“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Henry David Thoreau and I would not have been bosom buddies. I go to the woods only if I must, to see which mosquitoes and poison ivy vines await me, and to discover, in the midst of my otherwise comfortable life, that I had not thought to bring insect repellant.
But what can I do? My friend Don loves the woods. He lives surrounded by them, atop a hill in a clearing that contains his farm, three miles outside the tiny town of Amity, Ohio, which is itself as far removed from civilization as can be imagined. This is Amish country, and the vehicles that pass us on our pastoral walks are likely to be drawn by horses. Don is not Amish. He’s a Presbyterian farmer and retired high school principal in a John Deere cap. But he waves politely to people named Enos and Jakob, and they wave back. We walk along wooded lanes on an impossibly warm March evening, and Don points out the signs of impending spring: the forsythia buds, ready to burst open, the year’s first garter snake sighting, the swallows and magpies, back from spring break in Daytona Beach. A year ago, right around the time the crocuses were in bloom, he buried his wife. Joyce died during Holy Week. Her funeral was Holy Saturday, and Don saw the Easter sunrise, not because he was up for an early service, but because he couldn’t get to sleep.
“There is a hole in my heart,” he tells me, “and God’s mercies are new every morning. Look at this. Look at the glory of God’s creation.” But I am a city boy, and I look and see garter snakes. So I pray silently that I might be able to see as Don sees.
Yesterday at lunch I met with my friend Fred. Fred lost his father a little over a month ago. Now his son-in-law, 25 years old last week, is dying of cancer. Fred’s doing okay except for the times when he’s not, and when he’s not he has to stop talking because he’s ready to cry. I understand that, understand the whole bewildering, terrible mess, although I haven’t had to deal with it directly for a while. But there is glory and terror on every side. Don seems to think that they’re not opposites, and that they can co-exist. And maybe they can.
All I know is that by the time I made it to Don’s house I was already tired, emotionally drained, and overwhelmed. “Let’s go outside,” Don suggested. “The woods can do wonders for a tired soul.” “Sure,” I thought, God’s own Nature Boy in business-casual khakis. “Lead on, Thoreau.”
So we walked. And walked and walked; four or five miles on lonely farm roads, past apple orchards with bare branches, past stubbly corn fields, through the woods that caught the golden light of a setting sun. We headed back to Don’s house in the gathering darkness, watched the moon come up over the horizon and the first of the nighttime stars, heard the distant rumbling of thunder, and turned around to be surprised by what looked like summer lighting before an approaching storm.
I felt lonely, and lost, and I missed my wife and kids. And I heard a song. That’s not an unusual thing. I hear songs in my head all the time. They come to me unbidden, out of memory’s vault, and they provide an ongoing soundtrack to my life. This one was by an old hippie folksinger named Garnet Rogers, who can be maudlin and sentimental, but who, at least once, reached out to capture a golden moment and pin it for posterity, and who last night was singing my life:
Tonight the harvest moon
hangs across the valley
I see the hills shine in its silvery light
It's the same old moon
That shines upon you
It'll light my way until I'm by your side
Well, who scattered these diamonds
Through the vault of heaven?
Who drew the curve of the magpie's wing?
Who shaped your face?
What made you love me?
Where is the spark of every living thing?
Who? What? Where? Those are questions still worth asking. Outside of those two conversations with grieving friends, I spent the entire day surrounded by algorithms and rules, in a world that is neat and precise and understandable, where reason and perfect knowledge hold sway. But then, unbidden, the other world broke through, a world that is beautiful and broken, that is not reasonable, where there is glory everywhere but where everything is out of season, where young men die and summer lightning appears in early spring:
We are brief as summer lightning
We are swift as swallow's flight
We are sparks that spiral upward in the darkness in the night
We are frost upon a window
We won't pass this way again
We made it back just as the first raindrops started to fall. I said goodnight to Don, told him that I had enjoyed our walk, and that I would see him next month when he ventures down to the big city. I was tired. I was raw. I don’t always understand these things, but I cried all the way home, playing that song in my head, over and over again. When I got there, I did one of the few unreasonable things I did all day. I hugged my wife and kids.