I am told that up there in the glaring light of day, where creatures of a less solitary disposition while away long summer Sunday afternoons around barbecues, an essential ingredient has been lost. No-one ponders anymore. Arguments about whether this is the hottest January ever are settled, just like that, by a little deciding machine. Labyrinthine discussions and absurd but entertaining wrong turns are in danger of extinction. The instant deciding machine allows no pause between question and answer.
Ponder has the same derivation as pound – a weight, used in the sense of weighing up one thing against the other. My own sense of the word veers away from either weightiness or fierce analysis. I see it rather as a loose consideration of something – and it is not to be hurried.
Is it any wonder that the preponderance of ponder-related words come to us from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Pondering flourished in the pre-industrial days of the Romantics, the slow traveling dreamers, naturalists and voyagers to unheard of destinations though not, alas, the poor peasant moles who spent their days and nights digging up the fields.
Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty were great ponderers. Entire afternoons dissolved after some chance remark over lunch about, say, brickmaking. By evening all twenty-six of their soft-leatherbound encyclopaedias would be strewn across the Turkey rug. Uncle Ratty, glowing red from the fire and beads of sweat pouring down his brow would kneel among them, his paws separating the delicate pages between one entry and another. Could you just have a look at DEM to EDW, he might say. And see when the Doukhobors were banished from Archangel. Or Moley, do you have the volume with East Grinstead. By dusk, BIS to CAL in which the article on brick-making resided would be buried beneath the other volumes. And although the object of their search was by now mostly forgotten, the entire journey was laid out before them. The pleasures lay in the places travelled; the destination was irrelevant.
I do accept that my definition of pondering lacks the gravitas that the word suggests, but what it shares with its more sombre use is the importance it places on allowing time for a broad embrace of the possibilities.
There ARE still clusters of ponderers. On any Monday evening in the deep leather armchairs of pub across the road from the cathedral, a band of bellringers, paws nestling glasses of wine or quite excellent local whisky ponder medieval Popes and galaxies, the merits of egg sandwiches, ethics of property law, double helix staircases, ballooning belfries, Icelandic grammar, and James Bond films films. From time to time a little deciding machine will slither out of its case and make clear a point, but it soon tires of the inattention and goes back to sleep.