the topic of immortal Elven memory came up, the chat question was “What is your very earliest memory?” I wrote the following. Readers may be a little shocked at the primitiveness of the memory, so I should mention that I came from a woodlands area deep in the heart of unreconstructed Georgia. Also, I am old. I didn’t see an electric light until I was school-age. This memory would have come from the 1940s. I must have been about four years old.
Long ago, in a world that was Trees. It is sunset in summer. He walks down the hard clay slope, among little scrub pines, stepping over little rain-made gullies, toward the great pinewoods. My bare feet hang down on his chest, heels push against the top of his overalls. I sit on his shoulders as he holds my ankles. My hands rest on his head. Sometimes I put my fingers in his ears and laugh at my power over him. We are off again….
Mama has lit the lamp in the kitchen behind us, a bright tiny light in the open wooden window. I have heard the sound of the pump on the porch and the sound has died away. She has washed the plates from supper. Our little black dog trots beside us, nose up to the bright clean pine scent, tail curled over his back.
My feet slip inside the top of his overalls against his bare chest so he doesn’t have to hold them. That makes his hands free to swing. High up on his shoulders, I hold my arms up, open wide to the symphonic splendor of sunset sky and bring them back to my chest, hugging God. There it is in front of us–the great gold and vermilion sky! Its life is so short, but now it is alive for this small time every day. And there is song, ever song, in the pines. And song will stay all night and into morning through the open window above the bed as we sleep. In deepest night, it never leaves us. We walk straight forward, into the tall deep dark below the coral sky, to the pinewoods, singing to us, the stars in deep blue, brighter now than Mama’s lamp behind us.
He swings me down in front of him to the rose hard clay. My bare feet run among the thorns of blackberries and wild Cherokee roses to the looming blackness of the woods. And we enter into the holiness of darkness, leaving the frogs and crickets on clay banks behind us, hearing just the hymn of the trees, and we make no sound at all. Starlight, through the pinetops, is soprano gleam, and the trees sing in low and soft and wordless voices, a great chorus of holy silence. Our bare feet step lightly on soft beds of pine needles, where in dim daylight violets grow, and wild lilies.
There is sudden light among the treetops. The moon has come. I am sleepy and on his shoulders again, my head resting on top of his and my arms about his neck. He carries me back across the gullies, to the indoors, to the big one-room cabin that is our home, where the wooden window is open in the kitchen part of the porch and Mama waits to turn down the lamp wick and put us both in the big bed to sleep with her. And I will wake in the night to see the stars in the deep blue of the open window and to hear the song. It’s always there. . . .
After I wrote this to my Tolkien friends, I thought of Wordsworth and “Intimations of Immortality,” of “splendour in the grass, and glory in the flower,” and of “that, which having been, must ever be.” It didn’t occur to me at the time, though it did much later, that this is a memory of death. All the bits and pieces are about death. And the memory, real or imagined, seems to me an assurance that death is joy.
In any case, and for whatever reason, I’ve never been afraid of the woods, of nature or animals, of darkness or silence. I’ve never really been afraid of God or of death, though people have told me terrifying things of both. In the deepest part of me, I don’t think I’ve ever been afraid of thorns. Pain may be a learned thing, like fear. I don’t know, but it seems to me that I may know a little of what heaven is like. I’ve been blessed by poverty and ignorance; I’ve been lifted up, to know and love Beauty, a joy far beyond safety.