Environmental Renewal Through the Work of Dr. John Dee

Imagine, hiding in the sun itself.

P1220948Choke Cherries and Their Guardian

Or in a cloud.

P1220940 Or a bit of both.

P1220938(Note how the bird’s eye sees out of his hidey hole in the sky. Some of that sun and some of that cloud is in there.)

And some of those choke cherries are looking out, too.


And all of that makes sound. Lots of it. Without that sound, the choke cherry community is empty. You can feel that when you’re there and the birds are not. Here, Keats said it best, although of a different bird species.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river swallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

from To Autumn

John Keats, September 1819

He was actively dying at the time. Does the apprehension of death in the midst of bounty  make humans try to fill the silence…


A Spring Fawn that Didn’t Make it to the Song Time, Turtle Mountain

… with an idea called Autumn?

P1220945Bird-sampled Choke Cherries, Okanagan Landing

It’s like that bird eye, staring out of the sky. Here’s how Shakespeare put it:

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

from Love’s Labour’s Lost

What a strange species we are, to find in the darkness and the cold the greatest light and warmth. As the poet Rilke said (First the real deal, then a very, very loose English translation, of what is untranslatable, really.)

Ach, wen vermögen
wir denn zu brauchen? Engel nicht, Menschen nicht,
und die findigen Tiere merken es schon,
daß wir nicht sehr verläßlich zu Haus sind
in der gedeuteten Welt.

So, who exactly can we use? Not angels, not men,

and foraging animals have noticed, surely,

that we aren’t much at home in the empirical world.

Rainer Maria Rilke, The First Duino Elegy

Not really at home in the world we’ve made, eh. Well, Rilke was talking about moving to the Valais in the south of Switzerland. He was also pointing out that humans  speak the language of time — whatever that is. In contrast, the bird in the above images is time speaking (and not to us), whether his beak is closed…

P1220962… or open in song.


There was a man once who could speak the language of time. His name was John Dee.

John_Dee_AshmoleanJohn Dee, Court Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I

The greatest mathematician of the age, inventor of the navigation instruments of the age of sail and friend to Mercator, who laid the earth out on a magical grid and made a globe of it.

When the Spanish attempted to invade England by sea, it is said that Dee told his friend, the Queen, to keep her navy in sheltered harbour; there would be a storm that would wreck the Spanish ships. And there was. The ships went down. In popular imagination, the storm was conjured up by Dee.

Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait)Queen Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait

Note the globe, in place of the usual royal orb. It was Dee who invented the idea of Britannia. For Elizabeth.

Shakespeare immortalized this myth by creating his self portrait, the play called The Tempest, around a magician’s island at the centre of storm and shipwreck. It has been identified with Bermuda, but, heck, it’s England, too, because they’re both the Garden of Eden, or have been seen that way. Look what Shakespeare has his Prospero-Shakespeare-Dee say in an only lightly-disguised mask:


Prospero-Shakespeare-Dee Speaks

And his book? The one he’ll drown? The writer? Like an unwanted kitten? Hunh!

Shakespeare’s drowned book will be the Armada. It will be his body, pirate that he is. Down it will go to Davy Jones’ Locker. He will replace it with something else. Ah, but what? In the play, it’s with love and reconciliation, of course, but in the world? Well, Shakespeare’s choice of masks might give a clue. Shakespeare is speaking to the old celtic spirits of the earth, the ones from which contemporary images of death, life and rebirth spring, including that choke cherry tree at the opening of this post. Dee was more modern than that. He spoke with the angels. To do that, he used these devices:

Artefatos_de_DeeThe Black Object at the Left is Dee’s Scrying Stone

A disc of polished obsidian from New Spain.

Dee saw the angels in that stone. They taught him their language. He wrote it down. It looks like this:


Dee’s Enochian Alphabet

Dee had a purpose in all this, which is why I’m mentioning him in this environmental context. His purpose was to remove death, and the decay that was time, from the world. As Dee, the leading astrologer of his age, if not of all ages, saw it, God had created the world by speaking it. That was commonplace in Christian Europe. What God spoke, though, was not commonplace. Obviously, it was not English or German or Hebrew or French. Dee and his fellow astrologers, of which Shakespeare was an aesthetic one, believed it was a language of symbols, which created the spirits of the earth and the air, which fulfilled their nature to create the world. Then things fell apart. Death, disease and war were tearing God’s perfect Eden to bits. By Dee’s time, it seemed apparent that the end was near, as it seems in ours.


Polar Bears in a Warming World Source

Dee believed that to recreate the language of symbols that God spoke to create the spirits of earth and air (the ones that populate Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and which are present as swallows in the man who rediscovered and re-popularized his works, John Keats) would allow him to speak it, and return the world to health. In between the worst two of the 20th Century’s wars, the American poet Ezra Pound was still watching those angels above the hills of Rapallo, Italy, where he lived in exile, trying, still, to write a crib that would contain the secret code to the world.


Ezra, Banging Out Secret Code

It was called poetry.

During the war, this procedure led him to be imprisoned by the US Army, after the surrender of Italy. At last the spirits of earth and air had found a suitable cage. Really. He was locked in a cage of double-reinforced steel, so his Italian friends didn’t bust him out.


The Tempest, 1945 Italo-American Co-Production

But that’s to go forward in time. At the beginning of all this, Dee and his fellow astrologers never dreamed of creating a Caliban, a spirit of the earth, that could do his bidding as Pound did, sort of. They were convinced, though, that they needed a containment device, to keep the spirits in place so they would do your bidding. A modern device of this type looks like this:

PSIRing590old_aProton Accelerator of l’École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland. Source.

This baby delivers up to 1.4 MW of proton beam to meson and neutron spallation targets.

Dee’s device was equally complex. It looked like this:

holytabHere’s another attempt of Dee’s to get it right:


The idea of the age was to build a perfect room, from which a spirit could not escape. Shakespeare beat Dee to it. His looked like this:

roseThe Globe Theatre

It was built much like Dee’s graphic above, as a zodiac. Its energies were concentrated like a laser beam onto the stage. Instead of megawatts of energy to do this, it used the energy of thousands of audience members.

Adams Globe TheatreAll the World’s A Stage, As Hamlet Said, Here

A bit of an island surrounded by a stormy crowd, I’d say.

Making Dee’s ideas into the aesthetics of popular politics was important work, but that’s not to say that Dee wasn’t onto something, too. There’s a whole other discussion that takes off from here into the elaborate boxes of Shakespeare’s sonnets, intended to preserve his lover’s soul, reanimated in the body of every reader until the end of time.

xviii arrow

Shakespeare, Sonnet XVIII

A magical spell.

Dee went to the continent and fell afoul of the church and was ruined by betrayal, too. Eventually, Elizabeth died and science left the aesthetic-spiritual-physical world that Dee tried to perfect. That’s not to say that such unity is not still at the core of Western culture, but I think we’d be safe to say that Shakespeare’s technology has been a bit longer-lasting. Or has it? There is, after all, Rilke. His solution to the human sense of being lost in time and earth? This (Again, Rilke’s words and then a loose translation.)

Es bleibt uns vielleicht
irgend ein Baum an dem Abhang, daß wir ihn täglich

We’re left perhaps with a tree

on a cliff somewhere, that we may have gazed on daily

Rilke, Duineser Elegien I

Rilke, who had just moved to a rural valley high in the mountains at the heart of Europe, meant something specific here. He meant not some generic symbolic tree, in the way Shakespeare’s text has been read, but something very real, as was Shakespeare’s coding of himself as Prospero, and through whom he still lives.


Shakespeare and His DNA Code

Rilke meant a real tree. One of these, perhaps…


The View from Rilke’s Garden at Muzot

 Or more likely one here …


The View from Rilke’s Grave in Rauron

Or, in his cleverness, this one, around the other side of the church …


Christ, Both God and Man, Crucified at the Intersection of Space and Time, Rauron Village Church Graveyard

The thing is, Rilke didn’t want to die. He wanted to live. He chose his grave very carefully, because of this:

Rilke described the effect of the unending wind at Rauron, as half of Europe rushing up to the Matterhorn and up to the stars. In his elegy, he put it like this…

O und die Nacht, die Nacht, wenn der Wind voller Weltraum
uns am Angesicht zehrt –

Ah, and night, night when the wind from outer space

brushes our faces…

Rainer Maria Rilke Duineser Elegien I

As I said, a loose translation, but sometimes that gets at things that get obscured by precision. After all, Rilke’s language was precise only about the most imprecise things. His solution was to be part of the world, first with a language in which a tree was just a tree, and then, well, here he is…

grabRilkes Grab

The poet holding absolutely still in the wind where the earth is transformed into eternity. Not bad.

Nice little literary discussion, huh, but what on earth does it have to do with place, the environment, and global warming? Ah, lots, because where did Rilke get his idea, his surviving fragment of John Dee’s Eden? Aha. More or less here:

starGoethe’s Garden Path With Astrological Star

Sure, Goethe wrote his great play Faust, about a scholar-magician who made a pact with the devil and brought all to ruin, because all was an illusion. Goethe did not have the astrologers in mind. He had Newton dead in his sights. All what Goethe knew and tried to put into science, all the experience of being human in the world, has a voice now only in art, but that does not lessen the voice or make it less relevant to science. After all, what does Faust say in the words of Elizabeth’s murdered spy and Shakespeare’s friend and mentor, Christopher Marlowe?

faustusTime must stop.  Dee almost found one way, but charlatans and the church got to him. Shakespeare definitely found a different way. Goethe, another, and Rilke. The science that brings them together is almost here, and it doesn’t look like art and it doesn’t look like science but like something inbetween. And Fair Nature’s eye? Oh, it was the sun once, but where did that get us? Right where Goethe warned it would.


The Trinity Test

Plutonium from Hanford, Washington, Going Up in a Tribute to Faust

Well, I think it’s been a lot closer to us all the time. We just need to look. Here it is:

P1220929Fair Nature’s Eye

The thing that has been causing all this trouble, time, has to do with the boundaries of the human body and consciousness. When that bird is made human, the boundaries change. It’s not any old bird then, caught up in language and all the tricks of signification that come with words. It’s this bird, right here, as Rilke would say, or this one:

P1210562We love photographs and call them beautiful, because they let us see the world we are, before words catch us up again and put us in our cages. And that leaves me to pose a question:

Is it the work of a poet to manipulate this language and to build a better cage, as Dee and Shakespeare and Goethe tried to do, or is it the work of a poet to walk out of the cage, as Rilke did?

Because most everyone thinks Rilke is still in the cage, I suspect he’s having the last laugh, but laughter like that, well, it can bring tears to your eyes.

2 replies »

  1. Thank you Harold the Bard! On this very cool September morning plagued by very unpoetic ragweed allergies, my spirits lifted having read your beautiful blog. — gratefully, Edita


    • You are most welcome. The hours I spent musing on this are most gladly given! But the ragweed thing. Ugh. I hope that passes soon. Blessings.


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