“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
– Gospel of Thomas
1. The Octagon Altar
In the garden there was a place where the spell was strongest. Here no rhododendrons grew with their exuberant blooms, no azaleas flowered, no tapering junipers perfumed the sunlight. There was only the dense shade that accumulates under redwood trees and gathers silence close unto itself.
In this place of silence and contemplation where grass would not grow, someone long before our time, before we moved to that house, had built a granite altar in the shape of an octagon. There was a low wall around it, made for sitting.
Three paths led to the octagon altar. You could approach it walking down a formal lawn with rhododendrons on each side. You could also reach it by descending the stone stairs from the upper pond area.
There was a third approach by a path from the street. It led to a gate long overrun by creepers. No one but me ever used it; it hung awkwardly from a broken hinge – but it was my preferred point of entry on my way back from school. The vines were so overgrown that from the road, it looked as though there was no way in.
On one side of the octagon the stones of the low wall had been laid differently to form a deep stone bench. All this had been done in the 1920s: the house, the garden, the altar under the redwoods. The trees, however, had been there through centuries and rose like the pillars of a rustic cathedral.
In the center of the octagon, as if to give it reason, someone had placed a sundial with its vane pointing northward. The pedestal of the sundial was made of a different stone the color of pale terracotta, as if it had come from some Italian villa. And it was made carefully with insets and reliefs, unlike the rough grey stones of the octagon that came from somewhere deep inside the earth.
The altar under the trees was a place of special fascination for me and I would go there to sit in its quiet and shade with a book. Rarely did anyone else go there. It was mine.
I nursed a special vocation for loneliness. I learned early on that the only place where I would find peace and certain truths was in the company of one. Down by the altar under the trees, no sun broke through except for the occasional, mischievous strand of feeble light.
Though no sun ever touched it, the vane of the sundial pointed conscientiously northward day and night. On the bronze top plate that had turned a deathly green, you could make out twelve roman numerals and an inscription: COUNT NONE BUT SUNNY HOURS.
Under those 400-year-old redwood trees, time stood still.