A morning reverie with Henry

Early this morning I retire to the rocking chair on the front porch to sit in the sun. In my hand I carry a copy of Walden and open it to Thoreau’s chapter on “Spring.” His words seem apropos of the world in which I am steeped:

“At the approach of spring the red-squirrels got under my house, two at a time, directly under my feet as I sat reading or writing, and kept up the queerest chuckling and chirruping and vocal pirouetting and gurgling sounds that ever were heard; and when I stamped they only chirruped the louder, as if past all fear and respect in their mad pranks, defying humanity to stop them.…They were wholly deaf to my arguments, or failed to perceive their force, and fell into a strain of invective that was irresistible.”

At my feet the cat plays with a small twig, twisting and turning on the rug, then mewing to be let inside the house. I pay her no attention. Instead I listen to the red-bellied woodpecker clucking overhead in the ancient ash tree. A goldfinch sings his morning serenade from the treetops across the street. Somewhere in the distance a dove coos her mournful prayers. Crows and blue jays squabble in the neighbor’s pines. A chipping sparrow lets out a string of notes to rival a Mozart piano concerto:

“The first sparrow of spring! The year beginning with younger hope than ever! The faint silvery warblings heard over the partially bare and moist fields from the blue-bird, the song-sparrow, and the red-wing, as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell! What at such a time are histories, chronologies, traditions, and all written revelations?”

Across the narrow valley thick dark green hemlocks and spruce stand in clusters among the airbrushed lemon-green canopies of birches and oaks and cinnamon-red crowns of the maples—all of this color laid out beneath cotton-white cumulus clouds drifting in the blue sky overhead.

“Early in May, the oaks, hickories, maples, and other trees, just putting out amidst the pine woods around the pond, imparted a brightness like sunshine to the landscape, especially in cloudy days, as if the sun were breaking through mists and shining faintly on the hill-sides here and there.”

I read Thoreau’s account of the merlin he glimpsed playing in the morning air on the 29th of April, 1846:

“Looking up, I observed a very slight and graceful hawk, like a night-hawk, alternately soaring like a ripple and tumbling a rod or two over and over, showing the underside of its wings, which gleamed like a satin ribbon in the sun, or like the pearly inside of a shell.…It was the most ethereal flight I had ever witnessed.…It appeared to have no companion in the universe—sporting there alone—and to need none but the morning and the ether with which it played.”

Cars pass up and down the street adjacent—drivers on their way to work, heedless of the morning’s offerings.

“In a pleasant spring morning all man’s sins are forgiven.”

A little madness in the spring

On our Saturday morning walk, my granddaughter suddenly asked me to mime a horse. I trotted beside her, the soles of my boots slapping against the pavement in an irregular rhythm reminiscent of clicking cocoanut halves in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, while I periodically neighed and flapped my lips in true horsy fashion.

“Do it again!” she cried, as she clapped her hands and proceeded to copy my equine efforts.

The puppy paused to study our display of a little madness in the spring before offering an encouraging bark of her own at our heels.

Back home, after a snack, we danced and sang and drew pictures together.

“Draw me a frog,” my granddaughter demanded. She watched intently as I produced a froggy-like image with pencil and paper. “Oooh, I like it!” she said. I handed it over to her, and she traced the lines with a black pen. Meantime, I drew a sketch of the puppy as she lay in the chair with her head resting on one arm. “That looks just like her, Pop-pops! Can you draw a picture of me?” And so I drew a picture of my granddaughter, all the while singing:

Look at that face, just look at it;
Look at that fabulous face of yours.
I knew first look I took at it,
This was the face that would endure.…
Look at those eyes as wise and as deep as the sea;
Look at that nose, it shows what a nose should be.…

Afterwards we conjured up an extemporaneous performance of the death scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. By the time we had moved on to MacBeth, the phone rang, announcing her mother’s return from work.

She gathered her things—drawings, dog, leash, boots—and I walked her down to the bottom of the driveway. She and the puppy crossed the street and disappeared into their apartment.

That evening I visited Avery. We talked for three hours about the Spitzer scandal and the political campaigns, the environment and the escalating cost of gasoline, and the fact that his body was filling up with fluid now and he needed to use his oxygen every day. The first of the week he had an appointment with his oncologist when he hoped to learn the results of the latest MRI of his brain that had been done two weeks ago.

His granddaughter came with her mother and we all sat down at the kitchen table for dinner. From that point on all attention focused on the little girl. She had just gotten a new cell phone with a camera, and she giggled in delight as she took pictures of the dog and the cats and her mother and her grandmother, whom she calls Baba.

After they left I told Avery and his wife about the morning walk with my granddaughter and how I had functioned most effectively as a horse, an actor and purveyor of fine arts. They laughed, and I noticed that Avery’s blue eyes had never shown more intensely.

A quaint and curious thing

A recent New York Times article carried the news that 85 year old Horst Rippert has revealed that, as a young German Luftwaffe pilot in his twenties, he shot down a Lockheed Lightning P-38 reconnaissance plane with French colors just off the coast of Marseille on July 31, 1944—most likely the same aircraft piloted by the French author and aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry.

The thought that he shot down the creator of The Little Prince haunted Mr. Rippert for years. As a young man, Mr. Rippert had devoured Saint Exupéry’s books, beginning with Southern Mail, an adventure tale about the Casablanca to Dakar mail route.

As a 22 year old pilot, Mr. Rippert was distraught when he feared that he had shot down his boyhood idol. Decades later, when he went public with his confession, Mr. Rippert had tears in his eyes.

In Paris, Saint Exupéry’s grandnephew, Olivier d’Agay, commented that if Mr. Rippert had known who was in the P-38 Lightning that day, he would never have shot it down.

“Yes; quaint and curious war is!” the English poet Thomas Hardy remarked in “The Man He Killed”

“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”

War: that enigmatic battlefield where unpredictable things happen. War: where the enemy you engage might well turn out in other circumstances to be a friend—or your boyhood idol.

Metamorphosis

“Pop-pop, look what I found!”

My granddaughter proudly lifts the opaque blue lid on the plastic container to reveal a mass of tangled leaves, grass, needles and dirt. I peer into the mixture and search for some sign of the origin of her delight.

“See!” Deftly she extracts a fuzzy inch-long caterpillar. “Her name is Kelly.”

“She looks like a wooly bear,” I comment, noting the wide brown midriff band.

“Isn’t she cute?” My granddaughter smiles, turning the worm over in her tiny palm. “Actually, I don’t know if she’s a girl; I just decided that she’ll be one as long as I have her.”

“I don’t think she’ll mind.”

“And look, Pop-pop, she’s got sixteen feet—I counted them.”

“So she does,” I say, peering at the tiny appendages and taking her word for it.

“Look, her feet have hair on them!”

I look closer and adjust my glasses. “So they do. You’re a pretty good observer.”

My granddaughter beams with the self-satisfaction of a scientist, then suddenly frowns. “Perhaps he’s a boy after all,” she says, half to herself. “I’ve never heard of girl caterpillars having hairy feet.”

“There’s an exception to every rule,” I comment, “especially in the animal kingdom. Here, let’s look on the computer. We can do a web search on wooly bear caterpillars.”

I type the key words into the Google search bar and bring up the results. Seconds later, after several clicks, we are perusing text and photographs of wooly bear caterpillars.

“It says here,” I muse, “that some people think you can tell the severity of the coming winter by the width of the brown band on the caterpillar’s belly. The narrower the band, the harsher the winter. That means lots of snow and a long cold winter.”

“But Pop-pop, winter is over. Now it’s spring!”

“So it is. I suppose we’ll have to wait until fall to make that prediction. But meantime, Kelly will be eating lots of leaves. Then she’ll spin a cocoon around herself and hibernate like an old bear in the winter time. A few weeks later—voilà, Kelly will emerge from her cocoon as a full grown moth. See—here’s a picture of what she’ll look like.”

“Wow! Kelly is going to look so pretty.” My granddaughter stares at the photograph and then looks down at the fuzzy worm in the palm of her hand. Delicately, she strokes the tiny brown and black bristles.

“I hope she waits a little while before she spins her cocoon,” she says. “Right now, I like her just the way she is—even if she does have hairy feet.”

Ricketts Glen

This year we camped on the cusp of spring.

According to the calendar, the vernal equinox had turned on the 20th of March; but in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania it was still winter the first week in April.

I arrived at Ricketts Glen mid morning to find Lake Jean locked in ice under blue skies. My partner had arrived earlier and was already busying himself setting up camp. We had not seen each other since the previous autumn, when last we camped together at Promised Land.

After a quick lunch we set out scouring the surrounding forest for fire wood and found a thirty foot grayed tree trunk lying on the ground, perhaps a foot in diameter. This would provide the bulk of the fuel for our fire over the next three days. We took turns chopping the trunk into sections and splitting the shorter logs into burnable wedges.

After supper we sat around the campfire and talked well into the night. Eventually the cold wind drove us into the warmth of our sleeping bags in the tent. I awoke in the middle of the night, felt for my boots and poked my head outside. The sky was filled with stars too numerous to count. Orion had risen with Canis major at his heels, lifting his club in timeless battle with Taurus to his right. Across the night sky the dippers danced, spiraling round one another at the pole star.

Next morning the thermometer read nineteen degrees.

After a hearty breakfast of bacon ends and eggs, we set out to hike the Falls Trail, only to discover that sections had iced over. We picked our way along the path, descending to F. L. Ricketts falls, a 38 foot cataract that cascades down over a steep rocky precipice to the canyon below. We paused to take in its grandeur, then turned to hike the Highland Trail through Midway Crevasse to Lake Rose, following the road back to base camp under cirrus filled skies.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon gathering, cutting and splitting wood in anticipation of the coming weather.

Next morning we awoke to a blanket of heavy wet snow. Fog enshrouded the forest. We started a fire to warm ourselves, had something to eat, then decided to make a side trip to World’s End to hike the High View Trail for a scenic vista of Loyalsock Creek.

Mist hovered above the mountainous valleys. The Loyalsock sparkled like emeralds as it flowed through the great bend below the summit. Needles from a lone ancient white pine lay in tufts, red against the white sand beach above the dam. Rivulets cascaded down the sheer rock face opposite as winter ice gave way to water. I pocketed a red stone worn smooth by the waters.

That afternoon, back at camp, a pair of chickadees appeared, searching for food. We threw them bits of bread. I placed an offering in the palm of my gloved hand and waited an eternity for that final moment when one of the birds alighted on my finger to take the tiny morsel. My partner captured the scene with his camera to convince ourselves that it really happened.

That night it rained heavily. The following morning the snow had disappeared. We shook the water droplets off the dining fly and tent before dropping and stowing them into their bags. Ironically, it took several rounds of water to extinguish the final fire; billows of grey smoke rose above the pines and hemlocks, a final farewell offering to the woodland gods.

We set out in separate cars under layered clouds the color of newly poured concrete, heading south through the mountains toward home.

“If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale.…” (Thoreau, Where I Live and What I Lived For,” Walden)

Matters of Life and Death

A good friend of mine recently wrote that she had attended a symposium on capital punishment:

“The conference was very emotional. Unfortunately Sister Helen Prejean (author of Dead Man Walking and the slated keynote speaker) was ill and could not attend. Her replacement was a father who had lost his daughter in the Oklahoma City bombing. He spoke about healing and forgiveness—he has come full circle to take a stand against capital punishment. Resentment and anger almost destroyed him—until he decided to meet with the parents of Timothy McVey. He identified with their sadness, suffering and grief. Now he is a crusader for life imprisonment instead of the death penalty.”

After four near-death experiences in her own life, my friend, a professional artist by trade, now paints visions of angels that she has had since her last brush with death. After writhing in post-operative pain all night in a regional medical center, she awoke to find that she had a new compassion for those who suffer. She has since taken a position teaching art to inmates at a state correctional facility, a job in which she has found fulfillment.

Sometimes gracious works are born from much pain and sorrow and suffering. We are all broken people, yet we have the capacity to heal. In so doing, sometimes we are able to help others heal as well.