"Sharp, quirky, and occasionally nettlesome", Walking the Berkshires is my personal blog, an eclectic weaving of human narrative, natural history, and other personal passions with the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills as both its backdrop and point of departure. I am interested in how land and people, past and present manifest in the broader landscape and social fabric of our communities. The opinions I express here are mine alone. Never had ads, never will.
A naiad, a pixie and a satyr sought refuge from the flames of Tartarus in a mountain grotto yesterday. The heat followed us through the woods to the very edge of the ravine, but then the waterfalls spilling through the hemlock gorge brought cool air down to check it. We went to the third pool, the last accessible to those not blessed with goat feet, and here the pixie sat on a rock while the naiad explored the green walled pool and the saytr stood beneath the flume.
All too soon, our idyll ended, and today it is back to Hephaestus' forge with all the other Cyclopes.
Last night the twilight lingered long past 9:00. I stepped outside into the warm evening air and instead of turning toward the street I headed into the backyard and out to the gardens that face the meadow. It is not a large field, less than two acres on the assessor's map and further reduced by boundary incursions from various neighbors. The rank grass and remnants of wild apple trees slope into wet meadow before reaching the neighbors on the far side. It is flanked on the west and south by a screen of mature trees. The elderly owner of the field lives in Kansas but grew up here, and she keeps it undeveloped because of the fringed gentian she remembers from her childhood. There are very few of these flowers left in the field, but it is prime firefly habitat, and on Midsummer's Eve they were out in great profusion.
I have watched them in early summer ever since moving here in 2002. Cold evenings dampen their glow, but warm nights with the mist rising send them wisping through the air, over the tassels of uncut grass and through the branches of the apple trees. A few outliers may venture into the shadows of my garden but they avoid the lawns and other managed places, and when the field is cut their dance is done. Every year I hope that the mower will be delayed, that the old man with the tractors who lays the grasses down to maintain the owner's claim will postpone his passes through the field so the fireflies will linger.
This is a timed event, like sap rising in Spring and wild geese heading south in September. My garden path ends at a wrought iron gate with nothing but magic and wonder in the rank meadow beyond. I am loathe to leave when the faeries dance under the hazy stars. Long may they return.
This morning I sip smoky Hu-Kwa tea, and outside my window a late sugar maple is still vibrant orange. Here and there a woolly white cloud drifts sedately passed, like milkweed down borne by a soft breeze. It is a fine Autumn Day, warm though my breath lifts steaming in the sunlight.
For a connoisseur of color this was not an exceptional year in western New England. It was too dry for too long, then the rains fell heavy and the frost was late. Still, if the landscape had a more subtle grandeur, there were accents of brilliant color from a grand old pair of maples framing an old homestead, or drifts of blueberries high on the ridgetops. The dry corn and the deep russet oaks add tone and texture.
The wild cry of the migrating geese, though, is all but absent on the wind. I remember the great flyway of the Hudson Valley, just over these low mountains to the west, and great rafts of geese thick as warbirds that advanced in their thousands at this time of year. I have seen a few solitary squadrons, but nothing to rival those of my youth. I miss them, and the thrill in my mother's eyes when she turned her face skyward at their calling.
There are some rare wonders that remain elusive. I have never seen foxfire, that bioluminescence from fungi on rotting bark that sometimes appears at night in our Autumn woodlands when conditions are right. Several species produce this effect, and it was even used to illuminate the dials on David Bushnell's Revolutionary War submarine "The Turtle". Some night, perhaps, when stars bead the branches like cobweb dew, I will see this eldritch light.
The problem with the Berkshires is they lack an ocean. We had one once, long ago. There was a shallow inland sea on the other side of the mountains, which we can thank for our marble valleys today. Before that, before the ancestors of the Berkshires pressed upward to Himalayan stature as bits of what might otherwise have become part of Africa twisted and folded and transformed the very bones of the Earth in a relentless upwelling, the place where I sit today was once the edge of a Continent. Sometimes I feel the lack of that long receded sea, and the press of tides from 500 million years ago.
Although a fire sign, I am drawn to water. Not just to the shore, but beneath the waves in the womb of the sea. I am a child of salt water even more than fresh, more Triton than Naiad. I am happiest with waves in hearing, with the taste of brine on my skin.
I love the undulating spine of our mountains, but they do not curl in on themselves like Atlantic rollers as they shoal. I love the way that the wind ripples the grass in an unmowed field, but there are no whitecaps at the crest except for the darting swallows. When the air here is thick and waits for summer rain, the wind is always fresh off the bay.
Still, the fireflies in the meadow are are just as magical to me as glowing phosphorescence on dark nights by the shore. The song of the ovenbird plays at the strings of my heart like the mewing of gulls. The red efts in our moist woods and the savory wild mushrooms are the treasures we find here, instead of combing the beach and digging for clams.
In life, longing and loving, here and not here, are braided like strands of rope and are stronger together. There is time for each in its season, and to hold the absent places of the heart in our mind's eye. I feel the wind from the sea when I walk in these inland woods. I smell the sweet earth of home when my feet press the wet sand. They are all part of the fabric, a unified whole, and so my restless heart finds comfort.
A dear friend wrote to me recently about the anguish she felt over the oil that continues to inundate the heart of the sea. She is a brilliant poet, and one who looks squarely at the horrors of the body and soul, but she also is a person of action and feels helpless in the face of this heartsickness. She is a writer, as am I, so this is what I wrote in reply.
"Sometimes it takes a self inflicted wound to halt the bleeding. I think
of those "relief wells" inching their way through the seabed, and it
almost feels like using a lancet to release bad humors in those days
when western medicine and modern science knew little of each other.
Black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. The body out of balance.
are shockingly primitive in our modern response to what our greedy
delving has released. It is like Tolkein's Balrog of Moria that awoke
when the dwarves went too deep after their mithril. It took Gandalf's
death and rebirth to quench its flame. It will require something like
that of us as well.
Tolkien the lover of Trees also understood
the sadness of the elves who outlived all else that they loved,
who knew the ancient oaks from acorns and saw whole forests heedlessly
destroyed to satisfy the consumptive now. The Scouring of the Shire is for me the most
important part of the Lord
of the Rings.
The more we look unflinchingly at the
horror of this house of grimy cards, the more we insist never again, the
better chance we have that some positive lessons can be learned. As
for the wounded sea, the irreplaceable losses and the long term scars,
sometimes the best we can do is bear witness, to tell their stories, to
feel and to weep and to give tongue to grief. The real healing happens
over spans of time beyond human years, although it is amazing what
resilience is possible from decade to decade.
Consider the dramatic
change in status of so many birds, including Brown pelicans, threatened
with extinction by DDT and now recovering in its absence. The harp
seals that now haul out on the beach at Windrock when before
the Marine Mammal
Protection Act they were heedlessly slaughtered. The quality of
the air we breathe and the water we drink which when you were growing up
was fouled and disregarded.
We cannot sit by and say in a
thousand years the earth will cleanse itself of the outrages we inflict
on it. There is a small comfort in knowing that geologic time is
measured in millions while we encompass decades, but we only learn
through telling and bearing witness, and a poet with your heart and
depth of love for the ocean is the right person at the right time to
give expression and meaning to this self inflicted wound."
There used to be a much closer connection between formerly all-male Haverford College and the women of Bryn Mawr just a short stroll out the Main Line. Even in my day, when Haverford was co-ed with a vengeance, the bi-college identity was inclusive enough for there to be room for that species of male, of which I was a proud member, known as the Bryn Man, who gravitated toward the Bryn Mawr vibe.
The two institutions and their student bodies have fewer interstices today, which I consider a great shame, yet the pulse of that dynamic tension and affection of old still beats when both colleges invite their Alums back on the same weekend, and so I knew that the first night of my reunion I would spend at the Bryn Mawr Step Sing. I also suspected that when duty called, I would not hesitate to answer, but more on that in a moment.
Step Sings are important and beloved rituals at Bryn Mawr, as indeed they were in my mother and grandmother's days at another of the Seven Sisters. Classes with their distinctive owl lanterns convene under the direction of their respective songs-mistresses about the Senior Steps on the side of Taylor Hall. They draw from a songbook that includes generational anthems, rounds and ribaldries, and often punctuated by the college cheer invoking the Goddess Athena:
Anassa kata, kalo kale,
Ia ia ia Nike,
Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr!
There is a Haverford rejoinder, cribbed from Jabberwocky - "O frabjous Day! Calooh, Callay!" - but there are few now who remember it.
At the Step Sing last Friday, I arrived fashionably late with a Mawrter for company, only to find "the precession had proceeded according to precedent" and thus had not yet gotten underway. There were hundreds of alumnae and their friends and families, including children swirling glow sticks and more than a few clinking glasses. We knew it was going to be an eventful evening when the class of 1940 got the ball rolling in spectacular fashion. A gray haired nonagenarian in a short skirt with long woolen stockings of some indeterminate hue and wearing her glow stick like a torc gave a rousing rendition of a song from her youth about snorting cocaine.
We thought that would be hard to top. I mentioned that in 10 years or so the class songs would be by Lady Gaga instead of Paul Simon or the Indigo Girls, and right on cue two songs-mistresses did a 4 bar intro of Poker Face. But there was also a rendition of Haverford Harry, which I have taken the liberty of sharing here in full courtesy of the Class of 1971 Songbook:
The boy that I marry will have to be
A hermit, neurotic, and wear a goatee,
He'll be arty and smarty and smell of raw gin.
His hair will be stringy and shoulder length.
He'll snow all the girls with his sheer brute strength.
He's a nudist, a Zen Buddhist,
And his social deportment's the crudest.
His room will be cluttered with sculpture weird.
His chin will be covered with unshaved beard.
He's terrific, he's prolific,
His demands and desires quite specific.
He seems to be haunted with some strange hex,
A complex concerning that thing called sex.
He's sublime-o, what a wine-o,
For some young thing from Shipley, divine-o.
So a Haverford Harry the boy I marry must be ... inevitably!
When they had finished, the mistress of ceremonies noted that there were also lyrics for Harry's Reply
(though sadly not reproduced in the 1971 songbook), and offered the opportunity for any 'Fords in the audience to come up and sing it. She didn't sound as if she expected any takers, but then, I knew of at least one who knew what to expect and was more than willing.
I waited a beat or two, then walked down the aisle in my panama hat and clad in Haverford's scarlet and black, acknowledging with a slight bow the delighted gasps of "It's Tim!" that came from the vicinity of the BMC class of 1990 section. I confess I was relieved that the statute of limitations on my various youthful indiscretions in Athena's demesne appears to have expired with all long since forgiven or forgotten.
I faced the crowd, accepted a microphone and the lyric sheet, and said something rueful along the lines of "Good God" Then up from my left stepped a fellow 'Ford from the Class of 1980, who I remembered afterward had been the only other person with me when this same scene played out at reunion 15 years ago. We were prepared to brazen through another duet, when another Haverford male came forward, and still others, until we may have been a dozen strong up there and game to give it our best. We shook hands and turned to face the music.
We sang the lines with gusto, and let me tell you it was at least as good sauce for the goose as had been for the gander. I recall one small part that went something along the lines of "She's precocious, hair's atrocious, If you get her in bed she's ferocious" which was a crowd favorite (and after which I could not resist getting the aside "You don't know how right that is...")
The whole thing was a lark and went over very well. Someone from the Alumnae office wanted our names afterwords in case they use any of the photographic evidence. I was greeting throughout the rest of the night with anonymous calls from the darkness of "Haverford Harry, you were great!" It was the very least I could do for Bi-Co relations, aside from love the Mawr and its Mawrters, which I do, I do.
Long before texting replaced drunk driving as the recreation of choice for the younger crowd, lonely hearts were decoding DWM LF SSBBW NSA and following trails of these stale crumbs through the witch's forest. I've seen more passion expressed by a blender (or rather, in the lyrics to Blender Blues). At any rate, I've got better things to do with my opposable thumbs than go rooting around for plums in that old pie.
What these people need is a good ghost writer.
Imagine Hemingway's personal ad: "Enjoys auto-racing, bull fighting and mountain climbing. Always does sober what he says he'll do drunk. He is not dead and that is all." That ought to draw them like flies to honey.
Recognize this one? "Virtuous mom, separated, perfectionist, enjoys weaving. Will be your queen if you can bend my bow and come home more than once in a decade"
Or these: "Officer and gentleman, tall, equestrian, with expense account. Enjoys Madeira and Fabian tactics. Never lies, looks good in blue. Looking for dancing partners and possible feu de joie."
"Daddy's girl, exotic, frolicsome, protective. Looking for bearded white adventurer to save from harm. Nothing will come between us."
"Have a red letter day with me. Likes walks in the woods and shooting stars. Seeking Calvinist Clergyman to let down my hair with."
"Henpecked husband, enjoys ninepins, keggers and rambles in the mountains with my dog. Looking for a sheltered place to catch 40 winks. Can sleep through anything."
"Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. Looking for good man who will treat us better than queens for possible Ménage à sept. Monarchs who cast us off discourteously need not apply."
These folks really know how to sell it. Beats DWF NSFW OMG ROFL LOL any day.
"I still remember other nights and other places.
I can still see the Southern Cross, twisting in the steel trusses of
the old wind pump where I perched in the veldt by the waterhole,
waiting. I think of nights spinning tales of Norse gods and northern
lights while sailing a dog watch with my uncle beneath a rain of blazing
meteors in the Gulf of Maine. Of the wispy lights of June fireflies
beyond the garden gate. Of that once in a hundred years aurora that
spread above Millerton one March night when my parents, sister and I
were driving home from dinner.
These are the notes I hear in the roaring firs, the rain-spattered
panes, the silence of lovers and the pulse of stars. Walt Whitman felt
it, crossing Brooklyn Ferry, the multitudes we each contain. So
did the Amherst recluse when she heard the interposing fly."