Thinking about the Thin Places

This week — in order to postpone some color decisions I have to make for my next project — I’ve been experimenting with making felt vessels. Many mistakes, much learning — and much more to learn!

Mostly, though I’ve been immersed in this magical time of year when the land where I live transitions into a different way of being. There are, in many European traditions, times and places where the veils — between this world & other worlds; between the living & the dead; between past, present, and future — become thin, porous, or dissolve entirely, allowing us to step through from one world to another. This time of the year is a tipping point from the halcyon early autumn days into the first biting intimations of ice and frost, from sunlit world to the growing dark. It seems natural that many holidays mark this thinning of boundaries just as October slips into November: the Celtic season of Samhain, with its remnants lingering in American Halloween (although the name of the holiday here is a bow towards the Christian church: All Hallows Eve); Slavic Dziady; Scandinavian Álfablót (Elven sacrifice); Christian All Souls Day; the Mexican Day of the Dead….

So I have been thinking a lot this past week about “thin places” and have realized how, when we truly pay attention in this world, we can — at any time — thin the veils, boundaries, walls that our western industrialized culture has placed between human and other-than-human lives. Our perspective can shift, we can learn from from the Other, we can expand our constricted views & relax into our place in the Cosmos: we can step into another way of being/seeing.

Journal Entry — May 5, 2004, Trinity Center, Salter Path, NC:

I know something of the spider webs in the Appalachian woods and buildings I call home: dew-whitened handkerchiefs spread out across morning fields, strong cables strung across forest paths at precisely face height, glorious orbs adorning gates and barn doors, the seemingly disorganized constructions of myriad dust-loving spiders that inhabit the cracks and crannies of our house. Today, however, I am contemplating different webs in a different place.

9 a.m – The woods behind the beach dunes here are low and narrow, filled with gnarled live oak, holly, and other trees whose names I do not know. After two days of severe storm, the sun came out yesterday. As the breeze shifts leaves and light, webs of many kinds began to wink in and out of sight, as if in and out of existence. Sometimes a pale green caterpillar little more than an inch long appears to float above the path. I watch several such creatures apparently gathering the thread from which they dangle (visible only when the leaves move to let through light) into tiny white balls on their chests, reeling themselves up once more to the twigs from which they must have come. It takes them about half an hour to climb the 4 feet back up to the tree. To what purpose? I wonder. I watch one caterpillar regain his perch on a twig, hoping to discern his intentions. He simply moves slowly from one leaf to the next—testing his route with feet and snout—before disappearing from my sight. I feel patient curiosity and respect for his precise labor. There is only a slight intrusion of my own agenda when I find myself hoping he’ll launch again or begin to spin a cocoon – somehow revealing his story within a time-frame cut to my convenience.

I am endlessly fascinated by the way the caterpillar webs flicker in and out of my perceptual world—brilliantly lit and obvious one moment; simply “gone” the next.

4 p.m. – A brown ovoid leaf—shiny mahogany on one side, matte beige on the other — twists and pirouettes in the wind. Never falling, it is a testament to the strength of some invisible thread. [As I watch its dance, I experience in my body a kindred sense of restriction, of being leashed against gravity and the normal process of letting go. What sticky threads have I extruded in my life? What detritus do my webs hold in thrall, turning in place—pulling my attention and energy back again and again to the futile twirling?]

As I watch, I remember reading that some spiders’ webs are stronger than any human-contrived filaments. Scientists are experimenting with splicing spider genes into goats in order to create milk with a chemical to be used in cables. Can that be right?

4:15 p.m. – A breath of air ruffles the leaves, once again changing the configuration of shadow. The thread on which the leaf dangles is suddenly delineated in silver. Like a pointer, it leads my eye straight down to a glowing horizontal orb web—about 9” in diameter and 15” above the ground—bellying like a sail in the wind. A tiny grey-brown spider with a bright red spot on its back rests perfectly still in the center, riding the web’s undulations with legs extended front and back. I have, for the last quarter hour or so, been standing less than a foot from it—completely unaware!

Again light and shadows of the forest move, and the web disappears. Only the spider is still visible — its glowing spot, a good marker. But if I glance away to jot a note or simply rest my eyes, I am hard-pressed to find it again. I inevitably look down between a flimsy briar and a tentative shrub—the only obvious anchors for the web. But that is too low. I must let my eyes slide softly out of focus, undistracted by the definitive forms of stems and leaves. Then the spider pops back into my sight. How can its web be so high? There seem to be no nearby posts for support. The anchoring threads must be longer than I imagine. Again, I am drawn to contemplate what I cannot see.

Sun through the forest’s canopy brings brief visibility. A large insect bumps the web slightly but is not caught. I seem to feel the jarring stretch of filament, the twang of departure. The spider waits a space of two breaths (mine), then pivots, pats the web to check for damage, and — apparently satisfied that no repairs are required — returns to its east-facing posture.

Again, in late afternoon shade, the spider seems to ride on air. What is firm to the spider can only be inferred by me. [On what unseen structure do I rest? Do I—like the spider—respond to its vibrations, calmly check it, repair it as needed and return to alert waiting? Do others sense the web’s firmness under the heavy abdomen and many legs of my being?]

As the sun descends, the web I am contemplating remains invisible, but I am getting better at finding the spider after glancing away. I am learning how to read what is right before me. At the same time, I notice how the surrounding stems, leaves, and forest debris take on greater clarity as well. Leaves on each stalk are distinctly individual—slight variations of shape, partially eaten away or whole. Attention to what I cannot see has somehow sharpened my perceptions of and delight in the visible. My eyes feel newly washed.

Meanwhile, the small brown leaf dances on its tether — as it has been doing since I first noticed it 7 hours earlier on my morning walk. The dead leaf above so frenetic; the living spider below so still. The web holding each is known to me, in the darkening woods, only by the presence of its interaction with something else. [What illuminates the threads of my life just as the ray of sun glints, for a moment, on these forest webs? What demarcates the threads when there is no sun? I think of the importance of that first brief silvery glimpse of the web — enough to keep me attentive, alert to reality moving beyond my senses.]

5 p.m. – I rise to leave, pausing to check out one more fat green caterpillar reeling himself upward. When I look back, the spider seems to have vanished. I cannot recover the proper perspective. But, just as I decide to give up, a puff of wind shifts the web over a lighter leaf on the forest floor. I am immensely happy to have that farewell glimpse – and immensely happy to know that the forest is full of beings (and ways of being) that I do not see. I write in my notebook: “Focus is everything!” — meaning “convergence” and remembering that “focus” comes from Latin for “hearth” – the center, the heart of the fire. I could just as well have written (for I felt) that Relationship is everything. Not one thing extracted from the community, but in dynamic relation to all…

Not unlike the spider on its billowing web, I rested for a while–content and vigilant—in the invisible and ever changing interlacement of sun, wind, and beach-forest community. In some strange way, as the focus of my attention became narrower and more precise, the edges of my own being faded, opened, embraced a larger and larger community, until I felt the web of Being (seen and unseen) without limit.
When I return the next morning, I find no trace of web or spider or the dangling leaf (released—“at last”? or “in its own good time”?). There are stories here that I will never know, and I am strangely content—upheld even—by my un-knowing.

UNSEEN   by mck

Within Creation's pulsing heart --
             strange attractor,
             dark matter,
             black holes and all
                            we do not know --
the un-seen is the larger part
of what sustains our cosmic round.

              More than fleshly hands,
                            the fervent clasping;
              More than lightning flash,
                            the ions dancing.

Daily our lives proceed along
              not such paths as we suppose but
              -- flaring forth into flame and out --
threads of
              (Shall I name it gravity? allurement?)
                            -- perhaps it is --
simply love.

Whether we perceive it or not,
the bush is always burning, unconsumed;
the ground, always holy.           

7 thoughts on “Thinking about the Thin Places

  1. In today’s blog post, when you asked if you were, like the spider, resting on an unseen structure and checking its vibrations, I immediately thought of the news ecosystem we are using to try to understand the upheavals in our culture. We see the vibrations, but we don’t always understand what’s causing them: a trapped insect, a leaf, or even a young child playing with a lighter…


  2. I was just asking myself if the thinning, the opening is indeed a closing of a gap at the same time. But then I was busy, and now reading this , I am back to it.


    • Good point! In folk tales, the one who steps into an Other World usually finds the way home blocked. When they finally do return to their original world (e.g. after a year in Faery), they find “home” mightily changed — maybe 100 years have passed…… Actually, that makes sense: If we go deeply into another way of seeing/being/feeling, our old world is seen from a different perspective, changed.


  3. Looking out I see the most beautiful yellow carpet covering everything from the next door ginkgo tree. The colors this fall have been absolutely beautiful. The weather has been warm and sunny with just enough rain to give are garden’s and trees a healthy watering before our long winter freeze. I’m not a big fan of winter but fall when sleep takes over and spring when everything wakes up .. love love love. Your bowl’s are very nice .. thanks for always sharing!
    Spider webs are one of those things in nature that just blow my mind ..


  4. I’ve been holding to the images of your felted vessels- what do they hold that we cannot see? Wisps, vapors of loved ones, faint melodies of a previous time of celebration?

    This time of the year is filled with the in-between/ The veil lifts, especially on All Saints Day, Dia de Los Muertos, as Spirit and my memories of loved ones come dancing in…for me, it takes this changing of the seasons, this stripping away of the obvious beauty of place, of land, for the appreciation of the outer lands… in the silhouettes of the bare branches, in the ground filled with leaves or as in yesterday here in New Mexico, with a light smattering of snow, a freshening takes place, an invitation to step outside oneself, honor the ancestors, for they are always here and welcomed back during this quiet time of acknowledgement. I give thanks for the cycle of seasons, especially autumn, for she opens the gate…


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