Of the surface of things

In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.

—Wallace Stevens, “Of the Surface of Things”

May 2, 2014

Dear Henry,

I was up at first light and slipped out the back door for my early morning saunter. I recall that you took most of your walks in the afternoon, reserving mornings for jotting down musings in your journal; but my current job mandates me to work afternoons and evenings, and so I elect to take my strolls at dawn.

Today the morning air was cool and moist. There must have been a gentle overnight rain, as the streets were still wet, glistening in the last glow of the dimming streetlights.

“Methinks that the moment my legs began to move, my thoughts began to flow.” Do you remember penning those words, Henry? I’ll wager you do.

I must confess that as I started out I found my thoughts gravitating to my workplace. I recalled your observation of self-concern: “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit…. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses.” It wasn’t until I had ascended the long sloped hill that the gravelly squawk of a silhouetted starling pulled me into the present moment. When his comrade-in-arms answered opposite, I left them to their dawn discourse and commenced my descent.

As I rounded the curve, I noticed the clouds streaked along the eastern ridge — back-lit inkblots tinged with fire along their southern borders: harbingers of the dawn.

At the bottom I cut across the main street and made my way along the indistinct path, traversing ancient gnarled pine roots to the parking lot behind the white church. The piles of snow had long since receded, leaving behind sandy deposits scattered beneath the overhanging branches of the hemlocks — a dry beach of sorts, no longer subject to the tidy rivulets of melting spring snows.

Along the far lane I was chagrined to find that the stretch of rhododendron had browned out; only a few sparse green leaves held on to the promise of new life. I wondered if they might flourish this year. As I plodded down the hill lost in thought, I rounded the corner and was greeted with a breathtaking display of color.

Wispy forsythia shoots stood in full bloom at the edge of the wall. A shower of white petals from a young magnolia lay scattered across the walkway. Weeping cherries hung their pink boughs in despair — for what reason I could not fathom. I paused before them to offer a word of encouragement in silent soliloquy: “On a pleasant spring morning all your sins are forgiven!” — your words, Henry; your words.

Pine warblers chattered from lofty bristled branches overhead. Titmice chanted their mournful “Pe-ter, Pe-ter” calls, while blue jays scolded from violet-pink flowered dogwoods.

Then suddenly there it was, the one trill that never ceases to bring me up short: moist fluid bars sounding clearly from the deep wood by the river — the notes of the first wood thrush of spring. I stopped for a moment and entered eternity, remembering your words:

“This is the only bird whose note affects me like music. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It changes all hours to an eternal morning.”

“Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.”

At the end of the cul-de-sac I lifted my eyes to the sky, now gashed vermilion above the eastern ridge. Turning back, you could see the yellow tops of puffy cumulus clouds glowing in the rising sun.

It’s hard to believe that you’ve been gone 152 years this month, Henry. I’m glad that you left the gift of your words for us to ponder.

In another century or so perhaps some seeker will saunter a similar route and revel in such a glorious morning as this, while we both rest beneath the moist moss at the base of a towering pine in springtime.

"Yellow on Blue" 2013©Brian T. Maurer

“Yellow on Blue” 2013©Brian T. Maurer


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