A Yankee Notebook, Columns

It Wanders Today, as Often it does Lately

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Kiki sits on the third bench in the park.

EAST MONTPELIER – The dying day breeze stirs only the treetops, and an evening stillness descends upon the woods. I sit on a bench in the park, as quiet myself as our surroundings. Kiki, restless as ever, alternates between the bench and my lap and short sniffing forays into the dead leaf litter all around us, and wonders what’s coming next.

There are two bridges, four wooden benches, and two rock slab benches between the foot of this new trail in Hubbard park and its head, where it rejoins what I call the West Side Highway on its way to the stone tower at the top. It’s designated as universal access, wide enough for wheelchairs and, with its switchbacks as it ascends, gradual enough for a lusty chair user. Once open grazing land, as evidenced by the derelict stone walls that wander through the woods, it’s now a municipal park much prized by the citizens who hike its trails, train for cross-country races, ski, and walk their dogs, most of whom, after a few years, I know by name. The other day Kiki and I came upon a meditator sitting on the second bench, eyes closed and fingers clasped in the approved meditative pose. We passed by as discreetly as possible.

This third bench where I’m sitting, located at a bend in the trail and for some reason set unaccountably low (a pain for a stiff old man to sit down on and get up from), sits in a grove of hemlock and white spruce, with a yellow birch just behind and a few scruffy maples here and there in the mix. It’s a cool spot on a hot day, alive with mosquitoes, the scourge of meditators. But in this weather, between the last grumbles of the retreating winter and the shy proposals of the advancing spring, it’s a perfect spot to stop, ease the revolt brewing in my legs, and let my mind wander.

It wanders today, as often it does lately, to T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion.” Eliot, that genteel product of St. Louis schools, Milton Academy, Harvard, and Oxford, who reads his poetry on old recordings in the most exquisite English accent, almost a caricature. But he’s a genius with a pen in his hand, and often nails my situation.

The biggest trees in front of me where I sit are hemlocks, dark and brutish. Their dead lower branches stick straight out and resist breaking off flush with the bark of the trunk. How often, long ago, when loading heavy four-foot hemlock pulpwood into a waiting truck, did one of those sharp stobs rip a strip of flesh off my left wrist. But that was long ago, and it’s not ever going to happen again.

Eliot writes, “…an old man driven by the trades to a sleepy corner.” Kiki jumps up onto the bench, plants two dirty paws on my leg, and looks up. “We going?” Yep, in a minute or two. Just let me look at all this for a bit. It’s so peaceful here.

But then I remember. All the serenity of this place is illusory. The apparent permanence is disappearing as I sit here. The hemlocks are threatened by an Asian invader, the woolly adelgid. Trying to imagine these woods without their hemlocks is almost impossible, and grim, besides.

That, however, is but a drop in the bucket of impending catastrophe. Our coming summer, just like our currently receding winter, probably will be the warmest on record. And soon – though selfishly I’m glad I won’t be here to see it – this park will be transformed by either new species, drought, or forest fire into something entirely different from what we’re looking at today.

As if that weren’t enough, it appears that new rules will be coming to the park. It’s very difficult for me, given my lifelong love of dogs, to appreciate that there are others of my species who look upon them with annoyance, distaste, or detestation. Their views seem to have prevailed, so that unleashed dogs will no longer be free to enjoy the woods as we do. What have they done to deserve that?

If that happens, this old man will not be climbing to this bench any longer. I can’t have my dog on a leash. She hates it; and without meaning to, trips me. I’ve had more than my share of hospital and nursing home visits to heal broken bones in the past year and a half. This beautiful, quiet woods, to which we’ve brought nothing but friendship, smiles, greetings, and treats, will be closed to us. In my geriatric irrelevancy – “an old man, a dull head among windy spaces,” as Eliot writes – there’ll be nothing I can do about it, except, perhaps, apologize to Kiki for my species. She’ll never understand, but that’s all right. I don’t understand it, either.

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