[MARKER TO THE ‘MADDEST OF GOOD MEN’]
For Nick Bucci rationality has its limits. Far from a sleight, this is an adequate description of his epistomological way. “Are you interested in the magic?” he asked me last week at the Tercentennial of the settlement of the 17th century mystic and Pietist botanist, astronomer, poet, agriculturalist, and sometime composer, Johannes Kelpius. Bucci, a polymath himself, approaches the human, natural and supernatural occurrences in these steep shady declivities of the Wissahickon with the kind of holistic, analytical mode that would would have endeared him to Kelpius’s band. A woodworker and stonemason who restores old homes, Bucci sees no artificial division between the watershed’s past inhabitants and the seekers of today. The magic, or holiness, preceded Kelpius — but evidence of its presence is still plainly visible — or sensible.
In his rambles through the Park, Bucci has witnessed the magic. He has noted the appearance of large well-built cairns of rock at various locations. “This isn’t a bunch of kids drinking root beer and looking at nudy mags,” he says. Asked if he’s looked into locating the alchemy stone Kelpius reputedly threw into the confluence of the Schuylkill and the Wissahickon, Bucci told us he knew a guy with underwater detection gear. And that was only half of it. While some know that when the box containing the stone slipped beneath and lightning rent the sky and thunder pealed for hours — very few know that Kelpius was also given the staff of the band’s first founder. This, too, remains to be found.
Other members of the Kelpius Society of Philadelphia, a fiesty band of Kelpius enthusiasts dedicated to the investigation of the man and his short-lived commune, want to solidify the sacred link between the place and the memory of the Community. For architect and vice president of the society’s site reclamation committee, Alvin Holm, their very choice to situate the community in a glen some five miles outside the New World city of Philadelphia was freighted with symbolism. Reading scripture with immense trust and deference, Kelpius and his followers were captivated by the Biblical Philadelphia: that blameless city spared by God in the Book of Revelation.
As a Pietist band, they wanted to escape the supposed decadence of Lutheranism and create a community dedicated to the improvement of the individual Christian. But despite their presumption of human perfectibility, Kelpius and his band were pessimistic about the continued existence of a savage world. Kelpius, an academic from Transylvania who received a doctorate in philosophy at the age of 16, became obsessed with preparing for the eschaton. Learned in astronomy, botany, mathematics, and the rites of Rosicrucianism, Kelpius believed the natural world revealed and reinforced the essential truths of scripture. Thus, he had constructed a forty foot ark along the fortieth parallel to bring scripture and natural truth into better correspondence. While most of Europe began detaching the mechanics of the natural world from the received truths of religion and tradition, Kelpius and the German mystics like Jakob Bohme and Johann Jacob Zimmerman, (first leader of Kelpius’s band) used modern science to confirm their devotion and better understand God’s disposition toward mankind.
[MYSTIC PRACTICING SORCERY]
For Kelpius and his band, operating within a heady matrix of signs, symbols, spirit, and scripture, the world was constantly revealing the way of Christian rectitude. By positioning yourself properly within nature, one could find God’s favor. Far from strict Lutheranism which branded them heretical, Kelpius and his band could adopt a more liberal approach to truth in the wilds of Pennsylvania. According to Holm, with their knowledge of astronomy and their toleration of pagan worship, Kelpius and his community immediately paid honor to the summer solstice on the “fire hill” at Faire mount upon arriving in 1694. Though the dour Quakers probably shunned the roguish spectacle, Holm argues that the Swedes — with their rich rural tradition — probably performed a syncretic solstice festival, borrowing heavily from the Lenape. It was not unknown to Kelpius and his followers that approximately six months from the summer solstice, Jesus was reported to have been born.
Architect Alvin Holm wants physically represent Kelpius’s preoccupation with seeing typologies of scripture in nature. As head of the site reclamation committee, Holm looks to restore the communal complex, at the center of which will be the True North plinth. Every summer, the faithful will gather around the plinth and by marking the sun’s shadow 20 minutes before and after the summer solstice, they will know true north.
[THE HOLM PLAN FOR THE KELPIUS COMMUNITY’S COMPLEX]
As the ceremony on the fire hill waned, Kelpius and his some 40 followers probably made their way up the Ridge Road or by the Schuylkill and Wissahickon to an area between two toes of land on the west side of the Wissahickon, now just south of the Henry Ave. Bridge. The commune’s dwellings were spatially segregated according to function — communal and utilitarian buildings were placed on the ridge of the hill while individual caves for personal reflection spread all along the small horseshoe-shaped depression. While the community attempted to establish crops, orchards, and gardens in the schisty soil on the ridge, followers met in the main church or meetinghouse to share in song or, perhaps, hear Kelpius speak on his soul’s transcendence after death, or the immanent destruction of the sinful world. While little remains of the original site, Kelpius’s passionate and moving songs do remain. Some like I Love My Jesus Quite Alone reveal the mystic’s reliance on the symbolism of astronomy — “The magnet needle erring goes / When from, when from the pole distracted,” while others personify the soul’s seeking of God as a lusty, romantic pursuit.
After showing us tables filled with herb jars, “potions,” Catholic religious figures, 18th century woodworking implements and replicas of weapons used in the battle of Germantown, Nick, Alvin, some Society members descended the steep hill off Hermit Lane. Nick had thoughtfully brought rope, though none of our party needed it. Nick is down near the cave often, cleaning the marker of its near-perpetual patina of graffiti. Arriving at the marker, one is overwhelmed with the sheer implausibility that this is it. It looks like a 20th century structure, maybe a springhouse converted into the shrine. Incredulous, I ask Holm if this is the real cave. Coming into the blackness, Holm looks distractedly, almost annoyedly, up the hill to our right. “This is where The Cave is. It’s probably up the hill.” In this world where Kelpius practiced “Weird as a wizard, over arts forbid” where seen and unseen so happily coexist, Holm’s answer seemed appropriate.