A primeval scream

Lost in thought, I sauntered along on my morning walk, when out of the corner of my eye suddenly I caught movement. I looked up to the left and there they were: two red foxes romping in the grassy expanse by the forest.

One turned tail and disappeared straightaway into the wood; the second stood stock still in profile — triangular ears, pointy snout, long white-tipped tail.

Immediately, I hunkered down and froze, never taking my eyes off the sleek form.

The fox stared at me momentarily, then opened his mouth and emitted a sound like nothing I had ever heard before: a loud short raspy scream.

The sound brought to mind Dylan Thomas’s description of “noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves”— or

…a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time…a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole.

Shortly, I heard several distinct distant barks from the wood where the other fox had gone. Then this fox responded with a series of short, high-pitched barks before turning tail and trotting down along the tree line toward the river.

Mysteries abound in the forest, of which we seldom catch but a glimpse: here, a phrase or two uttered in an unknown tongue, surging up from the wildness of nature to touch the core of our primeval being.


As I sauntered up the rise I saw him standing in the middle of the road not thirty yards ahead. In the early morning light he looked like a small dog with a delicate pointed snout and triangular ears. It wasn’t until he turned that I recognized the long low body and equally long white-tipped bushy tail.

I slowed my steps as he trotted across the lawn between the houses. Inside a green ranch house a small dog began to bark.

When I reached mailbox at the green house I stooped down and peered through the drooping branches of an old spruce. There he was, standing at the edge of the treeline in the back yard, looking in my direction. I dropped to one knee and waited to see what he would do.

For a long time he stood still, looking periodically to the left. Then he dropped to his haunches, slaked his tail on the grass and yawned. He turned toward me once again, seemingly studying my face as I studied his form. Finally, after several minutes he nonchalantly rose on all fours, lifted his tail, gave me one last look and trotted off into the undergrowth.

As I resumed my walk I could hear the yelps of dogs coming up from the houses below the ridge.

When I made the big turn in the bend of the street down by the river, I sighted another red fox up ahead. This one appeared older, more gaunt. He trotted off into the woods, perhaps on an early morning mission to seek out a kit who had failed to return to the den by the appointed curfew.

Even foxes have their familial concerns, I mused, as off in the distance a pewee called from the wood.

The Art of Medicine: Selling yourself in primary care

As clinicians in primary care, much of our success depends directly upon how we relate to the patient. In most instances these relationships are built slowly over time. It is much more difficult to garner complete trust at the initial clinical encounter — difficult, but not impossible. more»

Interested readers can now access my latest Art of Medicine column — Selling yourself in primary care — recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Please note that all of my previously published Humane Medicine pieces can now be accessed here.

Ariadne’s thread

Last night while the household slept and heat lightning periodically illuminated the black sky, Ariadne set herself to work diligently in the kitchen.

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When I returned home from my morning walk, I encountered her shuttling up and down a single silver thread suspended from the corner of the kitchen cupboard, descending into the depths of a mixing bowl to check on the insect which she had carefully anesthetized and dressed with the expertise of a surgeon.

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In the blue and white bowl a miniature replica of this spinner struggled to ascend the parabolic ceramic curve, periodically tumbling back down the slippery slope to the bottom, only to redirect his efforts once again in fine Sisyphean fashion.

2014 Ariadne 7-24-2014 002

If Shakespeare had edited Robert Frost

If Shakespeare had been Robert Frost’s editor, perhaps “Mending Wall” might have been published in iambic pentameter.

SOMETHING there is that loveth not a wall,
That sendeth frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spilleth upper boulders shoulders tall;
And maketh gaps so two can pass asunder it.
The work of hunters, others must atone:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have scarcely left not stone on stone,
But they would have the fox out of his lair
To please the yelping curs. The gaps, I fear:
Eye hath not seen nor ear heard thusly made,
But at spring mending-time they thus appear.
I let my neighbor know beyond the glade;
And on a day we meet to walk the field
And set the wall between us then once more.
We keep the wall betwixt us as we yield
To each the boulders that did fall before.
And some are loaves and some so nearly round
We must needs use a spell to make them stand:
“Stay where you are until our backs are bound!”
We wear our fingers rough with stones of sand.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
He is all pine and I am apple-fame.
My apple trees no doubt will never soar
And eat the cones under his pines, I wager.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Spring is mischief in me, and still I wager,
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why is it that they make so good a neighbor?
Is it not where the cows do graze instead?
But here there are no grazing cows to rout.”
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And with whom I was like to have a row.

“Something there is that loveth not a wall,
That wants it down!” I could say “Elves,” but no,
Not elves exactly, and I’d rather stall,
That he might say himself. I hear him crow,
Bringing stones grasped firmly by the face
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness, as our human race,
Not just of woods and stone fields stately farmed.
He will not go behind his father’s word,
He likes to have the thought of it, to savor:
There would have been a time for such word;
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

"Crumbling Foundation" 2011©Brian T. Maurer

“Crumbling Foundation” 2011©Brian T. Maurer

Fallen hemlocks

It had been some time since I hiked the mountain trail by myself. The other morning on a whim I decided to climb the knoll to survey the rocky ridge.

The chain that formerly spanned the squat stone pillars at the entrance to Laurel Hill had snapped and lay rusted among the traces of last year’s leaves.

Freshly fallen white catalpa blossoms littered the trailhead. I made my way up the shaded path to the top of the rise, where it disappeared into a newly cut dirt road. The access road had been paved with crushed stone. I hunted for the trail below the concrete water cistern and followed it across the muddy run up the switchbacks to the old chimney. Here I paused to study the charred remnants of an ancient fire at the base of the rocks before moving ahead into the forest.

Warblers wheezed from their treetop hideouts. Off in the distance a thrush sounded his fluid refrain. Tiny yellow wildflowers edged the path near the power line cut.

I had but an hour, so I dropped down to the first ridge and followed it back through the ancient hemlock grove. Here I encountered the remnant of a giant evergreen that had been struck by lightning during a summer storm fifteen years ago. Although the massive trunk had since snapped in half, you could still make out the smooth grey groove spiraling up the tree.

I thought of Thoreau’s pitch-pine on the shore of Walden Pond:

In one heavy thunder shower the lightning struck a large pitch-pine across the pond, making a very conspicuous and perfectly regular spiral groove from top to bottom, an inch or more deep, and four or five inches wide, as you would groove a walking stick. I passed it again the other day, and was struck with awe looking up and beholding that mark, now more distinct than ever, where a terrific and resistless bolt came down out of the harmless sky eight years ago. (“Solitude” in Walden)

A little ways ahead I paused to survey two towering hemlocks. Both had shed their green needles long ago. One tree cracked at the base and had fallen across the path into the uppermost branches of the other, which held it firmly — a final filial embrace before eventually collapsing onto the forest floor, there to decay amidst the verdant moss and moist rotted leaves.

"Awestruck" 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

“Awestruck” 2012 © Brian T. Maurer

Sunday afternoon paddle

“Interested in an afternoon paddle?” my friend said, as he stood in the front yard holding his pointer on a short leash.

“When?” I asked.

“I’ve already got the canoe on top of the truck,” he said.

I looked at my watch. “Twenty minutes?”

“Give me a half hour to take care of the dog.”

“I’ll be there.”

I ascended the stairs to change clothes, then grabbed my camera and binoculars. I paused at the bathroom sink to slather sunscreen on my face and hands, then reached for a hat on my way out the door.

We headed down to the park and put the boat in at the sand beach by the turnaround. The sky was blue; a steady breeze rippled the water. Straightaway we shot across the channel and over the remnants of the old beaver dam into Pickerel Cove.

2014 Pickerel Cove 7-6-2014 002Blue-violet clusters of pickerel weed flowers (Pontederia cordata) were in full bloom; yellow heads were forming on the lilies. Duckweed peppered the surface of the cove. Up ahead, off to the left, a great blue heron took flight and disappeared around the bend.

I peered down at the weeds in the murky water. “Have you seen the otters lately?” I asked my friend in the stern.

“Not since last spring. The bass fishing had been good up until fairly recently, when this high-pressure system put them down.”

We paddled past thick stands of pickerel weed around the dogleg through a sea of yellow-green carpet. I noticed the silhouette of a bird perched on a stump in the shadows of overhanging trees and raised my binoculars to have a look. “Green heron,” I said. Momentarily, he took flight, and we followed him down the backside of the cove.

2014 Pickerel Cove 7-6-2014 001Sitting motionless on the caned thwarts in brackish water, we heard the trills of a veery in the wood, while overhead a vireo sounded his broken refrain. The great blue heron lifted up off a scoured half-submerged tree trunk and circled back down the cove.

“It’s like being back in the 19th century,” I mused.

“Yeah, when I’m out here by myself, I think the same thing.”

We slipped our paddles into the yellow water and propelled ourselves back to the entrance over the beaver dam out into the current and headed upstream against the wind.

It was warm in the early afternoon sun, but the breeze kept the mosquitoes away. Tree swallows skimmed the surface of the water and pulled up sharply into the canopy of faultless blue sky. A flock of waxwings rose into the weeping branches of a silver maple.

Slow, steady strokes with deep purchase took us past the old bridge abutments to the entrance of the bayou. Here the current ceased as we glided silently into the still water.

Painted turtles basked on logs in the afternoon sun. We counted seven along the bank. Here stands of pickerel weed had not yet bloomed. Elephant-eared catalpa trees dotted the water’s edge.

We spun the canoe around across the duckweed and headed down river, making the trek back in nearly half the time, running with the current and the wind at our backs.

Two hours on the river; a picture-perfect afternoon, spent in snapshots of remembered time.

"Painted Turtles" 2014 © Brian T. Maurer

“Painted Turtles” 2014 © Brian T. Maurer

Ulysses at the Red Dog

As we approached the kennel from the road I could see that the canines were loose.

One big golden retriever bolted toward us, and several other mongrels followed closely behind. Before we knew it we were surrounded by the pack in the middle of the road.

—Give us the paw! Give us the paw, doggy! Good old doggy. Give us the paw here! Give us the paw!

The man who barked them back wore netting over his cap and face. I wasn’t sure until he lifted the veil and I could see his weather-worn visage. He had greyed a bit over the years since last I saw him, but his eyes still sparkled.

So of course the citizen was only waiting for the wink of the word…

“Hello Mike McGuiness,” I said, offering him my hand.

I could tell from the look in his eye that he couldn’t place me.

“We met here on this very road eight years ago, if it wasn’t ten,” I said, introducing myself. “This is my son, whom you’ve never met.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Mike said.

“The last time we met we had a conversation about James Joyce’s critical writings,” I told him. “I got hold of a copy of the book you recommended and read it through.”

“You did? Well, well,” Mike said. “Have you read Ellman’s biography?”

“Years ago.”

“I’m in the middle of it now,” he said. “In the first chapter he’s got a quote from Joyce’s 1902 essay on James Clarence Mangan. I recognized it as soon as I read it. You know Mangan? He was an Irish poet from the 19th century, died a narcotic addict. Joyce thought he was one of Ireland’s best.”

“I’d have to go back and reread the essay,” I said.

“We did another Bloom’s Day this year,” Mike said.

“The last Joyce celebration I attended was on his birthday at Paperback Alley in South Windsor. That was years ago. They had a sheet cake decorated with a long lazy S—

Stately plump, Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead…

“And I remember a woman did a dramatic reading of part of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.”

“Yeah,” Mike said. “They always include an excerpt from that. Tomorrow we’ve got a fund-raiser going at the Wallace Stevens house in West Hartford. They’re trying to raise enough money to buy it. We put up the stone markers for his blackbird poem several years ago.”

“I saw the article in the Times,” I said. “Funny thing; I was just rereading Stevens not that long ago.”

“Well, I’ve got to get these beasts back in the kennel,” Mike said. “Nice talking with you two.”

Gob, the citizen made a plunge back into the shop.

My son and I continued on our circuitous walk and ended up on the porch back home.

That evening I pulled my copy of the critical writings off the shelf and found the essays on Mangan. There were two: one from 1902, the other from 1907. I didn’t have a copy of the Ellman biography to check it against, but I surmised that he must have referenced the final paragraph in the first piece. I copied it out.

Beauty, the splendour of truth, is a gracious presence when the imagination contemplates intensely the truth of its own being or the visible world, and the spirit which proceeds out of truth and beauty is the holy spirit of joy. These are realities and these alone give and sustain life. As often as human fear and cruelty, that wicked monster begotten by luxury, are in league to make life ignoble and sullen and to speak evil of death the time is come wherein a man of timid courage seizes the keys of hell and of death, and flings them far out into the abyss, proclaiming the praise of life, which the abiding splendour of truth may sanctify, and of death, the most beautiful form of life. In those vast courses which enfold us and in that great memory which is greater and more generous than our memory, no life, no moment of exaltation is ever lost; and all those who have written nobly have not written in vain, though the desperate and weary have never heard the silver laughter of wisdom. Nay, shall not such as these have part, because of that high, original purpose which remembering painfully or by way of prophecy they would make clear, in the continual affirmation of the spirit?

“In those vast courses which enfold us and in that great memory which is greater and more generous than our memory, no life, no moment of exaltation is ever lost…”

The following morning a phrase from a song grabbed me: catch me up in your story.

That coupled with the sentence from the Joyce quote gave me the inspiration for the toast I delivered later that evening at my son’s wedding.

So here’s to you, Mike McGuiness, and may you be in heaven a good half hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

This summer

For two years we have not seen your face.

The fireflies returned this June,
Flashing silent semaphores at eventide,
But this summer we have not seen your face.

In the bayou by the brook below the bridge
Frogs croak and splash in still green water
At the slightest approach,
But this summer we have not seen your face.

Swifts dance on drafts of early morning air
Over the blue and white-trimmed house,
While nighthawks dart above the river;
High in the trees the orioles sing their fluid arias—

But this summer
In the eaves of the ancient shed
Adjacent the churchyard
The swallows have not returned to nest.