Hawk in the wind

While out for a mid-day walk in the biting January cold, I turned the collar of my coat up against the windy gusts that ripped the surface of the river, tore at the branches of the trees and sent dry leaves spinning upwards like whirling dervishes.

Standing on the concrete jetty behind the old mill, I suddenly looked up and chanced to see a red-tailed hawk overhead, struggling in flight, making little headway against the wind.

Buffeted, he braced, buckled, then barrel rolled directly into the wind; veered, braced, then buckled again; momentarily held tight, then was suddenly swept away, cast off into the southwestern sky, pummeled by a sea of pounding air.

His heroic efforts brought to mind Saint Exupéry’s description of flying into the rushing winds off the coast of Patagonia in the mid 1930s. According to Saint Exupéry’s account, “For three months of the year the speed of these winds at ground level is up to one hundred miles an hour.”

“In the first place, I was standing still. Having banked right in order to correct a sudden drift, I saw the landscape freeze abruptly where it was and remain jiggling in the same spot. I was making no headway. My wings had ceased to nibble into the outline of the earth.

“There was no longer a horizon. I was in the wings of a theatre cluttered up with bits of scenery. Vertical, oblique, horizontal, all of plane geometry was awhirl.

“Whenever I seemed about to take my bearings a new eruption would swing me round in a circle or send me tumbling wing over wing and I would have to try all over again to get clear of all this rubbish.

“I was wrestling with chaos, was wearing myself out in a battle with chaos, struggling to keep in the air a gigantic house of cards that kept collapsing despite all I could do.

“The first blow sent me rolling over and over and the sky became a slippery dome on which I could not find a footing.

“Here where I was, facing west, I was as good as motionless, unable to either advance or retreat….So I let myself drift to the left. I had the feeling, meanwhile, that the wind’s violence had perhaps slackened.”

Saint Exupéry concludes with this observation: “The physical drama itself cannot touch us until someone points out its spiritual sense.”

For me, it was much the same with the hawk.

“The Elements” in Wind, Sand and Stars, pp. 58-68.


“Individuals and types” republished

In a retrospective review of the origins of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, Edward Rothstein observes that the children’s book might be ultimately “less about individuals and more about types”….

Originally published on this blog (January 24, 2014), “Individuals and types” has been reprinted in the 2014 winter issue of the Journal of Dermatology for Physician Assistants (JDPA), Volume 8, Number 1, page 47.

Interested readers can also access this piece here.

“Notes from a Healer” — The Beauty of It

A medical office is usually not a happy place. A good deal of pain and suffering is temporarily housed within its walls. And so it is with a rare moment of pleasure that I savor this mother’s simple statement. more»

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerThe beauty of it — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online journal fostering discussion about the culture of medicine, medical care, and experiences of illness. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.

Only to kill

The gun was designed for one reason, and only one:  to kill.

There are those who would suggest a different viewpoint, that the gun is necessary for self-defense.  This might be true, although I would argue that in this instance it’s primary purpose would be the same:  to kill a would-be assailant first.

There are those who enjoy practicing with a firearm.  They take satisfaction in pumping as many projectiles as possible into the central core of a target.  In doing so, they hone their skills with the weapon, making it more likely that, if and when the time comes, the bullet fired will find its mark — and kill.

There are those who use guns to hunt wild animals.  For the most part, these sportsmen have a deep-seated love and respect for the out-of-doors.  Many of our most ardent environmentalists started out as hunters.  They were introduced to the wild through the use of the gun — in this case, a shotgun or hunting rifle.  The object of the hunt, of course, is to pursue the quarry — and kill it.

Sometimes the hunter’s prey is used for food; other times parts of it will be preserved as a trophy to demonstrate the hunter’s prowess or courage.  In any case, the once living animal is transformed into a carcass, its life-blood drained, soaking into the soil.

We kill for various reasons:  for food, for sport, for necessity, for preservation.  Is not the law of the wild to kill or be killed?  For these purposes, what better technological tool to take up than the gun?

Lastly, it would appear that some of our species would kill for ideological purposes.  These seemingly random acts of violence perpetrated against members of our own species are committed to make a statement, to draw attention to the fact that an injustice has been done.  And so the perpetrator engages in a destructive act of injustice to retaliate against injustice.  One injustice, the reasoning goes, deserves another.  The problem is that once set in motion, the resultant destructive spiral is difficult to break.

In his short piece Barcelona and Madrid (1936), Antoine De Saint-Exupéry sums it up beautifully.  He writes:

“Human drama does not show itself on the surface of life.  It is not played out in the visible world, but in the hearts of men….One man in misery can disrupt the peace of a city….Let a man in a garret but burn with enough intensity and he will set fire to the world.”

Today’s New York Times features the story of Anders Behring Breivik, the 32-year-old gun-loving Norwegian obsessed with what he viewed as threats of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration.  Breivik planted a bomb in Oslo and subsequently went on a shooting spree at nearby Utoya Island, leaving nearly 100 people dead:

“[Breivik] has said that he believed the actions were atrocious, but that in his head they were necessary,” his lawyer said.

“The time for dialogue is over,” Breivik had written. “We gave peace a chance. The time for armed resistance has come.”

His lone Twitter post — “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests” — suggested what he saw as his ability to act.

Of the Spanish Civil War Saint-Exupéry writes: “The purpose of this struggle was not to rid the country of an invading foreigner but to eradicate a plague.  A new faith is like a plague.  It attacks from within.  It propagates in the invisible.”

“[Breivik] wanted a change in society and, from his perspective, he needed to force through a revolution. He wished to attack society and the structure of society.”

“Here, in Spain,” Saint-Exupéry observes, “a man is simply stood up against a wall and he gives up his entrails to the stones of the courtyard.  You have been captured.  You are shot.  Reason: your ideas were not our ideas.”

[Breivik] was equipped, the police said, with an automatic rifle and a handgun….He gathered the campers together and for some 90 hellish minutes he coolly and methodically shot them, hunting down those who fled. At least 85 people, some as young as 16, were killed.

Today, on the island of Utoya, Saint-Exupéry’s words became prophetic:  “There is no place here for mothers who bring children into the world in ignorance of the faith that will some day flare up in their sons, in ignorance of the ideologist who, according to his lights, will prop up their sons against a wall when they have come to their twenty years of life.”

“We can’t disavow this person,” a Norwegian citizen commented on Breivik, “he’s one of us.”

Or in Saint-Exupéry’s words:  “Solitary he may be; universal he surely is.”

The ability to see

“Here is my secret. It’s very simple. One only sees rightly with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye.” Antoine St. Exupéry in The Little Prince

In keeping with the theme of this year’s annual gathering of the Thoreau Society — Thoreau’s Environmental Ethos — Aldersgate United Methodist minister Greg Martin proposed a new ecologic paradigm for the 21st century. Using Thoreau’s poetic description of Walden Pond as the eye of the earth for a touchstone, Martin developed the idea that we need to cultivate an essential ecological lens through which we can begin to view the planet as a living, breathing organism, one to be cared for rather than exploited.

As the late Bradley Dean, editor of Thoreau’s posthumously published Wild Fruits, has suggested: “If we can realize that we are mysteriously related to matter, we will act to preserve the world because human beings protect what we love or feel related to.”

“[Walden] is earth’s eye,” Thoreau writes, “looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”

In “The Ponds” chapter of Walden Thoreau builds upon this poetic vision of Walden. “The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.”

Thoreau describes the Walden water as “a vitreous greenish blue…like those patches of the winter sky seen through cloud vistas in the west before sundown.” “Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view…Such is the color of its iris.” (my italics)

In the midst of such poetic prose Thoreau interjects scientific observations. In one paragraph he records the temperature of the pond on a given day (the sixth of March, 1846) as 42 degrees, “one degree colder than the water of the one of the coldness wells in the village just drawn.” He comments on the rise and fall of the water level, noting that it corresponds to that of nearby Flint’s and White Pond. He describes the sandy terrain of the bottom near the shore, and publishes his soundings of its depths.

Thus Thoreau the writer couples his poetic vision with that of a scientist. Each perspective nourishes the other. At times it is difficult to separate the two.

At the end of Martin’s presentation a man in the middle of the audience remarked that he had always been of the same mind. “I am a physicist,” he said. “When I do science, I rely heavily upon my poetic insight. Those of us engaged in scientific research treasure the sense of mystery; it pricks our curiosity and generates a sense of awe for the unknown. Any scientist worth his salt will tell you the same. You can’t do one without the other.”

As I turned in my seat to better hear his remarks, I noticed his head cocked to one side with his chin slightly elevated. Even though we sat in the cool basement of the Masonic Lodge, he wore dark glasses.

As the workshop disbanded and disbursed I noticed this man shuffling along hesitantly behind the woman he had been sitting next to. His extended hand clung to her sleeve.

It was only then that I realized that this scientist who was capable of seeing what Thoreau saw was blind.

Sometimes the ability to see is not dependent solely upon our eyes.

A Mozart murdered

The world was stunned and silenced on that bright November day,
When a mad assassin’s bullet took that gallant heart away.

Last Saturday my daughter called to report that she and my son-in-law had made it to Dallas in good stead.  Their flight was on time, smooth, uneventful.  “We walked over to the grassy knoll to see the site of the Kennedy assassination,” she told me.  “I guess the anniversary is coming up on Monday.”

Her words momentarily shocked me.  I had forgotten all about it.  Without thinking, I said:  “Did you see the Texas School Book Depository, the building where Oswald lay in wait for Kennedy’s motorcade to pass by?”

“Yes,” she said.  “They call it something different now.”

I could see it in my mind’s eye:  a seven-story brick structure, a grassy knoll in downtown Dallas, a November day forty-seven years ago.  I was ten years old at the time, peeking at slides under a microscope which a classmate, the son of one of the town’s doctors, had brought to our fifth grade room, when the announcement came over the PA system:  “The President of the United States has been shot.”

At the time I had no words to describe my reaction. The announcement seemed surreal, as though it had come from another place and time light-years away.

It was only later that day when we were sitting in the cafeteria that the final faltering words of our principal struck home:  “The President of the United States is dead.”

If that announcement defined a horrendous act that occurred at a moment in time, it also foreshadowed a decade of violence.  Soon the war in Vietnam would escalate, civil rights workers would be murdered, race riots would break out in Los Angeles.  By the end of the 1960s two additional national leaders would be struck down.  Within a few short years another president would resign in disgrace.

Those of us coming of age in those turbulent times lost not only the innocence of youth; unconsciously, we witnessed the loss of national potential and promise.  By the end of that decade, if we had sent a man to the moon and returned him safely to earth; as a country we had also stained our hands with the blood of thousands of innocent lives.  The torch had been passed to a new generation—a generation of promise—and somehow we had failed to carry it forward.

In the concluding lines of his classic, Wind, Sand and Stars, Saint Exupéry writes:  “I am not weeping over an eternally open wound.  Those who carry the wound do not feel it.  It is the human race and not the individual that is wounded here.  What torments me is not the humps nor hollows nor the ugliness.  It is the sight, a little bit in all these men, of Mozart murdered.”

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.