Monday, August 17, 2009

Deep Thoughts and Feeble Personal Insight

Eastville, 2005

A Flickr friend wrote to me about my “Haunted Furniture” post. “I never thought of furniture as Witness before,” she commented, before going on to describe how she realized that she does in fact think of furniture as a constant presence in places where everything else changes.

After a brief and scary bit of imagining the stories that some hotel furniture could tell, my friend’s insight got me to thinking about how I sometimes attribute sentient feelings to inanimate objects.

Other people look at things and see or sense nothing. I see stories and history. I sometimes hear sounds. I don’t think of myself as having unusual powers. I don’t believe the computer screen I’m looking at as I type this cares much about me. I don’t believe plants talk, either, though I wouldn’t rule it out of the realm of possibility that science may prove me wrong on that some day. And you have to admit that Nature is one crafty mother when it comes to communicating between species on other than verbal bases. (If you don’t buy this argument, you need to read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.)

It’s hard to walk through Pompeii, where centuries of cart traffic have formed ruts in the stone, and not feel some connection to those long ago people. I mean, you’re walking on the same stones and your sounds are echoing off the same walls off which their sounds echoed. This is not some Colonial Williamsburg reproduction. It’s the real thing.

My wife and I eat off a wooden breakfast table my father found in an old barn up in the Roanoke Valley almost fifty years ago. It became the center of kitchen life in dad’s house, as it is in our house now. We wonder what stories its various nicks and scratches tell.

Remember in Patton, when the outspoken general stood alone and heard the sound of distant trumpets speaking to him across time? This wasn’t just some theatrical device. It’s said by some who knew him well that General Patton felt he had a gift of clairvoyance.

Go stand in front of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, look at the way people feel compelled to touch it, and try to tell me that wall and the people whose names are inscribed on it aren’t talking.

Man-made things reflect the energy and dreams of the people who made them. Whatever their present condition, somebody was probably once proud of them. Every one of those derelict commercial building you see along the road once had an opening day, when the future was bright and everything seemed possible. That the normally unseen spaces behind and between the walls of the great cathedrals of France remain as clean as they are is, in my way of thinking, the indelible voice of the stonemasons who built these great places telling us today that their faith was so great that they would leave no part of their God’s house unclean.

So in the end I conclude that I do believe things and places can serve as both witnesses and voices because they are the expressions of man. Combine a little knowledge of history with a little sensitivity and the circuits in your brain will take you on a rich journey.


  1. Well said. And I heartily agree. I have so many objects surrounding me right this minute that were used by family and friends before me, and I like to think they're kind of still here with me when I use them now.

  2. What a wonderful, thought-provoking post. I'll look at our wonderful antiques and family hand-me-downs with new eyes.