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.

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First Light

Only that day dawns to which we are awake.  —Thoreau

I awake in darkness and grope for the small chain dangling from the lamp on the bedside table.  A small tug and the room instantly floods with light.

Padding to my office adjacent to the bedroom, I reach for the wall switch. Because this sliding switch incorporates a rheostat, a different sort of illumination ensues.  As the lights come up on stage at the beginning of a performance, so these overhead lights gradually illuminate and define the objects in the room.

I descend the stairs in darkness to the kitchen.  While the coffee brews I peer through the back window.  The first light of morning has sketched out the structures of the ancient garage, the scalloped fence and the trees beyond.  Now merely shades of charcoal grey, these objects will soon take on their true colors in the increasing intensity of the light of the sun.

Back upstairs, cup in hand, I sit at my desk and watch the morning unfold outside:  shadows gradually give way to sharp definition as light makes all things new.

Tacitly, I reach for the slider switch on the wall and dim the artificial illumination within the confines of the office as sunlight streams through the double-hung windows, filling the room.

The season of shadows that has eclipsed our outlook for so long is gradually giving way to the promise of spring.

Living on the edge of being

In an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine on Aug. 26, 1990—Doctor, Talk to Me—Anatole Broyard envisioned the ideal physician who would treat a patient’s body—and his soul:

”In learning to talk to his patients, the doctor may talk himself back into loving his work. He has little to lose and much to gain by letting the sick man into his heart. If he does, they can share, as few others can, the wonder, terror and exaltation of being on the edge of being, between the natural and the supernatural.”

Each one of us lives every moment of our lives on this edge of being, even though most of the time we pass our days totally unaware of it.  In part we are too busy, too caught up in the mundane affairs of everyday living, to glimpse it.  And I suspect that most of us would find living in a constant state of such awareness too intense to bear.  Wonder, terror and exaltation can fill our lives with awe—or burn us out.

As clinicians we are called to minister to our patients in many ways.  Sometimes we are called to talk, sometimes to listen.  In Broyard’s words, we have much to gain by letting our sick patients into our hearts.  The wise clinician learns that compassion helps to heal in ways that medication cannot—and that such healing can be reciprocal as well.

Anthony Martinez, a retired Navy eye surgeon, spends his days doing house calls on the homeless in Washington, D.C.  Each morning he slings a bag of medical supplies over his shoulder and tramps off on foot to visit those who live under bridges or in the street.  Martinez says that his work has given him a newfound purpose in life.  “It helps me deal with my own demons,” he observes.

In her poem “What I Learned from My Mother,” Julia Kasdorf writes:

Like a doctor, I learned to create
From another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
You know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
Healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
The blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

Through the Looking Glass

“Jackie, stop!” I say in my most authoritative voice.  “Stop it now—stop barking!”

I gather the struggling terrier into my arms and try to calm her down while my wife trucks bags of groceries into the kitchen from her car in the driveway.  Still holding the dog, I walk into the parlor, away from the kitchen commotion, where the dog catches sight of herself in the mirror on the wall above the antique settee.  Immediately she cues in, cocks her head, then raises her tiny black nose to sniff the dog in the mirror.  She begins to whine, insisting that I bring her closer.  She gets so excited that she jumps out of my arms and runs back into the kitchen, only to return momentarily and leap up on the sofa, where trembling, she stands on her hind legs and proceeds to paw at the base of the mirror, repeatedly jumping up to see if the other dog is still there.

Later, my wife stacks cushions on the settee so the dog can hop on top of them to catch a glimpse of her reflection.  It appears that she still thinks there’s another dog in there somewhere, through the looking glass, and she’s frustrated that she can’t gain access to it.

A friend of mine, an expert on these matters (he has had at least two dogs in his household at one time or another over the course of the past three decades), tells me that he has witnessed dogs acting in a similar manner when they catch sight of another canine on TV.  They see the dog, they hear him bark; but baffled, they can’t seem to break through into his world.

In his book The Art Spirit, Robert Henri writes:

There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual.  Such are the moments of our greatest happiness.  Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.  If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign.  It was in this hope that the arts were invented.  Sign-posts on the way to what may be.  Sign-posts toward greater knowledge.

Like dogs discovering another dimension through a looking glass, we momentarily glimpse miracles.  Sometimes, struggle though we might, we are unable to make sense of them.  But if we are fortunate, sometimes the light breaks through—and in an epiphany we see truly, face to face.

Such are the sign-posts toward greater knowledge; such are the sign-posts of wisdom.

A New England morning

I am up early, unable to sleep from the remnants of an overnight migraine. I make coffee, feed the cat, pour the coffee, let the cat out the back door and retire to the rocking chair on the front porch.

Here in New England the morning breaks cool under a cloud speckled sky. A slight breeze stirs the leaves on the wisteria that has wrapped its runners around the balustrade and posts on the porch.

On one of the bare branches of an old maple across the street five blackbirds perch, occasionally jostling one another, like patrons shifting on stools at a lunch counter.

The front yard is a sea of color: tall-stemmed tiny deep red flowers hover above a bed of yellow evening primrose. The wild rose on the arched trellis at the end of the walk is approaching full bloom. The bees are busy among the blossoms.

High in one of the neighbor’s white pines a grey squirrel chatters; bluejays perched nearby taunt their retorts. Across the street a chipmunk emerges from the bushes, pauses to make a quick calculation, then darts across the open yard—tiny tail upright, a small cinnamon streak.

The cat pads up the front steps and sits to lick a paw. She settles momentarily to survey the yard, eyeing the bees among the flowers. Off to the left the gravelly drivel of a chipping sparrow bleeds through the cool morning air.

Quietly, I sit and sip my coffee, observing this microcosm of the cosmos at my doorstep. I doubt that I have ever been more alive than at this moment.

The cat, the coolness, the clear calls of birds in the morning—together they spawn moments of peaceful delight.

After the storm

July 12, 2009

Dear Henry,

I lie in bed awake at first light, listening to the crisp calls of an ovenbird. We had another good old-fashioned thunderstorm last night with windy gusts and pouring rain. I got up to close the window by the bed and soon drifted off back to sleep to the sound of rain drumming on the roof. This morning a cool air stirs the leaves on the maples in our back yard. The air smells fresh, newly cleansed by the overnight storm.

I met Joan outside the post office yesterday morning. I know that you never had much good to say about the post office, but in our small town it’s a place where neighbors congregate to learn the latest news in the village. (I know you didn’t think much of the news, either. These days most of us get our news from the Internet, television or radio—but that’s another story.)

Anyway, Joan told me that she and John were heading down to the river for a canoe excursion. The watershed association was sponsoring a downstream paddle to teach participants about local Indian lore. I remembered the day you and your brother John took your students out on the river in the boat you built to the site of an old Indian camp; how you dug down to show them the charred remnants of an ancient fire, and then covered it back up again.

Last week I took a walk down by the river. The path was thick with brambles and mosquitoes; the river high and muddy from unrelenting recent rains.

I noticed the afternoon sunlight reflecting off the current, playing on the undersides of the big leathery heart-shaped leaves of a redbud tree by the water’s edge. I struck out along the path to the park, passing by stands of asters and daisies. The mosquitoes were out, making that infernal buzzing noise about the back of my head. I stumbled along the overgrown path, pausing every now and again to carefully lift a thorny briar shoot out of the way to pass by unscathed.

I chuckled to myself, recalling the time you introduced Nathaniel to a swamp. The mosquitoes were thick that day as well. While you waded out into the brackish water, keen to observe the life pulsating around you, Hawthorne, hands flailing about his face, emitted his desperate cry: “Henry—get me out of here!”

The pond in the park was choked full of green algae; numerous spotted turtles were sunning themselves on half-submerged logs. I stopped to investigate the foamy patches of spittle bugs on the plants by the bank, and scared up a black snake that promptly whipped its way back into the undergrowth. This little pond reminds me of Cat’s Pond in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—the one that you designed—although ours is a bit more rustic. I think you would like it.

The other week we had severe thunderstorms in our area. After work I stopped at the post office to check the mail. As I opened the door on my way out, the sky suddenly lit up overhead and a loud clap of thunder resounded through the village. For a moment everything stood still. Then other doorways opened and people came out into the street to look up at the swirling grey clouds overhead. The lightning had splintered the sky just above us. Everything, it seemed, had come together in that one eternal moment. I thought that you, being a transcendentalist, would have reveled in it.

I didn’t make it up to Concord for the Thoreau Society annual gathering this year. I had too many irons in the fire and found that it was all I could do to tend them without taking time out for a three-day excursion to Massachusetts. It would have been nice to see Walden again; but we have our own ponds here, and the river too.

In any case I thought I’d drop you a line to wish you a happy birthday. Incidentally, the day of your birth is the same as my father’s. He’s 79 this year—a far cry from your 192 years—but then, when it comes to transcendental moments, who’s counting?

Now the sun is up, and once again life is stirring. As you once wrote, there is more day to dawn.

After the storm, goodness comes.

Ex animo,
Brian

Gandhi’s Glasses

Mahatma Gandhi’s steel-framed spectacles, his pair of sandals, bowl, plate and pocket watch recently brought in $1.8 million at auction.  Vijay Mallya, the Indian liquor and airline magnate, announced that he had purchased the items with plans to return them to India.  How ironic that these few items owned by a man who had repudiated materialism commanded such an exorbitant price!

 

A century and a half ago, Henry Thoreau described a similar set of transactions in his “Economy” chapter of Walden:

 

“Not long since I was present at the auction of a deacon’s effects…As usual, a great proportion was trumpery which had begun to accumulate in his father’s day. Among the rest was a dried tapeworm. And now, after lying half a century in his garret and other dust holes, these things were not burned; instead of a bonfire, or purifying destruction of them, there was an auction, or increasing of them. The neighbors eagerly collected to view them, bought them all, and carefully transported them to their garrets and dust holes, to lie there till their estates are settled, when they will start again.”

 

Similar examples of the pursuit of venerated objects abound in history.  Crusaders sought the Holy Grail.  Thousands still journey to Fatima to seek the holy water with healing properties.  Now that she is gone, Mother Teresa’s medical notebook, her white enamel bowl, her crucifix, rosary and brown leather sandals are contemplated with reverence.  Even Thoreau’s flute and rustic furniture that he used during his two-year sojourn at Walden Pond remain on public display in the Concord Museum.

 

Why in our quest of the spiritual do we continually put stock in material things? It’s almost as if we believed that spirituality could be bought instead of sought.

 

Another ironic twist here is that it was Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience that spurred Gandhi to pursue a non-violent philosophy of political resistance—Satyagraha—throughout his life as an ascetic in India.  And in 1999 Gandhi’s grandson in turn participated in the public reading of Thoreau’s essay on the steps of First Church in Concord, Massachusetts, on the 150th anniversary of its publication at the annual gathering of the Thoreau Society.

 

Even though they’re no longer for sale to the highest bidder, perhaps we can still glimpse the world through Gandhi’s eyeglasses—by studying his writings and reading his life story.