Everything in the world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stones, they are all hieroglyphics. When you see them you do not understand them. You think they are men, animals, trees, stars. It's only years later that you understand. (Pablo Neruda)
I walked today. It was 27 degrees. I was not the only one chilled. Cars huddled near curbs, leaned in. One compact snuggled close to an SUV, as if to fit under its bumper. Telephone poles hunched their limbs, contracting. A mist seeped out of pavement cracks and drainage holes as I swished through the early morning dark, my footsteps muted by the fog.
During two and a half miles, I saw no one. No dog confronted me, no cat prowled through lawns or peeked from beneath shrubbery, and no tweeting bird questioned my intrusion. Not one single animate thing was apparent to me. Just asphalt, rocks, leaves, trees, a trickling stream, the cold steel of the bridge rails, the quickening air, and the streetlights' refracted beams laying in circles on sidewalks.
Until this morning I had not noticed how peopled my neighborhood was by green boxes, tall telephone boxes and traditionally built forest green cable boxes, squatting on their haunches. I lost count at 47.
Rounding one corner and turning up the hill, I noticed that the telephone poles each had a number, like LC4839. A name. I walked up to LC4839, looked around to make sure no one was watching, and laid hands on it. It resisted. I spoke to it. Still, it pressed hard against my hands, cold and unyielding. I remembered as a boy how we used to kick one particular streetlight in our neighborhood, making its light go out temporarily. I reminded LC4839 that I had reformed and would not kick it. Still, it resisted.
In the early morning, categories blur. I begin to think that the inanimate is not so insentient at all, that the rock I just kicked, scrambling down the road, might just. . . might just. . . cry out. At least in some way. I may be guilty of anthropomorphism, or worse, sentimentalism, and yet perhaps in some way poles and telephone boxes and rocks and other inanimate objects "live." Hmm.
Materials scientist Mark Miodownik (let's just call him "M"), a Brit who authored Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our man-Made World, may be responsible for my pre-dawn mysticism. In his hands, things like paper and concrete become characters in an unfolding, living collection of everyday objects. Talking about old paper, which yellows, he concludes that "the sensual impressions of old paper allow you to enter the past more readily, providing a portal to that world." And so perhaps the "things" I see and touch along my walk transport me somewhere else, to some other time or place. Stir in half-light and mist and the suburban landscape of my neighborhood engages and converses, whispering quiet truths.
Crossing a bridge, I let my hand run along concrete supports, kneel and touch a rounded curb, and I recall M's animated description of the many tons of concrete poured into the building of The Shard, a new tower near his London flat. After all the pouring of concrete into forms, floor upon floor, he notes that
What was left was a concrete tower seventy-two stories high: it was gray, raw, and wrinkly like a newborn. . . . But it was not idle. Inside the material, fibrils of calcium silicate hydrate were growing, meshing together and bonding with the stones and steel. The tower, in doing so, was getting stronger . . . . [T]he process by which this artificial rock develops its internal architecture and so its full strength takes years.
Remembering that description, as well as his elegant and poetic discussion of the chemical process underlying what he described, confirms that there is a sense in which everything is telling us something. "The heavens declare the glory of God," yes, and so do things here, on earth, in my neighborhood, on my street. In fact, this morning the concrete becomes a metaphor for the Christian's new life: God pours His life into us, making us new creations, re-forming us, and yet it is over a lifetime or eternity that our internal architecture develops, that through a mysterious unseen process we are made strong.
But the sun is rising, and the people emerge. A dog ambles down the sidewalk, tugging at its tender. The fog lifts and I exhale, as if to place a period at the end of my reverie. I greet the man with the dog, exchange pleasantries, and then wonder: Does he know?