via Beside the River
Some days you don’t know when you need to be beside a river. Until you’re there.
Times when you become quite wrapped up in worldly traps and concerns. Times like we’re now facing as a worldwide species under attack from an unseen and unpredictable virus, a threat so small yet so huge we can’t see it nor know how to combat it. Times like now.
For me sitting along a river doesn’t seem as an isolation. Does this makes me different?
If truth was to be revealed, I didn’t turn my bucket upside down for a front row seat alongside the river because I was seeking meditative moments. It was more selfish, for I did so because I was hungry for a requisite first springtime meal of pan-fried channel catfish. Over the weekend we had stopped at the local bait shop for our new licenses and somehow ended up back in the car with a carton of earthworms. An underpinning of the subconscious? After spending a portion of the day at the computer preparing for an upcoming board meeting, I decided to go fetch that meal. And I know of a place right on the bend of the nearby Pomme de Terre.
I was not well prepared. Or, should I say, organized. I had my carton of worms and cell phone. My river rod wasn’t in the car. Finding it took a good 15 minutes. So instead of leaving here at 3 o’clock it was now a quarter past. Since I mainly fly fish I didn’t have my river tackle box, so another 15 minutes or so was spent searching for that. Naturally it was where I had first looked, though it was upside down and hidden beneath some stuff. The edge of one corner wasn’t enough for proper identification. Just as I was ready to back from the garage I noticed the bucket, so I stopped and went to fetch it. Sitting on a bucket far outweighs standing alongside a river. Especially at my age. By now it was 20-to, and the river bend was a half hour distant.
Some kind soul from either the county or township had backed a weed-whacker over the course from the gravel road to the river bank, so it didn’t take long to climb down to the river edge to cast a line. Fishing for channel catfish takes patience for you bait up and try to place your bait on a cut of current and wait. As much as you try to find them, it is actually the other way around. Using their sensory barbels, also known as “whiskers,” they come to you on their own murky schedule … usually taking their own, sweet time. You try to find some slow water coming back toward the current where fish can lurk for a passing meal. Catfishing means you mostly wait, and the waiting gives you cause to look around. It was while looking around that I began to breathe and take note of the surroundings, that I realized my need all along was to be along a river.
Moments into the quietness a pair of wood ducks winged by within the awakening canopy. This was my wakeup call. A small wader took a bath on a spit of wadable mud, then flew off right past me down river before returning several moments later for more wading and bathing. Its colors were much like a killdeer, though it was a smaller bird. Next came a belted kingfisher with its dippy dive of flight. The blue and whiteness clamped onto a branch across the river, choosing sightlines at the bend for both up and down river, the colors a contrast to all around it.
Below my feet in the river itself, small rivulets provided a Zen-like sound. This is not the rhythmic crashing of a surf but rather a burbling — quite soft and as equally hypnotic. Clear waters rolling over small, river-rounded weathered stones. Across the way, beneath the bridge, yet just distant enough that the sound blended with rather than overwhelm, was a louder rumble as the previous burbling waters now crashed around a bridge buttress before crescendoing over a log. Two completely distinct water sounds. Distinct yet symphonic. Then I noticed the “barks” of pheasants in the nearby restored native prairie, and from downriver came the honking of a pair of excited geese. Yellow-rumped Warblers added a trilling lift, while across the river and down the ravine came the staccato syncopated drumming of an unseen woodpecker. It was a natural spring symphony worthy of Aaron Copland!
In the midst of all of these sounds and sights of nature a five pound channel cat came to the hand, though intended, it now seemed an unexpected bonus. All around buds were breaking out in the trees lining the river, adding Georges Seurat styled dotings of red and yellow liveliness to this background of remnant bleakness and brownness of the past forestal winter. Suddenly there was a sound. Somehow a pair of wood ducks had landed unseen just around the bend, and by standing and peeking through the underbrush I could see them fighting the current as they weaved their way around a deadfall.
I wondered if all of this sound and beauty had been here all along and if it was me who needed to adjust in order to notice, or if it was nature that had somehow adjusted to an intruder in its midst before coming out of hiding? In my similar intrusions into the woods it always seemed so deathly quiet for several long moments … seemingly a half hour or so … before a nuthatch or chickadee flutters to perch on a nearby branch, or that a red squirrel suddenly full of courage races across the detritus to scurry up an oak; that above it all is a redtail hawk drifting in the bluish sky. It seemed that way here, along the river.
Whether sitting in the duff with my back against a tree in a forest on a warm, sunny autumn afternoon, or along the bank of the Pomme de Terre river come spring, I feel I must use the time and patience of meditation to fully appreciate all within my surroundings … of how I as the stranger may comfortably fit into this momentary and meditative slice of nature. It seems that in the silence I’m accepted, and in unlabored breathing my senses eventually align with the surrounding nature. What better place than on a bend of the river?
For many reasons, not the least of which is the current lockdown strategies of Covid-19, I’ve been thinking of Earth Day. Yes, it’s the 50th anniversary, which is somewhat surprising in how it ages me. For it was 50years ago while working for the Denver Post that I helped cover the initial Earth Day celebration at the old Auditorium.
Some are old enough to recall those times when a nasty, grayish hazy smog was so heavy in most major cities, including Denver, that it was difficult to breathe. Just the year before the Cuyahoga River erupted into a blazing fire raging through downtown Cleveland, and out in Santa Barbara an oil spill spewed three million gallons of crude oil into the ocean to create an oil slick some 35 miles long. It now ranks as the third worst oil spill in human history. No longer the worst, but third worst!
There was no EPA. Here in Minnesota, there was no MPCA. Mats of algae and sewage was so prevalent and thick pundits jokingly suggested people could walk bank-to-bank across the Mississippi between St. Paul and Hastings. A year later, and just a month before the initial Earth Day, a huge soy oil storage tank ruptured at the Honeymead Soybean Products in Mankato sending 2.5 millions gallons of soy oil into the streets and the Minnesota River, eventually reaching the Mississippi downriver where just a month prior to that an oil plant rupture in Savage had already sent about a million gallon of crude oil into the two rivers. Into all that algae and sewage.
Environmentally the world was a damned mess. A mess that a lone senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, used to motivate activists across the country to organize that first Earth Day celebration on April 22, 1970. There were a couple of bands and numerous speakers, and seated in the front row was a fellow I wouldn’t have expected being there. When I uttered my surprise, he said, “Why wouldn’t I be? This is important.”
His presence and comment gave me just enough impetus to view the story with an added importance. Since I have found some way to celebrate subsequent Earth Days, be it a column written for my former country weekly, or a picture and caption with reference to the significance of the day. Twice my “Art of Erosion” photojournalistic effort was featured in Earth Day exhibitions, which includes 20 large canvases depicting dirt erosion along with several educational panels. Somewhere through the years, and it might have been at the initial Denver celebration, it was mentioned that there is “no Planet B.” There still isn’t.
Seemingly this singular message has either been lost or ignored by many, including our current president, his advisors and too many members of the Republican Party. Sometimes I think of Gaylord Nelson and wonder what he would think now, some 15 years after his death, of how the many safeguards and efforts to slow the degradation of the environment have been cast aside for basic greed. That lack of environmental goodwill sadly continues to erode and come under attack by President Trump and his cronies. But, I digress …
A few years after the initial Earth Day, Nelson was the keynote speaker at a National Farmers Union convention in Laramie, Wyoming, which was consequently hit by a blinding blizzard during the first night of the event. NFU president John Stencil after the evening events opened his suite to Nelson, Walter Mondale and other key figures, and offered me an invitation.
Although we had a wonderful time, especially late in the evening when Nelson and Mondale started swapping stories from the Senate and Washington, as we stood by a food tray I asked Nelson if those Earth Day efforts had met his expectations. Nelson, who was both gracious and quick with a smile, said he was surprised by the initial response which reportedly was celebrated by some 20 million people from grade schools to large community events like the one in Denver.
He explained that he had initially met with some of the more influential protest leaders in Madison, where he had served as governor before being elected to the Senate, and the strategy was established that the key to success would be for it to be a grassroots effort coordinated in local areas rather than something being originated from Washington. “We needed to convince people that we were facing an environmental crisis,” he said. “What has happened to date is hopefully just a start.”
In a later interview he told a reporter, “We felt if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda. It worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize the 20 million demonstrators who participated from thousands of schools and local communities,” he said, before adding, “That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”
And led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency nationally, and consequently from state to state formations of departments like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency … all of which are seemingly targeted for being dismantled by the Republican Party.
Meeting and covering Nelson helped inspire my own environmental consciousness. Soon afterwards I would interview Dr. Stephen Schneider, then with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, for a story in which he explained a scenario that would later be termed “global warming.” I don’t recall where it was “played” in the paper that following Sunday, although it didn’t make the front page. About that time Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” landed in my lap, adding a poetic background to my becoming a “tree huggin’ environmentalist.”
I might add that this is a label I thoroughly enjoy and take seriously. It is also a path that led me to become a long time board member of CURE (Clean Up the River Environment), a Minnesota Master Naturalist as well as an artist with an intent to capture what remains of the last one percent of the native prairie and its natural wetlands in what was the most thorough and devastating dismantling of an ecosystem on planet earth. Perhaps this lifetime journey began with covering that first Earth Day 50 years ago, and a friend who said, “Why wouldn’t I? This is important.”
Earlier this week we awoke to a fog so heavy and dense we could barely see the bird feeder tree some 30 feet or so from the bedroom window. Foggy mornings, a special treat of environmental “softness”, generally pull me outside to commune with nature’s many offerings. Most times with a camera in hand.
You see, I bank ideas. Image thoughts. Sometimes as we’re driving I’ll pass something that makes me think it will make a subject in the right light. Like in a heavy fog, perhaps. A tree down the way in a bit of a prairie hollow I’ve passed probably 100 times always make me think of fog. And now just south of town is a hill of emerging pasqueflowers going into spring bloom. I sensed an early morning calling. As we gathered around the steaming water pot for morning tea and coffee, a particular pasqueflower image came to mind, of the pastel purplish flower blending into the softness of fog. This is easier to visualize than explain, and perhaps it’s something Georgia O’Keeffe might have painted were she a prairie artist.
So we quickly loaded up for the drive to my favorite patch of pasqueflowers, a route that conveniently took us past the tree down the road. And past the wetland up on the hill above our upper prairie that sometimes offers me framing for Northern Lights minus light pollution from farms to the north of us. Driving in dense fog is often chilling, for in my newspapering days I covered too many accidents, including some fatalities, on foggy roads. Seems there is always some asinine fool who quite possibly thinks to him or herself that they can see just fine without headlights in dusk, blizzards and fogs … and in every single fog wreck I covered it was because an unaware driver couldn’t see a car coming toward them because the other driver didn’t have on their lights.
Thankfully we safely survived our way several miles due south of here to the pasqueflowers. The gate had a beautiful long resting necklace of heavy dew drops stretching across the horizontal rounded metal beams. Across the hill itself tiny blossoms poked through scraggly grass that perhaps had never seen a plow, and hopefully never will. I don’t remember ever seen pasqueflowers on a restored prairie, and certainly not on mine here at Listening Stones Farm. This isn’t uncommon among prairie forbs, and many of which are so rare they’re on an endangered species list. Dense grasses also seem to crowd out the delicate rooting systems of pasqueflowers.
With the O’Keeffe inspiration in mind I began scouting for just the right blossom, one that angled freely toward the gray sky. Most were hugging the slope of the hillside too closely for my visualization. Such disappointment isn’t rare. For years I’ve carried a mental image of a series of four or five pasqueflower blossoms pointing away like a small choir of bonneted singers. Not once have I found a cooperative bunch. One blossom will be pointing off in a different direction, or one or two will be split just far enough away that the focal range isn’t right. That is the will of nature, for it is rarely there for our beck and call.
My writer friend, Tom Watson, calls my affliction, these unmet visionary dreams, “the Dulcinayas to my Don Quixote photo quest.” Perhaps he’s right, although these visualizations fuel my “artistic fires” enough to get me into the field. Time and time again. I’m not a painter. I must work with nature as it presents itself. I cannot create a nature I cannot see. Painting is not my art.
Maybe, though, I was looking for the wrong things. Rather than dealing with the dissatisfaction of not finding my pastel blossom high and free enough of the lay of the land, perhaps I should think and look more metaphorically … to seek imagery within this vast fogginess much like we are all searching for hope within the fogginess of our coronavirus pandemic. While Mary and I are somewhat fortunate in our age that we are settled in our respective ways, we are no different than anyone else in our search of hope. Could this dense, foggy morning on the hillside overlooking the Minnesota River serve as a metaphor for our lives right now? In finding positivity? Hope?
That simple change of thought altered my view significantly. Looking at the broader view, of challenging myself to see within the grayness the small things, small pasqueflowers seemed to appear in all directions. A near carpet of them. Nearby, as if magic, dozens of birds appeared as leaves on a tree truly barren of them. Being partially deaf I had not heard them, and up to that moment when I started to look around me I hadn’t seen them. Dew droplets, clung to the dried dormant autumn-browned plants, glistened like miniature diamonds even in the gloomy grayness. Trees disappeared ghostlike in the grayness, silhouettes shading away into oblivion. All of this brought a deep and reflective sigh. I had not found just a single Dulciana, but rather many that surpassed my thoughts of a simple if hidden beauty … Don Quixote be damned!
As we delve deeper into the weeks and possibly months of the pandemic shutdown and social distancing, seeking elements of hope and beauty becomes paramount for our individual health and harmony. This is what we need, individually and collectively, as we traverse this health fog that has settled upon all humanity. We must find and concentrate on jewels of hope beyond our limited vision. For now our personal survival depends on finding the small pasqueflowers and murmurations resting in treetops … however hope may be defined to us individually. Those small tokens of hope and beauty are all we have at this point and time; absolute yet small, but beauties to grasp just the same.
As we head into our third … or is it our fourth? … week of pandemic social distancing, our local Big Stone Arts Council is challenging us to promote something so severely needed throughout our souls and communities: Hope. A church in town has those four letters prominently displayed in windows facing our main street of commerce.
Unfortunately, for some, fear has become an overriding mental hurdle that seemingly overshadows a sense of hope. Some cannot pull themselves away from the constant news and propaganda channels, hanging onto numbers, breakouts and disgruntlements of the political arena. Some feel locked in with few, if any, avenues of escape either physically or mentally. Some are virtually paralyzed by fear … that they might contact the coronavirus and die; that life as they knew it will never be the same; that there are family members they’ll never hug or touch again; that financial ruin and joblessness awaits each and every one of us, and perhaps even for mankind, world-wide.
All are valid concerns, and I have them as well. Yet I’m also feeling hopeful, and much of that hope has sprung from our artist community. Poets are posting themselves reading poetry. Painters are displaying some of their works since being sequestered. Many musicians are posting videos to cheer us up daily with free, online songs and music concerts. Away from the worldly touch provided by artists via social media, Spring is coming to life outside our windows and walls. That outside world is still vivid, valid and real, or as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”
Feathers and perches! Songs without words! Out past our windows a Wood Duck drake and hen returns to the grove. Goldfinches appear at the feeders in full mating plumage. Swans and geese continue to fly over, and out beyond us are reported sightings of Great Blue Herons and Sandhill Cranes. A single Pasque Flower was seen sprouting on a nearby hill. Ah, yes, beyond fear is a world of life continuing. A natural world showing us hope!
Fear and hope are both rather basic to our human spirit. And, yes, it’s natural to feel fear in such a time of uncertainty. Hopelessness didn’t limit the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who penned a book after he was exiled in the early 1960s during the devastating war in his native Vietnam called “The Lotus in a Sea of Fire.” It’s theme? Hope.
Thich Nhat Hahn, known affectionately to his followers as “Tay,” led a remarkable life in exile. Shortly after leaving his birth country Tay taught Comparative Religion at Princeton University in 1961, then spent the following year teaching and researching Buddhism at Columbia University before heading to Paris. Eventually he formed the first Buddhist temple in the “Western World” in the Bordeaux region of France he called Plum Village, which still exists. Teachings continue today during this worldwide pandemic via social media, and, yes, “hope” is still the basic message.
Tay is also an artist, and was once a nominee for a Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King was among his close friends. His life was full of both immense challenge and incredible success, surrounding his visions of peace and hope, starting in his youth at 16 entering the monastery to his eventual return after 39 years of exile to Vietnam following a massive stroke in 2014. And, yes, he was intimately aware of the perils of politics. “In order to rally people, governments need enemies … if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us,” he wrote.
Yet, there was always that four letter word. “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
Our worldwide human society is now in uncertain times. We are both mandated and encouraged to practice social distancing in hopes of “lowering the curve” on a pandemic that may cost hundred of thousands of lives in the U.S. alone. We have been asked to remain homebound with prospects of having a completely different “normal” if and when the Covid-19 crisis is abated and/or controlled. We face this uncertainty with fear, for we have no model to look toward in searching for a future. Right now hope is a thread we must grasp.
Said Tay: “People sacrifice the present for the future. But life is available only in the present. That is why we should walk in such a way that every step can bring us to the here and the now.”
Here are a few more thoughts from Thich Nhat Hahn as we edge along in our quest for a hopeful future:
“We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”
“People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong. Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?”
“Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive – that you can touch the miracle of being alive – then that is a kind of enlightenment.”
“It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available – more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.”
Here on our little piece of the prairie we grasp threads of hope within our well of fear. We often find it in the little things. Prairie Smoke poking up through gray winter fallow in our small native prairie garden. Those Wood Ducks, that even just days before I’d given up hope of seeing in our woods this year, are seen perching on a heavy branch. Even two promising buds on the mum plant on the kitchen window sill. Waking each morning knowing we here for one another for another day.
“Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?” Thanks, Tay, I needed that. So now we spend unprecedented time with our families, sequestered in homes some of us return to only to escape corporatism. We are becoming acquainted with our children, schooling them in ways we hadn’t imagined, and rediscovering the whys and ways of our closest relationships. We are not spending what is really unnecessary cash in bars and restaurants. And collectively, worldwide, we are rarely driving anywhere so we’re giving the planet a bit of healing time. And, more than all of the above, we are finding within ourselves a stout resilience and a real sense of compassion and care. Adding hope to those simple traits are perhaps our “lotuses in this sea of fire.”
I must confess. I’m a lousy hermit. People have even accused me of being just the opposite. An extrovert. A social animal. Someone energized by crowds. A man who shivers with fear of being cast aside, of ever being alone!
Another confession: As I aged my life as a night-prowling animal has also changed significantly. Now I’m decidedly a morning person with sunrises as my goal rather than challenging myself to a Herculean effort of making “last call.” Loud music has given way to prairie winds; delicate Prairie Smoke looms above the glittering crowns of barroom goddesses.
All of which places me squarely in a yin/yang situation. Someone has suggested that this Stay at Home Order has the potential of making me seem a “caged animal!” However, the “yang” of my “yin” is the nearby prairies and woodlands where we’ve been given governmental license to go to ease the mood. The skies, too, have blessed us recently with a steady flow of geese flybys. Nature has come to my (our) rescue.
Nature has long been a refuge. I grew up fly fishing farm ponds for largemouth bass and bluegills, hiking through nearby woodlots and horseback riding over the hills on our farm. Nature excursions have never been too distant. Back in my young professional life friends wondered how I could fit it all in. Prowling the bars into the wee hours, yet being ready a few hours later for an outdoors adventure. Looking back, I also wonder. Maybe I began maturing. When I moved to a publishing position from Colorado to Minnesota, which caused some friends to also wonder, I rediscovered country living. First along the St. Croix River, then the Little Vermillion River across a highway from the Prairie Island wilderness with close access to that beautiful little river.
With time and further change, and not necessarily of my own calling, we ended up in the flat Minnesota prairie where I ran a small country weekly for twenty plus years. It was 23 years ago this month when fate introduced me to the ghosts of what Missouri author William Least Heat Moon called “PrairyErth” — a friend, then the chief of our small town’s volunteer fire department, asked if I wanted to take a short flight with him to assess the flood waters inundating our small towns. It was on this flight that I noticed hundreds of pockets of standing water as far as the eye could see that I hadn’t seen before … sometimes several in a single quarter section.
“Wetlands,” said the fire chief. “Those are all drained wetlands.”
That was the moment when I realized there was an ecosystem here that was no longer. Less than one percent of the native prairie remains, and much of that is replanted like mine here at Listening Stones Farm. Fewer of the “potholes” or wetlands the glaciers left behind remain due to ditching and drainage tile. These are the “ghosts” of “God’s” creation of earth you see here in the former prairie pothole region during a spring melt.
This is the back story of our rather secluded life here on a “pinpoint” patch of that glacial creation. This is where we reside now in our third week of pandemic shut down. Truthfully we have been basically homebound since Mary’s knee replacement, so, yes, we are maintaining the mandated social distancing.
Not much has changed going into this hopefully short period of self quarantine. Friends returning from their winter sojourns to the south are immediately going into self-quarantines themselves, so there are no man hugs (nor woman hugs, for that matter). Our few social moments find us standing a good distance apart. Which in this region of the prairie, settled mainly it seems by American-Norwegians, social distancing is a rather traditional sociological trait. Even in more typical times folks stood about ten feet apart looking up at the sky and discussing the weather.
Oh, but those skies! Look into those skies! Here we have seemingly constant waves of Canada Geese skeins. A bit further east we’ve seen huge flocks of Snow Geese in their multiple phases, along with the Greater White-Fronted Geese. In our efforts of social distancing we’ve been chasing a huge flock of both species several miles east of here.
For this confirmed extrovert, this safety in social distancing has been both satisfying and tolerable. We have not been isolated from one another, and indeed, I feel we may have even grown closer together in this shared intimacy of caregiving. Mary, the introvert, and me, the extrovert, along with our shared senses of nature and the bounties offered even in this strangest of times for mankind worldwide.
In his book, Blue Highways, Least-Heat Moon wrote: “With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.”
For us, down the road wasn’t all that distant. It was touchable in our isolation, and comfortable in its remoteness, offering to us a sense of nature that life continues without us … despite us. That we could share in that for even a few moments brought calm to souls now challenged with change we cannot fathom, an uncertainty for mankind health wise and otherwise in ways we cannot comprehend. We can only hope this change does not mean ruin, or even death, and that in time, man and deeds will once again connect.
In times like these it’s good to turn to Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.” Please bear with me …
This week a close friend was forced to plea her case for an invasive cancer treatment after her insurance company suddenly and unexpectedly downgraded her necessary, if perhaps life altering, procedure to an “elective” treatment. She wasn’t alone, for others in similar situations also made similar comments. She didn’t take this too well, and who can blame her. In her angst she expressed her frustration by calling out those complaining of the overall shutdown of life as we’ve known it.
Here is her quote: “My patience for people posting how sad they are, that they are home bored, there will be no prom for their kid, you have not been drafted, called to war, or other first world problems, is completely exhausted! I’m so sorry you have been asked to sit home on your ass and watch Netflix.” Understandable.
Due to the pandemic our lives are in total flux. As this plays out many of us are wondering about our impending “new normal.” What our lives were last week will likely never be the same despite all those who are expressing “once this is behind us” … “when life goes back to normal” … and so forth. Yes, I aim to be positive and yearn to see the restaurants full, the street corners buzzing with activity and friends hugging in shared greetings. I want to see concerts and fans return to the high school courts and the big stadiums. I want to see my friend and others have the medical treatments they need to survive. These pandemic precautions are blatantly necessary, and for many life saving.
In my seven decades there have been many monumental changes and events, though nothing like this complete shutdown here and around the planet. I was born during World War II, yet I can’t recall a single time in my life when our country wasn’t involved in some military conflict or war. This was also all those years of the polio epidemic when I was a child and before the Salk vaccine, and I remember how my mother worried herself terribly over each and every hiccup and body pain. Much like we are now when someone sneezes, coughs or complains of a fever.
Meanwhile billions upon billions of dollars will be lost across the board both nationally and internationally. Lost wages will severely affect millions of workers who lived paycheck to paycheck. Small businesses and locally owned eateries will be challenged to survive. These are strange and difficult times for us all … with possible exception of the National Football League where multi-million dollar contracts have filled the sports pages the past few days. This is both sick and sad, and beyond rational comprehension.
Yet, if this worldwide pandemic brings all humanity to their senses of compassion and neighborliness, what a wonderful change that would be. If all humanity decided to care for our lonely planet rather than searching for ways of completely ravaging Mother Earth for profiteering and other forms of greed … from our neighbor’s farm fields to proposing mining the necessary wilderness areas; from discarding plastics and cigarette butts to deforesting and plowing up perennial grasslands; from neglecting the needs of the working poor to pushing corporate greed for Wall Street, insurance companies and major corporations; from devising more creative ways of suppressing the voting rights of minorities to providing risk free subsidies to the greedy “one percent”; to bullying the continued need of broadband communications technology in our mostly rural areas to relying on “entertainment” styled propaganda network views (not news) …. yes, there could be a lovely new normal, one more compassionate and understanding than we knew just a week ago … before the pandemic.
For an extrovert, and as one in the “at risk” age group, this pandemic is quite frightening. I would love to gather my sons around me and can’t. One is in a group home lock down, meaning that even if I could venture to visit with him, I can’t. The other is in a lock down in Norway. We have social media, real time “face to face” visits, which we’ve relied on for nearly a decade. Technology makes this is as handy as sitting in front of the computer.
So, how are you spending these nervous times? There are ways of not pushing the patience of my hospitalized friend fighting cancer, who fought and won her treatment. For me I have the outdoors, and a wood shop I can reach once I cross the rivulet of melt water between the two high points of my lawn. Above us geese are moving, and the redwing blackbirds are clutching cattails in the wetlands. Every day more birds are migrating into the area. Life goes on without us in the broader world!
Which brings me to Wendell Berry and the “The Peace of Wild Things”:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Being diligent and creative, and following the guidelines offered to lower the crush curve of Covid-19 by maintaining a six foot space might help us navigate through these challenging times. Meanwhile I’ll grab my Nikon and find a peaceful piece of prairie or wood to escape our necessary isolation and worry not of what our new normal might be for just a bit. For a moment I will rest in the grace of the world and feel free. That will be the gist of my personal survival technique!