Spring warblers in the treetops

I hear, and have for a week, in the woods, the note of one or more small birds somewhat like a yellowbird’s. What is it? Is it the redstart? I now see one of these. The first I have distinguished. And now I feel pretty certain that my black and yellow warbler of May 1st was this. As I sit, it inquisitively hops nearer and nearer. It is one of the election-birds of rare colors which I can remember, mingled dark and reddish.   —Thoreau’s journal, May 10, 1853

One morning this week I wandered through the woods along the path by the edge of the river. Periodically, I paused to focus my binoculars on a short, slight movement in the trees. During these moments I became aware of the cacophony of calls from the canopy overhead. Similar songs emanated from various quarters. It took a bit to tune my ear to pitch and tone. Patiently, I stood, waiting for signs of movement among the budding branches. At last I was rewarded. The canopy was ripe with small black and orange warblers, redstarts most assuredly.

Over the course of these past few mornings I have identified by sight and sound any number of species: the blue-winged warbler, the black-throated blue; the yellow-rumped variety and the black-and-white; the yellow warbler and the chestnut-sided. The warbling vireos have declared their return as well, mostly through their distinctive songs high in the treetops.

Thoreau reveled in the return of the warblers in spring, when the green forest is splashed with dabs of color—

Within a few days the warblers have begun to come. They are of every hue. Nature made them to show her colors with. There are as many as there are colors and shades.  —Thoreau’s journal, April 19, 1854

Perpetual thanksgiving

I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence.  —Thoreau

“Mike’s back,” my neighbor told me. “He’s been living under a tarp down in the woods at the back of the park.”

Thirty years ago Mike had run a small cobbler shop in town. Later he moved the business a few miles up the road. Eventually it went belly up; no one thought to have old shoes repaired any more.

Mike and his girlfriend bought a house in the neighborhood, an old Victorian cottage. They drank too much. Over the years the house fell into disrepair and Mike’s girlfriend succumbed to the effects of alcoholism. The house was sold, and Mike disappeared. Now after 30 years he had returned.

“My buddy bought him a tent,” my neighbor said, “and I got him some canned food. Every day he walks to the package store for cigarettes and booze, then sits in front of his tent and stares off into space. Winter’s coming — I don’t know what’s going to happen to him.”

“One of these nights he’ll freeze to death,” I said. “Maybe you should tell someone about him.”

“I’m afraid the police will just throw him out of the park, and then where would he go?”

“Maybe talk to Father Tom.”

Father Tom is the local priest. My neighbor spoke to Father Tom and in the end it was Father Tom who called the police. They came to the park to talk with Mike. They made several attempts to get him hooked up with social services. In the end Mike wouldn’t budge.

Heavy wet snow fell across the region yesterday afternoon and continued into the night; temperatures dropped below freezing.

I awoke early and looked out the back window just as the heavy snow on the uppermost branches of the distant pines caught the morning sun.

Suddenly I understood why after all these years Mike had come back, and now I knew why he would never leave.

Carving and painting the medium through which we look

It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful, but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do….Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. —Thoreau, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” in Walden

Lines intersect, triangles form; a flat plane becomes three-dimensional space, and morphs into space-time, which, if theoretical physicists are correct, folds in on itself, and the past connects with the present in this moment.

I first heard the name of Henry Ossawa Tanner in an NPR interview with Bill and Camille Cosby when they discussed loaning 62 pieces from their extensive collection of fine art to the Smithsonian Institute. Henry Ossawa Tanner was an African-American artist who attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1879, where he studied under Thomas Eakins. Tanner would later emigrate to France; there he discovered a society where the issue of race mattered little.

It was during a return visit to the states that Tanner painted the piece for which he is perhaps best known, The Banjo Lesson. In this rendition a white-bearded black man sits on a chair, cradling a young black boy and a banjo in his lap. The older man supports the instrument as the young boy fingers the frets and plucks the strings: a moment of mentoring, captured in time. The pair is enveloped in light: a soft blue-white glow from the left, a warm brighter illumination from the right. The boy and the old man seem to be caught up together in this interactive moment. What they share is something more than a mere instrumental lesson.

Henry Ossawa Tanner: "The Banjo Lesson"

Henry Ossawa Tanner: “The Banjo Lesson”

Tanner’s portrait brought to mind a long-ago summer afternoon when I sat on the front porch of our house, reading a book to my granddaughter. Someone snapped a photograph of the two of us. Like Tanner’s portrait of an adult and a child, this photograph captures something more than the mere reading of a children’s book.

I think back to my early days of clinical practice, when I first learned the ropes: how to interact with a patient in the privacy of the exam room. As part of my post-graduate training I worked at an inner city clinic in the north end of Hartford. One day a boy’s name appeared on my schedule, a young Jamaican boy, recently discharged from the hospital with a concussion sustained when he was struck by a car while riding his bicycle. The discharge summary stated that he still exhibited some soft neurological signs. During this and a string of follow-up visits, it became apparent to me that something more was going on; this boy was clinically depressed.

I subsequently learned that he had been culturally displaced from his grandmother’s home in rural Jamaica when he was sent to live with his mother in an urban New England setting. During our visits the boy spoke little, but little by little I learned about his former life: how he would feed the chickens in the yard outside his grandmother’s home, the plantain trees in the yard, a lazy cat resting on the porch in the noonday sun—and the day his dog died a traumatic death at the hand of a neighborhood bully.

Much of this history I gleaned from pictures that the boy drew for me: simple pencil sketches of the house, the trees, the yard and the dog. During office visits we would look at the pictures together, and the boy would talk about what he had drawn. Little by little I learned about his life, little by little he opened up, and little by little his depression lifted.

Those were the days before the advent of SSRIs, those magical pharmaceutical substances that allow outpatient office visits to be compressed into a mere 9 minutes of time; those were the days when I had the luxury to sit with a patient and give them the time they needed—and the time I needed—to gather the data necessary for an adequate clinical assessment, to give them time to heal.

An article cited in Becker’s Hospital Review indicates that in a recent survey 65% of clinicians voiced disillusionment with clinical practice, largely because they no longer felt they had the time to listen to their patients. In short, they had lost the opportunities for those mentoring moments, when clinician and patient step outside of time into a different dimension, a place where the two of them are bathed in light—perhaps a soft blue-white glow from the left, a warm, brighter illumination from the right.

From across two centuries of space-time the thoughts of Thoreau break into my brain:

[I]t is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do….Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.

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

Thoreau’s hawk and Hopkins’s windhover

Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in 1844, the same year that Henry David Thoreau built his small house on the shores of Walden Pond. Thoreau died in 1862, two months shy of his 45th birthday; Hopkins perished in 1889 at 45 years of age.  Both poets reveled in Nature. The following selections demonstrate their literary and spiritual responses to observing an accipiter in flight.

A passage from “Spring,” in Walden
Henry David Thoreau

“On the 29th of April, as I was fishing from the bank of the river near the Nine-Acre-Corner bridge, standing on the quaking grass and willow roots, where the muskrats lurk, I heard a singular rattling sound, somewhat like that of the sticks which boys play with their fingers, when, 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. This sight reminded me of falconry and what nobleness and poetry are associated with that sport. The Merlin it seemed to me it might be called: but I care not for its name. It was the most ethereal flight I had ever witnessed. It did not simply flutter like a butterfly, nor soar like the larger hawks, but it sported with proud reliance in the fields of air; mounting again and again with its strange chuckle, it repeated its free and beautiful fall, turning over and over like a kite, and then recovering from its lofty tumbling, as if it had never set its foot on terra firma. 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. It was not lonely, but made all the earth lonely beneath it. Where was the parent that hatched it, its kindred, and its father in the heavens? The tenant of the air, it seemed related to the earth but by an egg hatched some time in the crevice of a crag;—or was its native nest made in the angle of a cloud, woven of the rainbow’s trimmings and the sunset sky, and lined with some soft midsummer haze caught up from earth? Its eyry now some cliffy cloud.”

The Windhover
By Gerard Manley Hopkins

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.


Hoar frost

"Winter Crystals" 2014 © Brian T. Maurer

“Winter Crystals” 2014 © Brian T. Maurer

“Every leaf and twig was this morning covered with a sparkling ice armor; even the grasses in exposed fields were hung with innumerable diamond pendants, which jingled merrily when brushed by the foot of the traveller. It was literally the wreck of jewels and the crash of gems. It was as though some superincumbent stratum of the earth had been removed in the night, exposing to light a bed of untarnished crystals. The scene changed at every step, or as the head was inclined to the right or the left. There were the opal and sapphire and emerald and jasper and beryl and topaz and ruby.”

"Ice Armor" 2014 © Brian T. Maurer

“Ice Armor” 2014 © Brian T. Maurer

“Such is beauty ever,—neither here nor there, now nor then,—neither in Rome nor in Athens, but wherever there is a soul to admire. If I seek her elsewhere because I do not find her at home, my search will prove a fruitless one.”

—Thoreau, Journal, January 21, 1838