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This evening, at about nine o’clock, I was getting ready to leave the house. I opened the front door, and rain was falling. I stood for a few minutes, lost in the beauty of it. Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience.
I hear the rain pattering on the roof above me, dripping down the walls to my left and right, splashing from the drainpipe at ground level on my left, while further over to the left there is a lighter patch as the rain falls almost inaudibly upon a large leafy shrub. On the right, it is drumming, with a deeper, steadier sound upon the lawn. I can even make out the contours of the lawn, which rises to the right in a little hill. The sound of the rain is different and shapes out the curvature for me. Still further to the right, I hear the rain sounding upon the fence which divides our property from that next door. In front, the contours of the path and the steps are marked out, right down to the garden gate. Here the rain is striking the concrete, here it is splashing into the shallow pools which have already formed. Here and there is a light cascade as it drips from step to step. The sound on the path is quite different from the sound of the rain drumming into the lawn on the right, and this is different again from the blanketed, heavy, sodden feel of the large bush on the left. Further out, the sounds are less detailed. I can hear the rain falling on the road, and the swish of the cars that pass up and down. I can hear the rushing of the water in the flooded gutter on the edge of the road. The whole scene is much more differentiated than I have been able to describe, because everywhere are little breaks in the patterns, obstructions, projections, where some slight interruption or difference of texture or of echo gives an additional detail or dimension to the scene. Over the whole thing, like light falling upon a landscape is the gentle background patter gathered up into one continuous murmur of rain.
I think that this experience of opening the door on a rainy garden must be similar to that which a sighted person feels when opening the curtains and seeing the world outside. Usually, when I open my front door, there are various broken sounds spread across a nothingness. I know that when I take the next step I will encounter the path, and that to the right my shoe will meet the lawn. As I walk down the path, my head will be brushed by fronds of the overhanging shrub on the left and I will then come to the steps, the front gate, the footpath, the culvert and the road. I know all these things are there but I know them from memory. They give no immediate evidence of their presence, I know them in the form of prediction. They will be what I will be experiencing in the next few seconds. The rain presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once, not merely remembered, not in anticipation, but actually and now. The rain gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another.
If only rain could fall inside a room, it would help me to understand where things are in that room, to give a sense of being in the room, instead of just sitting on a chair.
This is an experience of great beauty. I feel as if the world, which is veiled until I touch it, has suddenly disclosed itself to me. I feel that the rain is gracious, that it has granted a gift to me, the gift of the world. I am no longer isolated, preoccupied with my thoughts, concentrating upon what I must do next. Instead of having to worry about where my body will be and what it will meet, I am presented with a totality, a world which speaks to me.
Have I grasped why it is so beautiful? When what there is to know is in itself varied, intricate and harmonious, then the knowledge of that reality shares the same characteristics. I am filled internally with a sense of variety, intricacy and harmony. The knowledge itself is beautiful, because the knowledge creates in me a mirror of what there is to know. As I listen to the rain, I am the image of the rain, and I am one with it.
Thunder over Koster
The slow Scandinavian sun had gone down in a glory of colour. It must have been remarkable, because even Thomas said 'Cor!' They described it to me. The clouds were piled up on banks, as if they were upside down, in layers ranging from red and gold through the purest light green and grey-blue. It was very still. The sun sets silently; the planet turns smoothly.
Now at last they were all in bed. I had told the final story and Marilyn had done the final late-night round with the mosquito repellent. Imogen and I were going through one of her philosophy texts when she exclaimed ‘What was that? Something's happened! There it is again - wow! What a flash!’ She turned to the window.
‘It’s lightning,’ Marilyn said. ‘It must be. It must be sheet lightning. But there’s no sound, no thunder. Now there's a whole series of them- the whole island is lit up. I can’t see any forks or sheets of lightning; just the flash itself.’
‘I’m going to listen,’ I said, moving to the door and stepping outside. The night was completely still. There was no breeze, no gulls; even the sea had shrunk to a quiet murmur. I made myself comfortable leaning on the wall and waited. Occasionally, Imogen and Marilyn called out ‘It’s still flashing, even brighter.’ I waited. I wanted to hear the first sound.
There was something, but what? Was it a sound or just a tremor in the air? Had I heard it or felt it? Did it come from above or below? It was a tremor, but whether on the earth or the air I could not say.
It came again, very deep and echoey, a distant door opening on silent hinges, revealing for a moment a huge vaulted chamber, and then closing just as silently. It was as though the lid had been lifted momentarily from a profound cavern within which could be heard the deep shaking of the surge. The lid was replaced without a sound, without an effort, and the . island waited breathlessly.
Far away, perhaps on the mainland, perhaps up in the mountains, there were muffled drums. I thought of the passage in The Lord of the Rings where deep inside the mountains Gandalf and his party heard the muffled drums of the approaching orcs. It was so distant that it was sure to pass us by. Perhaps that was why there had been flashes without any visible stroke of lightning: it was too distant. They were looking for us but they would not find us. They were too far away.
But now the tremor had grown to a murmur and the murmur into a grumble. It had a bouncy quality, as if huge muffled stones were being rolled down vast fields. I thought of Thor and of the ancient people, listening long ago and waiting.
Suddenly the thunder sprang. The muffled stones had been a manoeuvre to distract my attention while the main force of the enemy stole up unnoticed. A long peal of thunder disturbed the air, no longer low upon the distant fields but at a height, as if rising up to attack. The trees stirred uneasily. Waves of wind broke across the tree-tops, coming closer then fizzing over the house, leaving a swirling trail of restlessness behind. The wind carried a fragrance in it, the scent of the heather, of seaweed and salt, the aroma of the fir trees. The first drops of rain fell on my face and pattered on the wooden patio. I could hear the storm coming across, the island. There was a rush of wind and I thought of Dorothy’s house in Kansas being carried up by the tornado. Suddenly the thunder and the rain seemed to squash the house flat and hurl it, pinned to the surface of the island.
Everything was alive. Someone was hitting the sky with a huge mallet. The sky was made of canvas or hide. It flapped and cracked as it was hit again and again. Then the sky was no longer canvas but metal. Thor's hammer flew across its corrugated surface, breaking it open with a triumphant crash and the rain came down in a torrent.
I stepped hastily back indoors. ‘That was a beauty!’ cried Imogen.
‘Are you ready for more coffee?’ asked Marilyn.
‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m going out the back to listen.’
On the side or back of the house was a covered porch, open on one side. The roof of this little porch was hammered by the rain while high above (but not too high) the roof of the world was hammered by Thor. There were two levels; one was consistent and steady like the drone of the bagpipes while the other was broken into phrases, like the melody line of a vast symphony for cello and percussion.
As suddenly as it had started, it faded. The mighty conductor lowered the baton. The triple f on the score turned to the double and a single. The belt of thunder had passed over the island and was moving away. As if it could not bear to be left behind, the rain followed.
As the clattering on the roof died away, a curtain was lifted upon the surrounding woodland. All other sound but that of the thunder itself had been blanketed out by the rain on the roof, but now the rest of the world became audible. It fell on the nearby annexe roof with a sharp patter; the trees were waving sodden arms and hissing with pleasure. The ground for yards around was sucking and tinkling as thousands of blades of grass gulped in the drops. Now the roofs were silent and the gurgling began. Down the drainpipes the disappearing water gushed in a mad cascade of escape. Now the gurgling finished and the dripping began. They were everywhere - big drops, little drops, slow drops, fast drops, dripping interrupted by small splashes as if other drops couldn't wait to drip. The trees were dripping like dogs shaking themselves in the final puffs of wind.
Then it was all gone. The muffled drums of departure in the sky must now be heard as a distant warning by some other island further along the coast. A final undefeated drop made an occasional ping on a metal seat somewhere.
I went back inside. The coffee was still hot.
In 1984, when the last traces of light sensation had disappeared John M Hull began to keep a diary on cassette of his experiences as a newly blinded person. Touching the Rock is a selection of passages from this journal. It went into six editions in three continents and was translated into about ten foreign languages. It was featured on TV and radio. The entire text is now incorporated into 'On Sight and Insight'.