"There was another method of capnomancy which consisted of observing the smoke arising from poppy and jessamin seeds cast on burning coals."
---John Bumpus, Demonologia, 1827
"I been watchin' the roads, I been studyin' the dust."
--- B. Dylan
Just this night, I took myself en promenade to the Stadium, to do my dance in the chill Evening. While Exercises give enjoyment enough, trimming the Belly & quickening my sluggish Blood, the viscous & frigid Air adds a piquancy all its own. For what man does not enjoy the Shadow of his own breath on the ground? That most insubstantial part of him, made thick enough to catch light in its twirling curlicues? Or perhaps the razor-sharp thrill of a harsh Breeze, blown south by way of the Great Lakes?
I shudder to think that those self-same breezes that brush my branches have also touched a redoubt of Ft. Duquesne, or jolted an Acadian into watchfulness. Some nights, I think that I can see the very Eyes through the trees - as tho' a baleful visage appeared in the Face of the Appalachians, and mouth'd its Gallic nonsense at me.
My father was a great Interpreter of signs; he studied most prodigiously the Dents of Traffick-signs, the Colours of horse-Mucus, the arrays of Pine-needles, the emissions of Pocosins, and most especially what Wrinkles & stains happen'd to the rare English Pound he cou'd find. But his friends, esp. the noble Doctor Wigham Dodd, wou'd counsel him, ye have but little wisdom in ye, if ye wou'd seek the word of God in the flecks & Daubs of a fallen World!
But my father held it different; that just as Christ liv'd with the Sinners, so too he would betake his Intelligence to the meagerest Figures of God's creation; so he would seek the natural Philosophy in the Crannies. Sic, on the subject: Epaph, the world is a glorious, whirring Machine; the Great God wou'd have us check its parts & manage well the Grease.
& it is true that the Ancients held their mancies & Predictions in the highest. For who appears most as Wisdom's body in the Greek Dramatists, but sexless Tiresias, teller of hidden Truth? Who gives the Ides for Caesar's death, but a broken old Hag? And what gave Rome the sign of Caesar's Ascension, but a streaking Comet?
It wou'd appear that, tho' lacking a Caesar, the Heavens nonetheless offer Wonders. First in California, that distant shore of unparalleled Villainy; then in New York, quagmire of that peculiar business-wisdom, that pretends to Vision, but only by vast Ignorance. For ne'er have I met a Trader, dealer or worker of the Docks generally that did not boast eagerly of his Ignorance - that did not make it a very Badge of his manhood.
& this from them that would deal most with the Work of the World! But here we revisit a Common-place, that a professor of Literature hath no Ear for Poetry, and that a Engineer wou'd ignore an aqueduct, that a man wou'd sooner gaze upon a fresh Beauty than on his long-practic'd Wife - no matter how lovely she may be.
But so it is with the world, that Beauty, in the sense of the Philosophers, disappears when we stand too close to her. We must make a hard Journey past siren & Cyclops before we may see Ithaca afresh. It is no accident that Pausanias shows us an instance of divination with a Mirror - Captroptomancy - for it shows us the world again.
Thus it may well benefit the be-numb'd soul to have ghostly Strands, or fiery Comets, or phantom Missiles running thro' the skies, if only to bolden the glass and stone Skyline. Tho' the threat of Gallic duplicity & Weroance-wickedness has no mean weight, I wou'd not sacrifice the Wonder of a water-fall for the safe Trickle of a Creek.
When I walk'd across the Macadam-path that lines the Sherando Valley, to the Stadium for a moment of Exertion, I saw a Comet break through the heavenly Spheres like a flaming Pearl.