Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Day in Sussex County

From the Bellevale Creamery parking lot on Mt. Peter, staring at Venus above the great bowl of the Wallkill watershed, brighter than any town beneath it, I saw my first bats of the summer, criss-crossing the air above the westward sloping meadow, feeding on the insect life all around them, diving, braking, fluttering, silhouetted against the last light streaks of lilac running into midnight blue, big brown bats, the commonest of species up here, whose presence signaled that we human beings hadn't totally wrecked the natural order of things yet, though we keep trying to, god knows. Everyone likes the spectacle of a sunset, the banality of pinks and golds, purples and blues, strung out at the end of the day for our viewing pleasure. A picture perfect postcard, the coming down of the curtain, the day's petty dramas put to bed. The fat freckled families who arrive in their Odysseys and Town & Countrys, the gray toothless bikers on their Harleys, the young dark-skinned couples in their Scions and Civics, they take their ice cream in cones and cups, then go outside and stare at the sunset, licking away, silent at first. Soon the little ones start running around and, after a while, the adults begin talking, a comforting chatter, the happy sound of human speech braving nightfall. Someone cranks up their car stereo, Creedence Clearwater Revival, James Taylor, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" crooned sweetly over a strummed ukulele. It's hard not to get caught up in the moment, among your fellow citizens, the sentimental ones, dwelling in the past, staring at the western sky, eating ice cream, and feel that we still have a way to go before the firestorm comes to burn the land clean.

Individuals die and no species lasts forever. Even the sun is gonna kick the bucket some day -- no more sunsets, poot. The earth itself is cooling rock, still molten inside, subject to physical laws beyond our control if not our description. No god ordained it, though sometimes it appears as though somebody intended that we humans should arrive on the scene and take over atop the food chain, the whole world our breadbasket. These people with their waffle cones and pot bellies, their mad chatter and baseball caps, these insatiable human beings, they are the crown of creation, at the top of the heap, in royal command. If one of them was to stretch out his right arm and smite the rock beneath his feet, the very earth would open. We are gods who roam the earth, enslaving all other species, who continue to exist by our grace. We breed them for our pleasure and our need, and eradicate them when they cross us. We have no use for superfluous life, though some weak-kneed souls derive an aesthetic kick out of the grotesque, the rare, the odd. Pity them -- you've seen one tree, you've seen them all. That was Reagan, the exemplary American, the man who could wear a brown suit, tell a
Reader's Digest joke, and still look like a god. Yet he moved among us like an ordinary man, got old and sick, and died. A forgetful god.

In his ascendancy, he truly was a lifeguard, taking upon himself the quintessential American actor's role, to dive in after the drowning child, the foolish girl who went too far out, the old man whose skiff had capsized. He was our lifeguard, and the world's too, watching out for the poor and downtrodden, the Slavs, the Latins, the tribes of Africa and Asia, the sick children of the world, watching them in his noontide benevolence, high in his lifeguard's tower, ready to breast the wave and save a body at a moment's notice. An American god in the guise of a lifeguard roamed the earth. Let no one begrudge us our pride.

It was the last night of the fireman's fair, you could see fireworks down in the valley and hear the booms ride the northwest breeze and echo between the mountains. We are lifeguards and firemen, those who face danger to save others, protectors of the world. It is hard work. Let us have our night out, riding the ferris wheel and the whip, watching the little ones on the ponies, as our fat suburban families pile out of their big vehicles, sunburnt, chattering madly away, each and every one a god unto himself, an overseer, an actor. Licking our ice cream cones, our candied apples, our waffle fries, faces smeared with ketchup and powdered sugar, we are the lifeguards of the world, with our greasy chops and broken veins.

This morning I went down to the lake and canoed the perimeter before the sun got too high. It was already warm at six-thirty. A bear was methodically going through my neighbor's garbage having spread it out piecemeal along the dry creekbed. In the grass by the canoe landing, I picked up two empty cans of Natural Ice, the plastic wrapping off a pack of Hebrew National hot dogs, a Red Bull can, numerous carcasses of Roman candles and firecrackers, and a package of Gary Yamamoto hula grub bait. I always bring a garbage bag with me when I go out on the lake. I thought to myself, it would be so easy to start a fire and let the whole world burn, so the gods could start over again. Then I thought, nah, they will never come back. This is it. This is where we live. I hauled the trash bag back to the cottage and dumped it in a critter can. I made a pot of fresh coffee. There was nothing to do but wait until my neighbors woke up. And then? What could I tell the gods that they would listen?


  1. This posting reminded me of a discussion you and I once had in high school. We were sitting at your house reflecting how powerful us humans perceive ourselves. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, we are incredibly fragile. The sun consumes itself in nuclear fusion at millions of degrees (Fahrenheit or Centigrade? it is still millions of degrees) and most of space is at absolute zero temperature. Despite this broad range of temperature, there is only a range of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit where we feel comfortable (less for some people).

    Compounding the fragility, I remember one of our tenth grade teachers Dick Gaudino (remember him?) said that due to a slight anomaly in the temperature dependent density of water, we would not even exist. That is, while water becomes increasingly dense as it cools it becomes less dense, just before it reaches freezing point.

    In our daily existence, most of us do not regularly ponder the fragility of all life (at least I don't). I occasionally look at images posted on the web from outer space. It looks very cold and empty out there. If there are intelligent extra terrestrial life forms (perhaps there are), I guess they are only talking to a few reporters from the National Enquirer.

    Maybe if more humans understood and meditated on this fragility at a profound level for just a few minutes a day, we would do fewer stupid things as society. I'm not talking about the type of prayer that institutional religion promotes. I'm talking about something that makes people feel the fragility at a deeper level.

  2. I meant "EXCEPT for a slight anomaly in the...."

  3. Now I am really obsessing!!

    The teacher I refer to might not have been Gaudino. Mr. Fillin perhaps? I realized this while I was leaving to grab lunch.

    My need to post this correction reflects my insecurity with my memory as I approach the seventh decade.

    Oh well! I better get back to work.