Hemingway’s Boat: Going out too far

In Kevin Canfield’s online Salon interview with author Paul Hendrickson, Can We Ever Really Know Ernest Hemingway?, Hendrickson discusses his newly released book, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961.

In 2002, while working on a previous tome, Sons of Mississippi, Hendrickson hit upon the idea of using Hemingway’s boat Pilar as a metaphorical backdrop for the last 27 years of Hemingway’s life. He opened his notebook and jotted the following entry: “Hemingway’s boat. June 18, ’02. If you study what happened just on that boat you’ll get Hemingway’s whole life.”

Hendrickson muses: “I like to think that the acquiring of this boat and the ability of Pilar to release [Hemingway] from shore was doing something to him. He was no longer shore bound. It was a seagoing vessel, and you could go far enough out where you would lose sight of land.” In the book he writes: “I believe Pilar was a key part of the change, allowing him to go farther out, where you don’t see the shoreline.”

Pilar is my metaphor, my storytelling vehicle,” Hendrickson explains. Hendrickson believes that acquiring the boat may have had an impact on the evolution of Hemingway’s later prose.

This interchange brings to mind several passages from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the novella which clinched the Nobel Prize for him. A close reading of the text suggests that Hemingway himself might have been the originator of Hendrickson’s metaphor. In this masterwork Hemingway develops the concept of “going out too far,” far enough out where you would lose sight of land, where it would be only you and the boat and the sea. (Subsequent passages are taken from the 1952 Scribner’s Book of the Month Club edition.)

The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean. (p. 31)

The sun rose thinly from the sea and the old man could see the other boats, low on the water and well in toward the shore, spread out across the current. (p. 35)

There were only three boats in sight now and they showed very low and far inshore. (p. 36)

He could not see the green of the shore now but only the tops of the blue hills that showed white as though they were snow-capped and the clouds that looked like high snow mountains above them. (p. 44)

Then he looked behind him and saw that no land was visible. That makes no difference, he thought. (p. 50)

When he acquired the Pilar, Hendrickson writes, “[Hemingway] is still the reigning monarch of American literature, but he’s already been sniped at by the critics. He’s still the king; he controls the crown. But he understood that he was beginning to have trouble” with his ability to write.

Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for. (p. 56 – 7)

He thought of how some men feared being out of sight of land in a small boat and knew they were right in the months of sudden bad weather. (p. 67)

Now alone, and out of sight of land, he was fast to the biggest fish that he had ever seen and bigger than he had ever heard of, and his left hand was tight as the gripped claws of an eagle. (p. 70)

In the end it was the going out too far that fated the old man’s defeat.

“I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish,” he said. “Neither for you nor for me. I’m sorry, fish.” (p. 121)

“Half fish,” he said. “Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.” (p. 127)

Within a decade after publication of The Old Man and the Sea, his body and mind ravaged from the effects of alcoholism, a least four major concussive blows to the head and a series of electroconvulsive shock treatments he received at the Mayo Clinic for major depression, Hemingway would acknowledge defeat by taking his own life. No one knows the true reason, of course; he left no suicide note. Yet his final failed attempts at writing suggest that he had lost the ability to craft the almost magical terse prose of his youth.

It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was. And what beat you, he thought.

“Nothing,” he said aloud. “I went out too far.” (p. 132 – 133)

Author to speak at 6th annual Cell2Soul retreat

Author Brian T. Maurer is slated to speak at the 6th annual Cell2Soul retreat to be held at Sheep Hill conference center, Williamstown, Massachusetts, the weekend of October 1 – 2, 2011.

Maurer will deliver a short talk entitled “Donning the Yoke” on Sunday morning, October 2nd.

Additional topics at this year’s gathering include the medical humanities, surviving survivorship, absolute self-care, dignifying dementia, navigating madness, the odyssey of coyote medicine, and sacred undertakings.

Readers interested in additional information can access it here.

Night and day with three musicians

"Three Musicians" by Pablo Picasso

“Expression was the need of their souls.” —E.B. White, Introduction, Onward and Upward in the Garden

No sooner had we arrived at the cottage secluded by the lake; no sooner had we unpacked the van, trucking in the duffle and the newly purchased provisions; no sooner had I slid open the screen door to step out onto the deck to peer down at the lake through the towering pines, than the musicians cracked open the latches on the cases of their guitars, tuned their instruments and began to play.

For an hour or more they strummed and sang. We put the kabobs and corn on the grill, and still they played. When the food was ready, we ate; and afterwards they picked up their instruments and played some more.

They played into the early evening and then into the twilight. A brother-in-law appeared, bearing a cache of blues harps and a drum and cymbals with sticks and brushes.

They began to jam, playing off one another’s riffs, improvising a tune, until some song burst into being. Three guitars, one bass, harp and drums: a litany of songs sung through the evening hours late into the night, notes strung together without pause, one rendition rolling into the next, and the next, and the next. Sonora’s Death Row, Sound as a Pound, Heart of Gold, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

Like the band that played on while Casey waltzed with the strawberry blonde, they moved from one number to the next, without pause, without missing a beat.

Sometime after midnight the brother-in-law left, leaving the drum and cymbals behind. We bedded down beside a warm fire in the woodstove, drifting off into our own individual nocturnal reveries.

Hours later I awoke, threw back the blanket and made coffee. The musicians sat up, rubbed their eyes, retuned their instruments and jammed for another hour before breakfast. That’s how musicians talk, making morning conversation over coffee and finger-plucked guitar chords.

Base clefts in the rock, R & B, fish scales and folk, cowboy country ballads and bar songs, a few noteworthy bars; Joycean tunes, I say again, rejoice; play it again, Sam; you must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, remember who wrote this? Improvise, resize, economize; Tommie and the Who, doo-whap, doo, jug band blues; crazy momma, crazy MoMA, art beat, the beat; beat-beat-beat-beat, brush and beat; freight train, freight train, going so fast, I don’t care what train I’m on, just as long as I’m moving, moving along.

Three Musicians on the Rocks, Big Clear Lake

Once more to the lake

I would dress softly so as not to wake the others, and sneak out into the sweet outdoors and start out in the canoe, keeping close along the shore in the long shadows of the pines. I remembered being very careful never to rub my paddle against the gunwale for fear of disturbing the stillness of the cathedral.  —E. B. White, Once More to the Lake

The final morning after breakfast I took the canoe out.

The wind was up. It took some purchase with each paddle stroke to propel it halfway to the far shore. More than once, despite my efforts, the wind took the bow. Finally, I decided to head up into it, cutting directly through the small waves that slapped against the boat.

Misty morning on Big Clear LakeEarlier that morning as I stood on the dock watching the mist roll off the smooth surface of the water, a beaver swam by, carrying a small fresh sapling in its mouth, ripples from its nose forming a V-shaped wake. Now the heavy waves on the open water obliterated the canoe’s wake immediately after each paddle stroke.

Eventually, with considerable effort, I approached a small cove on the northwestern shore, where I rested in the break afforded by the pines. I paddled past the Lake Labelle portage to the beaver dam, then turned and headed back down the lake.

A big hawk circled above one of the small islands in the center before disappearing over the tops of the pines. I looked up to find a cache of sticks near the top of a dead tree on the northern point. I estimated the nest to be two and a half feet in diameter.

Morning paddle on Big Clear LakeI let the wind take the canoe, using the blade of the paddle as a rudder to navigate along the far shore. Here quartzite cliffs, perhaps 80 feet high, bounded the eastern shore. The morning sun reflecting off the water shot dancing bands of light up the face of the grey colored rock, like scores of luminous gulls flying in formation.

One section of these massive giants had broken off, leaving a narrow channel of water between it and the cliff. I maneuvered the canoe into it and threaded the needle into a quiet cove on the other side.

Shortly, I touched the dock. Out in the center of the lake a lone loon taunted me with his morning cry. A gull dropped down to rest on the rocky outcrop directly off the dock.

I drew in a deep breath of morning air and surveyed the panorama one last time.

Big Clear Lake will always be one, but never the same.

Morning on Big Clear Lake

Big Clear Lake

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. —Thoreau, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” in Walden

At twilight I stood on the dock, looking out over the lake. Off in the distance a loon sounded its hallowed haunting cry. Overhead, the first of the evening stars appeared. The steady light in the western sky I judged to be a planet — most likely Venus.

“Permission to come aboard.” A low voice sounded behind me.

I laughed and greeted my host and friend: “Permission granted.”

The dock rolled slightly with his step; I flexed my knees to keep my footing.

“How about a night-time paddle on the lake?”

“Sure; let’s go.”

I undid the bow painter from the cleat; and we stepped into the canoe, pushed off and slipped out into the still water.

Between the rhythmic paddle strokes you could hear tiny wavelets gurgling at the bow as they rushed along beneath the boat. As the band of light on the western horizon grew more and more narrow above the silhouetted pines, the stars came out in the broad expanse of sky.

“There’s the Big Dipper,” I said, pointing up ahead.

“Did you see the recent supernova?”

“No, I didn’t get out, but it’s supposed to be visible with binoculars. There’s Polaris and the Little Dipper.”

“I can’t make it out.”

“It’s upside down. Imagine it pouring into the Big Dipper below.”

“Now I see it.”

We continued along in the darkness into the widest part of the lake. Stars were visible at the horizon, points of light I had never seen back home, where the light pollution from our towns and cities puts out the dimmer stars.

We sat in silence on the still water and marveled at the splendor of the night sky. The notes of an owl sounded from the shore; a loon laughed in the darkness. Slowly, the canoe drifted around. Above the southeastern horizon the teapot of Sagittarius tipped toward Scorpio’s fishhook tail.

We navigated back to the dock in the dark, following the Milky Way.

“Look, you can see the stars reflected in the lake!”

We studied the points of light strewn like diamonds below the gunwales, precious gems shining in the black water. The heavens were visible under our feet as well as above our heads.

We passed the island in the dark, taking care to avoid the rocky spine that traversed the length of the lake. Shortly, we bumped against the dock. Securing the canoe to the cleat, we stood up, feeling the dock bobbing beneath our feet.

Nearby, in the woods below the cottage, whip-poor-wills began their nocturnal serenade.

A walk in the park

In wildness is the preservation of the world. —Thoreau

We had gotten our first taste of Ontario’s Frontenac Park the day before.

The ranger at the main office on Salmon Lake Road suggested several easy walks close by. We studied the display of two stuffed fisher cats and admired the century-old dugout canoe mounted on the wall in the information center before heading out on the Doe Lake Trail. An hour later, back at the base, we explored the Arab Lake Gorge loop, meandering along the boardwalk by the beaver dam.

That evening back at the cottage we decided to hike the Slide Lake Trail the next day.

I took my day pack with a map and compass, binoculars, Swiss Army knife, matches, a 2-quart canteen and a first-aid kit. We drove to the Rideau trailhead and followed the orange triangle blaze marks to the southeastern Slide Lake Trail. We crossed through an extensive meadow knee-deep in September wildflowers: asters, goldenrod and milkweed gone to seed. Leaves on a stand of tall aspen rustling in the air brought to mind brushstrokes on a Monet canvas.

We passed by a small marsh peppered with decayed stumps of dead trees and entered the woods. The wings of a grouse drummed the afternoon air. Shortly, we caught our first glimpse of Buck Lake to the east. A bit further along the trail brought us to a marshy inlet of Slide Lake on the west.

A marshy inlet on Slide Lake, Frontenac ParkSlide Lake got its name from the log slide constructed by 19th century loggers. Logs harvested at Big Clear Lake and Lake Labelle were floated into this narrow pristine lake, then driven down through a narrow ravine into Buck Lake. From there they were transported north again to the mills of Massassauga Creek — a roundabout way of moving lumber, but easier than hauling it overland.

At the northern tip of Slide Lake we took a short break to consider whether we should push on to the scenic overlook at Mink Lake (another 45-minute walk) or continue on our way down the northwestern side of Slide Lake. We had been hiking steadily for two hours. From our current location it would be another two and a half hours back to the trailhead. We decided to continue on the Slide Lake Trail, leaving Mink Lake for another day.

The northwestern side of Slide Lake provides a panoramic view of the country from the rocky ridge christened the Whale Back. Here we sat, looking out over the extensive body of water glistening in the afternoon sun. A big red-tailed hawk soared above the tops of the pines. At our feet a garter snake darted through a crevice in the rock and disappeared into the bush.

We proceeded down the ridge to a pine-covered peninsula. One of my companions, studying the bank, pointed out several bass hovering over a submerged log near the shore.

Slide Lake, northwestern ridgeOnce again we began our ascent to higher ground, following the trail along the high rock formations to the southern end of the lake. We paused for a final vista before beginning the descent into the woods. Soon we were back on the Rideau Trail, retracing our steps past the meadows of old 19th century farms to the trailhead where our vehicle awaited our return.

It had taken us four and half hours to traverse the circumference of Slide Lake, roughly ten kilometers of mountainous trail and meadow.

It was only after we returned to the cottage that I read that we had trekked through some of the most rugged country in this 12,900 acre wilderness park.

But more than that, we had touched the wildness that rejuvenates the soul.

Ten years after

When we left the house as the party broke up last evening, I looked up at the night sky.  “Look!” I said to two of my companions, pointing up at the yellow cracks in the dark grey clouds backlit by the light of the moon.

“Apocalypse now,” one of my friends murmured.

I laughed, shrugged off his words and said good night as I slid into the seat behind the wheel of my car.

Halfway home, the full moon appeared, shining brightly in the midst of the panoramic inkblot of clouds silhouetted against a cream-colored sky.

Early this morning I awoke to peruse the NYT home page and found the words of the headline burning into the retinas at the back of my eyes:  Witness to Apocalypse: A Collective Diary — accounts of “the fall of the trade center told moment by moment and person by person drawn from the more than 600 interviews collected in the September 11, 2001 Oral History Project” — somber reading at best.

We humans mark anniversaries of birth, marriage, and death.  The first two are celebrations of joy, the latter a remembrance of loss punctuated by grief.  As anyone who has ever lost a loved one will tell you, those feelings of grief and loss tend to resurface acutely on the anniversary of the death.

Every generation has memorialized those tragic events that have served to define it in history.  The sunken ships of Pearl Harbor, the eternal flame at JFK’s grave, the black wall bearing the names of our dead in the Vietnam War; and today, ten years after 9/11, the dedication of  the World Trade Center memorial.

Certainly, the string of events on that clear blue morning of September 11, 2001, defined the first decade of the new millennium for Americans.  At the outset it ushered in a brief era of compassionate service.  It changed the way many of us would come to view the world.  It created a national paranoia, which still resides in our collective western psyche.  To a certain degree it eroded our civil liberties, spurred two unwinnable wars, and drained hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. treasury.

I do not wish to minimize the mourning of those who lost loved ones in the tragic events that unfolded ten years ago today.  An anniversary is a suitable time to pause and reflect on irreplaceable loss.

But perhaps with the dedication of this memorial at Ground Zero, we as a nation can choose to let the tragedy of 9/11 take its place in the queue of similar tragic historical events, and begin to move on.