The Earth Turns
LETTER to a friend in California ...
I suppose you're having your usual wintertime jollity about the nasty weather "back east" while you revel in the kitten-footed fog, a mere few hours away from desert warmth and seacoast sunshine.
Every headline that describes our blizzards gives you delicious shivers of comfort to know that you don't have to worry about heavy coats or ear-muffs. Every slippery detail of our ice storms, with pictures of youngsters skating down our sidewalks, makes you happy that you don't even own a pair of snow boots.
You love your Christmas parties by the pool with Santa Claus in a swim suit. You love taking a winter weekend in the "ski country" and coming back with a deep sun-tan.
If weren't such a dyed-in-the-long-woolies creature who happens to be a native-born Miami Valley resident, I could whip up a few envious moments thinking about you out there in California. Because, I admit, there are times when the winter coat gets too heavy, the icy slush clogging the headlights makes an added chore, and the daily details of coming and going get a bit much.
But there are compensating moments, my friend. There arc moments of beauty in our blizzardy, icy, treacherous winter weather which you can never know ... you out there in the land of perpetual sunshine, you on that long summer's journey into more summer ...
You missed those special moments one early evening about dusk.
Snow began falling-thick, wet, silent snow. The wind died down. Snow piled up, flake on flake, on every surface, putting bonnets on lamp posts and shawls on fir trees. It lay two inches thick-and as delicate as swansdown-along every branch, every limb, every twig.
The snowflakes captured the daylight and held it for a little longer than it was really there, so that when you walked beneath the weighted, white trees-as I did in my yard-the silent wonder of this world of whiteness had a quality of beauty about it that is not to be captured by camera or brush, but only by the inner self.
Like tufts of cotton, the snow caught on the rough bark of thick tree trunks, and made a shadow pattern of black and white. The big fat moist snowflakes piled up on the strands of the wire fences repeating the same designs over and over. The fancy scalloped tops of the wire fences looked like lace edgings-and the lengths of embroidered wire fence running along the lane looked like lace inserts along the seams of the white wool blanket tucked in all around.
The woodpile curving around the driveway was a joy to behold-the edges of the logs picked out by the snow, and the top fluffed with marshmallow-icing, deep and white.
The redwood bird feeder hung in the little gnarled old tree by the back door had a top hat of snow. When the shower of snowflakes stopped, the birds took turns picking out their favorite seeds, spilling others out on to the ground below. The "second table" had its own group of birds, their feet etching delicate little tracks in the snow.
As I stood quietly in this white world beneath the sagging branches heavy with snow, a streak of brilliant red flashed through. My redbird suddenly detoured en route to the feeder when he caught sight of me. He landed on a snowy branch, making his own snow shower and watched me watching him. He wouldn't take one sunflower seed until after I'd gone inside-but he didn't mind my watching him through the window.
There he was again, next morning, in the same tableau of winter wonderland as if he hadn't moved and we BOTH knew he'd been sleeping all night under the awning over my desk window.
The same snow-but how different in the morning after a quiet night. It had that quality of leftover soapsuds when they've begun to settle a little.
As I drove through the foggy dawn, I could see the soapsudsy snow still had the ability to bestow beauty on the misshapen-the dented garbage can, the tree barbered to permit civilization's power lines to go through, the piles of rubble along the road that is being widened.
But instead of a serene pale beauty of form and shadow, the soapsudsy snow many hours old lent a rakish air to the trees and shrubs, making them into clowns of nature ... that tilted cap on the garbage can, that shrub pretending to be a giant toadstool, that broken tree burlesquing a ballet dancer ...
Chortle and chuckle, too, dear California friend ... the winter winds blow harsh here, it is true. Crumbles of frozen slush are dirty-brown. Winter storms are better to read about than to live through.
Yet I envy you not your perpetual sunshine with the wisps of gentle fog. Your paradise lacks moments of breathless beauty which only winter storms create.
For The Moment
THE AFTERNOON SKY clouded over quickly, a brisk breeze scudding the dark gray cottonstuff ahead of it like heaps of house dust ahead of a broom. The tranquil blue of the spring heavens disappeared even as chords of thunder rolled in from a distance.
The coolish air pushing itself through the house like an uninvited visitor made me scurry about closing windows against the coming storm. With the house quiet and dark, reflecting the lowering gloom of the outdoors, I waited for the onslaught of the rain so I could decide what to do next. Some spring storms are made for napping. Some are so theatrical, it's a pity to sleep through them-that's when I settle myself among the pillows on the porch chaise and become a spectator.
This time the air remained quiet, the sky dark and the thunder rolled off to one side. The drumming rain I'd expected from the preliminaries did not come, although far-off lightning indicated an area miles away was getting drenched.
Ever so slightly, the charcoal-gray sky lightened to a pastel shade and a gentle rain began a soft patter on the roof, on the leaves, on the graveled driveway. Peacefulness quietly embraced my whole world - and it was as if all troubles, all concerns of the moment were illusions.
As naturally as breathing, I moved outdoors to sit in a garden chair pulled under the garage overhang. The leafy branches arched overhead, the curving woodpile glistened in the rain which fell like a whisper. I was in the rain, surrounded by the rain, breathed its wetness, felt its coolness on my face, but sheltered nonetheless by the trees and the roof overhang. There was no necessity to do anything but sit motionless, just absorbing the serenity.
I don't know how long I sat there, not really thinking, merely being.
But, after a while, one bird and then another flew unerringly through the leafy branches to take seeds from the bird feeder. They took no alarm from me. The rain continued, as quiet and gentle as it began. The mother wren continued to fly in and out of the garage, bringing food to her four little ones in the nest in the bushel basket hanging on the inside garage wall. Small birds darted in, searched among the seeds on the feeder ledge, and darted back to the branches, each taking its turn at the feeder. A handsome red-headed woodpecker swooped in and curled his toes around the feeder railing, swinging for a few seconds before scooping up a sunflower seed and flying to a high tree, as a kingsize bluejay flew in from the other direction and came to rest at the feeder. I sat there in utter amazement at how close the birds were, and how
unafraid. In all, I counted 16 different kinds, each taking his turn, hopping from far branch to near one, then down to the feeder hanging about eight feet off the ground, then back into the trees again. Two blackbirds came in low and picked at the "second table," for the seeds spilled in with the gravel.
One smallish bird-a wren, maybe, or a titmouse-took a sunflower seed to a low branch over the woodpile, held the seed in its beak and banged it against the branch until the shell cracked and it could get at what it wanted inside. That's when I noticed the striped chipmunk, as immobile as a painting, poised on top the woodpile. The chipmunk and the bird were no more than 15 inches apart, each aware of the other but at ease.
When my eyes began to take in every detail of my surroundings, I saw then a large, bushy-tailed squirrel a little higher up in the tall old tree. Nothing moved but his eye for almost a minute, and then he scampered down one branch, up another and then settled for a spell in plain sight. All the while the rain fell ever so gently and the little winged and furry creatures moved about in it so naturally. I kept very still, trying to believe my eyes. A movement on the driveway near the gate caught my attention-and there was a young rabbit, sitting on his haunches in the rain, just looking about.
"Oh, my," I breathed to myself. The gentle rain, the colorful, graceful birds, the sassy squirrel and the alert chipmunk, and now a trusting rabbit-all so near, so unafraid. Who would believe me if I told them what I saw? Who would understand, who could share?
Around the corner of the garage came my friend, the gray cat, moving silently to my side, brushing against my leg and then seating himself where I could rub his head and his ears without moving anything but my fingers. His gray fur was wet on the edges but dry underneath. The rabbit was still near the gate. The squirrel was still in the tree, the chipmunk on the woodpile. They saw the cat, the cat saw them-and every creature, including the flicker balancing on the swaying feeder, was aware of my presence among them.
And, for the moment, peace ...
DURING a water shortage in New York City, Tiffany's conserved water by re-circulating gin in its window fountains.
Work Is Joy
IT'S EXCITING, in a way, to watch the farmers in their fields these days. For long dark rainy days on end, they were fidgety and fuming this spring because they couldn't get out to do their plowing and planting.
They did barn chores. They did a little fixin' around the house. They went to town. But, mostly, they looked out on the water-logged world with dismal eyes and made various predictions of doom depending on when the rains stopped and when the fields dried out enough.
It was a time of waiting, impatient waiting, with all kinds of plans for the future hinging on the weather.
When the rain let up for a day, some went straight to the fields trying to convince themselves they could get a good start. There'd be talk of this one and that who had bogged down because the earth was too wet too deep. Farmers who had been through this kind of spring before cast wary eyes on the thin watery sunshine-but made no move to rev up the tractors.
And then the sun came out. And stayed out. One day and then another full of golden sunshine that brought warmth and cheer and comfort to city and farm alike. But it was to the farmers themselves that the sun brought hope and vigor, extra energy and smiles.
The whole country side is abuzz with the sound of farm machinery.
The appearance of familiar farmland changes from morning to night. Fenced acres that look neglected at dawn are plowed and planted by nightfall. Even after dark, tractor headlights continue their bobbing back and forth as the farmers work to make up for lost time.
The farmers sit like kings on top those big pieces of equipment that prepare the ground for harvest.
They pull their battered hats and caps low to shade their eyes, and they set about the big business of preparing to feed the world with a personal pride that you can see. Their backs are straight, their movements sure. When they turn to watch the earth flowing in brown ribbons behind them, there is a strength and beauty about the whole scene, one small facet of what it means to live here.
Here and there, a woman sits high on the powerful farm machinery, handling the big stuff with practiced ease. Her hair is covered with a scarf, sometimes tied over a cap, and she's wearing heavy rough clothing. However masculine her clothes and her task, there's a pride of purpose in her bearing, too.
There's excitement in the countryside now-the farmers are about their appointed work.
Melody of Now
THE LAKE is heaped with whipped chiffon mist these cool early September mornings. It is fluffed along the surface like topping on a pudding-and it disappears as quickly when the sun rises above the treetops.
When a breeze stirs, dry leaves clatter down on the low roof. Brown and crisp, they slip off and settle among the gravel and stones beside the back door. With the smooth pebbles that are, individually, shades of pink and pearl, coffee and bisque, brown and jet, the curled dry leaves form an Aubusson carpet with a pattern subject to the whims of the wind.
Around the base of the gnarled old red haw, the leaves overlap, sometimes almost covering the little iron frog, painted green, that sits there. Occasionally, two or three brown leaves will fall in a heap on the pink concrete turtle, giving it a tipsy halo.
The leaves fall into the bird bath, floating on the surface until they bump into the brown ceramic turtle. Then, depending on the movement of air at the moment, either the leaves sink or the half-submerged turtle is temporarily stymied against the side of the bird bath.
Neither the leaves, nor the ceramic turtle, nor the variously sized colored stones in the bird bath bother the birds. They don't drink from it, or bathe.
The birds home in on the feeder with its largess of cracked corn. They take turns swaying on the branches until they can feather in, scoop up a beakful and take to the trees again.
Sometimes their flirting among the leafy branches will unhook the little red haws and they'll come tumbling down to add a brilliant dot or two to the leaf-and-stone carpet.
The red haws, in all shades from bright red to russet, have their own time to fall-and that is one of nature's mysteries that utterly fascinates me. I can sit outdoors in unmoving silence, listening to the red haws rattle down on the roof, roll and then plop among the stones. Some hit green leaves along the way, or bring a few dry leaves along with them. When the wind blows, they clatter like children running and laughing along the lane.
Yet, in the most silent of the quiet moments, with no wind, no birds stirring, a red haw will simply let loose of its twig and come down to earth. It's an autumn melody I never tire of hearing.
Sept. 10, 1966
Gift of light
ONE OF the delights of driving in the countryside in the fall of the year is seeing the harvest of field and orchard spread om on roadside stands.
Orange pumpkins and red apples, jugs of cider and ears of Indian corn, bittersweet and squash-all piled in colorful profusion in front of farmhouses. Some apples are already in bushel baskets, some make a bright red mound on the grass near the pumpkins and squash.
Sometimes the youngsters in the family take care of the customers attracted by the displays. Sometimes it's an elder member of the family, sitting in a rocker on the lawn, who sits and watches cars go by-until one stops.
In early morning, the harvests to share are still under the trees on the front lawn-covered against the night dews with transparent plastic cloths. Their supplies are always replenished from more in the barn.
The pumpkins and apples and cider somehow look as if they belong when they're found in front of little farms. When I'd see the same produce, trucked in from who knows where, laid out in supermarket abundance along the ground in front of empty buildings at busy intersections, I'd inwardly cringe at the sight. It looked too businesslike. The crass merchandising took away the romance of the harvest.
Then, one unexpected shaft of sunlight changed everything-the scene at the intersection of routes 40 and 49, and my attitude toward it.
Until that moment when I stopped for a traffic light at this busy transcontinental highway the other morning, the day had been hazy and overcast with a hint of rain. I had no need of dark glasses as I drove east and southeast into the young day. The sun was veiled.
I hesitated there in comparative quiet, awaiting the signal change.
It's a "long light" and usually there are big tractors and trailers swinging into and around the intersections, and sometimes farm pickups and lots of motorists going to work in Dayton and many travelers with out-of-state licenses on their cars and grim determination on their faces. This time, traffic was light and, without cars going by, the time to wait seemed longer.
I looked without interest at the pumpkins and apples and jugs of cider laid on the ground in front of an empty building that used to house a restaurant and service station.
Then a shaft of golden sunlight cascaded through the overcast and the whole dismal corner with its peeling paint and dusty ground was bathed in a spotlight of purest radiance.
The transparent jugs of cider became gems of glowing amber.
The pumpkins were shining as if each had been polished with oil and then placed with an artist's touch in a still-life arrangement.
The apples were not apples but red and yellow and green jewels in a stained-glass painting.
The fruits of the harvest were so brilliant in their colors that the dingy siding of the empty building and the grass less hard ground were perfectly cast to complement the cornucopia of abundance.
The traffic, the hum of motors, the mechanics of an electrically-controlled intersection were erased, leaving nothing but sheer beauty to behold.
Everything, including my attitude, was changed in an instant-by a single shaft of light illumining the shadows.
Oct. 29, 1964
PAUL, 5, accompanied his father to a neighborhood church for a church supper. They arrived at a busy time when the dining tables were completely filled and there was a line of hungry people waiting. So father and son walked upstairs to the sanctuary and sat down in an empty pew to wait quietly until they could go down to supper.
Others arriving at about the same time had the same idea so there were quite a few people sitting quietly when Paul made his clear, concise and pertinent remark.
The youngster rook a good long look around the church which was new to him since it was his first visit. Suddenly he spied a statue in a niche along the wall.
“Well, I'll be a son-of-a-gun," he said, in a loud, clear voice, "if it isn't my old friend, Jesus!"
For This, Too-
GOING AND COMING in this season of darkness has its compensations. Fret not that the days are growing shorter and the nights longer. Rejoice that to you who must be out and about in the darkness of early day and early evening comes the rare privilege of seeing incomparable sunrises and sunsets.
No two are ever alike. No two have ever been alike since the beginning-and never will be forevermore.
Each sunrise and each sunset-universal and available to all mankind everywhere-nevertheless is an individual experience. You and only you, alone, can see this natural wonder in one particular way. Another standing at your side, looking in the same direction, sees the same sunrise, the same sunset, in still another phase because even to blink an eye is to change the picture in a twinkling.
The earth turns, the winds shift, the clouds deepen or disintegrate in varying degrees and, to each who has the wisdom to look and be silent, there is an ever new yet old, ever constant and changing wonderment.
To see a sunrise or a sunset with the inner eye is like a prayer that wells from within and never makes a sound.
The eye sees the rosy edge of light at the horizon while the earth is still dark. As you watch, the deep rose lightens and spreads upwards into the sky and then the naked trees are etched in tracings of black against the rosy-pinks, appearing much statelier than when they were fully leafed.
The morning clouds catch fire from the sun. Don't look away now - this is when the shadings of color are their most elusive, their most delicate, in those few breathless moments before the light o'erspreads the land. Let the day begin then ...
At eventide, it is the land that holds the light while the sun moves out of reach in a grand splashing of reds and oranges. Sometimes the colorings are so blatant, so garish you are embarrassed at the wholesale richness spilled over everything. For an instant, you feel this wealth of color should be contained in a lovely place where the unseeing could not sully it with their ignorance, where only the deserving could feast upon it ... and even before this thought is wholly formed, it is wrenched right out of your mind by the recognition that this sunset is not for one, nor for all-this sunset is merely being and it is the individual's responsibility to experience the grandeur.
It is here, then, that the inner eye begins to see the sunset in color richer than a king's ransom of jewels and gold. It is here, then, that a glimpse of truth is a sudden never-to-be-forgotten thing.
It is here, in this moment, that a wordless prayer is formed and you do nor know how nor why.
For this, too-on this day-let me be thankful ...
Nov. 26, 1964
A CERTAIN WIFE in Greenville was much in demand for church committees because she was such a good and faithful worker full of ideas and energy. In fact, she was on so many committees and chairman of so many projects that she didn't spend much time at home. Her husband mentioned that it would be nice if she could see her way clear to stay home a little more and she promised she really would try-but as soon as she got rid of one committee, two more would spring up in its place.
Her husband gave up pleading and begging; he gave up cajoling and wheedling; he even stopped heckling. It was just as well. Nothing worked. Except his wife-she kept on working at the church.
Finally he printed a large notice. And, in the style of Martin Luther, he posted it on the outside church door for all the world to see. It read:
"St. Maria, come home."
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