An evening paddle

We pulled the boat off the back of the truck and walked it down across the sand to the water.  My friend held it steady as I planted one foot over the keel and transferred my weight from the sandy shore to the center of the boat.  I felt the boat shift as he climbed in behind me.  He used his double-bladed paddle to push us off.  Shortly, we were stroking in tandem through the clear cool water toward the entrance to Pickerel Cove.

We skirted the beaver dam, using our paddles to force the kayak over the sticks and mud into the still water of the cove, now covered with a veneer of duck weed, New England’s most ubiquitous aquatic plant.

Slowly we paddled through the warm heavy air into the late afternoon sun.  “There must be some sort of subtle undercurrent in the cove,” my friend said.  “The surface debris shifts throughout the day.  When I was here early this morning, this whole section of water was clear.”

I noticed something perched on a wood duck box in the water ahead.  “Belted kingfisher,” I said, lowering the binoculars from my eyes.  At that moment a great blue heron lifted up from the far bank.  I raised the glasses to catch a close up of the long grey wings before it sailed around the oxbow and vanished behind the break of trees.

“There’re usually a couple of them in the cove every time I come,” my friend explained.

We glided through the thin green blanket, skirting the bare branches of a fallen tree.  Dragonflies darted about across the surface.  Presently, a young duck appeared near the boat.  Irregular blotches of dull metallic green on the head identified the immature male mallard.  He approached the boat with a curious caution as we rested our paddles across the gunwales to study him.

At the end of the dogleg we turned and retraced our course.  My friend pointed out the partially submerged log where he had seen four river otters at play several days ago.  “The otters come and go, but the beavers stay here year round,” he said.

We pushed back out into the river and drifted momentarily in the large eddy at the mouth of the cove before heading upstream.  Despite the meandering current, the water was so still that you could see the images of the stately trees and scrub vegetation on the bank mirrored in it.

We caught sight of a muskrat swimming along the far bank, its nose cutting a small V through the water.  The witchety-witchety-witchety notes of a yellow-throat sounded as we passed a grassy meadow on the near shore.

Three wood ducks took flight as we approached the entrance to the small bayou that paralleled the road.  Another great blue heron perched on the bleached branch of a fallen tree, preening his breast with his pale yellow chisel bill.  Three wisps of black hair-like feathers hung from the back of his crown.

As I watched him through my binoculars, I heard a muffled shout behind me.  My friend pointed at the narrow patch of sky in the break ahead.  I barely glimpsed the white tail of a big bird as it disappeared around the bend.  “Eagle,” my friend whispered.

But it was not the eagle that dropped down from another high branch as we rounded the bend ahead; an osprey rather, beating its massive wings to gain purchase through the still evening air.

We paused at the entrance of a secluded pool to observe another heron wading at the far end, its long neck extended above the dappled surface, waiting to strike an unknown prey.

A female wood duck glided beneath the overhanging vegetation at the far end of the bayou, its large eyes accentuated with white-ringed spectacles.

We paddled back past the pool where the heron still hunted.  A pileated woodpecker creased the sky overhead.

As we drifted back downstream, a young doe raised her head from the bank and watched us silently slip by.

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A still small voice

I listen to the recent spate of voice mail messages on the home answering machine, methodically deleting all but two:  the one from Eleanor informing my wife that her open heart surgery would be postponed, and the other from Eleanor’s niece the morning after Eleanor’s surgery.  I tap the play button and listen to both voices again, one right after the other, even though a week has elapsed between the two.

“Let them be,” my wife calls from the other room.  “Don’t delete them.”

“I wasn’t going to,” I say; then as an afterthought I add:  “I’m heading out for a walk in the woods.  Be back later this afternoon.”

I drive half an hour to a friend’s house and we strike out into the nearby forest.  It’s a steady climb to reach the ridge.  The vernal pools at the top are teaming with mosquitoes.  We hurry on past the tall stands of mountain laurel not yet in full bloom and descend to the trailhead on the opposite side.  There, nestled among the pine needles that carpet the forest floor, pink lady’s slippers bask in the soft afternoon light.

“I know where there’s a stand of them,” my friend tells me.  “Down by the lake.”  He explains how to find them.  Perhaps I might be able to get there later next week, I think; but I know that soon they will be gone.

We strike out on a new trail through the tall pines.  Vireos call from the tops overhead.  The distant note of a wood pee-wee drifts in on the warm forest air.  We pass another vernal pool and turn onto a new trail that crosses a wooden footbridge just below the beaver swamp.  Up ahead we encounter the massive stone foundation of a colonial farmhouse hidden in the old growth forest.

Further along the path, deep in the woods, a veery trills his flute-like riffs.  At Beaver Brook we pick up the narrow road again and follow it out to the country road.  Shortly, we are surprised by an owl perched in a tree high overhead.  It stares down at us with coal-black eyes for a full minute before dropping down silently into the forest.

Back home, seated by my wife, I click through the day’s digital photos.  “The pink lady’s slippers were over a foot high,” I tell her.

She musters a nonchalant nod.  I know she is thinking of other things.

It’s rather an odd thing to have the still small voice of a newly deceased neighbor bottled up in voice mail coupled with the announcement of her death the day after surgery from her niece.

A walk in the woods only serves to distract the mind temporarily.  By the end of next week the pink lady’s slippers will have dried on their stalks, delicate ephemeral blossoms withered away in a woodland underworld.

The pond in winter

“After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep.” 
                                                                           —Thoreau

After my early morning workout in the pool, I stopped off to buy fresh-baked bread for the evening meal on my way home. My wife had just gotten up and stumbled into the kitchen where I was cleaning up the dregs of the previous evening’s holiday reverie. She poured herself a cup of coffee and retreated to the bedroom upstairs where my granddaughter was still asleep.

Later that morning my younger daughter and I took the dog out for a walk along the river. Several men wearing camouflage suits had set up a covey of decoys near the entrance to the cove across the river. We watched them as we stood on the frozen sand beach. The little white dog began to shiver in the cold air. My daughter bent down and scooped it up into her arms.

We retraced our steps back to the pond, now an unmarred glassy frozen surface that reflected the stark trees along its edge and the blue sky overhead.

“Do you think we can skate on it?” my daughter asked.

“The temperature’s been in the twenties for nearly two weeks. It must be several inches thick by now. Did you check to see if the skates fit?”

“No. I found them in a basket in the garage, but I didn’t try them on.”

“I found a pair of old hockey skates in the basement. They might fit somebody. If we could find a few suitable pairs, we could come down one evening when the moon is out and skate like we used to do when you and your sister were little. We could build a fire and make hot cocoa to stay warm.”

“That would be fun.”

We turned to go. I thought about skating on the pond in the moonlight with my daughters when they were little girls, holding each one by a mittened hand as we glided around the periphery, working to keep my balance when one or the other would stumble and tighten her grip.

Now my daughters are grown up. Other young men have come to hold their hands as they move in long graceful strides around more refined rinks.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon preparing the annual Christmas Eve meal. This year there were nine of us. Afterwards my granddaughter watched “A Christmas Story” on TV with my wife while my sons went to midnight mass. My daughters fell asleep early. I finished the dishes and said goodnight and climbed the stairs to bed.

It was a still winter night, unbroken except for a dream about skating in the moonlight on the pond.

Two Rivers, Two Towns

The drive to Weehawken turned out to be less harrowing than I had imagined. Google mapped the route; I chose the time of departure. As it turned out, a mid-morning drive to Manhattan is not necessarily unpleasant.

My heart rate accelerated as I maintained my speed through the Lincoln Tunnel, then slowed as I surfaced into the late morning light. Soon I pulled up to the curb outside the Sheraton Lincoln Harbor hotel. They gave me a room on the 7th floor that overlooked the Hudson. Like a string of multi-sized cardboard cutouts, the Manhattan skyline rose up on the far side, the Empire State Building immediately opposite.

I stashed my bag and left on foot to explore the area.

It was a short walk across the bridge to Hoboken, that old industrial city famous for the production of ships during WWI and WW2. Quickly I combed the narrow streets, hemmed in by brick row homes and shops. I made my way to the waterfront and watched as the New York Waterway ferry—the Governor Thomas H. Kean—approached the dock. A lone seagull soared above the water, while several others perched on decayed pilings that marked where piers from a bygone era once stood.

Out in the middle of the broad river a small tugboat nudged a bloated barge along. Several sloops, their sails reefed, motored down the expanse. Overhead a Coast Guard helicopter whirred by on its way down to the harbor.

That evening, after dinner, I stood on the second level of the Chart House restaurant and looked out at the city. To the north the George Washington Bridge spanned the blackness; to the south lay the Verrazano Narrows, while directly across the water the city sat, sketched out in a thousand points of light: clusters and strings of precious stones, like rich jewels in an Ethiop’s ear—brilliant diamonds, amber topazes, blue sapphires, red garnets.

Back at the hotel I crawled into bed, letting the curtains open. When I woke several times during the night, the city was still there, wide awake, beckoning.

Because of the time change I arose an hour earlier Sunday morning and departed the hotel in the darkness, driving west, leaving the smokestacks, bridges and concrete highways behind. I turned north and headed toward the upper Delaware, logging miles through low-lying farmland which eventually gave way to stone-capped mountains still draped in rustic orange-brown shades of autumnal garb.

I paid my three quarters to the attendant at the far side of the steel bridge that spanned the river and slipped into the town.

I checked my watch: I had two hours to kill before my friend would arrive. I grabbed a coffee and walked to a small park overlooking the river. You could see the water shimmering through the trees, sparkling in the sun as it meandered along. I noticed the remnants of a trail along the bank and struck out to find it.

Soon I was sitting on a tree stump at the edge of a grassy knoll, watching the last of the autumn leaves drift down from the ancient towering maples into swirling eddies. Off in the distance my eye caught sight of a large hawk circling above a stand of tall hemlocks on the far bank. I estimated the wingspan at six feet and glimpsed the white tail when the bird circled in the sun.

As I retraced my steps back up the hill, I met a man coming down. We paused in greeting, and I inquired about the trail that ran along the river. He told me where it led and asked where I was from. I learned that he made his home in Manhattan. Years ago he had purchased a small house by this river, which he frequented on weekends and holidays. I mentioned the eagle I had seen circling in the sky.

“I know where they perch along a tributary that runs into the river,” he winked, indicating with his head. We shook hands, and I walked back to my car to wait the arrival of my friend.

We had a good long walkabout filled with talk about things that matter to us most, followed by dinner in the old inn that sits on the square at the center of town.

Two rivers, two towns. Both rivers flow to the sea. One town never sleeps, the other is perfectly content to stretch and yawn as the spirit moves it.

El Zorro

After a mid-afternoon meal of tortilla, consumé and hunks of the deeply textured heavily crusted bread that I have never eaten any place on earth except in the region of Galicia on the northwest coast of Spain, we sat on the bench in the narrow cobblestone street outside the house to talk.  Later, my wife joined me for a leisurely stroll.  We headed up the steep hill on the narrow sidewalk past the concrete row homes with the old wooden Dutch doors to the Capilla da Magdalena, the small chapel from which that section of the village takes its name.

At the very top of the rise the houses fall away, leaving only a narrow stretch of macadam road that winds back down to intersect the carretera where the ancient eucalyptus tree stands at the edge of town.

Across the way you could see the tiny houses along the road as it ran through Cuiña, Senra and San Claudio to Mera.  The railroad tracks crossed this section of the estuary and ran past the old stone mill that operated with the rise and fall of the tides, the only such mill in the entire region.

As we descended the narrow road past the grassy fields hemmed in by thick brush and blackberry bushes, we saw two massive horses grazing, each lifting its head periodically to look at us.  I noticed something moving in the tall grass by their haunches—a furry animal built low to the ground, brownish grey with a long bushy tail.

“Look!” I said.  “Un zorro!”

“Are you sure?” my wife asked, straining on tiptoes to have a better look.  “Yes, it certainly does look like a fox, doesn’t it?”

We watched as the fox moved back and forth through the grass, approaching the horses, which seemed to pay it no mind.  At one point the fox stopped and lifted its head to look at us.  Surprisingly, it didn’t run away; but held its ground, seemingly unafraid.

It was the first time I had seen a wild fox in the campos of northwestern Spain.

Back at the house my mother-in-law told us that there had been several sightings of fox in the area.  “One used to come out of the pines and walk down to the ria at low tide to hunt for something to eat on the mud flats,” she told us.  “It never seemed to be afraid of me when I saw it.”

I thought of Saint Exupéry’s fox in the Little Prince, and how he begged the little prince to tame him to make him his friend.

“If you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.

“Please—tame me!” he said.

So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near–

“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”

“It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you…”

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”

Two days later I arose early while it was still night to take leave of my wife’s family and return stateside.  My nephew drove my son and me to the airport.  There was a light rain falling.

As we left the town, following the winding road along the edge of the ria, a waning gibbous moon broke through the misty clouds above the mountains that slept in the distance.

Later, the mountains would turn a deep rich green in the afternoon sun; and I would remember the fox playing in the field among the horses, unafraid.

The Asiatic Dayflower

Yesterday, while out for my morning walk with the dog, I noticed a stand of Asiatic Dayflowers (Commelina communis) in bloom at the end of our neighbor’s driveway.

Each blossom contained three petals: the two above, cobalt blue Mickey Mouse ears; the one below, an opaque white.  These in turn cradled three smaller clusters, each consisting of three delicate yellow petals and a central brown dot.  Stamens sloped down, partly obscuring the seemingly insignificant white petal below.

When we returned from our saunter that evening, the bright blue blossoms were nowhere to be seen.  At first I thought that they had withered on the vine in the afternoon heat.  Then I realized they had merely tucked their pretty heads into their green pods and retired for the night.

Today a new crop of blossoms greeted us on our early morning stroll.

Each day nature rejuvenates herself — forever alive, forever wild.

The Descent of Man

“Fire—there’s something about it, how it draws you in,” my friend muses, as we relax in our two chairs before the flames dancing in the iron circle. “Probably goes back to some primeval attraction we inherited from our ancestors.”

We sit and stare into the blaze, watching the logs shift as tongues of flame lick at their edges. The campfire throws a welcome heat across our faces and feet in the chilly northern Pennsylvania night. Overhead, bright stars bore through the canopy of tall wispy pines, while off in the distance spring peepers pipe their nocturnal serenade.

Far into the night we talk as the fire dies down to embers. My eyes grow heavy in the darkness. Soon we retire to the tent, crawl into our sleeping bags and drift off into the deep sleep that comes from breathing crisp night air in springtime.

The following morning we arise at first light, pull on our jackets and stamp off the cold. We lay another fire, feeding the fledgling flames with splintery tinder, and cook our breakfast over glowing coals: bacon, eggs and fried potatoes. Afterwards we set out on a morning hike, following the leaf-covered lake trail north along Little Pine Creek through the woods to an open meadow, where we cross the grassy plain to the stony bank of the creek. The water is high: clear and cold and deep. There are firm trout in the fast water, but we’ve brought no gear; fishing season doesn’t open until next weekend. We hunker down and splash cold water on our faces to cool from the morning sun. I slip a thin smooth round red stone into my pocket from the creek bed before we rise and retrace our steps back to camp.

A thundershower comes up suddenly that evening. High winds whip through the tall pines as lightning flashes across the overcast sky. I count the seconds before the thunder peals and mentally calculate the proximity of the strikes. We heat our stew over the small camp stove and eat under the dining fly while the water pours down in torrents. The campsite is soon drenched, but not enough to keep us from coaxing another fire from the split logs stored under the tarp.

The following morning we break camp and head out in separate vehicles. At the crossroads my friend turns northeast. I flash my headlights in farewell and head southwest along the divided highway. Several hours later I pull into the motel where I will spend the next two nights. I check in, find my room and toss my duffel on the bed. When I strip off the fleece that had kept me warm for the previous three days, my nostrils flare at the pungent residue of wood smoke. I recall the fire, remember the high fast stream and instinctively reach for the smooth round stone in my pocket.

This weekend there is a regional fishing tournament in town. By evening the motel parking lot is filled with sleek power boats hitched to huge pickup trucks. Bearded burly men hover around each boat, an occasional foot planted on the boat trailer, hands in pockets, discussing the possibilities of this or that artificial lure, and whether the big fish will be biting in the morning.

One by one my comrades arrive. Once we shared something in common: in our youth we ran together on the track and cross-country teams at the small liberal arts college housed on the hill above this sleepy central Pennsylvania town. Thirty-five years later we gather on this spring weekend to reminisce, to share a meal, to don our shoes and head out along one of the old running trails in the late afternoon. No matter our current vocations, no matter our present circumstances in life—for one short weekend we become forever young and strong and fast and free.

That afternoon, before the run, we stroll around the campus and stop by the Carnegie building to see the latest art exhibit: a collection of paintings bequeathed to the college by a wealthy alumnus, W. B. Stottlemyer. We browse muted oils depicting 19th century American wilderness landscapes and stand in silence before a genuine Rembrandt: a pen and ink rendition of Christ driving the moneychangers from the temple.

After the run we return to the motel for a round of beers at the picnic table. The burly fishermen have returned in their pickup trucks with their boats in tow. They recline in lounge chairs with a cold beer in hand and quietly eye us bantering in our running gear; we pretend not to notice.

That evening we gather at the home of our former running coach and chemistry professor for a traditional ham dinner. Several younger runners have joined the group: current members of the cross-country team. We talk until late in the night. I’m interested in my professor’s opinions on alternative energy sources: wind, solar, nuclear, water. The party breaks up after midnight; we say our good-byes and drive back to the motel.

I arise Sunday morning, pack the station wagon and head east along the highway that parallels the railroad. The sky is clear and blue; up ahead the empty road beckons. On a whim I take an alternate route north through the Big Valley, once inhabited by Native American tribes, later settled by plain people—Mennonite and Amish farmers. Nestled between high mountains on either side—mountains that resemble a sow nursing suckling spring piglets under a massive yellow-green blanket—the freshly plowed fields stretch over rolling hills. One by one I pass narrow lanes that lead back to small stands of barns, outbuildings and farmhouses. From each farmhouse chimney a plume of grey smoke rises in the clear morning air and drifts down the valley.

Up ahead I encounter a string of black buggies pulled by high-spirited horses, their hooves clip-clopping along the macadam. I signal to pass and glimpse the milk-white face of a young woman dressed in black sitting on the buckboard beside a young man: a Whistler portrait. Further along I pass by a simple graveyard, rows of short grey stones jutting up through the thick green grass, as though they themselves were the crop that had sprouted from previously planted seed.

Every so often I pass a sign posted in a field by the side of the road bearing a verse of scripture: “Serve one another in love.” “Strive to live at peace with one another.” “Love covers a multitude of sins.” Such signposts serve as a Sunday morning sermon in this spacious outdoor chapel.

After seventeen miles I turn into the entrance of the state highway. Across the road a tired horse strains at harness, ascending the hill with his portly master in tow. I glimpse the man’s red round bearded face before turning my eyes to the open road ahead that drops through the deep cut in the mountains in its descent to the ancient river below.