Sunday, September 1, 2013


Sitting here, nowhere really, north Jersey in the mist, the floating world flanked by 1,500-foot mountains, not fifty miles from New York, you can't be more specific than that, on the first day of September wondering whether or not there is more to sussing out the secrets of life than this: listening to The Caretaker's soundtrack for that circumambulatory movie about Sebald, called Patience, you remember the name now, unlike so many things forgotten, the Schubertian piano obscured by static, by noise, by interference, imagine a figure walking through East Anglia trying to make sense of the ghost-like presences standing off to the side of the road. You believe they're moving, or maybe murmuring, but they're always obscured, like the far side of the lake this morning, barely visible, though undoubtedly people are moving through their kitchens preparing breakfast, in the stillness it is possible to make out the faint clacking of spoons on saucers, measuring time, and you can spy through the mist the great blue heron, that old croaker flapping, a primordial creature from prehistory, coming from nowhere, going nowhere.

There is no wind and your mind is full of holes. You put on an old pair of shorts and a stained t-shirt given to you by a bookseller in Colorado who also liked Ed Abbey, reminding you that untrammeled growth is the ideology of the cancer cell, and that it's impossible to know how many more years humans will have on this earth. You come across a slick in the macadam, the smeared body of a dead toad who used to inhabit the vegetation running above the creek bed in your back yard. He'd sit in the sun watching the rose-of-sharon come into full bloom, quiet as a rock. Dig your toes into the lake bottom along the bank and feel your future life -- spongy, dark, feculent, giving off a fine scent of putrefaction. Cause for the insect hosannas at the mouth of the creek.

Stop at nothing.

Just when you've begun to learn to live where you are, you realize it's taken sixty effing years. "The lake is a window into the earth." Poetry teaches you nothing, but it can be a comfort. Go down into Vernon Valley and cut across Maple Grange Road. Everything is wet. Walk uphill at the Black Creek Historic Site and look northwest to the hills, obscuring the Wallkill River Valley. Listen. The earth itself sounds like an orchestra tuning up before a grand performance. There are chickadees, warblers, and goldfinches scattered in the shrubbery, barely achitter this morning, and an Eastern Phoebe leading you over the path, keeping its distance. Overhead a bald eagle is mobbed by starlings. Everything is gray-green -- the sky, the hills, the birds, the horses, the way you came. There are no other colors in your heart. God, what you wouldn't do to carry another color in your heart.

You think to yourself, hell, I've lived so long in books that I can't tell what I've read from what I've experienced. As though the two things were distinct and very different. It's early morning but the world sounds like a Chopin nocturne, limpid, deceptively simple, something you ought to be able to play, but when you do, it sounds off, too artificial by half. Breathe deep and look around at the teeming woods, the ballfields and goalposts below, the quiet construction equipment parked where the farmhouse and silo used to be. Listen to the occasional pick-up running along Route 517. Such freedom. The way the dragonflies hover above the cattails. When you were young it was obvious that humans stood at the apex of the evolutionary pyramid. Our kind was so smart, we had conquered all. Now you're no longer sure, studying the wisdom of the cormorant, the groundhog, the cricket, their ingrained habits, their avoidance of us, their inability to foretell death. These animals have no future, they are secure in the present. We have a future but it exists perpetually just beyond our grasp. The fog grows denser. A New York Times alert on the iPhone announces another death, this time it's David Frost, of a heart attack on a cruise ship, coming just after Seamus Heaney in Dublin, and less than two weeks ago Elmore Leonard outside Detroit. You continue to look for presences off to the side of the road, creatures almost visible, their outlines as indistinct as blown smoke. These days the obituary columns get longer and longer, it takes hours to go through them, the public memorials, but the private grief that you will never outgrow, it comes and goes as it will, as momentary as a whiff of perfume, as powerful as a thunderhead. You get back in the car. It is drizzling and the sky is black to the southwest. Go back up the mountain to the lake where it no longer feels or smells like summer. It is time to prepare the soil for the coming of winter.

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